The Mullan Road

Briana Mullendore

Stagecoaches on the Mullan Road in Montana

(2010)

The original purpose of John Mullan’s survey was to find an adequate railroad route; however, he also had another idea.  He had an extraordinary vision of building road that would connect East to the West.  He stated, “I concluded that a wagon route could be easily and economically [sic] constructed from Hell’s Gate Ronde to the east end of the lake --from which I concluded a construction at this point could only be made at a heavy outlay."  There was already a water route that took immigrants down the Columbia River and into Oregon.  However, this route’s purpose was to go from St. Louis up to the Missouri to Fort Benton and from there to travel directly overland into the Pacific Northwest.  Because of the establishment of the Mullan Road, the stagecoach could penetrate into the deep Northwest and connect Montana to the rest of the United States.  With the help of Wells, Fargo and Co. stagecoaches in Montana could use the routes and forts to take passengers, mail, and sometimes even freight.  This paper will discuss the Concord Stagecoach, the history of Wells, Fargo and Co., and the impact of Mullan’s routes in Montana with the help of Wells, Fargo and Co. (1)

 Concord Stagecoach

 The Concord coach emerged as the quintessential icon of the commercial transportation across the frontier West, surpassing even steamboats, which were more often seen as an symbol of the antebellum South.  The Concord coaches represented the adaptation of existing technology to a harsh new environment.  Until made obsolete by a spreading network of railroad tracks and motorized transportation in the early twentieth century, Concord coaches sped along the primitive roads of the West, drawn by four-or six horse teams and driven by skillful reinsmen.  No other vehicle became more closely identified with the West of the 1850s and 1860s. (2)

The famed stage-coaches of Concord, New Hampshire, were first fashioned by Lewis Downing in 1826. A partnership with J. Stephens Abbott, another Massachusetts Yankee, formed at Concord two years later, lasted until 1847. In January 1865 the two co-partnerships of Lewis Downing and Sons and that of Stevens and Sons were dissolved and both factories were then united in the co-partnership of “Abbott Downing & Co.” Seven years later “The Abbott Downing Company” with from five to seven directors and a capitol of $400,000 was incorporated to make carriages, omnibuses, wagons, coaches, harness, and repairs. (3)

Thousands of these Concord stage-coaches were sent to all parts of the Union and to many foreign countries.  Their durability, lightness, and elegance made the term “Concord” as common and as widely known as is the regular name for sleeping cars in the age of railroads.  To the bullwhackers and freighters the Conestoga wagon was the seat of power-to the stage drivers it was a seat on a Troy or a Concord (4).

During the 1860s, the first stagecoach lines extended north from Salt Lake City to Virginia City, Helena, and other pioneer settlements to offer passenger and express connections by land. In due time bull-whacking trains with their freight, the pony express with its letters, and stages with their passengers and mail responded to this demand. In a quarter century stages penetrated or crossed nearly every state and territory of the area west of the Mississippi River.  All these modes of transportation and communication reshaped Montana’s geographical relationship with its neighbors in the northern West, as well as with more distant parts of the Unites States.  They redefined the experience of long-distance travel. Charles Dickens is an example of a person who traveled long distance to Montana.  Dickens was passing over a section of route and found little to comment on stage-coach travel.  “Roadside inns where the horses were watered seemed dull and silent.  Tea and coffee were very bad and the water worse-and brandy was not obtainable at the “Temperance Hotels.” (5).

Early roads of the northern West often amounted to little more than dirt paths, and a hard rain could turn long stretches into knee-deep quagmire.  An example of this is when the seasons began to change and communication stopped all together in the winter.  “The Mud, the beautiful Mud” was a popular refrain in the spring when Virginia City awaited the long-anticipated cry, “The coach is coming!” But by November, the hectic days of freighting concluded until the next spring. The men who worked for Wells, Fargo and Co. endured physical hardship in the continuous struggle of man against nature that was a part of the frontier experience.  Employees regularly met the challenge of adverse weather conditions. For example during the winter of 1866-67.  Wells Fargo passengers brought letters through from the stalled Central Pacific on snowshoes and the express by sleighs.  Stages on the mountain grades moved on skies to which the wheels had been attached (6).

Stage coaching generally involved using what nature provided for a right-of-way. Construction of elaborate tunnels, bridges and fills was out of the question.  Besides, Concord coaches were built to travel comfortably along rutted roads and to ford safely the occasional stream.  However, there were changes in the landscape that impacted the stagecoach.  Farms and ranches sprang up in strategic places along stagecoach routes to supply horses and mules and grow the grain needed to feed them. For example Wells, Fargo and Co. advertised in the Daily Montana Post: “WANTED!!! 300 TONS OF HAY” (7).

Moreover, if the representative mode of transportation during the stagecoach era physically altered the landscape through which they passed, it was wholly incidental to facilitating the movement of people and goods.  The stagecoach era did permanently alter landscapes by making Euro-american settlement not only possible but also more comfortable than it would have been without regular mail and express service, wagon freighting of food and a few of life’s luxuries, and scheduled public transportation. (8).

The stagecoach also had an economic impact that was perhaps most visible when it was gone.  After the arrival of railroads, many stagecoach lines closed down, idling an army of agents, drivers, and station keepers.  Owners often could not sell their teams or rolling stock at any price.  Unemployed stagemen and teamsters migrated to other jobs.  But across the northern West there was no return to the landscape-physical, economical, or social-that existed before the stagecoach era. (9).

History of Wells Fargo

Wells Fargo and Company, established in 1852, has its roots in Harnden and Company, the first of all express carriers.  In the year 1841, Vermont-born Henry Wells, whose name was to rank in prominence with that of William Harnden and Alvin Adams in the history of the express business, was serving as Harnden’s agent in Albany, New York. (10).

In 1842 Pomeroy and Company, apparently at Well’s suggestion, began carrying mail between New York and Buffalo.  Its rate was five and six cents a letter, compared to the United States Post Office’s charge of twenty-five cents.  The resulting competition helped to bring about Congressional action lowering postal rates in 1845.  Thereafter, the private firm ceased carrying letters. (11).

In 1844 the company’s name changed to Livingston, Wells and Pomeroy Company, George Pomeroy withdrawing and his brother Thaddeus Pomeroy becoming junior partner.  By 1850, when it was merged into the American Express Company, the firm had undergone two more changes: when Thaddeus Pomeroy withdrew in about 1845, the name was changed to Livingston, Wells and Company; after Crawford Livingston’s death in 1847, it was changed again to Wells and Company. (12).

Fargo, a native of Pompey, New York, had started his career at the age of thirteen, riding a twice-a-week mail route.  A decade later he quit a job as freight agent for the newly completed Auburn and Syracuse Railroad and became a messenger for Pomeroy and Company.  That was his beginning of his association with Henry Wells, who was thirteen years his senior  (13).

In 1846 William A. Livingston pushed Wells’ interest in the Western Express.  Dunning having dropped out earlier, the firm name was changed to Livingston and Fargo, under which it continued until it too was merged into the American Express Company in 1850 (14).

The name American Express Company was given to the firm, but business was carried on under the name Livingston, Fargo and Company over the established routes west of Buffalo, and under the name of Wells, Butterfield and Company over those east of that point.  In 1852, another organization was added, not owned directly by the American Express Company but having its inception within the councils of that firm.  This was Wells, Fargo and Company (15).

At a meeting held on April 21, officers and directors were chosen.  Edwin B. Morgan was elected president.  He was a banker, financier and merchant from Aurora, New York, a close friend of Henry Wells.  James McKay was elected secretary and general counsel.  Later, Alpheus Reynolds was named treasurer.  Henry Wells and William G. Fargo held no offices but became members of the nine-man board of directors (16).

July 10, 1852 thus saw the beginnings of two of Wells, Fargo and Company’s important services: the handling of express matter, one of its primary functions, and the carrying of newspapers, a public service which was to win for the company much goodwill.  Throughout the years to follow, messengers covering both land and sea routes were to carry papers, without charge, and deliver them to the newspaper offices at the ends of their runs (17).

By the close of its first month in California, Wells, Fargo and Company had inaugurated the beginnings of most of the services which it was to offer.  There is no definite information indicating that deposits were received, although that service was advertised the following month, or that money was loaned.  But shipments had arrived; gold had been bought, exchanges sold, and treasure sent east; inland routes had been established and letter-carrying service inaugurated; and Wells, Fargo and Company had become accepted as a new part of the commercial life of California (18).

Thus Wells, Fargo and Co.’s history is an integral chapter in any study of pre-railroad transportation, of the United States mails and the post office, of the railway express, of banking, and the economic history of the United States in the nineteenth centuries.  In depth investigations into many segments of the firm’s growth will throw revealing light on the development of natural resources and the spread of population, the growth of commerce and industry, the evolution of business organization and methods, successful and unsuccessful management patterns, the relationship between business and government, law and order, legislation and regulation, as well as the ethics, ideals, and philosophies that were the motivating spirit in any decade (19).

Wells, Fargo and Co. in Montana

Wells, Fargo and Co. was fourteen years old and already a powerful express, banking and stagecoaching firm when it came into Montana Territory.  It was 1866, just thee years after the big strike at Alder Gulch and only two years after the rush at Last Chance Gulch.  By this time Virginia City and Helena, the two settlements at those great gold strikes, were booming.  Crude wagon roads linked the mining camps with the overland trail to the south and Fort Benton on the Missouri River to the north.  Both for Henry Wells and William Fargo it was a similar opportunity to the great California gold rush which had pushed them to create their company in 1852.   They called it the “Grand Consolidation of 1866,” because Wells and Fargo brought out their competitor, Ben Holliday’s Overland Mail Express.  This opened up over 2500 miles of coach routes in the West; some of those routes were in the new Montana Territory.  Wells and Fargo saw that there could be much improved upon, such as the roads and express mail service.  Since the Mullan Road was the principle road used, Wells, Fargo and Co. had to improve it in order to get the stagecoaches and mail delivered.  A Helena paper vouchsafed that “The line of this company is probably not excelled in any country.” (20).

Wells, Fargo and Co. was challenged by the extreme weather and robberies in Montana which tested the company’s energies and abilities.  Wells Fargo remained in Montana off and on until 1918, and during those years it contributed significantly to the development of the territory and state.  However, Wells Fargo’s business only functioned for less than three years.  When the railroad came Wells Fargo sold their stagecoaching business in Montana.  The tail of how Wells Fargo built, operated, and expanded those lines exposes the harsh realities of life and business on the frontier when fortunes could be made by “opening” the great American West (21).

The news and major features of the “Grand Consolidation” of stagelines were reported to readers of Montana newspapers between December 6 and December 15, 1866.  The Montana Post, the Rocky Mountain Gazette, and Virginia Tri-Weekly Post, all reprinted an article from the New York Tribune of November 9, 1866, announcing the consolidation of the “chief interests” of Wells, Fargo and Co. “with those of the Pioneer Stage Company [from Virginia, Nevada to California], the Overland Mail Company [from Salt Lake to Virginia, Nevada], the Holladay Express and Stage Company [from the Missouri to Salt Lake, Montana and Idaho], and all the lines of the American and the United States Express Companies west of the Missouri.” (22).

In 1865 the company had carried an estimated 2,400,000 letters and had carried $49,000,000 in bullion from the mining regions to San Francisco.  The Tribune stated, “It has been the best organized and best managed of all our great express companies; but by the former agreements its ‘territory’ did not extend east of Salt Lake.”  The New York editor raised the question as to whether such a monopoly would work for the good or evil of the vast territory it served, but concluded, “If the business be transacted as well as it has been done in California, the improvement for Utah, Montana and Colorado will be very great.” (23).

The harsh mid-winter weather made it impossible for Wells, Fargo and Co. to provide adequate service in the first months after the consolidation.  A severe storm dropped from four to ten feet of snow on the road between Salt Lake City and Virginia City the third week in December 1866.  Days later the mail came through to Helena on the stage from Salt Lake City but then another storm broke.   “The coaches are ‘snowed in’ near Pleasant Valley and the ups and downs are about eight miles apart,” reported the Montana Post.  “A strong detachment of men are employed in opening the road and there are good reasons for expecting they will clear it to-morrow.”  This shows that without Mullan’s Road and this routes, Montana would have been isolated from the rest of the United States (24).

The ‘Cold-Snap’ continued throughout the month of January.  On one occasion the stagecoach from Salt Lake City took thirteen days to reach Virginia City after encountering snowdrifts fifteen to twenty feet deep.  When the thermometer reached six degrees below zero, the editor of the Virginia Tri-Weekly Post suggested: “You who have steers to shed, Prepare to shed them now.” (25).

In late July 1866, a tri-weekly stage line service from Helena to Fort Benton was inaugurated by C.C. Huntley, who owned the Overland Mail Company and was Wells Fargo’s largest competitor.  His Stage Line between Helena and Fort Benton was an immediate success, so much so that service had to be expanded.  The Tri-Weekly Republican reported: “This line of stages to Fort Benton, via headwaters of navigation of Missouri, is now making regular daily trips.  There is considerable travel by this route-yesterday taking out twenty-seven.” (26).

It was apparent that this business was expected to be sufficiently lucrative and strategically important.  Wells, Fargo and Co. was interested.  The Herald editor expressed the opinion that there was a strong possibility that Wells, Fargo and Co. might carry the mail service under the contract awarded to Huntley.  “James Tracey, Esq., General Treasurer of the extensive house of Wells, Fargo and Co., accompanied by General Superintendent Taylor, and one of the regular Postmasters,” the Herald reported, “arrived in Helena last Friday, and after distributing several thousands of greenbacks among their employees, are spending a few days hereabouts visiting our popular resorts and famous mines.”  The economic importance of Wells, Fargo and Co. to Montana Territory, by this time, was more than obvious to all.  This example highlights that the routes were extremely important to Montana’s communication and business relations (27).

Before the month of April was out Montana newspapers revealed that Wells, Fargo and Co. had obtained a tri-weekly mail contract for delivery between Helena and Benton beginning in October of 1887 with the understanding that a daily service could be introduced if the demand rose.  Captain Huntley still controlled the contract from April to October 1867, but Wells, Fargo and Co. was expected to stock the route and deliver passengers and express without the mail contract, as soon as the river business opened in the early summer (28).

When Huntley’s stages finally started running toward the end of May great difficulty was encountered with the spring rains and resulting in mud.  The road from Benton to the Dearborn River was almost impassable and the river current so swift at the ford that crossing was dangerous.  The coaches bringing in the passengers from the Waverly were often stuck so fast in the mud that assistance had to be sough at the nearest ranch or from a passing freight wagon train.  When such events occurred the ladies and children were taken from the coach and carried to solid ground (29).

In June 1867, C.C. Huntley had announced that he had sold out to Wells, Fargo and Co.  He removed his coaches with plans to place them on a new route from Helena to the Musselshell River in connection with a proposed Northern Overland Mail route to be run between St. Paul, Minnesota, and Helena.  Wells, Fargo and Co. now had exclusive responsibility for the delivery of mails, express and passengers on the route from Helena to Benton.  To be able to deliver all the mail and carry the increasingly number of people, Wells, Fargo and Co. ordered thirty of the Concord nine-passenger mail coaches with an assortment of hooks, staples, and irons, and harness for the entire outfit (30).

Wells Fargo had successfully established efficient stagecoach routes in Montana only months after the “Grand Consolidation of 1866.”  There had been competition for the coach business in Montana and Wells Fargo would experience more, but the strength of the firm’s organization, the character of its personnel, and the determination to provide the best service possible guaranteed its success.  The next two years would bring more challenges and Wells Fargo would live up to its reputation as the finest stagecoach company in the West (31).

Conclusion

This paper discussed the Concord Stagecoach, the history of Wells, Fargo and Co., and the impact of Mullan’s routes in Montana with the help of Wells, Fargo and Co.  As this paper has demonstrated that without the Mullan Road, the Northwest and especially Montana would have been isolated from the rest of the world.  Without the Concord stagecoach, it would have been more difficult to communicate and to travel.  The stagecoach has become a symbol of the West and its expansion by going into areas where no other transportation could go. 

As for the history of Wells, Fargo, and Co., this company has accomplished much in its time.  In only fifty years, they expanded into the Northwest and soon after that, they were sending mail internationally.  This company has become a symbol of the Wild West and for good reason.  Many of the stagecoach drivers had to fend of Indians and robbers, due to the amount of money they were transporting.  Wells, Fargo and Co. worked hard for what they wanted and soon became the only mail, passenger and express service in the Northwest.

Wells, Fargo and Co. in Montana made Virginia City, Helena, and Fort Benton three of the most significant places in the Northwest.  Not only for the gold mines that surrounded those areas, but also as a direct routes into the Northwest.  There was fierce competition for Wells Fargo from C.C. Huntley, which continued until 1867 when he sold out to them.  Only a few years later did Wells, Fargo and Co. sell out when the railroad made its appearance. Wells, Fargo and Co. had to prove themselves more in Montana than any other place because of the harsh winter of 1866-67 and all the robberies that occurred. The troops at Fort Benton patrolled the Mullan Road as well as other routes thus securing the economic viability of the roads.  In the end, Wells Fargo was able to meet those challenges and rise above them.  That is just one of the many reasons why Wells, Fargo and Co. has been and always will be a successful business.

Briana Mullendore is a graduate student in History at Eastern Washington University and is a student worker at the Washington State Digital Archives.

Notes

1. U. S. Department of Transportation. Report On The Construction Of A Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla To Fort Benton. Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1863: 37.
2. Carlos A. Schwantes, “The Steamboat and Stagecoach Era in Montana and the Northern West,” The Magazine of Western History 49 (Winter, 1999): 2.
3. Louis Pelzer, “Pioneer Stage-Coach Travel,” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 23 (Jun, 1936): 4-5; Philip L. Fradkin, Wells Fargo and the American West (New York: Simon and Schuster Source, 2002), 68.
4.Pelzer, 5.
5. Pelzer, 14; Schwantes, 4; Pelzer, 9-10.; Oscar Osborn Winther, “Early Commercial Importance of the Mullan Road,” Oregon Historical Quarterly (March 1945): 33.
6. Schwantes, 4, 9; W. Turrentine Jackson, “Wells Fargo: Symbol of the Wild West?” The Western Historical Quarterly 3 (Apr, 1972): 186.
7. Schwantes, 13-14; W. Turrentine Jackson, “Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana Trials and Triumphs,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 29 (Spring, 1979): 50.
8. Schwantes, 15.
9. Ibid., 15.
10. Ruth Teiser and Catherine Harroun, “Origin of Wells, Fargo &Company 1841-1852,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 22 (Jun 1948): 70.
11. Ibid., 72.
12. Ibid., 72; W. Turrentine Jackson, “A New Look at Wells Fargo, Stage-Coaches and the Pony Express,” California Historical Society Quarterly 45 (Dec, 1966): 292.
13. Ibid., 73.
14. Ibid., 73.
15. Ibid., 74; Jackson, A New Look, 307.
16. Ibid., 76.
17. Ibid., 80-81.
18. Ibid., 83.
19. Jackson, Wells Fargo: Symbol of the Wild West?,195.
20. W. Turrentine Jackson, “Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana: Into a New Territory,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 29 (Winter, 1979): 40; Fradkin, 78; Helena Herald, August 5, 1896.
21. Jackson, Into a New Territory, 41.
22. Jackson, Into a New Territory, 42; Fradkin, 78.
23. Jackson, 42.
24. Ibid., 43.
25. Ibid., 43-44; W. Turrentine Jackson, “Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana: Final Months,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 29 (Autumn, 1979): 64.
26. Ibid., 45.
27. Ibid., 48.
28. Jackson, Into a New Territory, 49; W. Turrentine Jackson, Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana Territory (Helena, Montana: Montana Historical Society Press, 1979), 1-63.
29. Jackson, Into a New Territory, 51; Jackson, Stagecoaching in Montana Territory, 50.
30. Jackson, Into a New Territory, 53; Pelzer, 16.
31. Jackson, Into a New Territory, 53.

Bibliography

Fradkin, Philip L. Wells Fargo and the American West. New York: Simon & Schuster Source, 2002.

Jackson, W. Turrentine. “Wells Fargo: Symbol of the Wild West?” The Western Historical Quarterly 3 (Apr, 1972): 179-196.

--. “Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana: Final Months,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 29 (Autumn, 1979): 52-66.
--. “A New Look at Wells Fargo. Stage-Coaches and the Pony Express,” California Historical Society 45 (Dec, 1966): 291-324.
--. “Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana: Into a New Territory,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 29 (Winter, 1979): 40-53.
--. “Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana Trial and Triumphs,” Montana: The Magazine of Western History 29 (Spring, 1979): 38-53.
--. Wells Fargo Stagecoaching in Montana Territory. Helena, Montana: Montana Historical Society Press, 1979.

Pelzer, Louis. “Pioneer Stage-Coach Travel.” The Mississippi Valley Historical Review 32 (Jun, 1936): 3-26.

Schwantes, Carlos A. “The Steamboat and Stagecoach Era in Montana and the Northern West.” The Magazine of Western History 49 (Winter, 1999): 2-15.

Teiser, Ruth and Catherine Harroun. “Origin of Wells, Fargo and Company 1841-1852,” Bulletin of the Business Historical Society 22 (Jun, 1948): 70-83.

U. S. Department of Transportation. Report On The Construction Of A Military Road From Fort Walla-Walla To Fort Benton. Washington, D.C: Government Printing Office, 1863.

Winther, Oscar Osborn. “Early Commercial Importance of the Mullan Road.” Oregon Historical Quarterly (March 1945): 22-35.