Across the desert southwest, signs commemorating the Butterfield Stage Company connect modern travelers with the transportation history of western United States. Beginning in 1858, the company owned by John Butterfield carried mail and passengers on regularly scheduled stage coaches from El Paso, Texas, to Messela, New Mexico, and then across New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California.
In the southeastern corner of Arizona, the Butterfield route departed from the trail blazed by the Mormon Battalion. Instead of going south of the border of what would become Mexico, Butterfield stages traveled north of the Chiricahua Mountains, through Apache Pass, and threaded their way around mountainous outcroppings to the San Pedro River near the modern towns of St. David and Benson.
From that point onward across Arizona the new stage company followed the route alternately called Cooke’s Wagon Road and the Gila Trail. At Tucson, the stage route kept near the Santa Cruz River, which in those days enjoyed a fairly steady (although modest) flow of water, past Maricopa Wells and the Pima Villages. It then turned westward, traveling across an unwatered section of desert until it reached the Gila River as it traveled its final 200 miles to the Colorado River at Fort Yuma.
For the most part, this route provided hard surfaces and gentle grades, which may be the reason it was used by the Southern Pacific Railroad which little more than a decade later established a secure transportation system across this vast, empty, challenging region.
Two legs of PAC Tour’s Cactus Classic bicycle tour, which starts on February 18, 2012, follow this routing. The Santa Cruz River has largely disappeared, but in its stead, the old railroad and the newer Interstate 10 will be nearby.
In contrast to the Butterfield travelers, however, we will have the benefit of paved roads, motel beds at night, and a steady supply of food and water. Although we will cycle through or near four Indian reservations—San Xavier, Ak-chin, Gila River, and Tohono O’odham—we won’t need to be on guard because of the constant threat of armed conflict that always troubled the people who traveled by stage coach 150 years ago.
Until reading Odie B. Faulk’s Destiny Road: The Gila Trail and the Opening of the Southwest, I had little understanding of the immensity of the challenge that Butterfield and his partners (who included William G. Fargo) faced in order to make their stage company operative. Not only did they have to determine the exact route, but they also had to establish way stations all along this stretched-out, largely unpopulated territory. Where possible, they contracted with local farmers to provide basic services, but in many places they had to build their own way stations of adobe or mud. They cut paths down steep embankments when streams could be forded, and arranged for ferries at other locations.
When fully operational, Butterfield had some 800 employees and used 1,000 horses, 700 mules, 800 sets of harnesses, and 250 stagecoaches and spring wagons. The full-bodied stagecoach, as seen in western paintings and movies, Faulk writes, weighed 3,000 pounds, could seat nine passengers inside and “as many as could pile on top.” It could carry 4,000 pounds and cost $1,400. The wagons didn’t have springs, but their bodies “rocked on leather straps, called thoroughbraces, which were stitched three and one-half inches wide.”
The stages averaged five miles an hour and covered 120 miles a day, 2,800 miles in twenty-five days or less. In order to describe what travelers could expect to eat, Faulk quotes from a 1935 book by William Tallack:
The fare though rough, is better than could be expected so far from civilized districts, and consists of bread, tea, and fried steaks of bacon, venison, antelope, o mule flesh—the latter tough enough. Milk, butter, and vegetables can only be met with towards the two ends of the route—that is, in California and at the ‘stations’ in the settled parts of the Mississippi Valley.
Although PAC Tour cyclists travel on their own two-wheeled steeds instead of in or on the coaches, their hosts, Lon Haldeman and Susan Notorangelo, accompany them with modern counterparts to the prairie schooners of long ago. PAC Tour’s two large vans, each with its custom trailer, carry the cyclists’ gear, repair facilities, and a large inventory of bicycle parts and components. Every twenty-five or thirty miles one of the vans sets up a rest and meal stop, complete with places to sit while enjoying the kind of food and drink that helps cyclists stay on the road.
Butterfield and Company are fine for the movies. In real life, I vote for PAC Tour.