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Exhibits > Online Exhibits > Wells Fargo: Life in the 1800s

Wells Fargo: Life in the 1800s

June 10, 2018


The Transportation Museum's online exhibits are based on previous museum exhibits or similar, transportation-related exhibits found online, in the media, in other museums, or something else. This exhibit explores the impact of transportation on the West, including the Wells Fargo Stagecoach, the telegraph, and the Pony Express. Have an idea for an online exhibit? Contact the museum and use "Online Exhibit" in the subject line.

Wells Fargo, the Telegraph, and the Pony Express

"O-ho the Wells Fargo Wagon is a-comin' down the street, oh please let it be for me!" sings the cast of The Music Man in Meredith Wilson's famous musical. The Wells Fargo Stagecoach, telegraph communication, and the Pony Express mail service were very influential in shaping the West into what it is today. In 2015, the museum hosted an exhibit on the Pony Express, and we re-visit that topic in this exhibit. The information and pictures here come from the Wells Fargo History Museum in Old Town, Sacramento, which is open daily (10-5) and definitely worth visiting.

Why is it called a "stagecoach?"

The reason for its name is also the key to the vehicle's speed: because it traveled in "stages." The stagecoach shortened a three to six month trip cross-country by covered wagon to three weeks by changing horses at stage stops every couple of hours. The stages ran night and day so a passenger, if they chose, could travel nonstop. A coach could carry up to 18 people, nine inside and nine outside, as well as a treasure box, letters, packages, and luggage.

Secure Messages

"Was advised of range hideous occurred thirty five miles east of Baker. No particulars yet. Baker agent says reflux."

—Encrypted Telegram to Wells Fargo President John Valentine, 1884

If the telegram above does not make sense, the Wells Fargo agent who sent it did their job. Agents passed important news through encrypted messages to safeguard sensitive information. Decoded, the message read:

"Was advised of robbery today occurred thirty five miles east of Baker. No particulars yet. Baker agent says officers in pursuit."

Read the robbery report at left, and you'll see that the stage bound from Sonora was robbed 8 miles from Meieton (?) in Calaveras County, by 2 men. The men were stopped, so no money, packages, or mail were stolen.

"Pony Express forever!"

The crowd went wild as the rider came down J Street in Sacramento on April 13th, 1860. He headed to the B.F. Hastings building to complete the first 10-day mail delivery from St. Joseph, Missouri. Banners declared, "Pony Express forever!" The new mail service beat the stagecoach record of a 21-day delivery by having its riders work nine-hour shifts and change horses every hour. 

Though the Pony Express made history providing faster communication, it never made a profit nor gained government support. To keep the vital service running, Wells Fargo took charge of the western leg of the route in April 1861. The Pony Express became obsolete, however, with the completion of the transcontinental telegraph line. The service ended in October 1861 after operating for only 18 months.

Despite its short run, people remembered the legendary Pony Express for decades by featuring its daring riders in books, magazines, radio, TV, and movies. Some former riders enjoyed the attention. Others felt their experience clashed with the popular image, since they remembered facing many dangers of blizzards, buffalo stampedes, and floods.

To learn more about the Pony Express, view the 2015 museum exhibit "The Mail Must Go Through!"

The Telegraph: Immediate Communication for the First Time

Before the telegraph, it took weeks or months for a letter to travel cross-country. Imagine people's amazement when they learned immediate long distance communication was now possible. As the first technology to send information electronically, the telegraph forever changed the way the world communicates. Sacramento was one of the first western cities to use the technology. Before becoming the western terminus of the transcontinental telegraph line in 1861, the city was home of California's first two telegraph companies in the 1850s, with their offices in the B.F. Hastings building.

To learn more about the history of the West and Wells Fargo's impact on it, view art from the period, and more, visit

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