The Stagecoach in Bannock County, Idaho

Previous to 1863 there was no regular line of transportation through Bannock County, the mails being carried by pony express, which made the postage on letters cost from fifty cents to one dollar each, and the few people whose business called them across southern Idaho traveled singly or in groups, in the saddle, or by wagon, as suited their convenience end opportunity. But, however they traveled, they all followed the line of the old Oregon Trail.

In 1863, Oliver and Conover stocked a road from Virginia City, Montana, to Salt Lake City, the impetus given to transportation in these parts by the development of the mines in Montana promising to make such a venture successful. The trail through Bannock County followed closely the present tracks of the Oregon Short Line running north from Fort Hall along the Montana division. The stations were from twelve to fifteen miles apart, there having been one at Fort Hall, another near the Lavatta ranch, another at Pocatello creek and a fourth just west of McCammon, formerly called Harkness.

The freighting season opened in April and lasted until November. The bottom lands to the west of Pocatello were a favorite wintering resort for the freighters because of the facilities they offered in the way of protection, water and food.

The freight wagons were drawn by either mules or oxen, and so slow was their progress that they made only from three to five trips a season. The more costly and perishable merchandise, such as drug’s and chemicals was usually carried on the passenger stages.

A mule train was made up of from eight to twelve animals attached to two or three wagons; an ox train of about fourteen animals. These cumbrous outfits traveled about twelve miles a day.

The passenger stages, however, traveled about one hundred miles in twenty-four hours. They were drawn by from four to six horses, who were changed every twelve or fifteen miles, while the drivers changed every fifty miles. They were usually accompanied by a messenger, who was a kind of guard and rode beside the driver. Most of the stages were of the thorough-braced type, the bodies resting upon leather straps instead of springs, which gave them an easy, swinging motion. They were usually fitted with three seats and carried nine passengers, and were very comfortable to travel in. A few post stages, which
would accommodate twenty-six passengers, were run over this road, but the traffic was not heavy enough to bring them into general use.

In 1864, Ben Halliday, whose name has been given to a street in Pocatello, secured a contract to carry the United States mails, and bought out Oliver and Conover. This line was later called the Halliday Overland Mail and Express, a name retained in the Overland Limited of today, on the Oregon Short Line and Union Pacific railroads.

Ben Halliday was well known throughout the far west fifty years ago, and his name is linked inseparably with her early history. Mr. Hiram T. French, in his History of Idaho, says: ”Ben Halliday was a prominent figure in the development of the country west of the Mississippi, and filled a place that no man lacking in courage, judgment or character could have held. To one who knows the west, ‘Overland’ is even yet a word to conjure by. In fancy one sees the dashing horses and lurching coach, and hears the crack of the driver’s whip.”

Hon. John Hailey writes from personal knowledge of the famous stage man as follows: “Ben Halliday was a little over the average in size, strong in stature, fine looking, sociable, generous, energetic and farseeing. In conversation his intellectual face and eyes would fairly shine. He was open and frank in all his dealings. He was brave, quick and daring in engaging in any legitimate business that tended to open the resources of this great western country.

“At the time Mr. Halliday established his Overland Stage Line from the Missouri River to Salt Lake City, and from Salt Lake City to Helena, Montana, and to Boise, the country through which his stages must run was wild, inhabited by none save Indians, usually hostile, and a few white men who were equally dangerous. Few men would even have entertained the idea of engaging in such a dangerous and hazardous business, which involved the investment of several hundred thousand dollars to build substantial stations, and fit up the road with the necessary live and rolling stock, forage, provisions, men arms, and ammunition for the protection of life, property and the United States mail, but Mr. Halliday did it successfully. He opened the great Overland Route and transported mail and passengers from the east to west and return with reasonable celerity and security, besides making the route much safer for others to travel and blazing the way for the Union Pacific railroad, which was commenced soon after.”

The stage line through Bannock County passed from the hands of Ben Halliday to the Wells Fargo Express company, and later to the firm of Gilmore and Salisbury, who continued the service until the opening of the Utah and Northern railway made stages a thing of the past.

The mountain fastnesses along the Portneuf canyon made this the most dangerous stretch of road between Salt Lake City and Butte. It was very difficult to trail men over the lava rocks that abound along this route, and the wild nature of the country beyond them offered road agents a fair chance of safety. The gold bullion brought down from the Montana mines made a tempting prize, and encouraged highway robbery to such an extent that the outrages in time gave birth to the vigilantes, who gave the robbers short shrift and in time succeeded in practically ending their operations.

The first holdup in Bannock County occurred in 1863, about a mile and a half west of Pocatello creek, when Jack Hughes, a Denver man, was robbed of $6,000 by Brocky Jack, at that time a well-known character along the stage road. The trick was easily turned and Brocky Jack escaped with his booty without firing a gun.

In 1865, a far more serious affair was perpetrated near Robbers’ Roost Creek, a few miles west of the present town of McCammon. A stage of the Concord type, carrying several passengers and $60,000 of private money, was betrayed by its driver, Frank Williams, to a gang led by Jim Locket. As he rounded a steep hill, Williams turned his horses suddenly, breaking the reach of the coach, and the road agents, concealed in the brush, which was so thick at this point that it scratched the sides of the stage, gave the word to halt. Among the passengers were two wealthy St. Louis merchants, David Dinan and a man named McCausland. These men were apprehensive of being held up and carried their guns in their hands, ready for instant use. This precaution probably caused their death. At the cry, “Hands up,” the passengers discharged their guns into the brush, shooting too high to wound their opponents, but thereby bringing upon themselves a volley that killed both Dinan and McCausland and two other men, one of them being Lawrence Merz, a passenger who was sitting by the driver. Charles Parks, a messenger, riding within the coach, was shot in the foot, while one man, whose name is variously given as Brown and Carpenter, escaped unhurt. The murdered men were buried in a gulch near the scene of their death and the coach, riddled with bullets, was taken to Malad.

None of the members of this gang were apprehended, but Williams, the driver, was arrested and hung. He retained his position for some ten days after the holdup, and then, actuated perhaps by a guilty conscience and the fear of detection, resigned and went to Salt Lake. Here it was noticed that he spent money very freely, and he was seized later in Denver. Jim Locket was a man of such notorious character that no attempt was made to trail him, the few settlers in the neighborhood at that time preferring to give him as wide a berth as possible.

Three men, named McCay, Jones and Spangler, followed a stage out of Malad City in 1870, and held it up some six or seven miles from that city. Spangler and Jones were afterward captured, but Jones escaped from jail, and Spangler cleared himself by giving information that led to the recovery of $6,000 of the $9,000 taken from the coach.

Two weeks later, in 1870, a very daring holdup was made by two men near the top of the Malad divide. One of the men was variously known as Ed. Flag, Frank Long and Frank Carpenter. The other, whose name was Stone, was said to belong to a good family in Louisville, Ky.

These two men placed three dummies in a half exposed position near the road and succeeded in making off with $36,000 in gold bullion without firing a shot. The stage carried no passengers.

The driver returned to Malad and said that he had been held up by a gang of five men. After some deliberation, J. N. Ireland, now a resident of Pocatello, Tom Oakley, Daniel Robbins and four others, set out to trail the bandits. This was not a difficult matter in the early days, provided the fugitives took to the brush, which they were obliged to do in most cases in order to find concealment. Their horses, in pushing a way through the growth, left a well defined track that a child could follow, and as travelers were few, there was little danger of hitting the wrong trail. But while it was sometimes an easy matter to follow up a gang of robbers, few men cared to undertake the task. A road agent knew that capture probably meant death and his very occupation was a sufficient guarantee that he would kill without scruple. He had the advantage, too of being able to ambush his pursuers, and shoot them before they could seek cover.

The posse of seven men took up the trail of the bandits at the spot where the hold-up occurred and traced them to Birch Creek. As evening came on and darkness closed in, and when they bad ridden some twenty miles, the pursuers came within a half mile of the robbers, whom they found to be on the opposite side of the creek. In the early morning they crossed the creek, and were close upon Flag and Stone, before those men were aware of their proximity. Not expecting the pursuit, the highwaymen were not on their guard. They concealed themselves in a steep hollow, where slender willows, about the thickness of a man’s finger, and seven feet high, grew in such profusion that they formed an impenetrable hiding place.

Mr. Ireland and his party rode past this hollow to the robbers’ horses, where a council of war was held. At last Mr. Ireland and Dan Robbins volunteered to trail Flag and Stone while three of the party remained with the horses, and Tom Oakley, armed with a very fine rifle belonging to Mr. Ireland, took a position on the hillside behind a rock, where he could pick off the road agents if they emerged from the brush.

Cautiously, with every sense alert, the two daring men worked their way into the hollow. They knew they were within a few feet of their quarry, but could see nothing of them. Presently Mr. Ireland said: “Dan, here’s where we’re close upon them, because they have trampled these willows down and they have sprung up again.”

At the same moment Oakley’s voice called a warning from the hill, “Look out! You’re close on them!”

Simultaneously a shot rang out and Daniel Bobbins fell, riddled with shot. Flag and Stone made a clash from cover, but Oakley brought them both down with two well-directed shots from his rifle. The two men lay side by side, Flag dead, and Stone with a wound in his leg that necessitated its amputation.

Mr. Ireland and his companions tried to get Stone to tell where the $36,000 taken from the coach was hidden. Stone at first insisted that the stage had been held up by five men, three of whom had in turn robbed himself and Flag, who were left empty-handed. These three men, Stone said, had the money. Tom Oakley, after whom the town of Oakley in Bannock County was named, was a man of forbidding appearance and a bad man to trifle with. He took a hand in the matter and Stone finally confessed that the money was hidden near Elkhorn, where it was afterward found.

After the fight, which occurred in the early morning, Mr. Ireland rode back to Malad and returned the same day with a doctor, having traveled over forty miles after his harrowing experience.

Mr. Robbins recovered from his wounds and died a few years ago in Salt Lake. At the time they entered the willow thicket, Mr. Ireland was wearing a grey and Mr. Robbins a white shirt. Stone said afterward that he and Flag saw the gleam of the white shirt through the foliage, and were thus enabled to shoot Robbins, although they could see no other portion of the two men.

Stone was sent to the penitentiary at Boise, but after a short imprisonment secured a pardon and became a preacher.

Not until after their return from this expedition did Mr. Ireland’s party learn that a large reward had been offered for the capture of the two road agents. A quarter of the $36,000 stolen was divided among the seven men, who received $1280 each.

Another successful use of dummies was made by a lone bandit, who placed several at a turn in the road not far from Malad, and succeeded in relieving a coach, driven by James Boyle, of several bars of gold. There were no passengers in the stage.

One night during the summer of 1873 a stage manned by Charley Phelps and Joe Pinkham was ordered to stop by a road agent, while passing through Portneuf canyon. Instead of obeying the order, the stage men fired in the direction of the voice. The fire was returned and Phelps, who was driving, fell back, mortally wounded. Pinkham caught up the reins and the stage dashed on without stopping. Phelps was buried in the cemetery at Malad, where the following inscription stands over his grave:

“In memory of Charles Phelps, of St. Lawrence County, New York. Driver on the Overland Stage Line, who was mortally wounded, July 16, 1873, in an attack on his coach by highwaymen, in Portneuf Canyon, Idaho, and died on the following day.

“Age 43 years. “He fell, as all true heroes fall.

While answering to his duty’s call.

“This stone is erected by his friends and companions, who loved and respected him, and sincerely mourn his death.”

The days of the stagecoach have passed, and with them the incidents that we class under adventure and romance in the reading, but that meant hardship, danger and exposure in the making. The advent of the railroad was the beginning of a new era in Bannock county an era of prosperity and growth, but also, let us not forget, an era for which the way was paved by the hardy pioneers who faced the wilderness unafraid, and tamed it for the uses of civilization. These men, following their humble lot in life and performing their toilsome duties from day to day, were in truth empire builders, to whom is due the respect and honor of all right feeling men.

History of Bannock County, Idaho

Source: The History of Bannock County Idaho, By Arthur C. Saunders, Pocatello, Idaho. U. S. A., The Tribune Company. Limited, 1915

1 thought on “The Stagecoach in Bannock County, Idaho”

  1. So many time I have spent on I 15 heading to Ennis MT and passed through the Inkom area. Only until I read Vigilante Days and Ways did I come to know of the road agents of the Portneuf canyon area.
    Fascinating reading and has caused me to walk among the ghosts in the Portneuf canyon.

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