Idaho History Feb 4, 2018

Idaho Stage Coach History

(part 2)

First Scheduled Stagecoach Arrives in Boise City

By Evan Filby

On August 1, 1864, the first scheduled stagecoach arrived in Boise City. The coach was, in a manner of speaking, about a month late: Indian unrest and other problems had delayed construction of the necessary way stations. The Idaho Statesman (August 2, 1864) reported that, “The Overland Stage will leave this city to-morrow morning at eight o’clock, carrying passengers and mails.”

The item said that the line had “good comfortable coaches, and good stock” and assured readers that “their time through from Salt Lake is proof enough of that.”

Ben Holladay’s Overland Stage Company operated the coach, which was contracted to connect Salt Lake City with The Dalles, Oregon.

Boise City stage, 1864-1870. Idaho State Historical Society.

Kentuckian Benjamin “Ben” Holladay’s family moved to Missouri when he was very young. As a teenager, he began learning the freight business in Weston, about twenty miles northwest of Kansas City. Ben’s big break came when he served as an Army supply contractor during the Mexican-American War (1846-1848). Then his company benefited greatly from the surge in Western traffic after the 1849 gold discovery in California.

By the start of the Civil War, Holladay had built a substantial freight business, including a subsidiary that ran steamboats in California. In 1862, he bought out the Overland Mail Express, which owed him money. This provided the core for the Overland Stage Company, as Ben upgraded and expanded the operation.

Holladay also knew his way around the halls of Congress, which garnered him favorable treatment on mail contracts all over the West. These contracts provided a guaranteed source of revenue, even if the passenger and freight business lagged. Within a few years, Holladay’s company had annual government contracts worth well over $1 million.

Holladay stagecoach station. Library of Congress.

Other firms established the first stage service between Salt Lake City and the Montana gold fields in about 1862. Holladay began competing on that route the following year. With his mail contract as a base, Ben soon captured the bulk of that traffic. In 1864, Holladay went after a mail contract to add Oregon to his West Coast destinations. With the aid of an Oregon Congressman, he succeeded.

Boise City became a vital hub for traffic serving all the major gold fields in central and southwest Idaho. Major routes provided service into the Boise Basin (Idaho City), and into the Owyhee goldfields (Silver City).

Travelers could connect from Boise City to Portland via a steamboat at The Dalles. From Portland they could continue by ship to San Francisco or any port in the world. Thus, Boise’s Overland Hotel, where the stage stopped, was one of the best-known accommodations in the Pacific Northwest.

With his political and business connections, Holladay saw the “handwriting on the wall” – Congressional support made it virtually certain that the transcontinental railroad would be completed. Not interested in small-time “feeder line” traffic, he sold his stage line interests to Wells, Fargo & Company in 1866.

If anything, the arrival of the railroad strengthened Boise’s position as a business and transportation hub. By 1886, rail connections linked the city to any desired destination in North America. But for at least a quarter century after that, most travelers from outside Boise reached or departed the train station via stagecoach.

source: South Fork Companion
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Boise – Kuna Stagecoach

Boise – Kuna Stagecoach in front of the First National Bank on the south side of main st. between 6th & 7th in Boise.

For the years between 1884 when the OSL Railroad ran a line through southern Idaho, and 1887, when a spur was ran from Nampa to Boise, a person would have to travel to either to Nampa or Kuna to catch a train. Kuna was a stage stop called “15 Mile House”. It’s first post office was called Owyhee, and then later changed to Kuna.

from the Hugh Hartman collection, courtesy Bob Hartman Idaho History 1860s to 1960s
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Silver City Stagecoach

Stagecoach in front of the Silver City Post Office, Courthouse next door. Directory of Owyhee County.

source: South Fork Companion January 5, 2017
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Silver City Stage 1910

Front: Can you find me? This was taken at the half way house where horses are changed. Spect I’ll most freeze when I go over the summit going home.

Back: Silver City, Idaho. Nov 1, 1910
Dear Friend, Was indeed glad to get your card and know you had a good vacation. Course you describe inside of church! I meant to answer sooner but been trying to get your address, but those Grenleafs won’t send it. Risk this now. My Land! I wish I could run over and have a good visit with you all, and a good lunch. Big doings last night. I planned a Haloween party for eight school children and a good time we had too. Carried and used pencil you gave me so all the print is off. This old stage brings all my letters everyday. I’m planning to go out on it Wed. before Thanksgiving for Boise. My I can hrdly wait! O can’t I go with you and Edie tomorrow night? And I agrieve yet over the bacon picnic we never did have! Come have it up on one of our great mts. They’re great, but I like a city. I get so homesick sometimes. People are so rough. If you get this send another card.
“Little Eva”

source: Bob Hartman Idaho History 1860s to 1960s
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Stage in Silver City

“A nice old postcard of the stage in Silver City.”

from the Hugh Hartman collection courtesy Bob Hartman Idaho History 1860s to 1960s
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Stagecoach and Freight Routes in South-Central Idaho

By Evan Filby

Before railroads entered Idaho, animal-drawn stagecoaches and wagons transported most people and freight. Main routes connected large settlements, while feeder lines came and went as events dictated. One of the more interesting side routes operated in South-Central Idaho in the early 1880s.

When Congress created Idaho Territory in March 1863, many emigrant wagons, mostly drawn by ox teams, still crossed the region. They followed the Oregon Trail, but there was no stagecoach service along that route. Not until August of 1864 did scheduled stagecoach service arrive in Boise City. From there, the line continued more or less along the old Oregon Trail to The Dalles in Oregon.

That route across southern Idaho from northern Utah became the most traveled road in the Territory. The second most favored track ran across eastern Idaho into Montana. There, coaches and freight wagons took a path that was generally similar to the later railroad route.

Then, in 1869, crews completed the transcontinental railroad. A station at Kelton, Utah, near the northwest tip of the Great Salt Lake, became the preferred link for central Idaho and points west. Except in the winter, passengers and freight followed the so-called Kelton Road through City of Rocks. From there, they turned north and then west to the station at Rock Creek, about 12 miles southeast of today’s Twin Falls.

Stagecoach on Kelton Road. Idaho State Historical Society.

During part of the winter, passengers traversed the City of Rocks segment on horse-drawn sleighs. Meanwhile, freight wagons avoided that area, taking a track through Albion, then the seat of Cassia County, and on to Rock Creek. For nearly a decade, the route crossed the Snake River via a ferry 25-30 road miles from Rock Creek. (Over the years, at least two, and possibly three operators ran a ferry in this general area.) Coaches and wagons then followed the old Oregon Trail into Boise City.

About every twelve miles, stage lines of that day positioned stops where fresh teams replaced jaded ones. So-called “home stations” were located about fifty miles apart. Here, passengers could purchase a rough meal and perhaps accommodations for the night. The town of Rock Creek started as one such home station.

In 1878, John Hailey’s Utah, Idaho, and Oregon Stage Company (UI&O) improved the road along the south side and switched the route to cross via Glenns Ferry. They followed a different track onto the high ground, but rejoined the Oregon Trail further west before continuing into Boise.

The following year, the discovery of fabulous lodes of silver in the Wood River drainage set off a rush into that area. By 1881, the towns of Ketchum, Hailey, and Bellevue were booming. The Idaho Statesman headlined (February 22, 1881), “Stage Line to Wood River.”

The UI&O had work crews out stocking stage stops along two branches. One split off from the old Oregon Trail in an easterly direction, headed for the soon-to-be town of Shoshone. From there, it continued into Bellevue. Stages on this branch carried passengers to and from Boise City.

The other new branch left the Kelton Road at Goose Creek, about twelve miles west of Albion. This route crossed the Snake via Starrh’s Ferry, which had been granted an operating license in July 1880. From the ferry, the track headed generally northwest. Traces of the first station north of the river on this branch can still be seen.

The track passed through some rugged country, including several miles where sand dunes impeded progress. It finally linked up with the Boise branch to continue into Bellevue. In the spring, the Idaho Statesman reported (April 23, 1881), “Two daily stages are to be run from Kelton to Wood River.”

(link to larger size)

The UI&O did not have the field all to themselves, however. They has to contend with a stage line that linked with the Utah & Northern (U&N) Railway at Blackfoot. The competition was not always friendly. Blackfoot boosters claimed (Blackfoot Register, April 16, 1881) “that a report had been circulated in Ogden that the new iron bridge over Snake river had been washed away.” They blamed their competitor for circulating false rumors to scare customers away.

When the Wood River mines first opened up, operators had no way to process their complex lead-silver minerals locally. Thus, for the first few years, they hauled their best ore over the Starrh Ferry route to Kelton. Rails cars then carried the ore to smelters in Salt Lake City, Denver, and as far away as Omaha.

So far as is known, none of the ore went to the railroad station at Blackfoot … for a very good reason. The U&N tracks were then narrow gauge – they would not switch to standard gauge until July 1887. The transcontinental line was all standard gauge, so operators would have faced the added expense of transferring the ore or using special rail cars.

In any case, this lucrative freight business did not last very long. All through 1882, crews for the Oregon Short Line Railroad (OSL) laid tracks west from Pocatello. Early that year, the town of Shoshone came into being, and the tracks reached there in February 1883. Three months later, the OSL completed a branch line from Shoshone into Hailey. By then, long haul traffic – passengers and freight – had stopped using the Kelton Road and its branches.

Nonetheless, most segments continued in use for local traffic. Of course, the railroad caused some rerouting. The Idaho Statesman reported (July 1, 1884) that a new route was “contemplated from Goose Creek, via Starrh’s ferry to Kimama, on the O. S. L.” (Kimama is now a railroad siding a bit over 20 miles north of Burley.)

Starrh’s Ferry manipulated the power of the river current to move back and forth. It thus ceased operation in 1904, when Milner Dam stopped the free flow of the Snake. Even then, well-worn stage and freight tracks served local traffic, and some eventually became major highway routes.

Around 1910-1920, “auto stages” finally replaced horse- or mule-drawn stagecoaches on most passenger routes around the state. These usually employed gasoline-powered touring cars; what we call “buses” arrived a few years later. Although hard evidence is lacking, seasonal stagecoach traffic on some back-country roads may have continued well into the 1930s.

* I am being deliberately vague about specific locations along this route, which was brought to my attention by a landowner in the area. Much of the old line passes through private property. The station remnants are on public land, but need to be preserved for possible future study.

source: South Fork Companion
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Stagecoach descending into the Snake River Canyon

by Clarence Bisbee
source: Bob Hartman Idaho History 1860s to 1960s
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Stagecoach Robbery, and Murder, in Portneuf Canyon

By Evan Filby

On the afternoon of July 13, 1865, the stagecoach traveling south from the Montana gold fields towards Salt Lake City reached a point about ten miles southeast of today’s Pocatello. They entered a stretch of Portneuf Canyon favored by bandits because heavy willow thickets crowded the road.

Portneuf Canyon, ca 1872. National Archives.

Two of the seven passengers had reportedly boarded at Taylor’s Crossing (today’s Idaho Falls) while the others got on in Virginia City. Among them, the men carried gold generally valued at $60-75 thousand ($4-5 million at today’s prices) plus at least $5,000 in cash. The exact details of the robbery that happened next have been distorted over time, but the bloody nature of the event remains.

One key discrepancy involves what “participant” Frank Williams was doing on the coach. Later narratives asserted that he was actually driving the stage. But the contemporaneous Idaho Statesman account (July 22, 1865), gleaned from an earlier Utah newspaper item, said, “The passengers booked for Boise were Frank Williams (a former stage driver) …” [and others]. That article also identified the driver as one Charley Parks, whom later accounts claimed was the “shotgun messenger.”

Suddenly, a heavily armed man leaped onto the road and ordered the driver to “Halt!” Then, according to the same report, six more bandits sprang from the brush along the sides. Wanting to protect their treasure, several passengers drew revolvers and fired. The blast of return shots wounded the driver and killed or mortally wounded four passengers. One of the murdered men was merchant David Dinan (sometimes referred to as Dignan). East Idaho pioneer Alexander Toponce recalled, “My friend Dignan had twenty-seven buckshot in his body.”

In the confusion, Frank Williams and another passenger, James B. Brown, escaped into the thick brush. The bandit fusillade missed the last passenger, a man named Carpenter, but he was covered in blood from those who had been shot. A few more men appeared, leading horses, and the robbers galloped off. They left the severely wounded driver and Carpenter, figuring both would soon die. After the robbers disappeared, Carpenter freed two stagecoach mules, helped the driver onto one, and they rode for help.

Unfortunately, the greater part of eastern Idaho – 10 million sparsely-inhabited acres – had virtually no conventional law enforcement at the time. Driven to desperation by the rampant crime, citizens formed vigilance committees. Thus, it was the vigilantes, along with agents from the stage line, who pursued the perpetrators.

Investigators first carefully checked the two passengers who had somehow fled unscathed through a fusillade of shots. When Brown was cleared, suspicion focused on Williams, who had since left the area. The vigilantes trailed him first to Salt Lake and then into Colorado.

Watchers observed that the man was throwing money around with abandon – far beyond the means of an ordinary stagecoach employee. Then Williams must have spotted the surveillance because he abruptly fled toward Denver. Caught on the trail, he quickly confessed his role, which was to tip off the gang when the stage carried a big haul.

Williams named his accomplices, who he claimed had told him there would be no violence. Unmoved by the man’s purported remorse, the vigilantes hanged him, and pinned a warning note to the body. They then tracked down five of the men Williams had identified and unceremoniously strung them up too.

The fate of the remaining 2-4 bandits is unclear, although two may have met their fate for other crimes. Investigators had much less success with the loot, which the crooks apparently spent even faster than the clueless Williams.

source: South Fork Companion
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Mackay to Challis Idaho Stagecoach circa 1901

(link to original source and size)

Mackay Challis Stage William Gilders & Miss Ruth Baker

source: Mackay Idaho Blog
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Salmon, Idaho stage to Red Rock, Montana

source: Hugh Hartman Idaho History 1860s to 1960s

Further Reading

Link to Idaho Stage Coach History (part 1)
Link to Idaho Stage Coach History (part 3)
Link to Idaho History Index Page

updated February 6, 2023