MONTANA'S WILD & WOOLY STAGECOACH DAYS
by Lyndel Meikle
A dozen passengers were aboard Gilmer, Salisbury & Company’s stagecoach as the six horses trotted leisurely up a long, wooded hill. Just as the road emerged from the timber a large gentleman with an enormous gun arose from the brush and ordered the driver to “hold up, sir!” Two more men with guns, one holding a double-barreled shotgun stepped out.
The male passengers were ordered down. The ladies were allowed to remain in the coach, though the leader entered it and searched for valuables. As he reached for a handbag, a little girl objected, saying “That’s mine!” The robber handed it back, unopened, saying grandly, “All right, little miss; you shall have it, even if there’s a thousand dollars in it.”
That would be too corny for today’s cynical audiences, but this was no Western movie; it happened on the Helena to Deer Lodge stage on a warm July day in 1883.
Stage coaches made tempting targets, particularly in Montana’s gold rush days. Holdup men expected a rich haul from passengers heading back to “the States” with their hard-won gold dust, the strong box with its treasure and the mail sack with paper wealth: Cash, deeds, and stock certificates.
The robbers were captured a few days later; a disappointing end to a disappointing effort. During the robbery, the leader had mocked the passengers for their poverty, even handing back two pocket watches which weren’t worth his trouble to steal.
Salty stage drivers and gallant highwaymen are near-mythic figures in the old West, and — surprisingly — they often deserved the fame.
A story is told of a driver on the Virginia City to Helena run who swore so much at his unruly team that the “outside passenger” sitting beside him chided, “My friend, don’t swear so. Remember Job, he was severely tried, but never lost his patience.”
“Job? Job?” pondered the irascible driver. “What line did he drive for?”
The skill and occasionally salty humor of stage drivers was often the subject of travelers’ letters back home. “We had a driver, a jolly little Teuton, who like most of his profession, was an interesting character, entertaining and witty, and took as much pride in displaying his skill and ability in handling the reins of his team as a monarch would in handling the reins of his Government.” The description reads well, but the “jolly little Teuton” would probably have pointed out that a teamster handles lines, not reins. On the other hand, since governments often hand out lines, perhaps the error can be forgiven.
As for the “gentlemanly” robber, one tale tells of frightened passengers confronted by a highwayman armed with a shotgun who told them to throw down their money. Rev. Coy handed over $5, remarking: “I am only a poor preacher, and that is all I have.” True to the traditions of his profession, the highwayman handed the minister back $1 in change. “All right, pard,” he said to the clergyman. “Here’s one for luck.”
Outside passengers paid a lower fare, but price wasn’t the only attraction of sitting up on the “box” as the driver’s seat was called. Some passengers preferred the excitement and the view from the top of the swaying coach. Surprisingly, a mother and her child were seated beside the driver on the ill-fated Helena to Deer Lodge coach. The leader of the robbers, later identified as a Texas drover named Mike Gamble, allowed Davie, the stage driver, to stay on the box when he objected to leaving the coach driverless with ladies and children aboard. Another passenger, a Mr. Pennoyer, was found to have a flask of whisky and a box of cigars, which Mike hospitably passed around to the other stage passengers.
The newspaper account noted that one of the ladies aboard the coach “doubtless speaking more from grateful recollections of the forbearance manifested toward them than from an unprejudiced and judicial standpoint, remarked after they got started, ‘Well! He acted the perfect gentleman, anyhow.’”
Mike Gamble’s manners did him no good several days later when he was apprehended, tried and received a life sentence. He had made a mistake which cannier highwaymen did not: He took the mail pouch as well as the strongbox, making it a federal crime.
Montana’s dilapidated territorial penitentiary was deemed insufficient to contain Gamble and he was transferred to the U.S. Penitentiary in Iowa, and from there to Albany, New York. His confederates received lesser sentences.
Fourteen years later, President Cleveland pardoned Gamble, and the editor of the Deer Lodge paper wondered, “What will be his future? Will his long term of imprisonment be the means of softening and changing his nature for the better, or will he emerge from prison with a thirst for revenge burning deep down in his heart?”
Like a child snatched from the path of a stampede or a gunfight in a saloon, stagecoach robberies seem more like Hollywood drama than history, but stage robberies were real and frequent. Tired horses slowing down to pull a laden coach up a steep hill far from towns were easy prey, and getaways were easy in the backcountry.
Stage stations, located roughly ten miles apart were also targeted. Each “stage” of the journey was planned to allow for a change of horses and with luck, decent meals for the passengers. As time passed, and farms, ranches or mines grew up in their vicinity, some of these stations became the nucleus of towns and could boast of their fine food. More typical was a meal described by a stage passenger in 1867. Reaching a station at 9 o’clock in the evening they were met by a former stage driver, Tom Caldwell, who “kindly cared for the weary and hungry travelers with such mountain delicacies as bacon and bread, accompanied by a good cup of coffee, cooked with sagebrush. A whole day’s ride without eating, over the mountains, is the best appetizer in the world, and ample justice was done to the viands, I assure you.” Since the unnamed passenger had subsisted the first night on one potato, he was probably not critical of Caldwell’s somewhat limited menu.
Robbers, who took over one station, tied up the cook and the hostler and stashed them in the granary. When the stage arrived, the driver and passengers were also tied up, the coach gone through, and then the robbers untied them and allowed them to depart. The hostler (the man responsible for the relays of horses) rolled over to where the cook lay and the cook chewed off the hostler’s bonds. The cook then rode to Virginia City with the news — and here is a pitfall for researchers: Though the story came out in the Virginia City, Montana paper, the coach was from Virginia City, Nevada.
Many lines competed, until 1866, when Wells, Fargo merged with several other western lines: Pioneer, Overland, Holladay, and Stage. This gave them control of four thousand miles of main routes.
If the December, 1966 Virginia City, Montana newspaper story didn’t exaggerate, Wells, Fargo was in a good position to effect the merger. In the previous year it had carried two million four hundred thousand letters, and brought $49 million in bullion from Pacific coast mining regions to the mint in San Francisco.
Though the company continues to this day, its monopoly on main stage routes ended just three years later with the completion of the transcontinental railroad at Promentory Summit, Utah, on May 10, 1869.
Stage travel continued into the early 1900s on many secondary routes and stage robberies continued as well. The coaches held up remarkably well, being built to withstand bad roads, fast travel and harsh weather. The Concord Coach, in particular, was highly valued. In recent years, one beautifully restored Concord Coach was auctioned for over a quarter of a million dollars.
More valuable is the legacy of tales of stagecoach days. The wit and wisdom of the drivers, the often naïve observations of the passengers and the iconic gentlemanly robber provide a wealth of lore.
One old stage driver gets the last word: Visited on his deathbed by a fellow driver, he breathed out, “Jim, I’m on the downhill and I can’t find the brake.”