Thursday, August 1, 2013

First Scheduled Stagecoach Arrives in Boise City [otd 08/01]

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.

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).
Holladay stagecoach station. Library of Congress.

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.
References: [Hawley], [Illust-State]
“Ben Holladay’s Overland Stage Line in Idaho,” Reference Series No. 1002, Idaho State Historical Society (January 1993).
J. V. Frederick, Ben Holladay, the Stagecoach King, University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln (1989).

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