Monday, March 26, 2012

The Wells Fargo History Museum / A Western Trip to Old Sacramento

Wells Fargo & Company played quite a big part during the roaring California Gold Rush era and one of the best places to get a feel for the times is a visit to the old Wells Fargo agents office in Old Town Sacramento California. All of Old Town Sacramento is a State Historic District and you'll want to add it to your California vacation agenda if you're anywhere near Sacramento. Wells Fargo is probably the most recognized name among the old stagecoach lines thanks to it's wide exposure in scores of western movies cranked out by Hollywood. Their red and gold nine passenger Concord stagecoaches became a symbol of western stage travel.

wells gargo museum in old sacramento
Wells Fargo location, Old Sacramento
 Over 150 years ago, Henry Wells and William Fargo founded a company that has become a legendary part of America. The company was originally a subsidiary of the American Express Company and offered banking and mail services to the California miners in the Sacramento area. Shortly after that in 1852, Wells Fargo opened up an express office and bank in San Francisco. Wells Fargo began first as an express company where the company contracted with independent stage line owners. Eventually they built their own stage line with the familiar six horse Concord Wells Fargo stagecoaches representing the largest stagecoach service in the world.


Like with many people and businesses, the California Gold Rush gave Wells Fargo it's big boost. One recognized truth about making money during the Gold Rush was that while some made a fortune prospecting for gold, others made a fortune catering to those searching for the ore. Wells Fargo is a very good example of this. Another company that grew during the gold rush days and is still around today is Levi Strauss. Levi Strauss produced their patented denim wear that was needed by miners who required durable wear that could take a beating. As far a gold miners were concerned, the Wells Fargo offices offered them a safe place to store their gold. When the California gold rush began, the statehood for California was still a year or two away and the issue of safety for ones valuable, gold for example, was needed. Wells Fargo offices provided a trusted and guarded place for a miner to store and ship out via express box his gold and gold dust. Locating and filing gold mining claims was one thing. Protecting and securing the claims assets was another thing.

Wells Fargo Express kept scales such as the one shown in this article to provide accurate weight measurements for the local miners who did bring in their gold. Wells Fargo used precision balance scales manufactured by Howard ans Davis in Boston. As a side note, Howard and Davis also made the banjo clocks which were seen in all Wells Fargo Express offices and banks.

wells fargo gold scale
Howard and Davis Gold Scales
The American Civil War changed everything for the Butterfield line since the Confederacy was very active in the American Southwest and normal stage service was questionable. The Butterfield assets had to be sent north to run over the Overland Trail through the Rocky Mountains. This is when Wells Fargo Stage Line was able to grow quickly

Before the Civil War, starting back in 1857, Wells Fargo and other express companies joined together to form the Overland Mail Company. This new enterprise was aggressive to say the least, establishing regular twice per week mail service between St. Louis and San Francisco. This was about the same time that the Butterfield Overland Stage organized for it's route through the southwest U.S. The Butterfield route went from St. Louis through Arkansas, Texas, the New Mexico Territory and then on to San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco.This route by all measures was a harder route to travel over. The old southern route was essentially desert travel. The central route had to not only cross the Rockies but also the formidable Sierra Nevada's to enter California. Financial complications occurred with the old Butterfield Stage Line which was renamed the Overland Stage Company. In March 1860, the Overland Stage Company was taken over because of the debt owed to Wells Fargo and as a result John Butterfield was forced out of the business. His stage line assets were taken over by Wells Fargo and Company. With their handsome Concord coaches along with their leather strap suspension system, the Wells Fargo Stage Line was fast becoming the major stagecoach line. There would be many years of growth from this point on.

wells fargo concord stagecoach
Wells Fargo Concord Coach model
The stage line from California to the Mississippi was really connected by three stage lines initially. Wells Fargo express rode the stagecoaches of the Pioneer Stage Line from California to Virginia City Nevada. The Overland Mail Company, which was taken over by Wells Fargo ran stagecoaches from Virginia City to Salt Lake City Utah. From that point eastward, passengers and mail was Ben Holladay’s Overland Express. That line ran through Denver Colorado to the Mississippi. Wells Fargo achieved their stage line empire by taking over Holladay's Overland Express as well as the Pioneer Stage line. In 1868 this gave Wells Fargo a single stage line that ran from California to the Mississippi. The Concord coaches that ran over this long route were considered the finest of the era. These Concord stagecoaches traveled an average of five miles per hour and changed horses at "swing stations" every twelve miles.

When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, the mail and passenger landscape changed dramatically. Nevertheless, train tracks didn't go everywhere and Wells Fargo prospered by running their stages where the tracks weren't laid. They even contracted with independent stagecoach operators to carry their express boxes into more areas. In addition to this, Wells Fargo carried their express boxes on the rails themselves and with that became the largest express company in the world offering their services into new York. What was interesting with the Wells Fargo Express story is how they grew enormously by taking advantage of the ocean to ocean rail service. Instead of shrinking with the arrival of the transcontinental railroad they expanded. Instead of becoming smaller they actually grew larger.

wells fargo safe
Wells Fargo & Co. Express Safe in background
When they reached across the entire continent, in 1888 Wells Fargo offered their trademark “Ocean-to-Ocean” service. Wells, Fargo & Co. grew with the nation.  By 1910 the Company’s network included 6,000 locations and new offices in the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes regions. The only thing that brought things to a grinding halt was World War One. Because of the war, in 1918 the United States took over all express services. When all was said and done, Wells Fargo was left with one bank in a San Francisco location.

Wells Fargo maintains several museums throughout the country.The Wells Fargo express agent office shown here, built along the Sacramento River,  is just one of many venues. The Old Sacramento office of course is very historic in it's own right for being so closely connected with the California Gold Rush and it's miners in the 1850's and the founding of Sacramento California.

There are nine Wells Fargo History Museums. The museums include real stagecoaches, real gold nuggets and many interesting exhibits. Admission is free to all the museums. In addition to the Wells Fargo Express office  in Old Sacramento, museums are located in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Portland Oregon, San Diego, Minneapolis, Anchorage Alaska, Phoenix and Sacramento. Adding a stop at one of the museums during your next vacation or road trip is a great way to have a fun and historically enriching experience.

(Photos from author's private collection)

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