Faster than railroads

Steven GreensteinSteve Greenstein works in our Philadelphia History Museum. This is his second blog for Guided by History. Thanks, Steve! (CR)

Wells Fargo invested in and directed the Butterfield Overland stagecoach, which brought a person from Missouri out to Los Angeles, Sacramento and other western cities. But how did you get from the East to the edge of the frontier, to embark on the stagecoach?

Railroads existed in 1858, but they were not the sleek, comfortable trains of the late 19th and 20th centuries (such as the 20th Century Limited). A long haul on the train could be almost as exhausting as stage travel; the railroad system was difficult to navigate, and passengers were required to transfer several times, often in the dead of night, even changing stations in the same city.

Richard White chronicled a trip Abraham Lincoln made from Springfield, Ill., to New York City. Lincoln left Springfield around 10:30 a.m. and arrived at his first transfer point, State Line, at 4:30 p.m. He transferred to the Toledo, Wabash, and Western. At 1:12 a.m. in Fort Wayne, Ind., Lincoln changed to the Pittsburgh, Fort Wayne, and Chicago Rail Road. It took over 24 hours to go from Fort Wayne to Pittsburgh, then another day to go from there to Philadelphia. (Lincoln’s train arrived 14 hours late, too!) Finally, he boarded a “Pennsy” (the Pennsylvania Railroad)> train to New York, and then waited several hours for the Paulus Hook ferry in Jersey City for the “quick” trip to Manhattan.

In 1860 that trip took four days and three nights, on five trains and a ferry. This same trip today would take about 16 hours by automobile, just over a day by train, and around 4 hours by airline.

One reason for all the transfers was that most railroads at the time had fairly small territories, and often did not share tracks with competing railroads. There was no standard railroad gauge (the actual width between rails)—railroad cars cannot change gauges, so passengers and freight had to be transferred. In many cities lines did not meet, requiring passengers to travel across town to connect with the next train. Eventually, bypasses and “belt lines” would connect competing railroads in many cities of the United States. “Union Stations” brought many rail lines under one roof.

Railroad waiting roomAs time went on Wells Fargo shifted its Express operations from stagecoach to rail. William G. Fargo invested heavily in railroads, especially the New York Central Railroad in the east, and the Northern Pacific Railway, a transcontinental line traversing the Northwest. From the very first day of business, the Company was committed to the fastest service available. As railroads matured and streamlined travel to all points, Wells Fargo was (all) aboard.

This entry was posted in Stagecoach and tagged , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.
Guided By History

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.

Your questions and comments really matter to us! We're glad you want to join the conversation and connect with other readers. All we ask is that you keep some simple guidelines in mind:

  • Stay on-topic. Only comments that are related to the subject of the blog entry will be posted.
  • Be respectful. It's okay if you disagree with a post or comment, but please, no personal attacks or offensive language.
  • Maintain your privacy and confidentiality.Please do not provide any of your specific account details or other personal information! If you have immediate service needs, please contact your bank representative or Customer Service.
  • Wells Fargo team members: In the interest of full disclosure, if you are a current employee of or are associated with Wells Fargo, please make note of your affiliation.