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Monday, September 5, 2016

Early Stage Routes in Northern California..... By Gail L. Jenner

            Once roads were established throughout northern California and southern Oregon, the growth of stage lines followed rapidly. Of course, most famous to readers today are the stage routes traveling west across the continental United States, as noted in this historic map of the region:

Mark Twain crossed the continent on the Central Overland California Route with his brother Orion Clemens and wrote about the staging companies and their “hierarchy” in his book, Roughing It.

He wrote: 

 “The stage company had everything under strict discipline and good system. Over each two hundred and fifty miles of road they placed an agent or superintendent, and invested him with great authority. His beat or jurisdiction of two hundred and fifty miles was called a “division.” He purchased horses, mules, harness, and food for men and beasts, and distributed these things among his stage stations, from time to time, according to his judgment of what each station needed. He erected station buildings and dug wells. He attended to the paying of the station keepers, hostlers, drivers and blacksmiths, and discharged them whenever he chose. He was a very, very great man in his “division”—kind of Grand Mogul, a Sultan of the Indies, in whose presence common men were modest of speech and manner, and in the glare of whose greatness even the dazzling stage-driver dwindled to a penny dip. There were about eight of these kings, all told, on the overland

            Twain continued his description of others within the staging company: “Next in rank and importance to the division-agent came the “conductor.” His beat was the same length as the agent’s—two hundred and fifty miles. He sat with the driver, and (when necessary) rode that fearful distance, night and day, without other rest or sleep than what he could get perched thus on top of the flying vehicle. Think of it! He had absolute charge of the mails, express matter, passengers and stagecoach, until he delivered them to the next conductor, and got his receipt for them.”
            For the most part, these stage roads were built with funds from private agencies and investors, not by the government. Eventually, state and local, even some federal money was used to supplement the cost of constructing and maintaining roads. Toll roads were often used as a way to recover the cost of establishing roadways.

The California-Oregon Stage Road. Photo Courtesy Oliver Johnson Collection.
            The California Stage Company had investment capital topping $1 million. It also boasted 750 horses, while their routes up and down California totaled 450 miles of roads. By 1865, the company had increased its stable to 1,250 horses, while the roads totaled 1,100 miles, including 400 miles of roads into Oregon and 100 miles into Nevada. Ambitious, the company’s president, James Birch, pursued and secured the mail delivery into Oregon; by 1860, most Oregonians were assured of daily mail service. The route moved north through Shasta County and on into Trinity County. Weaverville, the county seat, was an important stage and freight town (located on today’s Highway 299) positioned along the stagecoach road that extended to the east to Old Shasta at the edge of modern-day Redding. By 1852 it had 49 wooden buildings and a population of 1,200.
            Trinity Center was first settled in 1851 and became an important stage stop on the way to Yreka in the 1860s; the original town now lies beneath Trinity Lake (created in 1961). Beginning in 1853, the Carrville Inn served the northern end of Trinity Valley. It has often been referred to as the “the Queen of Stage Stops” on the California-Oregon Wagon and Stage Road. The first Inn was completed in 1867, but was expanded and remodeled over the years. Today it is still a 3-story, 9-bedroom inn.
            Other important and popular stage stops in the region included Lewiston Hotel and the Forest House at the base of Forest Mountain and the Ohio House, located on the way to Etna, in Scott Valley, and Cole’s Station, located near the Oregon border.
            In an October 1865 issue of the Sacramento Union, it was reported, “In staging enterprise, California has the ‘whip hand’ of the world.”
            Indeed, the opening of the Sacramento to Portland stage line in 1860 was an event of great significance. A contract to deliver mail, cost the government $90,000, but this insured a 7-day service from Sacramento to Portland from April 1 to December 1 and a 12-day service from December 2 to March 31. The cities connected by this service included Chico, Tehama, Red Bluff, Cottonwood, Shasta, French Gulch, Trinity Center, Callahan’s (Ranch), Scottsburg (Fort Jones), Yreka, Jacksonville, Canyonville, and Roseburg.
            Unfortunately, the California Stage Company lost the mail contract in 1865, resulting in its failure; the mail staging was taken over by the Oregon Stage Company. The company’s name was then changed to The California & Oregon Stage Company (or C&O Company), and it became the largest operation in the region until the railroad usurped the main lines of transportation in 1887.
            According to an 1885 report, “At present Siskiyou is dependent for its outside connections upon its stage lines, which are plentiful and the roads good and well maintained.  The line of the California and Oregon Railroad passing through the center of the county from south to north, will doubtless be completed in the near future, the recent purchase of the northern end of the line from Portland south by the same parties owning the line coming up from below justifying the hope that, now that the interest are one, connection cannot long be deferred; and the county's development, so seriously retarded in the past by its distance from supplies, will show at once that this was her one great need to put her in the from rank.”
            Although the railroad portended the end of the most major stage routes through California, staging companies in the northern regions still supplied passenger horse-drawn stages for many more years. Later, motor stages were used to connect the coastal, mountain, and valleys not served by the railroad.
            Some of the important local stage stops listed and described in the 1885 Siskiyou County Directory included the following:
A post and express town, situated thirty miles southeast of Yreka, on the Delta and Yreka stage route. It is also on the located line of the California and Oregon Railroad. It lies in the valley of the Sacramento, and is surrounded by a fertile agricultural country, from which it derives it principal support. Upper Soda Springs, near this place, is a health resort of some note. Berryvale has two hotels and one general store. Population about seventy-five.
Callahan featured the Baker Hotel as well as Callahan's Ranch Hotel.
A post, express and telegraph town, forty-three miles distant from Delta and forty-two miles south of Yreka. It is surrounded by quite a favorable mining district, as well as some good farming land. It has two good hotels, two general stores, a church, blacksmith shop, etc. It lies a little west of the proposed route of the California and Oregon Railroad, and has a population of one hundred and fifty. 

A post office, about thirty-five miles north of Berryvale, on the line of the California and Oregon Stage Line, as well as the line of the proposed railroad. It is a farming community, and lies in the valley of the headwaters of the Sacramento.

This place, one of the most enterprising and prosperous localities in the country, is situated in Scott Valley, on the river, thirty miles southwest of Yreka, and about thirteen miles south of Fort Jones. The town lies at the base of the Salmon Mountains, is surrounded by an agricultural country of exceeding fertility, which is well settled and cultivated. It is the headquarters of the miners of the southwestern part of the county and the distributing point for all the Salmon River freights. The town has a large general store, two blacksmith shops, two flouring mills, a hardware store, two livery stables, as well as other business establishments, all of which do a flourishing trade. Of its two hotels, the Etna, owned and conducted by Mr. Isaac L. Baker, is especially worthy of notice in the interest of the traveling public. The population of Etna Mills is about four hundred, and the town has post and express offices. 

An important business center, situated eighteen miles southwest of Yreka, on the Scott River. It is one of the oldest settlements and was the chief point in the western part of the county in Siskiyou's early mining history, which, as to its mining character, it still retains fully one-half of the business interests, being sustained by this industry. The development of its fine agricultural surroundings have, however, within the past few years, elevated the farming interests into as much prominence as its mining. As a commercial point it is the headquarters for the trade of western and Northwestern Siskiyou and the eastern part of Del Norte County, Happy Camp in the latter county getting a considerable portion of its supplies and all of its express matter via Fort Jones. Fort Jones has complete postal, express and telegraphic facilities, it is healthily located and has a population of about four hundred and fifty.
A post office town, situated on the proposed route of the California and Oregon Railroad. It is a stage station on the Oregon stage line, and is rapidly developing into a town of importance.

This city, the capital of Siskiyou County, is situated on the west bank of Yreka Creek, in the western part of Shasta Valley. It is 431 miles from San Francisco and 350 miles from Sacramento. The route of the California and Oregon Stage Line passes through Yreka, where the headquarters of the Company are located, and necessarily pays some considerable tribute to the business interests of the city. The town was settled in 1851, the precious dust found in many of the gulches and streams of Shasta Valley, attracting many of the argonauts of that day to this locality. The town consequently ranks as the oldest in northern California. In her business composition Yreka has and maintains her full proportion of trading, mercantile, mechanical and manufacturing interests, although in the last item her development is scarcely begun, as she possesses in the waters of Yreka Creek a power sufficient to drive almost an unlimited amount of machinery. Yreka has full postal, express and telegraphic communications, and numbers about 1,500 in population.

            On some of the shorter, easier stage routes—especially on a local level—only a two-horse team was required, but on longer, harder routes, four to six horses were needed. An article for the Daily Alta Californian in 1860 described the care given the stage horses: “…one cannot but admire the excellent conditions of the animals on the road, and the careful grooming they receive in the stables… They are all California horses… As each animal is put in his place, his bit is held by an attendant. When all is ready the driver sings out ‘let go,’ and away they rush with a bound, spurning the earth in wild plunges...”
            And, as the driver (also called a jehu or whip) jumped up to the seat and picked up the lines, he was told to “first drive around town to all the hotels to pick up your passengers. Then get the mail, and last of all, go to Wells Fargo. When you get out of town about a mile you can turn them loose. The Wells Fargo messenger will keep the time for you; you don’t have to worry about that, but get in on time. I love those horses, but their collars will fit others.” Many of the drivers were young; some became famous for the unique handling of their teams. The whips featured here were local ones, well known throughout Siskiyou County.
Local Siskiyou County Jehus ("Whips"). Photo Courtesy Betty Young Collection.
Although the stage was “given” thirty minutes past the arrival time, the contract required punctuality and if it was later than the thirty minutes, a fine of $50 was assessed by the government. The only two excuses for being later than thirty minutes were high water and/or forest fire. Otherwise, the mail was to arrive on time!

Gail L. Jenner has enjoyed working with Prairie Rose Publishing and her collection of stories published by PRP has grown since "joining the gang" in Dec. 2013 with the re-release of her WILLA Award-winning Across the Sweet Grass Hills

"Prettiest Little Horse Thief"  and "July's Bride" are two of her other favorites.....and then there are the boxed sets and anthologies!  For more about Gail, check out: or


  1. I loved this information Gail. Thank you for thinking of it, and sharing. Doris

    1. You're welcome, Doris! Few people realize the great history associated with the most northern parts of CA.....we always hear about the Sierras and the gold rush there, but this region's history is so rich, I love digging it up and sharing it :-)

  2. I love old maps, and I really like transportation maps, so I appreciate that you shared this stage line information. Mark Twain is a wealth of first hand information on many Old West topics, and his descriptions of stage travel are as interesting and funny as they are realistically brutal.

    I did a stagecoach travel simulation with a class of 11 junior high students when we studied Colorado and the West. I had the students research routes, stagecoaches, travel, time, luggage, etc. Then using desks and whatever else was on hand, the students "built" a stagecoach. The next day, they came to school dressed as the character they wanted to be: lawman, schoolmarm, mother with child, salesman, etc. This meant they brought all their specific accoutrements required for traveling and boarded the stage for the duration of the next days' hour long class period. They were uncomfortable, crowded, and irritable by the end of class, but it was fun anyway. They decided they were glad they didn't have to travel by stage.

    1. Wow, Kaye, what a great project!! We have a lot in common... I taught Jr High social studies for nearly 10 years and because we combined Language Arts/literature with it, we did some dynamite projects too -- but nothing like this!!! How the kids will never forget that lesson :-) Yes, maps are wonderful for connecting history and geography.

      Thanks for stopping by!!

  3. Interesting article. Thanks for sharing the info for all of us historical buffs.

    1. You're welcome, Linda! What is really fun is that so much of the artifacts, trails, and even locations in our area haven't lost their "original flavor" :-) We have some very active historians and history buffs here in our county... it makes research even more exciting.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Stage stops averaged 10 to 15 miles before teams were changed. Some were changed so fast, thee was hardly time to make a visit to th outhouse! Look at the old highway and even the I-5 - Interchanges usually indicate a stage stop was nearby because people live there still. If a stage stopped for a meal, it wouldn't last much more than 30 minutes because the stage HAD to leave on TIME. Arrival time usually was a 10 minute plus or minus for arrival. They ran a very tidy "ship".

    1. Absolutely! Schedules had to be maintained.... those drivers were a hearty bunch -- and some were pretty darn young! thanks for stopping by!

  5. I loved your inclusion of Mark Twain's description of the stage route and the superintendent who ran everything. I guess it wasn't a good thing to cross that guy. I did not know Mark Twain had a brother--amazingly.
    I can't even imagine how those drivers managed that schedule. It seems might steep charging $50 for being just 30 minute late. Airlines ought to pay a fee to each of its passengers for being 30 minutes late. They'd go broke within a week.
    I really enjoyed all those wonderful pictures you included, Gail. They just brought the whole piece to life for me. Great post!