A Kansas Ranchman's Experience Freighting to Denver. Page 184.
DENVER'S EARLY EASTERN MAIL.
first settlement on the site of Denver was made in the
summer of 1858. It was fully two years afterward, however,
before the people of the town and adjacent camps were so
fortunate as to be provided by Government with a direct
mail. What letters and papers they had from time to time
been receiving from loved ones in the East were brought from
Fort Laramie, the nearest post-office, some 200 miles
distant to the north, being left there by the stage which
carried the mail once or twice a month between the Missouri
river and Salt Lake City. Later the letters were forwarded
from Old California Crossing (Beauvais ranch), and, still
later, from old Julesburg (Upper California Crossing), 200
miles east of Denver.
railway being fully 750 miles distant. The arrival of the two Concord stages in Denver was greeted by the business men and the miners as enthusiastically in 1859 as was the advent of the first passenger-train which came down from Cheyenne, thundering over the rails into the "Queen City of the Plains," a little more than ten years later.
"Uncle Sam" was very slow in recognizing the appeals of the pioneers for a direct mail to the so-called "Pike's Peak gold region," for the first postal route was not established and in operation until August 10, 1860. The contractor carried the mail from Fort Kearney to Denver, about 400 miles, once a week, the schedule time being six and one-half days. The reason why it was carried from Fort Kearney was because mail routes intersected at that important military post from Atchison, Nebraska City, and Omaha, the fort being on the main overland route, on the south side of the Platte, on the natural highway from Atchison to Salt Lake City. They had been waiting two years for the establishment of a mail route. But there were congratulations in Denver by every one on the arrival there of the first regular United States mail, and the event was accordingly celebrated in genuine frontier style.
Denver grew rapidly, and very soon became quite an important staging center. As new mining camps were being opened, mail routes centered there from nearly all directions. This was early in the '60's, while the camp was yet an infant city. Besides the daily line of overland Concord coaches which ran across the continent from Atchison to California, there were stages which carried the mail running south from Denver to Colorado City, Pueblo, and Santa Fe.
The era of staging in Denver lasted for a period of about ten years. The Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express came first. This was followed by the Central Overland California and Pike's Peak Express; then by Ben. Holladay's overland stage line; then the Butterfield Overland Despatch; then the Holladay Overland Mail and Express Company; then Wells, Fargo & Co., John Hughes & Co., and Spottswood, Bogue & Co. The latter ran a line from Denver into the mountains.
Lines were operated for a time in 1860 between Denver and the Gregory mines by Kehler & Montgomery and Hinckley & Co.; but neither of these was able to hold out long, and soon
were swallowed by Holladay, the great "overland stage" man, with headquarters at Atchison. For some time in the early '60's weekly line ran to "Buckskin Joe," a rich gold camp up near the back-bone of the continent.
Following the completion of the Colorado Central railroad from Denver to Golden City, a line of six-horse Concords made daily trips to Black Hawk, Central City, Idaho Springs, and Georgetown, taking in Virginia Cañon. Between Denver and Fairplay there was a tri-weekly line, the trip being made over the "rough and rugged" road in eighteen hours, passengers stopping over night on the way.
In addition to the several stage routes heretofore enjoyed by Denver, there were other lines that went to points not far away, but all naturally tributary to her. Leadville, which has produced millions of silver and gold, was not dreamed of in the '60's. The Gunnison country was unknown as a mining region until the later '70's; the prosperous San Juan and San Miguel regions at that time had never been heard of in connection with mining; and the Cripple Creek gold district, which has astonished the world as a rich producer of the yellow metal, was not
Holladay Overland Mail and Express Office
at Denver, 1866.*
discovered and opened up for nearly a third of a century
after the founding of Denver.
*BY permission (sic) of the Denver History Company.
and sent around to California via the Isthmus. On reaching San Francisco, it was forwarded by steamer to Sacramento, thence by rail to Placerville, where it was put aboard the overland stagecoach, and, after a delay of several weeks, it finally reached its destination at Denver, having, in the meantime, traveled a distance of about 9500 miles. During the six weeks of Indian troubles on the Platte, the overland stages arrived and departed daily between Denver and California.
As soon as they had learned in Denver what disposition had been made of the accumulated mails quite naturally many felt disappointed, and there was much protesting. Some one, greatly exasperated after hearing what had occurred, volunteered a vigorous protest, which was sent by telegraph to the post-office department, as follows: "Send the Denver mail by ox train; but, for Heaven's sake, do n't send any more around from New York by ocean route via California."
While coming east along the Platte, early one evening during the summer of 1863, not long after we had passed over O'Fallon's Bluffs, a rather singular accident befell us, while we were bowling along at the usual gait. Just after sunset the off front wheel of the stage--the one directly under the driver's seat--ran off the axle. Before any one on the coach had time to even think, there was an exciting runaway. The team was full of life, and in its wild dash down the valley it seemed that it sped with almost the rapidity of a fast-mail train. I expected every minute to see the driver tumble headlong off the box; so held on to him as best I could with one hand, saving myself with the other. With my assistance he managed to keep his seat. For 200 or 300 yards or more the four horses fairly flew; they went so fast that the axle was kept from dragging on the ground. Finally the driver, by application of the brake, succeeded in bringing the team to a halt.
Climbing down from the box, I ran back to find the wheel and the missing nut. I knew when the wheel rolled off and where it should be found, but it was some time ere I succeeded in finding the nut, which was accomplished by the aid of one of the coach lamps and a careful search. Inside the stage were five or six frightened passengers, but they all had to alight and help lift to enable us to get the wheel in place, so as to proceed on our journey. It was an unusual accident--the first and only one of the kind I ever witnessed on the "Overland "--and probably was
An Accident Near O'Fallon's Bluffs. Page 182.
due to the carelessness of the man who last adjusted the
nut after greasing; but fortunately it only caused a little
delay, and no one was hurt and nothing injured.
had been taken. While the plant is rather pretty, apparently of little or no use except for fuel, it is said the Indians used it in some form to cure various ills; and even the palefaces, especially the old mountaineers and ranchmen on the frontier and many miners and prospectors, soon learned of its good qualities, and often used it in making a tea which, it was said, would cure a great many diseases, and, by some, was found infallible in breaking up the most obstinate cases of mountain fever.
Some portions of the journey on the overland route were dreary and desolate in the extreme. There were several barren stretches at intervals along the Platte where the surface of the country was almost white with alkali; notably was this so in a number of places between Cottonwood Springs and old Julesburg, and also between Julesburg and Bijou creek. It was said that the Indians would scrape up the alkali and use it as a substitute for saleratus and soda in making their bread and biscuit; but as I never saw them do it, I think we may suppose the story lacks confirmation. There is little doubt, however, that the genuine alkali of the plains possesses most, if not all, of the ingredients contained in saleratus.
Some time in the fall of 1863 a shrewd Kansas ranchman took it into his bead that a load of nice, fat turkeys taken into the Denver market would be appreciated, and at the same time would, owing to the high prices for such delicacies, bring him in considerable revenue. He accordingly fitted up a wagon with a double frame, designed for two tiers of choice turkeys. Everything went along nicely until be reached a point way up the South Platte between old Julesburg and Denver. Here the ranchman encountered a snag, or rather had an expensive joke played on him. By some unaccountable accident all of his turkeys suddenly got loose, and almost before their owner knew it they were roaming the plains. When they reached the ground they appeared to be wild turkeys and it was almost impossible to corral them. A lively and exciting chase ensued, in which all about the premises (for there was a ranch near) joined enthusiastically. The farmer seemed to be "broken up" on account of the mishap. He spent much time in trying to get the turkeys together again, but quite a number of them. in spite of his efforts, were lost, having disappeared on the range. It was afterwards reported--how truthfully I do not know--that some of the station keepers, stage agents and a few drivers and stock tenders lived high on roast
turkey for the first time since they had been residing on the South Platte. Possibly the accident to the turkey coop might have been explained by some one of those drivers.
Occasionally the services of a physician were needed on the overland route, but up to the early part of 1863 there was not a doctor on the plains between Fort Kearney and Denver, a distance of about 400 miles. Now and then it was necessary to send 200 miles for a physician. During the spring of 1863, however, a disciple of Esculapius, hailing from Ohio as Doctor Lewis, located on the South Platte, between Alkali Lake and old Julesburg, where he hung out his shingle, and at once began practicing his profession. Soon he fell into the good graces of the Indians. He was not there very long, however, before he married a young squaw and took up his permanent residence in one of the tepees.
I made the acquaintance of the doctor one morning about a week or ten days after his marriage, while on one of my return trips from Denver to Atchison by stage. He was a fine-looking man, about thirty-five years old. In stature he was considerably above medium size, tall and erect as an Indian, and in every way be appeared to be a gentleman and a social good fellow. After talking with him a few minutes, I jokingly assured him that, in the practice of his profession, he would doubtless have an extensive ride, since he was a little more than 200 miles from Denver and nearly the same distance from Fort Kearney. After conversing with him a little while, he politely invited me into his wigwam and introduced me to his bride, who was now "Mrs. Doctor Lewis."
The interior of the wigwam, I was quite surprised to find, was one of the neatest and best-arranged places of the kind I ever visited. Everything appeared to be clean and tidy, and the carpets and mats and rugs--some of them made of different kinds of furs, and all of them the handiwork of the bride--were quite artistic and very pretty. She was a favorite daughter of a "highup" Indian belonging to the Sioux tribe. and was a real handsome and extremely modest young woman, and appeared to be quite devotedly attached to the domestic affairs in her new home. Later, on several occasions, sometimes on the backs of their ponies riding up and down the Platte, I met the doctor and his dusky companion on my overland trips as messenger. I seldom made a trip that I was not called upon to make purchases for him in
Atchison or Denver. He frequently invited me to stop and partake of the hospitality of his household, but I never had an opportunity to do so, as the meals served on the stage line by the company were at regular public eating stations, and no time could be lost in stopping long enough to partake even of the necessaries at private houses.
At a ranch out on the South Platte between Cottonwood Springs and Alkali Lake, the keepers had placed a board across the. top of two barrels to give the inside of the building something like the appearance of a frontier bar. At this place, it was said by a few of the stage-drivers and stock tenders that there was sold over this "bar" a decoction of some of the vilest stuff under the name of "old Bourbon whisky" that ever irrigated the throat of the worst old toper.
To a few gallons of "sod-corn juice," it was said that the proprietors of the place would add a quantity of tobacco and some poisonous drugs, and thus manufacture a barrel of the worst "rotgut" ever produced. The vile liquid was sold to thirsty customers at enormous prices, for it appeared out of the question for a large majority of the fellows whacking mules and oxen across the plains in overland freighting days to dispense with liquor. It mattered little with a great majority of them what the stuff they drank was made of, so it went by the name of whisky and had even a faint smell of liquor about it.
At another ranch, also on the South Platte between Julesburg and Denver, in plain sight of the Rockies, where the stage-driver once stopped for a plug of tobacco, it occurred to one of the passengers that he ought to get his empty pocket flask filled. He was not a little surprised when he was soon informed by the ranchman that he would have to wait perhaps a quarter to half an hour, as he was then trying to thaw out his "whisky," which, unfortunately, had frozen in the barrel the preceding night.
Being of a somewhat inquisitive nature, the passenger, in search of information, wanted to know how it happened that the whisky was frozen. This unexpected question somewhat puzzled the ranchman, who could not exactly tell--it was a conundrum to him; but he finally gave it as his opinion that it was on account of the high altitude of Colorado. While this explanation came a little late--and appeared to be a pretty fair answer--it was not satisfactory to the thirsty passenger, who volunteered the sugges-
tion that it was more likely caused by being too strongly irrigated with "aqua" from the South Platte, which stream was not many rods distant from the premises.
On the plains one would experience all kinds of weather. Sometimes, while making a trip, after a long dry spell, accompanied by a strong wind, the dust encountered was almost intolerable Where there was so much travel, in hot weather, there were usually immense quantities of dust. Along the Platte river, where there was such enormous traffic--hundreds of wagons, some drawn by six yoke of cattle, passing over the road daily--it was worse than on any other part of the route. Portions of the road at times were like ash-heaps, because much of the way the soil was very sandy.
When the road was lined with mule and ox trains moving east and west, as a matter of course the animals were constantly stirring up the dust, which in places frequently was from three to six inches deep. With a strong wind blowing clouds of dust in one's face--sometimes constantly for two or three days--the result can better be imagined than described.
Wells-Fargo Stage and Office, at Salt Lake City.
How some of the stage-drivers not having their eyes
protected ever stood the dust for so many long years it is
difficult to imagine. I could not help pitying them, as well
as the stage teams; also the poor, dumb oxen, as they
wearily trudged along over the road day after day and week
after week on the long, tedious journey. It was a severe
trial for me to endure. But I soon learned for myself how to
meet such obstacles; I procured a veil and carried it
continually, putting it over my face when occasion demanded,
and thus kept out of my eyes considerable dust.
encountered at times. Now and then there was a stage passenger who could not get along without the use of certain expressions more forcible than elegant. Nothing would do but deliver himself of a string of "cuss" words not found in the dictionaries. Since then I have learned by experience that, in warm weather, a sponge soaked with water and tied against the nostrils is a very simple and a most excellent remedy, when riding in the dust, to exclude it from the lungs.
For letters carried to Denver by the Leavenworth & Pike's Peak Express the price was twenty-five cents. To get an uncommonly big letter, the recipient usually had to "come down" with "four bits." But no one seemed to grumble in those days for having to pay the sum demanded for a letter from home. It was before a mail route had been established in the pioneer Rocky Mountain mining camp, at the junction of Cherry creek with the South Platte, and a great majority of those receiving letters were only too glad to got them at almost any price.
For a long time the stage and express office of the "Overland" was in the Planters' House, at the southeast corner of Blake and Sixteenth streets, where it remained until 1866, when, the stage line having passed from Ben. Holladay into the hands of Wells, Fargo & Co., the headquarters were moved from the old location up to Fifteenth and Holladay streets.
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