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The Pony Express had a southern competitor, one that couldn’t deliver mail any faster, but could haul a lot more of it. In an era when it took emigrants months to reach California, Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoaches delivered passengers, envelopes and packages from St. Louis to San Francisco in a blazing fast 25 days.

Twice every week for more than two years the line’s stages maintained that rapid schedule. The six-year $600,000 contract awarded in 1857 to John Butterfield of Utica, N.Y., was the longest-running Post Office contract granted at the time, but its need was vital.

Previous stage routes were unreliable and had taken at least twice as long, isolating fast-growing California. Furthermore, prior to the opening of the Panama Canal the fastest route to California from back East was to travel by ship around the tip of South America at Cape Horn and then north up the Pacific Coast — a long, hazardous and arduous journey. 

Not to say passenger travel on the Butterfield route was any less arduous. With regard to the mail the line was ruthlessly efficient, driving stages night and day with frequent changes of horse teams at interval stations. Passengers, though, were granted no such rest over the 2,800 miles of dusty, bumpy, sweltering track across the desert Southwest.

New York Herald reporter Waterman Ormsby summarized how his transcontinental trip had been in 1858: “I know what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it.” Stagecoach robbers were of little concern, as valuables weren’t permitted aboard Butterfield coaches, even among passengers.

That said, Indians were a constant risk, especially in Apache country. Butterfield hired no armed guards, but advised employees and passengers to bring their own firearms, just in case, like those in the above Harper’s Weekly illustration. Despite human and environmental hazards, the Butterfield line had a near-perfect record of on-time mail delivery in keeping with the company motto: “Remember boys, nothing on God’s earth must stop the United States Mail!” 

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