By James Mills
In 1851 the United States Mail service between coastal communities left much to be desired, or so the editor of the Los Angeles Star thought. In his October 1 issue he wrote:
“Can somebody tell us what has become of the U.S. mail for this section of the world? Some four weeks since the mail arrived here. The mail rider comes and goes regularly enough, but the mail bags do not. One time be says the mail is not landed at San Diego. Another time there was so much of it, his donkey could not bring it, and he sent it to San Pedro on the steamer T. Hunt, which carried it up to San Francisco. Thus it goes wandering up and down the ocean.”
Despite complaints and the fact that Phineas Banning and D. W. Alexander established a stage line between San Diego and Los Angeles in 1852, service was apparently a long time improving, for the semiweekly horse-back mail of Samuel Warnock and Joseph Swycaffer between San Diego and Yuma, which commenced in 1854, is credited with being the first regular United States Mail route in Southern California.* Other San Diego-Los Angeles stage lines existed briefly, including Paul & Chapman’s, started in 1859, and the Los Angeles Stage Co., dating from ’62.
The best known operators on this line came into the field as a result of the Southern overland mail route’s re-opening two years after the Civil War, as the following letter to the editor of the San Diego Union explained in the issue of October 24, 1868:
“Agreeable to the promise, I give you a few facts, as they exist, in reference to the U.S. Mail, now being run by John Capron & Co. between Los Angeles and Tucson, via San Diego. The original contract, was given to Barlow Sanderson & Co., one, a Banker in New York, the other a Mail-contractor and Stage-man in Vermont and New Hampshire; never having been on the Pacific Coast. They were not compelled to come via San Diego; there was a weekly contract from Los Angeles to San Diego; Mr. Seely (sic) being the contractor. Banning & Co. and Tomlinson & Co. were bidders for the contract. At the time it was declared to Barlow, Sanderson & Co. A Mr. Poston, being in Washington, ever ready for a hand in little matters of the kind, got power from Tomlinson & Co. to sub-let the route for them: which he did, giving Barlow, Sanderson & Co twenty per cent of the original amount, and he retaining ten per cent for his services. Quite modest. Tomlinson & Co. being compromised, began the service and ran the Route via San Bernardino, for about four months, losing about twelve thousand dollars. Subsequently the Postal Agent for the Pacific Coast, Mr. B. C. Truman, finding there was already a mail from Los Angeles to San Bernardino, and, that the Tucson mail, from San Bernardino to Fort Yuma and Tucson accommodated no one, advised the running of the Los Angeles and Tucson mail via San Diego; discontinuing Mr. Seely, and giving San Diego a Tri-weekly, which was ordered by the Department. Mr. Seely discontinued his Line, and Tomlinson & Co. refused to come on the San Diego route, and stopped his line, via San Bernardino, thus, leaving every place, South and East of Los Angeles, without a mail, from the 1st of January to some time in July . . . when it did come, it came with the same ORIGINAL Contractors — the same twenty per cent off for them — and, the same, identical Poston sub-letting it, with his mite off of the contract; leaving us the present service from San Diego to Fort Yuma and Tucson semi-weekly, instead of tri-weekly; and, carried on a Buck-Board; — occupying fourteen days, instead of four and a half — which would be ample time.”
A. L. Seeley, the proprietor of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Old Town, was soon back on the line again, joining forces with Capron, with effects that brought down editorial censure upon their heads in the Union of March 24, 1869:
“We are informed that our mail contractor Alfred Lazarous Seeley, Esq., starts out of Los Angeles regularly, every other day, for San Diego, drives down to Anaheim, stays all night and then drives back to Los Angeles, and calls that carrying the mails to San Diego. Now we know that Anaheim is a pleasant place to stay over night, but we desire to inform the aforesaid Seeley that Anaheim is not San Diego, and that if his contract requires him to convey the mails from Los Angeles to San Diego, three times a week, he is not performing it by coming to the first drinking place out of the city of the Angels and then hurrying back the next day.”
In the adjacent column appeared:
“Barlow and Sanderson contracted, for the sum of $83,000 to carry a tri-weekly mail over the above named route; they sublet the contract to John L. (sic) Capron, who sublet the San Diego and Los Angeles line to Alfred L. Seeley. The mails have never been carried from here to Tucson according to the contract — twice a week is as often as Capron could ever get over the road . . . For the first few weeks Seeley performed his contract faithfully, but following after Capron he got down to two mails a week, and for the past two months he has carried it or let it alone just as the state of his liver prompted.”
The following year found Capron in better favor. The Union announced on September 8th, 1870 that:
“The contract for carrying the U.S. mails on route 17,404 from Mesilla, New Mexico, to Los Angeles, California, has been let to Barlow, Sanderson & Co., of which our townsman John G. Capron is the Company. The service is to be twice a week … Our enterprising U.S. Postal Agent, Mr. Alfred Barstow, has made arrangements with the contractors to continue the tri-weekly service from San Diego to Los Angeles as heretofore…”
There was rejoicing in San Diego January 3, 1871, when Seeley and his partner, Wright, put through the first daily stage and mail between this city and Los Angeles. It still took two days to make the trip. The fare was $10. Capron’s tri-weekly service to Tucson became a reality the following week, but the end was in sight for him.
February 10, 1872, saw the Union’s implying its regrets that:
“Our friend John G. Capron returned from Tucson, Arizona, yesterday, having completed the transfer of that portion of his stage line beyond Arizona City to Messrs. Moore and Carr.”
The May 28 issue of 1874 announced his going out of business:
“Col. J. G. Capron has sold his stage line between this city and Yuma to Messrs. Kerens and Mitchell, the new contractors for the mail service between San Diego and Mesilla, New Mexico.”
From the Union, July 21, 1874:
“Eight Second-Hand Coaches, for sale cheap.
John G. Capron.”
Such was rapid transit in 1870, as the accompanying newspaper time-cards for that year set forth. By present standards, the speed shown in the schedule at the upper left-hand corner of this page leaves much to be desired — as does its spelling of Encinitas and San Dieguito.
Below it is John G. Capron’s schedule for Tucson via Arizona City — the name by which Yuma was known for a few years prior to 1873. William Tweed’s advertisement (above) revives memories of a ghost town of the Julian-Cuyamaca gold-rush. Branson City was an ephemeral hamlet a few miles southeast of Julian, which was sold — lock, stock and barrel — for $20 in 1872.