If it weren't for stagecoaches, Tucson wouldn't have developed to be the town we see today.

Let's set the stage (sorry). Stagecoaches are defined as public conveyances that carry mail, express and/or passengers. The term "stage" originally referred to the distance between stages or stations on a route.

Now, let's get to the problem. In 1850, two years after its gold rush began in 1848, California became the 31st state of the Union, separated from the rest of the country by the vast expanse of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains. Mail delivery to California from the East took at least a month and a half by steamship and pack animal across Panama. From the beginning, California pressured the U.S. government to provide faster mail service.

It took five more years for military expeditions and surveyors to establish a trail across the southwestern U.S. that stagecoaches could use year-round for overland mail delivery.

In terms of today's place names, the route entered Arizona from Lordsburg, N.M., extended west to Tucson, then northwest to the Sacaton area before turning west to the Gila River and on to Yuma and exiting Arizona - generally following the path of today's Interstate 10 and Interstate 8.

Tucson had only been an American town since becoming part of the New Mexico Territory with the Gadsden Purchase from Mexico, approved by Congress on June 29, 1854. As described by historian C.L. Sonnichsen, Tucson in the late 1850s "was still a Mexican village," with a population of a few hundred people, and few Americans.

In November 1857 the San Antonio & San Diego Mail Line began twice-monthly stagecoach runs over the new overland route, carrying mail and passengers. However, the operation lasted less than a year - because of the death of the company's founder and increasing competition.

Butterfield Overland Mail

In late 1857 John Butterfield of Utica, N.Y., won a government contract for the unheard of sum of $600,000 (more than $17 million in today's dollars) per year for six years to carry mail from St. Louis to San Francisco.

The agreement was to provide stagecoach service twice a week in each direction; each trip of 2,800 miles was to be completed in 25 days or less. Mail was first priority but passengers were accepted for a total-route cost of $200 ($5,640 today), not including meals.

Butterfield spent most of 1858 on the monumental task of building and supplying 139 (later 200) relay stations along the route through what is now Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. These stage stops at intervals of 10 to 40 miles were places where the coaches could change drivers and draft animals, and the passengers could find water and food.

The coaches traveled at breakneck speeds night and day, except for brief stops at the way stations.

At its peak, Butterfield's Overland Mail employed about 800 people and ran up to 250 coaches with 1,000 horses and 500 mules. The large, high-quality coaches were built in Concord, N.H., weighed about 2,500 pounds and could accommodate up to nine passengers inside the coach, with additional room on top for the hearty.

The coaches were pulled by a team of 4 to 6 horses or mules. Horses were used most of the time, but mules provided extra "toughness" for long, hot stretches, particularly in the Arizona desert.

Comfort was not a priority. The Concord stagecoaches had hard, narrow interior seats and had only leather curtains to keep out the dust, wind and rain. More than three weeks of constant pounding on the rough route, to say nothing of hostile Indians and lack of water, made for a physically and mentally exhausting trip.

Across Arizona

The overland route across Arizona's dry and sparsely populated desert landscape was 437 miles long with 27 stagecoach stations. It took about four days to get through Arizona at an average speed of about four-and-a-half miles an hour.

The first Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach reached Tucson from St. Louis on Oct. 2, 1858. Thereafter westbound mail was due at 1:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Fridays; the eastbound at 3 a.m. on Wednesdays and Saturdays.

The Buckley House (formerly the Santa Cruz residence) was turned into Tucson's stage station with Sam Hughes (later prominent in the incorporation of the city of Tucson and establishment of public education) hired as the first station agent. The station's location in modern-day Tucson was approximately one block north of the State of Arizona complex at Congress Street and Main Avenue.

Stagecoaches traveling to California from Tucson headed directly north up Main Street, then northwest along the Santa Cruz River to a stop at Point of Mountain (sometimes called Pointer Mountain) about 18 miles from Tucson.

The Point of Mountain station, named for the prominent peak at the northern end of the Tucson Mountains, was located in today's greater Marana, near the West Avra Valley Road exit (242) from Interstate 10. Westbound stages continued northwest to stations near Picacho Peak and Eloy.

Eastbound stages from Tucson headed southeast out of town, crossed present-day Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, and continued southeast on a path a little north of today's Interstate 10 to a stage station at Cienega, about 35 miles from Tucson.

Cienega means "marshy place" and the station provided plenty of trees and water. The station was on Cienega Creek, in today's Vail area, off the Marsh Station exit (281) from Interstate 10, about four miles northeast, at the railroad tracks. Coaches continuing to the east headed to the next stations near today's Benson, then to Dragoon Springs.

Butterfield Overland Mail operations continued through Tucson until the spring of 1861, when the threat of Civil War and Texas' seceding from the Union forced the southern transcontinental stage line to move north, following a central overland route through the future states of Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah and Nevada.

Other providers

During the Civil War (1861-65) Arizona had to rely on military couriers for mail service. But by 1866 mail and people were again arriving in Tucson, this time from Prescott on Arizona Stagecoach Company coaches. There were connections in Prescott - both west and east - along more northern east-west routes through Arizona.

Meanwhile far to the north, starting in April 1860, the Pony Express crossed the western U.S. to Sacramento, ending operations when the overland telegraph was completed in October 1861. Eight years later in 1869 the first transcontinental railroad (to San Francisco) was completed at Promontory Summit, Utah, ending stagecoach service on the central overland trail.

Part of Butterfield's southern overland stagecoach route was reactivated in 1870 when the Tucson, Arizona City (Yuma) & San Diego Stage Company started tri-weekly service. Connections to the east were offered in 1872 by J.F. Bennett & Company.

In the mid- to late 1870s overland stagecoach services between California and the East through Tucson were offered by three companies: Southern Pacific Mail Line, Texas and California Stage Line, and the National Mail & Transportation Company.

Tucson was already becoming in Sonnichsen's words, "an increasingly important commercial center" when the eastern-proceeding southern route of the transcontinental railroad reached Tucson in 1880. Tucson's population had grown to about 7,000. Prospectors and ranchers had begun exploring north and south and established new settlements.

Overland stagecoach operations through Tucson ended with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in Texas in 1881. However, stagecoach services connecting Arizona settlements and Tucson to mining, business and commerce centers were just beginning and would continue for the next 40 years.

Although there is nothing left of the Pointer Mountain, Tucson or Cienega stage stations, you can see an authentic Concord Stagecoach at the Arizona Historical Society museum at 949 E. Second St. Also, the library of the Postal History Foundation at 920 N. First Ave., is an excellent resource for stagecoach history.

Next time: A half-century of Tucson-area stagecoach service

Sources: "Arizona Territory Post Offices & Postmasters" (John and Lillian Theobald, 1961); "The Butterfield Overland Mail Through Arizona" (1958); "Butterfield Overland Mail, 1857-1869" (Roscoe Conkling, 1947); Historical Atlas of Arizona (Henry P. Walker and Don Bufkin, 1979); "The Smoke Signal: The Butterfield Trail Revisited" (Stan Brown, 2007); "Tucson, The Life and Times of an American City" (C.L. Sonnichsen, 1982) E-mail Bob Ring at ringbob1@aol.com or view his website, ringbrothershistory.com