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Stagecoach History: Stage Lines to California

California State Parks invites you to learn about the history of stage lines to California. Our online articles tell about how people traveled in the era before the automobile. You can also find out about the state parks and museums where you can see the original stages, that once traveled the dusty roads of California in the 19th century.

Stagelines Map 1850s-1860s

Learn about the amazing feat of the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage. The stage operations, which began in 1858 between St. Louis and San Francisco, revolutionized mail and passenger service. Traveling 24 hours a day, the 2,800-mile trip took an unheard-of 25 days! The stage line forever changed travel and mail transportation.

Read new reports:

Construction of the Butterfield Overland Mail Company Stage Line in California
(Gerald Ahnert, 2013)

Butterfield Overland Mail Company Stagecoaches and Stage (Celerity) Wagons used on the Southern Trail 1858-1861
(Gerald Ahnert, 2013)

In 1857, the first transcontinental mail delivery service, offered by the historic
San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line, made its 1475-mile journey between those two points in 52 days. More than a thousand miles longer, the Overland Mail Stage cut that time by more than a half.

Find out how operating a stage line was a risky business, as well as a moving experience for passengers. Every station stop was an adventure and there were always stage road hazards to overcome.

Read Mark Twain's observations on the stage company hierarchy and revisit some of California's most famous Jehus or stage drivers. These whips drove more than the classic Concord stagecoaches seen in the movies.

See history come alive at the Vallecito Stage Station (video) on the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line.



Butterfield Overland Mail Timetable

John Butterfield's Overland Mail Company Timetable
for his Stage Route on the Southern Trail


The first stagecoach started out from San Francisco on September 14, 1858, at ten minutes after midnight. This was John Butterfield's time schedule that set the goal for the time of arrival at each "timetable" station. The average distance between them was about 160 miles.

The driver on the eastbound stage would meet the driver of the westbound stage at a timetable station and they would exchange mail and passengers and turn back. This way each driver and conductor became intimately familiar with his section of trail. As the stages traveled twenty-four hours a day without stopping for sleep, a single driver who drove a stage the entire 2,700 mile distance in twenty-five days would have to stay awake for the entire time--an impossible task.

No more than twenty minutes were allowed to stop at a station. There were 100 stage wagons distributed to the various stations and no single stage completed the entire journey.
John Butterfield was a strict disciplinarian. In the fine print at the bottom, he outlines his requirements for meeting the schedule. He notes how much total time would be lost if each driver took ten minutes more than he should at each station. According to the contract, if the mail was not delivered in twenty-five days between the eastern and western terminus, a fine would be levied on the company.  View and download Overland Mail Company Timetable


In 2008, festivals and programs were held as part of our Stagecoach Days: 150th Anniversary, recognizing and celebrating the history of the stagecoach. Events featured living history days, tours, lectures, stories, songs and stage equipment displays.
View Stagecoach Days 2008 Event Information.