North and Knight folded in July, during a lull in the mining. Bill Tweed started his own line. He charged $10 “on the upgrade” and $8 on the return, but vowed to make the trip in 12 hours: leave San Diego at 6:00 a.m. and arrive in Julian at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.
A “Big Wagon,” which held 12 passengers, supplies, and mail made the run (smaller, “mud wagons” carried nine or ten). To celebrate the inaugural trek, speakers orated on a platform outside the schoolhouse, and everyone danced that night. Even though they sang “We Won’t Go Home Until Morning,” writes Muriel Botts, “two minor shooting scrapes” cut festivities short.
By June 1872, Tweed was making three runs a week with six, instead of four, horses. Assuming it was his for the asking, Tweed was shocked when the government awarded Edward R. Stokes the mail contract from San Diego to Julian. Within a month, Stokes was running three stages a week, and a rivalry — some say a “war” — ensued.
It began with an ongoing contest: which stage could make the fastest run? They often left at the same time and raced, says Helen Ellsberg, “axle-to-axle, drivers cursing and whips cracking…although passengers might be bruised and battered, they were never bored.”
“Before you get half a dozen miles,” wrote a rider, “you [realize that] a fly walking on the ceiling is the only fitting parallel.”
Some passengers fired guns out the window.
And what if rival stages approached each other on the same narrow road? Charles Kelly: “One day my grandmother was on [a stage] which had the right of way at this particular place, but the driver up ahead was blocking the road.”
Not a problem: “The driver of my grandmother’s stage began to cut pieces off the opposition’s seat with his six-shooter.” The obstacle moved aside. “Of course,” Kelly adds, “in those days these fellows were good shots. If they wanted to cut a little piece off the seat next to a stage driver, they could.”
Tweed thought nothing of veering off the road and slashing through wilderness to avoid enemy hindrances. Such detours often included perpendicular plunges, which astonished the opposition and earned Tweed a reputation for fearlessness.
One of his co-drivers told Weekly World: “At least a thousand times we committed our soul in pious fear to God, and always came out scatheless. We consequently believe in Tweed.”
Competition cut the running time from 12 to 10 hours to the mountains and 7 to the coast. It also forced prices from $10 to $8 to $6 to, at one point, 50 cents. “I’ll haul them for nothing,” Tweed boasted, “and throw in their meals before I’ll quit.”
There were accidents. Sometimes the lead horses would break away. In May, not far from Julian City, on a stretch more mud bath than road, a stage attempted a tight turn and flipped over. No one was hurt.
And there were deaths. On February 26, 1873, a storm had slowed Tweed’s progress. “Near the summit of Coleman Grade,” he wrote later, “my wagon got mired.” A flash flood turned Coleman Creek into a river. Two of the passengers, Catherine Milne, 28, and Anna Ward, 62, wanted to walk two miles to the nearest house, owned by Sylvester Gilson. They’d be much safer in the coach, Tweed replied, as he tried to dislodge it from the muddy torrent. In complete darkness, the women set out on foot. When Tweed finally reached Gilson’s house, he heard a “wicked screech.”
“For God’s sake,” he shouted to Sylvester, “run down to the creek — those women must be drowning!”
Tweed and Sylvester searched that night. Nothing. The next morning they followed a water-trail of torn clothing stuck to rocks and tangled in branches. Almost a mile downstream from the house, a hundred yards apart, they found the women’s bodies in what was once again a gentle creek.
Before their companies went broke, Tweed and Stokes settled differences. Each agreed to charge $5. In 1875, when Wells Fargo & Co. began a line between San Diego and Julian City, Tweed ceased his operation.
Wells Fargo & Co. shipped most of the gold, either by Pony Express or stage. By September 1870, they’d transported over $20,000. A year later, the mines sent out over $50,000 per month. Probably because they moved so fast, no one robbed the Pony Express, even though you could see bags of gold dust on the saddle as they sped past. James A. Jaspar, editor of the Julian Sentinel, could recall only one stagecoach robbery, an inside job, it turned out, “devoid of thrills.” But everyone remembered the case of the missing strongbox.
Wells Fargo had “treasure boxes,” in which they hauled gold. In 1873, the Golden Chariot Mine loaded one with $10,000 worth on a stage. The driver snuggled the box in the boot under his seat. He had one passenger: an unemployed young man. As they headed to San Diego, the box made the stage too front-heavy, so he and the young man heaved it into the rear boot. The driver made a routine check at Poway: still there. When they reached San Diego, the box was gone.
The driver didn’t report the disappearance. He hired a sulky and inspected both sides of his route, every inch, back to Poway. Darkness added to his desperation.
At sunrise the driver went door to door along the route — anyone see a strongbox? Someone heard tell that Thomas Davies had just found one.
The driver sped to Davies’s home. Sure enough, there was the man and the box. But Davies, who knew most of the Wells Fargo employees, didn’t recognize the driver — some say the sulky might have thrown him off — and refused to hand over the treasure.
Davies loaded the box on his own wagon and drove it to San Diego. According to the Union, he had no idea it was worth $10,000. If he knew, he would have armed himself to the teeth. He gave agent F.S. Lawrence a bill for $10 for “expenses.”