HISTORY: The perilous passage on Truckee stage lines
and Judy DePuy
Special to the Sierra Sun
Even before the railroad brought more passengers, Truckee was the hub of stage lines.
Stages left Truckee for Lake Tahoe, Virginia City, Webber Lake, Independence Lake, Donner Summit, Cisco and Meadow Lake as well as other points farther east and west.
Stage travel was, no doubt, better than the other alternatives until the railroad came along or where the railroad did not go. It also might look romantic as the horses gallop along, the driver leaning forward, hands full of reins, encouraging the team, leaving a cloud of dust behind. It wasn’t.
Mrs. Orsemus B. Boyd came west to be with her cavalry husband in 1868. She must have been a plucky girl to travel by herself across the country into the Wild West at age 20.
She described her experience with stagecoach travel from Sacramento to Truckee and then on to Virginia City in a letter to her husband.
THE FIRST LEG
Mrs. Boyd’s detailed experience of riding the stagecoach, rich in colorful descriptions and at times of sheer horror, is one for the records. Boarding the stagecoach in Sacramento, she started her journey east. Transcripts taken from her letter start with a description of the vehicle she used for transport and the experience over the Sierra on very narrow, steep and bumpy paths.
The stage-coach was “a large vehicle with thorough braces (leather straps that support the coach) instead of sprints, and a roomy interior that suggested comfort. Alas I only suggested! Possibly no greater discomfort could have been endured than my companion and self underwent that night. Those old fashioned stagecoaches for mountain travel were intended to be filled inside, and well packed outside. But it so happened that instead of the usual complement of passengers, one other woman and myself were all.”
Mrs. Boyd’s stagecoach most likely took the Dutch Flat Donner Lake Wagon Road since it was the only road through Donner Summit and the railroad was not completed. Her experiences on this road conveyed the very need for a more comfortable mode of travel.
“A pen far more expert than mine would be required to do justice to the horrors of that night. Though we had left Cisco at noon, we did not reach the other side of the mountains, until 10 o’clock next morning. As long as daylight lasted we watched in amazement those wonderful mountains, which should have been called ‘Rocky’, for they have enormous precipices and rock elevations at many points; from the highest we gazed down into ravines at least 1,500 feet below, and shuddered again and again.”
“We peered into endless precipices, down which we momentarily expected to be launched, for the seeming recklessness of our driver and extreme narrowness of the roads made such a fate appear imminent.”
“Our alarm did not permit us to duly appreciate the scenery’s magnificent grandeur; besides, every possible effort was required to keep from being tossed about like balls. We did not expect to find ourselves alive in the morning, and passed the entire night holding on to anything that promised stability. An ordinary posture was quite impossible: we had either to brace ourselves by placing both feet against the sides of the vehicle, or seize upon every strap within reach.”
“Long before morning all devices, except the extreme one of lying flat on the bottom of the coach and resigning ourselves to the inevitable, had failed. Every muscle ached and the strain that had been required to keep from being bruised by the constant bumping, and even then we had by no means escaped.”
EASY RIDING FROM this point forward?
Mrs. Boyd thought that after leaving the Sierras and having reached Coburn’s Station (now Truckee) travel would be “less tortured” and the worst was over. After a respite in Truckee “we were greatly surprised (on re-embarking on the stage after breakfast) to find our coach almost full of passengers; but we climbed in, and for five days and nights were carried onward without the slightest change of any sort. … Whenever in the course of the succeeding five days and nights it was needful to move even our feet, we could only do so by asking our vis-à-vis to move his at the same time, as there was not one inch of space unoccupied.”
Sleeping was a challenge with the nights seemingly endless as passengers sat “bolt upright” day and night. “Vainly trying to snatch a few moments’ sleep which the constant lurching of the stage rendered impossible …” The rest of the mid-winter stage journey was just as unpleasant; “clinging mud,” “meals … conspicuous by their absence,” “breakfast at midnight, dine in the early morning, meats sodden with grease, which disguised their natural flavors so that I often wondered what animals of the prairies were represented …” It got so bad Mrs. Boyd would “gladly have welcomed some mountains …”
“One night we made eight miles in 15 hours and the next day 15 miles in eight hours.”
But Mrs. Boyd survived the trip and was able to meet up with her husband. Stage lines were a better alternative than the early wagon trains where there were no paths. Still, it took the railroad to make the trip one that was endurable.
Bill Oudegeest has had a house on Donner Summit for more than 40 years. He is a retired public school teacher and administrator and one of the founders of the Donner Summit Historical Society. Judy DePuy is a retired civil engineer, marketer, and volunteer for Truckee Donner Historical and Railroad Societies and Donner Summit Historical Society.
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