Stage Lines










Modern folks have little understanding of Stage Lines.  We are thoroughly indoctrinated via movies when thinking of stages to think of Wells Fargo type stages, when, in truth, those types were only some of the “stages.”  The word stage, itself, was taken from the process, not the vehicle.  A “stage” was simply the distance between stations. A station was as essential as the vehicle.  Stations were a  cabin, corral, well or spring, supplies of hay and grain for the animals, and often a shed or barn. Drivers and passengers could be “put up” overnight, or inclement weather, or just a rest stop.  Most essential were replacement horses or mules.  Stations were placed as needed along the route representing the extent to which teams could go before being replaced by fresh animals.  Because the route was a series of these distances or “stages” the entire enterprise was dubbed Stage.

People of Payette Valley would retain the word “stage” for travel until in the 50s.  They did not call buses, buses, until after that time — although by then the stations had long been called bus stops instead of stations.  When I came home from overseas and discharge in 1957, I rode the stage (Greyhound) home from Winnemucca. At that time still called “stage.” Most small western towns began as stations on some stage line. People would settle next to a station in order to handle more and more business as the line grew busier.

Stage lines were set up originally by simple entrepreneurs, beginning as light freighters, just wagons — some had two seat benches and room in back for supply freight.  They carried more and more passengers until a fully passenger type vehicle was needed. Then the entrepreneur would divide the tasks running both freight wagons and stagecoaches.  These stage lines simply appeared almost overnight as the situation demanded.  If they were successful, and became profitable enough, then they gradually were assimilated by the big daddy, Wells Fargo.  Wells Fargo survived all the many frontier robbers because they had deep pockets.  Particularly whenever gold or silver was shipped, small stage firms could not guarantee the load, but Wells Fargo could, and acted as a bank — eventually becoming a bank.

The dry hills of Idaho were hugely advantageous in the exploration and settling of the state.  All the green area now on maps was just as dry as the rest before it was irrigated.  Idaho, except for the big mountains, was desert.  As desert, that meant that a traveler could simply strike out overland, just about anywhere, and could see where he was headed, or where he would be hours, even days, later in his travels.


Dry land let stages simply strike out, taking a short cut between here and there, greatly reducing travel time and hardship.  The dry hills around New Plymouth, being nearly all sand, did not grow tall nor thick sage, and no brush. So there was no impediment to just driving anywhere – with only minimal problem skirting sand patches, or dry washes.

Payette County and Washington County (Weiser environs) are wrapped around a large dry area of sand hills.  Being nearly 100% sand, rainfall simply goes thru and down to the water table, way below the surface, and where plants cannot get to it. So these sand hills remain mostly wild grass or scant vegetation, turning dry and brown as the summer dries them out and kills the grass.  These sand hills are gorgeous in the early spring, flush with spring growth of grasses.  My family used to drive up either of the Willow Creeks to picnic on Easter Sundays.  They were a sea of green grass.  The grass would last, at best two months, then dry up as summer sun dried the little bit of moisture near the surface.

With sufficient water, and horticultural practices, this sand can become good soil for crops.  However, there has never really been enough water, and all available have been shunted and allocated to flood plains.  Just north of the mouth of Big Willow, Google Earth shows about 7-8 present day center pivot irrigation patterns – from wells.  My dad combined grain on them in 60s-70s with my old 1948 Case self propelled combine – left with him when I left home in 1953.

The earliest populations of Payette Valley were prospectors – largely retreads from California gold fields (1862-1869), and railroad builders (mid 1870s on).  To service these people, Stage lines were set up.  A Wells Fargo stage ran every day from Placerville to Wallua (Walla Walla county) – it took four days.

As much as we would like to focus on Payette Valley, in truth the entire state was “in play.” Idaho’s open terrain simply invited freighters to go anywhere.

At first (1860s), coming from south, they would go directly to old Fort Boise. However, when the big strikes were found at Idaho City (1862), and Silver City (1864), then the stage went primarily to them.  Aided greatly by the barren hills, the stage from Idaho City simply went down bare ridge lines to Placerville (now Centerville Road), then (what is today the Star Ranch Road and Harris Creek Road) to Horseshoe Bend, then down the Payette on the south side of the river.

At Squaw Creek, there was a splitting of the route. For service north of Weiser the middle valley (Indian Valley) and Council), the stage would go up Squaw Creek to Ola, then cross the Squaw, go into Crane Creek drainage and overland to Middle and Council Valleys.

If the stage was bound north via Weiser, then they kept going down the Payette to what is now Emmett. A trail from Boise (direct) joined here.  Then the stage picked either of two creeks to follow up and out of the flood plain and up onto the dry hills (one route now named old Van Dueson Road along Bissel Creek).  (The pick was usually made based upon flood stage of either creek). Then straight over the dry hills, as the crow flies, to Weiser.

As the stage had to overnight passengers and change to fresh horses, the company set up “stations” a primitive type of hotel. Towns got their start being stage coach stations (Weiser, Falk, Emmett, Horseshoe Bend, Ola.)

As time went on and Payette city (then called Boomerang) arrived via construction of railroad (1882-1884), then the stage, instead of going over dry hills direct to Weiser from Emmett, instead would continue down the Payette to a station at Falk where they could change the team for fresh horses, then proceed across the river at a shallows onto Birding Island (a 4-5 mile long sand bar), and then into Payette – thus adding the town to the served cities. When Payette/Boomerang was added the leg that went up Squaw Creek via Ola was discontinued.

On the attached map, you can see still another variation where the stage goes direct from Boise via Emmett, Faulk, and on to Payette. As travel increased with the rise of the mines, then the stage could field multiple legs on its routes.

To go direct with stages or wagons was hugely beneficial in both time and labor for early settlers, shaving days of hard going off such trips.  So the dry hills of Idaho were very good for one thing, at least, and that was travel.  From present day Boise, it would be four day stage ride (stopping overnight at various “stations”) to Walla Walla in Washington state.

In many respects it was like flying is today, where planes are not limited by road, but can, instead, go direct from one place to another.

Note that this map circa 1876 (done in preparation for railroads) shows platted townships, subdivided in Ada and Washington Counties.  (At this time Payette Valley was still in Canyon County.)

These surveys are the beginning governmental regulation into plats, where one could own land – and done pursuant to the Homesteading Act of 1862.  Before such surveys, a man could settle just about any place he pleased ala the old common law squatters’ rights rules.  This gave immense freedom letting anyone search out his own desired setting, build a house, build his own irrigation from a nearby stream, and acquire as much or as little land as he could manage and protect from other potential squatters.  However, this is frontier behavior, and not in older, more settled lands.  As time went on, the gov’t simply grabbed everything not nailed down, claiming its own ownership, and sovereignty of all streams.  However, for the brief beginnings of the west, you could settle anywhere, aided by the vast expanse of Idaho’s dry hills enabling easy and direct travel.

My great grandfather, Samual Alonzo Whitney (1840-1922) was one of first farmers in Idaho at the SE corner before the 1862 Homestead Act. When that act passed, he then homesteaded additional acreage, as well as homesteading Timber Culture Act (1866), which required planting and irrigating trees. This was to provide lumber for the towns and homes in barren deserts of Utah and Idaho.  There was such a push for gaining title, that the surveyors were hard pressed. This is why this 1876 map shows just four sections platted (even though the act passed in 1862, 14 yrs earlier). They were forced to prioritize per the local demand, and the immensity of the work load, and the mining districts got priority.

The surveys showing Monroe and Mann Creeks (above Weiser) were done first, because by that time the railroad was being built thru Weiser and folks were already beginning to settle there.  My own grandfather, George Chandler, his brother Percy Chandler, and brother-in-law Henry Clifford bought land on Monroe Creek.  All had worked on the railroad, and were often thru Weiser and liked what they saw, so brought their families up later on.

Olds Ferry location on this map is one of a number of places the ferry operated. This one is “Farewell Bend” where the river disappears into Hells Canyon and the Oregon Trail was forced away from the river.  Over the next 50 years, Olds Ferry would operate in a number of locations all the way up river to Payette.  There is presently a bridge at this location.

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