History

The Texas Segment of the Historic Transcontinental Mail Route: Hell on a Good Day

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Authorized by Congress in the mid-19th century, the transcontinental mail route passed through a segment of Texas encompassing close to 740 miles of rugged country. During its four-year existence, it helped to achieve the delivery of mail from one side of the U.S. to the other, in a snow-free passage. In 1857, the Postmaster General put a call out for bidders in providing such a route, receiving nine bids in total. The successful bidder was John W. Butterfield, together with a number of associates, among whom was William G. Fargo. The Oxbow Route, dipping through northern Texas from Franklin (what would later be called El Paso) to the Colbert’s Ferry crossing on the Red River, was the chosen passage, along which bi-weekly trips for delivery would be made.

The Texas Segment of the Historic Transcontinental Mail Route: Hell on a Good Day

Photo: Maxpixel

Also required to accommodate passengers, the horse-drawn wagons and stagecoaches were less than high-toned at the time, but one of the only means by which passage across the contiguous U.S. could be made. The trip entailed a 25-day journey that was considered hellish by many surviving accounts. Bumpy and dusty on a good day, dangerous on a bad, the crossing of the American frontier came at a cost of approximately $200, one way. Accounting for inflation, that would equal approximately $5,000 today. And passengers that chose to leave the coach to rest on solid ground ran the risk of losing their seat.

The Texas Segment of the Historic Transcontinental Mail Route: Hell on a Good Day
Photo: Wikimedia

Passing through Hueco Tanks (historic site of hundreds of pictographs) below Guadalupe Peak, crossing the Pecos River to Fort Chadbourne followed by Fort Belknap, and then crossing the Red River, remnants of the Texas segment can still be seen. In Guadalupe Mountains National Park, ruins of a Butterfield Stage station at the Pinery can still be seen, as well as a portion of the route where it converges with Williams Road below Guadalupe Peak. Hueco Tanks State Historic Site (east of El Paso) also holds reminders of this harrowing overland route that was doomed to fail. For the U.S. Postal Service is appeared to be a complete catastrophe. Butterfield was paid $600,000 annually to provide the service while postage receipts returned little more than $100,000. But Butterfield, as well, faced financial insecurity. Over-extended in debt, he was forced out of the route with his assets being absorbed by his associates, the Wells Fargo partners. However, shortly after he was given the boot, the pending Civil War necessitated the termination of the mail delivery contract and the route was abandoned. It’s an interesting piece of Texas history through which the establishment of present-day institutions can still be traced.

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