The Stagecoach King, Ben Holladay

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 settled in Weston, Missouri, across the river from Ft. Leavenworth and the same town where John Bidwell once taught school. He served with the militia as a courier in the 1838 Mormon War and in 1840 opened a tavern and hotel. Then, with the onset of the Mexican War in 1846, Holladay obtained a contract to supply General Kearny’s Army of the West and his freight business was born.

Overland Trail horse team

In 1849, with his partner Theodore Warner, he took 50 wagons and $70,000 worth of goods, much of it war surplus he had gotten at a good price, and hauled it to Salt Lake City where he quickly sold everything for a handsome profit. The next year he returned with $150,000 worth of goods and this time he invested some of his profit in a herd of cattle that he drove across the Sierra Nevada and into the Sacramento Valley. California was growing rapidly because of the gold rush and there was a shortage of everything. Using his good business sense he sold the cattle, for which he had paid six dollars a head, for five hundred dollars each. In 1853 he obtained a contract to supply the Benicia, California Army Barracks with beef.

Concord stagecoach 1869

In 1861 Holladay won a government contract to deliver mail to Salt lake City. Then in 1862 he took over the assets of the Pony Express and the Leavenworth & Pike’s Peak Express Company, a stage and freight company operating to Salt Lake City on the new Overland Route. In the next four years he acquired six more stage lines and his title, the Stagecoach King. He sold the stage lines to Wells Fargo in 1866 for one and a half million dollars. By that time he had gotten six million dollars in government subsidies. Holladay moved to Oregon in 1868 and turned his attention to the Oregon and California Railroad Company and the Oregon Steamship Company, but lost most of his fortune in the stock collapse of 1873. He died in Portland in 1887.

 

Comments

  1. The 1873 collapse of the banks and resulting depression was felt world wide. A number of people were impacted during this ‘long depression’. Still what a fascinating person. The West seemed to draw men and women who were strong enough to meet the challenges and leave an interesting legacy behind. Thank you for adding yet another to the list.

    • Adventurous, daring and bold men came to west. At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe and I think many were. Certainly Holladay fit that mold.

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