Stagecoach and Steamboat Travel in Washington's Early Days

  • By John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin
  • Posted 11/21/2012
  • Essay 10250

Before rail service reached the West Coast steamboats, stagecoaches, and wagons were the principal means of transportation to and from the inland areas of Washington, Oregon, and Idaho territories. Goods and people bound for Eastern Washington were carried by steamship from San Francisco to Portland, then transported up the Columbia River by steamboat to various cities along the river, from where they were taken farther inland by stagecoach or freight wagon. In the early years of Washington Territory, Walla Walla served as a major commercial and supply center for the huge interior of the Territory, which for a time included what later became Idaho Territory (the Idaho Panhandle was included in Washington Territory when it was created in 1853, and the remainder of what is now Idaho was also part of Washington Territory from 1859 until Idaho Territory was created in 1863). Walla Walla was connected to Wallula, a port on the Columbia River, by wagon road and later by narrow gauge railroad. This account of early travel in the inland west by John W. Lundin and Stephen J. Lundin comes from a book the Lundins are writing about their great-grandparents, Matthew and Isabelle McFall, who were pioneers of Idaho.

Steamboat Transportation

From the 1860s through the early 1880s, the Oregon Steam Navigation Company operated steamships from San Francisco to Portland, and steamboats on the Columbia River from Portland to Umatilla, Oregon, and Wallula on the Washington side of the river. Goods were taken by wagon, and later by railroad, from Wallula to Walla Walla.

Idaho's first gold rush, on the Clearwater River in the early 1860s, brought a rush of prospectors who traveled by steamboat up the Columbia and Snake rivers. The route to the Clearwater goldfields went from Walla Walla to the confluence of the Clearwater and Snake, where Lewiston was founded. Almost 100,000 passengers used the Oregon Steam Navigation company's steamboats between 1861 and 1864. By 1866, the company operated 18 to 20 first class steamboats, one of which, the Okanogan, earned back its entire cost on its first voyage.

Steamboats were forerunners of the railroad as an important factor in the development of the West. They never had the prestige of railroads, but profits made in the golden age of steamboating furnished the first money used in railroad building along the Columbia.

"It was the wonderfully rich traffic which appeared with the discovery of the Salmon river mines that enabled the steamboats on the Lewiston-Cielo run to make records for money-making that have never been equaled. The steamer Tenino on a single trip from Cielo to Lewiston in May, 1862, collected $18,000 for freight, fares, meals, and berths. With completion of the rail lines to Wallula it was found impossible for the steamboats to compete with the railroads in the carrying trade" (Strahorn, 336).

The Oregon Steam Navigation Company built "first class railroads" to transport passengers and goods around the non-navigable portions of the Columbia River at the Cascades and Dalles Portages. In 1862, the company built Oregon's first railroad, a five-mile portage line between Bonneville and Cascade Locks, to connect with steamships above and below an unnavigable portion of the river. The 14-mile portage line from The Dalles to the mouth of the Des Chutes River opened in 1863. In 1878, the company acquired control of the Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad Company, which operated several small railroads along the Columbia River, including a narrow-gauge line, running from Wallula on the Columbia River to Walla Walla, 45 miles east, which had been built in 1872. Wallula was a major steamboat port and later an important junction for the Oregon Railroad and Navigation and Northern Pacific railroads.

The Walla Walla and Columbia River Railroad connected Walla Walla to markets throughout the West. The first 10 miles of the railroad were built entirely of wood, with four-by-six fir stringers used for rails. Cowhide was nailed on the stringers, but during the first winter, coyotes ate the leather off the rails. Later, a piece of strap iron was put on the face of the stringer, and after that a 26-pound rail was laid the entire distance. The railroad was a money maker from the start.

Steamboats on the Columbia River were eventually replaced by railroads. In 1884, the Union Pacific Railroad completed the Oregon Short Line, which  left U.P.'s cross country tracks at Granger, Wyoming, ran along the Snake River Canyon in Idaho, and connected with tracks of the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company (which had taken over the Oregon Steam Navigation Company) at Huntington, Oregon, which continued on to Portland. This new line connected the Pacific Northwest to the rest of the country by railroad.

Stagecoach Pioneers 

Stagecoach travel was by Concord coach, a closed vehicle with passengers facing each other inside the cab, drawn by six horses. The coach was named for its place of manufacture in Concord, New Hampshire. Concord stages could carry seven passengers, mail, and feed for the horses. The driver sat on a seat below the roof, which had a luggage rack.

The Overland Stage Line operated by Ben Holladay (1819-1887) and the Utah, Idaho, and Oregon Stage Company operated by John Hailey controlled early stagecoach  transportation throughout the West. In 1864, Holladay obtained a contract to carry mail from Salt Lake to the Dalles, Oregon, via Boise City in Idaho Territory and Walla Walla and Wallula in Washington Territory, a distance of 675 miles. Holladay began a stagecoach operation between the Columbia River and the newly discovered gold fields in Boise Basin the same year. He invested several hundred thousand dollars to build stations and fix the roads; to obtain the necessary live and rolling stock, forage, provisions; and to provide the men, arms, and ammunition for the protection of life, property, and the U.S. mail.

To be a driver for the Overland Stage Line was an exciting job, and the company employed a number of individuals who later helped to form the legends of the West, including Buffalo Bill Cody (1846-1917) and Wild Bill Hickock (1837-1876).

On November 1, 1866, Holladay sold his entire operation to Wells Fargo because he saw that the construction of the transcontinental railroad by Union Pacific was shortening his route across Nebraska. He received $1,800,000 for the Overland Stage Line, an enormous sum in those days.

John Hailey was another pioneer of Western transportation. In 1863, Hailey ran the first saddle train from Walla Walla to the Boise Basin, a distance of 285 miles, to service miners moving into the Boise area for the new gold rush. He and his partner William Ish charged $50 per passenger. In June 1864, they moved their operations from Walla Walla to Umatilla to run stagecoach operations from there to the Boise Basin.

Hailey's stage line from Walla Walla to Boise and on to Kelton, Utah, was said to be one of the longest stage roads in the United States. Each driver's division was 50 miles long. A driver drove six horses which were changed every 10 or 12 miles. "It was a real job to handle six spirited horses attached to a big Concord Coach, often handling twelve to sixteen passengers, with the stage boots full of baggage, express, and mail ... . This road went over mountains, through deserts, and along dugways, often hundreds of feet above the bottom of canyons" (Waite).

Helpful Hints 

In 1877, the Omaha Herald published suggestions to stagecoach travelers providing practical ideas to make the journey as comfortable as possible.  They included:

"The best seat is the one next to the driver. You will get less than half the bumps and jars than on any other seat. When any old "sly Eph," who traveled thousands of miles on coaches, offers through sympathy to exchange his back or middle seat with you, don't do it.

"Never ride in cold weather with tight boots or shoes, nor close fitting gloves. Bathe your feet before starting in cold water, and wear loose overshoes and gloves two sizes too large.

"When the driver asks you to get off and walk, do it without grumbling. He will not request it unless absolutely necessary. If a team runs away, sit still and take your chances; if you jump, nine times out of ten you will be hurt.
"Don't smoke a strong pipe inside especially early in the morning. Spit on the leeward side of the coach. If you have anything to take in a bottle, pass it around; a man who drinks by himself in such a case is lost to all human feeling. ...

"Don't swear, nor lop over on your neighbor when sleeping. Don't ask how far it is to the next station until you get there.

"Never attempt to fire a gun or pistol while on the road, it may frighten the team; and the careless handling and cocking of the weapon makes nervous people nervous. Don't discuss politics or religion, nor point out places on the road where horrible murders have been committed.

"Don't linger too long on the pewter wash basin at the station. Don't grease your hair before starting or dust will stick there in sufficient quantities to make a respectable "tater patch."  Tie a silk kerchief around your neck to keep out dust and prevent sunburns.

"Don't imagine for a moment you are going on a picnic; expect annoyance, discomfort, and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven" (Osburn et al., 30).

 Stagecoach Travel 

Travel by stagecoach in the west's early days was described by Thomas Donaldson in his 1941 book, Idaho of Yesterday. Travel on the route from the railroad stop at Kelton, Utah, through Idaho and onto Oregon and Washington was dusty and tough:

"Ruts, stones, holes, breaks, all combined to make this journey distinctly one to be remembered. The alkali dust bit into the eyes, and one's lips cracked and irritated, hurt for weeks afterward. In case there was one passenger, or perhaps two, the stage company filled the bottom of the coach with sacks of barley to store at the stations during the coming winter or grain-feeding season. The company saved money by doing its own freighting in this manner. One could recline comfortably upon these sacks of grain" (Donaldson).

There were stops at regularly scheduled intervals at stations where travelers could get off the stagecoach to unwind, and horse teams could be changed.

"The stage stations, relay places, were twelve to fifteen miles apart. The 'home' stations, where the drivers, and frequently the stages, were changed and where meals were served, were fifty to sixty miles apart. The driver's daily work averaged this fifty or sixty miles, at a rate of about five miles an hour. The stages kept on day and night, and so of course, the drivers had both daylight and darkness. The stage stations were one-story log houses with dirt of mud roofs, the men and horses sleeping under one shelter. ... Stage fare was twenty cents per mile. ... The stages stopped forty minutes at the home stations and about five minutes at the other stations, time enough to change horses or teams" (Donaldson).

Food was available for travelers, but conditions were sparse and the quality of the food so questionable that travelers described it with passion many years afterward.

"The 'home' stations were houses built of logs and usually occupied by families. They were rich in little save dirt. The meals were uniformly bad and one dollar each. ... These meals were always prepared after the stage arrived because it was not possible to know beforehand how many passengers would be aboard and how much food to cook. ... I have eaten dinner at a home station when the meat was never more ambitious than bacon. ... Pie was another staple article, and such pie!  It consisted of a sole-leather, lard-soaked crust, half baked, with a thin veneer of dried apples daubed with brown sugar. A large pot of mustard containing an iron spoon which had partially succumbed to the attack of the vinegar always decorated the center of the table...The butter was canned, and the milk was condensed....The inventors of canned food and bottled products deserve a place of honor in the annals of our country, for without their products, the settlement of the West would have been a far worse task.

"The dining room of the home station was the main room of the house, and it held an open fireplace which burned sagebrush or logs in cold weather. The table was rough pine boards and the benches or chairs were equally rough. The table furniture was of ironstone ware and tin, with iron spoons and heavy knives. No ice was ever seen on the table. ... The coffee and the tea were peculiar to the country. I never tasted anything quite so bad in any other part of the world" (Donaldson).

In spite of the rough frontier conditions of the stations, Donaldson admired the people who ran them under such difficult circumstances.

"With all of this dirt and neglect, it must be said that as a rule the people who kept the home stations were good, decent people, charitable and attentive to the travelers. They were ordinary 'Pikers' who had never known any better living in former days. The prices they received, the profits accruing, were but meager compensation for the hermit existence forced upon them and for the many comforts denied them by living so far from communities of their fellow men. When the home-station people chanced to be educated and had known good living in the states, you could see it in every feature of the station. The food, service and the cooking showed it, and the walls of the houses were decorated with chromos. Books were lying about, and in a corner one could perhaps see a parlor organ, one of those sobbing melodeons" (Donaldson).

Stages carried money and mail from the railroad into the interior and between intermediate points. Stage drivers were sworn officers of the United States and U.S. mail carriers. They carried "way pockets" into which settlers deposited letters. This made stages prey for "the road agents of earlier days" (Donaldson), who robbed passengers and the express box but avoided robbing the mail since U.S. Marshals would vigorously pursue anyone who robbed the mail.

Stagecoaches continued to be a major form of transportation even after railroads were built into the Northwest. They were used to connect towns and cities with railroad stops  to outlying mining and agricultural areas. Stagecoach operations continued until they were replaced by motor vehicles in the first two decades of the twentieth century.


Thomas Donaldson, Idaho of Yesterday (Caldwell, Idaho: Claxton Printers, 1941); James H. Hawley, History of Idaho, the Gem of the Mountains (Chicago: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co., 1920); James D. Osburn, Ken R. Stewart, and Lonis R. Wendt, Fort Pierre-Deadwood Trail: Then & Now (Wasta, South Dakota: Cheyenne River Press, 2008); Clark C. Spence, For Wood River or Bust: Idaho's Silver Boom of the 1880s (Moscow: University of Idaho Press, 1999); Carrie Adell Strahorn, Fifteen Thousand Miles by Stage: A Woman’s Unique Experience During Thirty Years of Path Finding and Pioneering from the Missouri to the Pacific and from Alaska to Mexico, Vol. 1 (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 2008); Thornton Waite, Get Off and Push: The Story of the Gilmore and Pittsburgh Railroad (Columbia, Missouri: Breuggenjohann/Reese, Inc., 2002).

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