Visalia No Stranger to the Stagecoach
In the history of the old west, the stagecoach holds a special place, and rightfully so. After all, this iconic mode of travel played a significant role in the opening and development of this new land. Not only did the legendary vehicle help settle the west, but it specifically played a big part in early Visalia history. Transportation options for commercial travel in Visalia and elsewhere were oftentimes limited, and the stagecoach was there to fill the gap. At various times Visalia had regular stage service to places like Bakersfield, San Jose, Gilroy, Hornitos, Keysville, Mineral King, and Millwood with connecting service to Los Angeles, San Francisco, and beyond.
But not all of Visalia’s stage services were California based. In the 1850s, when the federal government was looking for a way to connect the eastern part of the country to newly settled California, it turned to east coast transportation entrepreneur John Butterfield and his fleet of stagecoaches for help.
On September 16, 1857, the U.S. government signed a $600,000 contract with Butterfield who, under terms of the agreement, would create semi-weekly stagecoach mail service to California and have it ready to go within one year.
Butterfield’s route would follow a course through the southern portion of the country, taking advantage of the moderate climate and lower altitudes. The mail service would technically begin in St. Louis where westbound train service was already in place. Letters would travel by rail from there to Tipton, Missouri, then go by stage. The westbound path would go south, drop down into Arkansas, and go through what is now Oklahoma. Continuing south, the route would enter Texas and begin a wide westbound swing through what is now a small part of New Mexico and Arizona. It would enter California and turn north through Los Angeles, Fort Tejon, the Tulare Valley (now called San Joaquin Valley) and on to San Francisco, the end of the line. The entire route would stretch more than 2,800 miles and have about 140 way stations, evenly spaced to give drivers and passengers a chance for a stretch and refreshment break. The stops would also allow for changing tired horses.
On Sept. 15, 1858, Butterfield’s Overland Mail Company began service with two bags of mail bound for San Francisco. The venture had attracted media attention and on the inaugural trip, a newspaperman was also on board. His name was Waterman L. Ormsby, a reporter for the New York Herald, whose assignment was to document and report on his trip over the entire route.
When Ormsby boarded the stage in Tipton, a small crowd had gathered. Obviously disappointed, he noted as he left, “Not a cheer was raised as the coach drove off…they could not have exhibited less emotion.” From Tipton, Missouri to Ft. Smith, Arkansas, the route followed existing roads for the most part, so travel was easy. After that, it got much more difficult. Many sections had no clearly defined travel path as the route crossed hills, washouts, swollen rivers, and soft desert sand. Ormsby didn’t get much sleep as the coach jarred and lurched over the rough terrain. Often the food and water was bad, and at times the dust became intolerable. Ormsby wrote while in Texas, “There is an old saying that ‘every man must eat his peck of dirt.’ I think I have had good measure with my peck on this trip.” Summarizing his journey up to that point, he called his adventure “roughing it with a vengeance.”
The stagecoach arrived at Fort Tejon in the early morning hours of Oct. 8, then dropped down into the Tulare Valley and entered Tulare County (Kern County was not yet formed). Tulare County had a number of way stations, the largest one being in Visalia. The town had the distinction of being one of the few timetable locations on the route, which meant the town was listed on all schedule literature.
The stage rolled into Visalia at about 11:30 p.m. on Oct. 8, 1858. Ormsby noted that the town consisted of “a few adobe houses” situated in an oak grove with about 500 residents, a number of which were New Yorkers. He was presented with a glass of lager, and clearly was impressed.
Despite the late hour, word of the stage’s arrival spread quickly, and soon a sizeable crowed had gathered. As the stage prepared to leave, the locals gave the departing visitors a loud send off with an “anvil salute.” Ormsby, obviously pleased with his Visalia reception, wrote, “The reports [anvil salute explosions] were quite as heavy as those of an eight-powder [a cannon].” He further wrote, “This was the first evidence of any enthusiasm along the route since we left Fort Smith, and the rousing cheers they gave us as we drove off at 11:50…ought to be remembered in the history of the town, so I here immortalize them.” On Oct. 10, the stage arrived in San Francisco and the driver dropped off the mail bags at the post office. The mail had arrived on schedule and Ormsby’s adventure was over. The entire trip had taken 23 days and 23 ½ hours. It was a milestone. Historical sources noted that Ormsby had been the first person to ever make the trip across the plains in less than 50 days.
For the next three years, the southern route of Butterfield’s stage line carried mail and passengers across the country, and Visalia was proud to be part of it. But the experience was short lived. In 1861 the route became a casualty of the Civil War. Travel through the southern states was unsafe, so the line was abandoned. A few years later, railroads would push across the continent.
In 1973, to commemorate Visalia’s place in Overland Mail Company history, a historic marker was mounted near the site of the Butterfield stage stop, located on the north side of Main Street just east of Court. Years later, the marker’s bronze stagecoach illustration, which had been part of the marker display, was removed from the granite boulder, and this year the Tulare County Historical Society installed a new bronze illustration plaque to replace it.