John Butterfield was born in Berne, New York in 1801 and grew up on a farm amid the technological revolution of the first steamboat, the Erie Canal, the steam locomotive, and the electric telegraph.
In 1857, John Butterfield won a lucrative $600,000 contract that called for six years of semiweekly mail service to deliver the mail from St. Louis to San Francisco in 25 days. As soon as the contract was signed, 56 year old John Butterfield set out to complete a rapid survey of the route, taking a staff of helpers from four other express companies. He divided the route into 200 way stations and relay posts.
During the year of preparation, Butterfield drove his men relentlessly, and spent more than a million dollars to get the mail route into operation. In September of 1858, they had the items listed at right ready to go.
The Overland Stage Company continued to make two trips a week for 2 ½ years. Each Monday and Thursday morning the stagecoach would leave Tipton and San Francisco on their transcontinental journey, conveying passengers, freight and up to 12,000 letters. The western fare one-way was $200 gold (equivalent to about $3,000 today), with most stages arriving at their final destination 22 days later.
The nation's first trans-continental mail line passes through a future Civil War battlefield
In 1858, when the first Butterfield Overland Mail coach stirred up the dust along this road while delivering mail to San Francisco, who would have thought that some four years into the future Union and Confederate artillery wagons would stir the same dust during a bitter Civil War.
The first run of the Butterfield Overland Mail departed St. Louis, Missouri on September 16, 1858. The stage entered Arkansas sometime after midnight on Saturday September 18, 1858 a few hours later it passed the Elkhorn Tavern on its way to the first official stop at Callahan's Station about 8 miles from here and then on to Fayetteville, Arkansas which was reached at 11:00 a.m.. Although the Elkhorn Tavern was never an official Butterfield Station it is probable that brief stops were made to rest and water the horses. Twenty-three days and some 2,800 miles later, the stage and mail would arrive in San Francisco, California.
This first west-bound mail stage also carried a distinguished passenger list including: Mr. And Mrs. John Butterfield, Judge and Mrs. John Wheeler and their two children from Ft. Smith, T.R. Corbin of Washington, D.C., and Waterman Lily Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald Newspaper.
Ormsby said of the trip to Fayetteville, "We kept traveling all day and night ... our way during Friday afternoon and evening being through extremely dusty, hilly and stony road ... This brought us to Callahan's, but twelve miles from Fayetteville ... We greased our wagon, changed horses, and got some breakfast - all in an incredible short space of time - after which we set out for Fayetteville."
After leaving Fayetteville, he wrote, "Even among these hills you do not lose site (sic) of the prairie nature of the West; for just after leaving Fayetteville, you see a fine plain, surrounded by Hills — in fact, a prairie in the mountains. After a rather rough ride of 14 miles, which we accomplished with our excellent team of four mules to cross the much dreaded Ozark range, including the Boston Mountain. I had thought before we reached this point that the rough roads of Missouri and Arkansas could not be equaled; but here Arkansas fairly beats itself."
The Civil War brought a sudden end to the Butterfield Overland Mail. Despite its short life, the Butterfield Overland Mail was the first successful attempt to bridge the nation sea to sea.
A correspondent's first journey through Arkansas
Waterman Ormsby, a correspondent for the New York Herald, recalled the first journey through Arkansas: "We kept traveling all day and night. The route leads over those steep and rugged hills which surround the Ozark range in this section of Arkansas.
At about 11 o'clock on Saturday morning, September 18, the mail entered Fayetteville and arrived at its station on College Avenue just across the street north of the old courthouse. Here the mail sack was opened and a small addition made. After a change of horses, dinner, and everything being ready, the coach left for Ft. Smith at 12 noon, twenty-two hours and 13 minutes ahead of schedule."
Fayetteville was a major stop. The route from Fayetteville through the rugged Boston Mountains to Ft. Smith required that the horses be exchanged for mules, animals that could better make the arduous trip.
The trip must have been brutal traveling day and night and more than 100 miles a day. Ormsby remarked after his trip west, "Had I not just come out over the route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but now I know what Hell is like. I've just had 24 days of it."