"Becoming California, a series that brings the California Gold Rush alive with the people who lived it."

Stagecoaches Moved Gold, Men and Supplies West


by Don Baumgart

Two men sat in the back room of a store in upstate New York, looking at the Gold Rush a continent away. The pair had some experience shipping parcels on eastern railroads and sensed that some kind of transportation system was needed out West.

Their names were Henry Wells and William Fargo.

In 1852 at New York's Astor House they formally created a company which would become a western stage coach empire. Wells Fargo & Company was started with $300,000 capital. Sixty years later their company would operate 80,000 miles of east-west routes in the U.S., plus lines in Mexico, Cuba, Hawaii, Alaska, the Philippines and China. The firm would have a surplus of $7 million and no debts.

It started with an announcement in the Alta Californian that Wells Fargo & Company's Atlantic and Pacific Express was opening shop to buy and sell, as well as transport, gold. It also would carry packages, parcels and freight of all descriptions between the cities of New York and San Francisco.

Wells Fargo became express messengers to a frontier nation, transporting gold, freight and passengers through Indian raids, stage robberies, mountain blizzards and desert heat.

The fame of their drivers soon became legendary. Armed with shotguns they rode behind six horses and were proud to drive for Wells Fargo.

One tall story involves eastern newspaperman Horace Greeley, who had taken his own advice and gone West. Greeley boarded a Wells Fargo stage in Carson City, announcing that he had to hurry to a speaking date in Placerville.

Driver Hank Monk took off at a pace that was said to have shaken the buttons off Greeley's coat and eventually put the passenger's head through the stage's roof. Greeley sheepishly told Monk that the speaking engagement wasn't all that important after all.

Mark Twain had something to say about the tale.

"Drivers always told it, conductors told it, landlords told it, the very Chinamen and vagrant Indians recounted it. I have had the same driver tell it to me two or three times in the same afternoon...I have seen it in print in nine different languages; and now I learn with regret that it is going to be set to music. I do not think that such things are right."

In 1857 the company entered into a contract with the federal government to carry the mail West twice a week, over what would be the longest stage run in the world -- 2,7OO miles from St. Louis to San Francisco. The job paid more than a half million dollars a year.

New York Herald writer Waterman Ormsby rode the first stage to carry mail West and described its early Sunday morning arrival.

"...soon we struck the pavements, and with a whip crack and bound shot through the streets to our destination, to the great consternation of everything in the way..." The driver blew a blast on his horn to signal the arrival of the first overland mail.

The company grew rich and powerful. By 1860 Fargo had built himself a half-million-dollar mansion back home in Buffalo, in which hung a $10,000 chandelier. Wells Fargo had a virtual monopoly in California, operating 147 offices with a capitalization now exceeding $1 million.

Banking offices near the mines collected dust and nuggets for shipment to the assay office in San Francisco. The assayed sum, less a carrying charge, was credited to the miner at the bank closest to his diggings.

Edward Hungerford describes the results in his book Wells Fargo - Advancing the American Frontier. "The express business was continuously profitable and the profits were all turned into the bank and added to its working capital. Prosperity ruled." In December of 1863 the company paid shareholders a dividend of 100 percent.

Then the iron horse came West and in June of 1918 Wells Fargo Express became part of American Railway Express. Company signs were removed and the name Wells Fargo disappeared from telephone listings.

The last issue of the Wells Fargo Messenger had this to say about the changing times: "...the nation loses an institution, hardly less distinctive than the great capitol down at Washing-ton. For 65 long years our company has kept the faith. Its task has been trust and no man has ever trusted it in vain."

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Copyright Don Baumgart, 2006


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