In History: Stagecoach King, Ben Holladay
The discovery of gold in California opened the door for a mass migration of people from the East to the West Coast of the U.S. As the population in California grew, so did the need for goods manufactured back east.
Savvy entrepreneurs, such as Ben Holladay, saw this as an opportunity to line his pockets with gold without having to mine it. Stagecoach and freight companies sprang up overnight, and anyone with a seaworthy vessel opened a passenger line.
Holladay was born in Kentucky in 1819 and learned the transportation business helping his father lead wagons through the Cumberland Gap. In 1838, he served as a mail courier for Alexander Doniphan, the commander of the Missouri militia. Later Doniphan would provide a letter of introduction for Holladay to Brigham Young that helped Holladay build a lucrative relationship with the Mormon settlement in Utah.
As a young man, Holladay ran a hotel and tavern in Missouri. With the outset of the Mexican War, he opened a freighting business and secured a contract to supply General Kearny’s army. After the war, he continued moving supplies west, purchasing army surplus items in Missouri and delivering them to the Mormon settlement in Salt Lake City where he sold them at a significant profit. When the Gold Rush began, Holladay seized on the opportunity to expand his freighting business.
As the demand to move goods, people, and mail grew, so did Holladay’s empire. He secured government contracts to deliver mail to Salt Lake City and all over the frontier as the only government contractor. He also acquired competing express, stage, and freight companies, thus earning the moniker of “Stagecoach King.”
By 1864, Holladay’s Overland Stage Line was one of the largest employers in the country and the largest overland transportation company; Holladay controlled most of the overland traffic in mail, passengers, and freight from Missouri to California.
Periodically, Holladay traveled in his stage lines across the entire route, to ensure the stage was punctual and the fastest in the business. He realized, however, that the transcontinental railroad would impact the business, and in 1866 sold his stage line to Wells Fargo for $1.5 million.
Holladay made many trips past Lake Tahoe on the route and admired its beauty. While exploring the lake in 1862, he stumbled upon Emerald Bay and soon after preempted the land around the bay. Here he built the first private estate on Lake Tahoe—a two-story, five-room villa he dubbed “the Cottage.” In 1870, Holladay had a steamboat called “The Emerald” shipped by rail to Truckee and brought by wagon to Tahoe City to be launched in the lake. The boat was used to haul freight, passengers, and tow log booms until 1881.
Holladay eventually moved to Oregon and started a steamship business between Mexico and Alaska called the Northern Pacific Transportation Company. He also initiated the Oregon and California Railroad that was to connect to the transcontinental railroad in California. Holladay’s vision included colonizing several land grants along the line he had secured from the state of Oregon. With loans from foreign investors, he sent ships to Europe to bring back immigrants to homestead the land.
Holladay’s business interests included hotels and distilleries, gold and silver mines, sawmills, slaughterhouses, and a number of retail operations. He also maintained opulent houses in New York, Washington DC, and Oregon.
The financial crisis in 1873 bankrupted Holladay. He died in Portland, Oregon, in 1887 in relative obscurity.
By Jerrie Beard
Mountain Democrat: June 16, 2006
Sierra Stories, True Tales of Tahoe, Volume 2 by Mark McLaughlin. Copyright 1998.
Overland Stage Line Receipt image courtesy of frontierhomestead.org. Overland Stage Route map courtesy of wyomingplaces.pbworks.com.