1800s |

First Transcontinental Mail Train to San Francisco - 9/15/1858

Train trips have never been much of a joy ride, but the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail was an exceptionally bumpy example of early American pioneer ground travel. Passengers alternated between frost bite and sun stroke most of the time, as they bumped clumsily across the undeveloped Midwestern landscape. The Overland Mail was a stage coach service led by teams of horses. It carried both passengers and mail over rough, transcontinental terrain between the years of 1857 and 1869.

Based on the increasing demand for better, faster mail service, Congress passed an act in March of 1857. A contract of $600,000 would be awarded to any company that could successfully deliver mail twice a week from St. Louis to San Francisco, and do so within a time limit of 25 days. The first contract of this kind was awarded to the Overland Mail Company. The company eventually spent one million dollars improving the routes, expanding its feet of horses, and building way stations every fifteen miles or so, where tired horses could be replaced with fresh ones. Then they charged passengers exorbitant fees to ride along.

On September 15th of 1858, the first transcontinental mail train service left the city of St. Louis on its way from east to west. It arrived in San Francisco well within the 25-day time frame. The stage coming back from San Francisco took only 23 days and four hours. At its height, the Butterfield Overland Stage Company had more than 800 employees, 1,800 horses, 139 relay stations, and 250 Concorde stage coaches.

California was still booming from the California Gold Rush of 1849, when hordes of prospectors and their wagon teams came rushing to San Francisco, scaring away the wild animals that native people had been using for food and warmth.

The Overland trip took at least three weeks, but most passengers did not want to sleep at any of the “home stations” along the way, for fear that the next train might be full and leave them stranded. So they tried to spend the whole trip sleeping in the carriage, which was just about impossible, as the carriage was always in motion. Not only that, but the food was substandard and overpriced, and a bath or a toilet was hard to find. What's more, the stage drivers were often drunk and abusive, and stage coach robbery was an actual threat.

Soon enough, other faster mail services started competing with Overland. The most famous of these was the Pony Express. Then, the first transcontinental railroad was completed on May 10th of 1869. On that day, the United States government canceled its final 6-year contract for the Overland Mail Trail. However, modern remnants of the Overland Trail, such as crumbling way stations and rusty old stage coaches, still exist today at various locations across the American landscape.

How odd it is that the comfort level on trains, even today, is not that much better than it was when horse drawn carriages were all the rage. 

Share On Facebook

Mark Hinderberg


Retired History Professor at Vanderbilt University. Love taking a portal through time and sharing my knowledge with anyone else who loves reading about history. It is my passion and my greatest hobby.