Ruts and Rails
Transportation and westward movement have always been a chicken-and-egg proposition in this country. Farmers and others clamored for better and cheaper transportation, while freight carriers did what they could to promote a level of settlement that would make service to the outlying regions profitable. The earliest western transportation was riverborne, with shallow-draft flatboats abounding on the Missouri and its tributaries. Then, spurred by the discovery of gold in California, stagecoach and freight entrepreneurs took the plunge, investing in. coaches, livestock, and road improvements.
By the 1850s, Adams Express Company and Wells, Fargo & Company were engaged in cutthroat competition for California freighting. The success of California overland operations prompted others to establish routes elsewhere in the West, often with government subsidy in the form of postal contracts. By 1854, William H. Russell and William B. Waddell merged with their principal competitor, Alexander Majors, to create a freighting empire that endured until the Civil War.
Russell and Waddell were financial men, and Majors was the practical manager. Majors, more than any other single individual, developed western freighting to a peak of efficiency. His company’s wagons were designed and built to his exacting specifications, using carefully seasoned wood to make wagon boxes that flared outward to prevent as much as 5,000 pounds of cargo from shifting. The wagons resembled ships, their forward ends curved like prows, their aft ends squared off to facilitate loading and unloading. Majors had a genius for organizing men and material. He divided his forces into outflts of 26 wagons under the absolute command of a wagon master and an assistant. Each wagon was pulled by a team of 12 oxen driven by a bullwhacker at an average rate of 15 miles a day. Each outfit also included a herder, who drove 40 to 50 oxen for use as replacements, and a night herder, who tended the animals at night. Each day’s routine was strictly regulated, including an absolute requirement to “observe the Sabbath.”
The other giants of freighting in the West included George Chorpenning, John Butterfield, John M. Hockaday, and Ben Holladay (who was so successful that he was dubbed the “Napoleon of the Plains”). Yet, if the opportunity for profit was great, the overhead—in livestock, personnel, and maintenance of routes—was staggering. Moreover, stage and freight lines were preyed upon by robbers (popularly called road agents), including the likes of Henry Plummer, Black Bart, the James Gang, and many others who entered into western legend and lore. Sooner or later, most overland entrepreneurs went belly up. Those who survived were either wiped out by the advancing railroads or learned to coordinate their service with the new rail lines, serving the widely dispersed stations as relatively short feeder routes.