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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

J. Birch & The California Stage Company

Before the 1848 gold discovery brought thousands of fortune-hunters swarming into a recently-acquired, raw American territory, ordinary municipal services in California were scarce at best—and public transportation didn’t exist. Men of vision and ambition met this staggering new need for transit with steamships on rivers and stagecoaches on land. James E. Birch, an experienced stage driver from Rhode Island, founded the first staging empire.

Arriving at the newly-created Sacramento City in 1849, then 21-year-old Birch observed that hundreds of would-be gold miners were going from the riverfront boat landing to the up-country mines on foot, and figured $32 per passenger (each way) was a reasonable price for transportation to the gold fields at Coloma and Mormon Island. One day in July 1849, Jim appeared at the Sacramento River levee with a team hitched to a borrowed wagon shouting, “All aboard!” Despite the fact that in pre-gold frenzy days a $32 fare was a little more than an entire month’s wages for an unskilled worker, Birch’s wagons were full that day, and every day thereafter. He hired more drivers, and established new routes through the ever-expanding gold districts. The following year, he was able to import genuine stagecoach vehicles from manufacturers in New England.

In December 1853, Birch spearheaded a consolidation of 85% of the individually-owned stage lines in northern California, and became president of the California Stage Company. It opened for business January 1, 1854, headquartered at the prestigious Orleans Hotel in Sacramento. The California Stage Company became the largest, most successful staging concern in the world during the mid-19th century and made Sacramento the staging capital of the nation.

James Birch had many plans for his staging empire. Tragically, he died young, among the hundreds who perished when the storm-ravaged, palatial side-wheeler Central America sank in 1857, some 400 miles off the coast of Cape Hatteras.

Steered by new president James Haworth, the California Stage Company continued to grow and prosper until, by 1865, the company’s operations were so geographically far-flung that it became too unwieldy manage according to the company’s high standards. Its directors decided to cease operations and wind up their affairs. They did so quietly, selling their lines, teams, mail contracts, and most of their Concord coaches, supply wagons and equipment to various undisclosed individuals by September 1865. James Birch was gone, and so was the successful company he had created, but the staging industry continued to flourish for years yet to come—until, at last—the railroads and then the automobile made staging a thing of the past.

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