If You Think Mail Service Is Bad Now – How Western Mines Stayed In Contact
Mining history article by Harold Hough
A few weeks ago, the United States Postal Service announced that they would be ending one to three day first class delivery; something Americans had grown used to in the last few decades. The announcement was met with howls of criticism. However, in an era of phones, the internet, credit cards, overnight shipping, and trucks, it’s hard to realize that over a hundred and fifty years ago, a letter would take over a month to reach California, assuming it hadn’t been lost in a river or captured by Indians.
So, how did miners manage to operate without next day delivery? In most cases, the answer was improvisation. Any major mine usually had a blacksmith and carpentry shop. If something was immediately needed or had to be repaired, mine managers would take it to the shop and ask the craftsmen to make up something.
However, there were still a lot of parts that had to be shipped in. Blacksmiths needed metal and special coal. Carpenters needed wood and nails. There was also a need for mine rails, steel cables, drill steel, coal oil, dynamite, mine cars, spikes, hammers, picks, and shovels. And, if the mine didn’t keep a supply of these things, every mining district would have at least one store that carried a wide assortment of mining supplies.
The Post Office was one of the first carriers to realize a need for delivery to the West. In November 1848, Postmaster General Cave Johnson dispatched a special agent to California to establish Post Offices. By Christmas, steamships were carrying mail from New York to California via the Isthmus of Panama. When the ships reached Panama, the mail was taken off and transported in canoes or on pack animals – and later by railroad – about 50 miles to the Pacific coast. Another steamship collected the mail on the Pacific side and headed north. Three years later an overland route was established with mail leaving Salt Lake City once every month for California. The trip took 30 days and didn’t include packages.
Although the Overland Stage did handle some small packages, a mine that required new equipment usually had to send someone back East to buy the equipment and personally arrange transportation each step of the way. That usually entailed hiring a freighting company to haul the equipment by wagon from St. Louis to the mine.
The building of the transcontinental railroad and telegraph made deliveries much faster. Yet, if it wasn’t found in the mine’s storehouse or the local store, getting something wasn’t easy. Mines could use the telegraph, which often cost $.75 a word, provided the telegraph was nearby. If not, a fast rider might be sent to the nearest telegraph office.
Of course, ordering by telegraph assumed that paying for whatever was being ordered had been taken care of. Without a modern banking system that includes wire transfers and credit cards, ordering usually entailed a letter with either a check drawn on a bank back east or cash. Then it might take several weeks for the manufacturer to get the order and process it. No matter what, it took a long time to get anything.
The answer was Wells Fargo – a combination of FedEx and a bank. In 1852 Henry Wells and William Fargo founded Wells, Fargo & Co. to serve the West. The new company offered banking (buying gold, and selling paper bank drafts as good as gold). These drafts could then be used to pay for goods purchased back east. Wells Fargo could also provide the express delivery for those goods.
Wells Fargo opened for business in the gold rush port of San Francisco, and soon Wells Fargo’s agents opened offices in the other new cities and mining camps of the West. Within a decade, Wells Fargo earned a reputation of trust by dealing rapidly and responsibly with people’s money.
Since Wells Fargo specialized in speed, most packages sent on its carriages were small and valuable. Small precision parts and valuable papers might be sent this way if the need was immediate, but the mines of the West usually needed a lot more bulky supplies. That required wagons -- lots of them.
Before railroads crisscrossed the West, the freight industry relied on horses, mules and wagons. Over the late decades of the 19th century, billions of pounds of mining equipment, ore, supplies, building material, and other necessities were moved on the slow but sure wagon.
Freighting was a critical part of the Western mining industry. Unless a mine had a processing facility and smelter on site, it was necessary to ship the ore to the nearest processor. This meant an active mining district would need millions of pounds of freighting capacity. This required a supply line of hundreds or thousands of mules, horses and wagons carrying ore packed in sacks weighing between 150 to 170 lbs each.
Once the ore was shipped out, the same wagons were loaded with freight of every description, including iron rails, cables, drill bits, dynamite, and other necessities for mining. In many cases, where the demand for ore wagons was large, many freighting companies were more concerned with filling up the returning wagons with any paying freight than they were with making a good profit on the return leg of the trip. The money was made shipping the ore out. That’s one reason why many mining towns had the best liquor, furnishings, and clothing available in the world. The cost of bringing things in was partially subsidized by the ore going out.
By the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the railroads had expanded enough that large mines were connected directly to the rail system via spurs. By then, either telegraphs or telephones were at mines so shipping became easier and necessities were often only a few days away. Small mines continued to use freight wagons, but the expense put them at a disadvantage with the larger mines with rail service. The horse and mule slowly gave way to the truck where the railhead hadn’t reached. By the Second World War, all but a few mines high in the inaccessible mountains had modernized. Another part of the golden age of American mining had passed away.