Wells Fargo expands across the west

After the panic of 1855 the road to expansion in California was wide open for Wells Fargo. Their main rival, Adams and Company, had collapsed and so had a number of smaller operations. Wells Fargo lost money but remained solvent. The number of express packages arriving in their San Francisco office was twice that of the two leading competitors combined. They had branches in 55 towns across California and with more to come. Between 1856 and 1860 their listed assets doubled, as did the number of … [Read more...]

The Pony Express

“Wanted: Young, skinny, wiry fellows not over eighteen. Must be expert riders, willing to risk death daily. Orphans preferred.” And so ran the ad that heralded the opening of one of the most romantic episodes in American history, the Pony Express. William Russell, Alexander Majors, and William Waddell started the service as an offshoot of their Central Overland California and Pikes Peak Express Company to compete with the Butterfield Stage Line and Pacific Mail Steamships by providing fast mail … [Read more...]

Overland stagecoach service to San Francisco begins

John W. Butterfield was born in 1801 and began driving stagecoaches from Albany to Utica by age 19. He soon opened his own stage line but expanded into steamboat service on Lake Ontario and then into railroads. In 1850 his company, Butterfield, Wasson and Co., joined with other express companies owned by Henry Wells and William Fargo to form the American Express Co. Two years later these same men were also instrumental in forming Wells Fargo. Then in 1857, under Butterfield’s leadership they … [Read more...]

The Stagecoach King, Ben Holladay

Ben Holladay once controlled over 2,000 miles of stage lines and earned the title of Stagecoach King, but it was by hauling much needed supplies to early settlements in Utah and California that Holladay most deeply aided the development of the American West and made a fortune doing it. Born in Kentucky in 1819 to a father who was a guide for wagon trains crossing the Cumberland Gap, young Ben grew up around the freight business, and as a teen he made a hard trip overland to Santa Fe. Then he … [Read more...]

Grant’s tragic journey to San Francisco

In April of 1852 Lt. Ulysses S. Grant and eight companies of the 4th Infantry Regiment assembled with their families on Governor’s Island in New York Harbor. Passage to Panama was secured at the last minute on the SS Ohio, a steamship of the U.S. Mail Steamship Co. and the ship left port on July 5th. Arrangements were also made for the regiment, its equipment, supplies and dependents to cross the isthmus and board a Pacific Mail Steamship to California. From the outset things went wrong. The … [Read more...]

Johnson’s Cutoff, a shorter route across the Sierra

By 1849 John Calhoun Johnson established a ranch six miles east of Hangtown. Here he ran a hotel, general store, timber mill and several mines. During the El Dorado Indian Wars of 1850-51 the militia camped there. Later the ranch would become a haven for travelers arriving in the gold country along the new route he pioneered across the Sierra Nevada. Details of Johnson’s past are murky. How and when he came to the gold country is unclear, but he seems to have been from Ohio and must have arrived … [Read more...]

Gold Rush 49ers, tragedy at Donner Pass

High in the Sierra Nevada Mountains the emigrants came upon the remains of several log cabins deep in a thick grove of fir trees to the left of the trail just east of Truckee Lake. Shreds of dresses and other clothes, scraps of iron, and many bones, broken to extract every edible taste of marrow, were strewn about. Tree stumps, felled to build the cabins, towered 12 feet above the ground, the depth of the snow pack when the trees had been cut. The 49ers noted the melancholy gloominess of a place … [Read more...]

Gold Rush 49ers, the Truckee River

After the Humboldt Sink the gold rush emigrants could head south along the trail the Mormons had pioneered in 1848 or they could continue west to the Truckee River and cross the Sierra at Donner Pass. Either way they had to cross the dreaded 40-mile Desert. This was the worst stretch of road yet faced, without grass or water for most of the way and blisteringly hot during the days, but there was a hot water spring about half way to the Truckee. They traveled at night and by morning came … [Read more...]

Gold Rush 49ers along the Humboldt River

Emigrants to California continued southwest from the City of Rocks through Granite Pass and on about 100 miles to the Humboldt River, the river that would lead them to within sight of the Sierra Nevada, the last major hurdle on the road to California. Fed by melt water from the Ruby Mountains the beautiful river valley was at first a welcome sight, covered with lush grass for their animals and running with a fresh, cool stream filled with trout. But their joy was short lived. The alkali dust … [Read more...]

Gold Rush 49ers, Fort Hall to the City of Rocks

West of Soda Springs the main emigrant trail turned northwest along the Portneuf River and on to the Snake River. The trading post of Fort Hall sat on a large plain where Lewis’ Fork met the Snake. Built in 1834 by Nathaniel Wyeth to supply the fur traders and Indians, it was said to be small and poorly made. In 1838 it was sold to Hudson Bay Company. Past the fort the trail continued along the Snake River then, at a narrow gap along the road that came to be called Massacre Rocks because of an … [Read more...]