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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

The Splendid California Stage Company

The California Gold Rush revitalized the stagecoach industry, which was waning in New England by the end of the 1840s, due to the rise of a sophisticated steamboat transport system and the spread of eastern railroads. Seeing their chance to revive their livelihood on a frontier that as yet had no public overland transportation in place to service burgeoning towns or the far-flung mining camps in the gold-producing districts, professional stagemen headed west with the gold-rushers.

In July 1849, a young stage driver from Rhode Island named James Birch founded the first stagecoach lines in California, appearing one day at the Sacramento riverfront in a borrowed wagon attached to a team of half-broken mustangs. He charged $32.00 each way to destinations at Coloma and Mormon Island—at that time nearly a full month’s wages for a common laborer—but his wagon was full every day from the start. He prospered, using part of his profits to invest in better teams and equipment, and needed road improvements.

In late 1853, Birch convinced 80% of the independent stage operators to consolidate. He founded the California Stage Company, headquartered in Sacramento, which opened for business on January 1, 1854. Birch’s enterprise made Sacramento an important staging capital, and he stopped driving to attend to the myriad details of running a rapidly expanding business. Hailed in the press as a visionary, James Birch stepped down as company president in 1857 so he could devote all his time to pursue the even greater challenge of establishing a transcontinental stage service. He was still the major shareholder of the California Stage Company, but with a trusted, experienced staff in place, he took a leave from business concerns to visit his family in Massachusetts. Tragically, James Birch was among the 425 passengers and crew who died when the ship Central America, caught in a hurricane, sank off the coast of the Carolinas in September 1857.

The California Stage Company, competently steered by its new president, continued to grow and prosper. Eight years after Birch’s death, the company had 1,250 horses pulling stages over an aggregate 1,100 miles, wheeling all over northern California, and into Nevada and Oregon. It was the largest, most successful staging concern in America. However, by the mid-1860s, the sheer size and complexity of the operation, combined with the fact that mail and the telegraph were the only long-distance communication available, rendered the enterprise too unwieldy to manage according to the company’s high standards. The directors of the California Stage Company decided to sell out; by September 1865, they had quietly sold most of their routes, teams and equipment to undisclosed buyers. In January 1866, the remaining assets were sold at auction.

With that—although the stagecoach continued to run in California for many more years—the largest, most successful staging concern in the nation during the nineteenth century became just another memory of the things that once were, in the heyday of the California Gold Rush.

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