Gold rush stagecoach service begins

John Whistman started the first stage company in California in the fall of 1849. It ran over the old Spanish Mission Trail between San Francisco and San Jose. Using whatever wagons he could find and a motley collection of horses and mules his service was poor and almost stopped completely during the winter rains. He sold the stage line in the summer of 1850 to Warren Hall and Jared Crandall, experienced stage operators who immediately began to improve service. With regular departures, hardy mustang horse teams, qualified drivers, and new Concord coaches that first arrived in June by clipper ship, the line gained a government mail contract and service expanded to Monterey. In 1853 the line was sold to Dillon, Hedge and Company who developed stage lines in more places in the state.

Peep at Washoe, The Stage

In September 1849 James Birch, with an old ranch wagon and four horses, began to carry passengers from Sacramento to Mormon Island for a fare of two ounces of gold, or $32. By 1851 Birch had organized the Telegraph Line of U.S. Mail Stages and made daily trips to important northern mining towns like Nevada City, Rough and Ready, and Grass Valley as well as a new line south to Stockton. That same year Frank Stevens opened the Pioneer Line between Sacramento and Hangtown. By the end of 1853 as many as 12 companies offered service from Sacramento to most of the towns and camps along the South Yuba and American Rivers and as far south as Sonora. In early 1851 Kelly, Reynolds and Co. started the first line out of Stockton and soon after three other companies began to operate out of that hub of the southern mines.

Concord Stage model, Museum of Science, Boston

By late 1853 there were a multitude of stage lines across the gold country, most small operations with routes of less than 100 miles. On January 1, 1854 a merger of some of the most important lines was announced as the California Stage Company. This merger had a similar effect on the stagecoach business as did Adams and Company to the express business or the California Steam Navigation Company to water transport. James Birch was the first president and the line was headquartered in Sacramento’s Orleans Hotel. In January of 1855 the company reduced fares across the board in an effort to force out their competition as a means of continued consolidation and improved service. In his annual message to the state legislature that year, Governor James Bigler said, ‘Indeed, California today can boast of stage and coach conveyance equal, if not superior, to any of her sister states.’

 

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