PAC Tour and the Butterfield Stage Company

February 17, 2012

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.

Bicycling along Cooke’s Wagon Road

February 3, 2012

And we’ll have maps!

During the last week of February, I and two dozen others will bicycle along some of Arizona’s historic roads. We will be doing the Cactus Classic, the relatively easy-going week-long expedition with which PAC Tour begins its annual Desert Camp for serious cyclists. Part of our route will follow the course first plotted by the Mormon Battalion and soon thereafter developed into a major migration route.

During the 1840s, the desert southwest was conflicted territory. Mexico and the United States (and until granted statehood on December 29, 1845, the Republic of Texas) claimed sovereignty in this vast region. Their armies tried, with fluctuating effectiveness, to enforce the claims of political forces in Washington, D.C., and Mexico City.

Older and more complex rivalries, however, were more immediate threats to the well being of the people who lived in this arid territory. With civilizations and cultures that went back a thousand years or more, Native American communities had created ways to live relatively quiet and comfortable lives by skillfully using the region’s limited water supplies. Arriving later in time (estimates vary from 850 to 1400 CE) several nomadic bands of Native Americans, collectively referred to as Apaches, established a hunting and gathering way of life that conflicted with the agricultural patterns of their predecessors.

Add the Spaniards, beginning in the 1500s. Driven by their desire for gold, conquest, and conversion of Indians to the Catholic faith, and unwilling to acknowledge the prior claims of indigenous peoples, the Spaniards intensified the conflict. Finally, the Americans moved through the region, interested primarily in the riches of California, but also willing to tarry in the desert when their eyes were blinded by the sparkle of copper and silver that were buried in the Arizona mountains.

The dominant need, as the Americans saw it, was a land route from the Rio Grande River, across what would become New Mexico, Arizona, and southern California to San Diego. Without a road, the only viable way to get from the United States to California was around the Horn, an 18,000 mile trip that could take as long as six months. To be useful, the road had to be one that wagons could use and it had to be within reach of water for livestock and humans. Across this desolate stretch of the continent, the rivers were of little use as transportation arteries. Some of them ran north and south instead of east and west, and even when they went the right direction (as did the Gila), their water supply was too uncertain to plan regular travel.

The specific assignment given to the Mormon Battalion that marched across this country in 1846 was to establish the route for this wagon road. Under the steady, determined leadership of army regular Lieutenant Colonel Philip St. George Cooke, that is what the volunteer Mormon army accomplished.

It seems only right that for a time, this route bore his name. It was the Cooke Wagon Road. According to Cooke’s own log, the total distance was 1,800 miles. From Tucson to the Pima Villages was 81 miles, and Cooke writes that from there to the crossing of the Colorado River was another 205 miles (perhaps thirty miles longer than that same trip on modern roads). That portion of his trail paralleled the westward course of the Gila River  to its junction with the Colorado River at Fort Yuma. Increasingly this migration trail for Americans on their way to California came to be known as the Gila Trail.

Two processes during the latter part of the 1840s secured the American identity of this primitive road. The first was a tense negotiation between the United States and Mexico to establish a political border between these two nations. Finally, after several aborted efforts, the Joint Boundary Commission completed their work on August 16, 1855. It took four more years before accurate maps were published.

For the American team of surveyors, one of the primary considerations was to make sure that the Cooke Wagon Road would be in American territory. While the politicians and surveyors were doing their work, however, the second process was more powerfully at work. In his book Destiny Road: The Gila Trail and the Opening of the Southwest, Odie B. Faulk explains it this way:

The maps did not appear in print in time to be of service to the first major horde of pilgrims to use this overland route, the gold-seekers of Forty-Nine. While Cooke’s Wagon Road was influencing the final boundary between the United States and Mexico, an abstract line upon the surface of the earth, it was being put to hard and practical use by thousands and tens of thousands of Americans who considered themselves far more practical than the government servants trying to survey and mark the international boundary. The lure of quick riches was a powerful magnet to eastern men, one that lured them across Cooke’s Wagon Road even in the absence of good maps (p. 57).