When stagecoach was king in Idaho, not everything went smoothly

Ben Holladay, “Stagecoach King,” made and lost a fortune.
Ben Holladay, “Stagecoach King,” made and lost a fortune. Provided by Arthur Hart

Travel by stagecoach in early Idaho was an adventure, whether it started that way or not, and you could never be sure what might happen before you reached your destination. There was always the chance that highwaymen would stop the coach at gunpoint, demand that the driver throw down the Wells Fargo strong box and that you might be robbed of all the money and valuables you had with you.

Lewiston, established on May 13, 1861, in what was then Washington Territory, had a stagecoach line to Walla Walla in February 1863, a month before Idaho Territory was created. Its advertisements in the Lewiston Golden Age, Idaho’s first newspaper, stated, “Walla Walla and Lewiston Stage Line. Thatcher, Rickey & Co. Proprietors. This line of Concord Coaches carrying the United States Mail and Wells Fargo & Co.’s Express leave Lewiston every morning at 3 o’clock. This line is in perfect order and has good careful and experienced drivers, and all passengers can go through comfortably as well as safely.”

It is noteworthy that this stage line employed Concord coaches, the finest made in America in the 19th century. In 1826 in Concord, N.H., wheelwrights J.S. Abbot and Lewis Downing teamed up to build the first of more than 3,000 stagecoaches, the unique feature of which was a suspension system of wide leather straps that allowed the coach body to swing back and forth, absorbing the jolts of the rough roads. Mark Twain, who traveled across the country from Missouri to Nevada in 1861 in a Concord coach, called it “a cradle on wheels.” His brother Orion had just been appointed Secretary of Nevada Territory, and their great adventure, described in “Roughing It,” was written in part from access to his brother’s diary.

Six-horse teams were replaced with fresh ones every 10 or 12 miles at way-stations that could also feed the passengers poor meals, typically made up of salt pork, stale bread and beans.

Stage travel was slow, typically about five miles per hour. Travel time from Boise to Portland in October 1863, was advertised as “about 7 days,” and from Boise to Lewiston as “about 3 days.” In winter, stagecoaches were equipped with runners in place of wheels, and snowstorms could make the road ahead impossible to follow, thus “about 3 days” was only a guess. If, as sometimes happened, a stagecoach was snowed in between stations, passengers could bundle up and wait for rescue or a change in the weather, but if young and physically fit, they might decide to walk or snowshoe the rest of the way. Some died trying that.

In August 1864, Boise was served by the Overland Stage Line, Ben Holladay, proprietor. The Statesman praised the company with, “They have good comfortable coaches, and good stock, but their time through from Salt Lake is proof enough of that. They expect to do even better yet, for their teams strayed away twice on the trip which delayed them nearly a day. They can be depended upon now with as much certainty as any line in the country.”

Ben Holladay, known as the “Stagecoach King,” started the Overland Stage line across the country during the height of the gold rush to California in 1849. In 1861 he won the contract for mail service to Salt Lake, which required establishing stage stops along the route between there and Boise. As for all successful stage line operators, Holladay’s key to profit was getting contracts to carry the mail and Wells Fargo & Co.’s treasure boxes.

Despite his successes, Ben Holladay was not a lovable human being. He was described by Henry Villard, who knew him well, as “illiterate, coarse, boastful, false, and cunning,” and by another business associate as “clever, shrewd, cunning, illiterate, coarse, and completely unscrupulous.” At one point in his career he is said to have bought a large mansion, had it remodeled and installed “a harem of high-class prostitutes.” It is unlikely that many felt sorry for Holladay when he lost most of his fortune in the stock market collapse of Sept. 18, 1873.

Arthur Hart writes this column on Idaho history for the Idaho Statesman each Sunday. Email histnart@gmail.com.