Idaho’s stagecoach history long remembered by those who lived it

An Idaho “mud wagon” arrives at Silver City’s Idaho Hotel.
An Idaho “mud wagon” arrives at Silver City’s Idaho Hotel. Provided by Arthur Hart

Among the inconveniences of stagecoach travel in early Idaho were the early departure times. In August 1864, Ward & Co.’s Idaho City stage line, with an office in Riggs & Agnew’s saloon, left the City Hotel on Main Street in Boise at 4 a.m. on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, arriving at 3 p.m.

The return trip left Idaho City at 4 a.m. on Wednesdays, Fridays and Mondays, arriving in Boise at 3 p.m. The company’s ad in the Idaho Tri-weekly Statesman promised, “All packages &c. entrusted to them will be promptly delivered.”

Stagecoaches arrived in Boise regularly in 1864, and there was usually a small group of idle men on hand to welcome them. It was a sight long remembered by old-timers.

John Hailey, a Stagecoach King in his day and first director of the Idaho State Historical Society, told the Statesman on July 7, 1907, “When I saw that old stage in the (Fourth of July) parade, decorated with sagebrush and being drawn by miss-mated horses, I felt like turning my head and not looking at it — such a burlesque. That looked nothing like the old-time stage coaches. They should have had six spirited horses and the coach stacked with trunks and baggage in the rear and on top, and a dozen or so persons riding, then they would have had a coach similar to the ones we used to drive. I’ve carried as many as 24 persons at a time, many of them riding on top of the coach. People used to sit at the Overland Hotel until two o’clock in the morning just to see the stage start out. The driver used to come down the street at a clanking trot, and the horses were trained so they would whirl in at the hotel with a flourish. They were always pulling against the bit and ready to go.”

In 1908 the Statesman reported that John Sandborn, one of Hailey’s old-time drivers, had returned to Baker City, Ore., after an absence of 23 years. After the railroad came, “The jehus (drivers) of that day were scattered to every point of the compass and few survive to tell the experiences of those pioneer days when the driver of a stage was looked upon as occupying as important a position as the conductor of a railroad train at the present time. John Sandborn was then a driver in the employ of John Hailey, the pioneer stage man of Oregon and Idaho. He was on the Blue Mountain division, and when the O. R. & N. closed up the gap between Baker City and Pendleton, George stepped down from the box and a few months later went to Montana and for the past 17 years has been driving stage in Yellowstone National Park.”

No railroad was ever allowed in the park, so there has always been a need for stages and drivers to give visitors tours. Today, of course, these vehicles are gasoline powered and run in winter as well as summer.

When Nampa celebrated Pacific Fruit Express Days in May 1926, Tom Ranahan, a veteran stagecoach driver who had been one of those who brought the first mail from Salt Lake City to Boise in 1864, drove a stage in the parade. No Concord coach could be found anywhere in Southern Idaho, so a more primitive “mud wagon” was used instead.

The mud wagon, without the graceful curving lines of the classic Concord coach, was widely used across the country, and many were built in Idaho towns.

In April 1874, the Statesman described the Northwest Stage Company’s “establishment for building and repairing stagecoaches.” It listed some of the craftsmen who worked there: William C. Carlton, wood workman; Thomas Maupin, blacksmith; H. Barheyd, painter; and Joseph Baylor, harness maker.

In July 1890, the Statesman noted, “Boise is becoming quite a manufacturing center in the way of wagons, carriages and stagecoaches, especially the latter. Several were shipped to the west yesterday from one of our largest factories. They were models of workmanship and strength.”

Next week: Stagecoach robberies.

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