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1858

The first transcontinental mail service to San Francisco begins

On this day in 1858, the new Overland Mail Company sends out its first two stages, inaugurating government mail service between the eastern and western regions of the nation.

With California booming, thanks to the 1849 Gold Rush, Americans east and west had been clamoring for faster and surer transcontinental mail service for years. Finally, in March 1857, the U.S. Congress passed an act authorizing an overland mail delivery service and a $600,000 yearly subsidy for whatever company could succeed in reliably transporting the mail twice a week from St. Louis to San Francisco in less than 25 days. The postmaster general awarded the first government contract and subsidy to the Overland Mail Company. Under the guidance of a board of directors that included John Butterfield and William Fargo, the Overland Mail Company spent $1 million improving its winding 2,800-mile route and building way stations at 10-15 mile intervals. Teams of thundering horses soon raced across the wide open spaces of the West, pulling custom-built Concord coaches with seats for nine passengers and a rear boot for the mail.

For passengers, the overland route was anything but a pleasure trip. Packed into the narrow confines of the coaches, they alternately baked or froze as they bumped across the countryside, and dust was an inescapable companion. Since the coaches traveled night and day, travelers were reluctant to stop and sleep at one of the “home stations” along the route because they risked being stranded if later stages were full. Many opted to try and make it through the three-week trip by sleeping on the stage, but the constant bumping and noise made real sleep almost impossible. Travelers also found that toilets and baths were few and far between, the food was poor and pricey, and the stage drivers were often drunk, rude, profane, or all three. Robberies and Indian attacks were a genuine threat, though they occurred far less commonly than popularly believed. The company posted guards at stations in dangerous areas, and armed men occasionally rode with the coach driver to protect passengers.

Though other faster mail delivery services soon came to compete with the Overland Mail Company-most famously the Pony Express-the nation’s first regular trans-western mail service continued to operate as a part of the larger Wells, Fargo and Company operation until May 10, 1869, the day the first transcontinental railroad was completed. On that day the U.S. government cancelled its last overland mail contract.

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