David J. Weber, Book Review Editor
Stagecoaching on El Camino Real, Los Angeles to San Francisco: 1861-1901. By Charles F. Outland. Glendale: The Arthur H. Clark Company, 1973. Bibliography. Illustrations. Index. Maps. 339 pages. $12.50.
Reviewed by Ward McAfee, Dean of Social Sciences at California State College, San Bernardino, author of California’s Railroad Era, 1850-1911 (1973).
Charles F. Outland, an author of three previous books on California, has in Stagecoaching on El Camino Real produced an entertaining volume on staging along the coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles during the latter half of the 19th century. Part of The American Trails Series, this volume is handsomely composed and attractively illustrated. A fold-out map of stage routes clearly depicts the lines described in the volume.
Outland proudly relies on newspaper sources,, a practice most modern historians reject with knee-jerk predictability. Unabashedly, and deservedly so in this case, he tells his readers that a variety of newspaper sources best provided an accurate and living story of California’s coastal staging. Uncovering false facts handed down from historian to historian, Outland writes with the gusto of an investigator sure of his information.
The author’s vivid and chatty prose succeeds to a degree in maintaining reader interest. However, frequent lengthy quotations do distract from the even pace of the narrative. Outland would have been well advised to rely only on those quotes without which his story would have suffered. As the volume stands, the reader gets the impression that the author perhaps views the newspaper quotations as ends in themselves-evidence that he did not rely on outworn secondary sources. The result, to some degree, conveys the appearance of “cut and paste” history. Unfortunately, this reviewer felt as if he was reading newspaper clippings, especially those from the Los Angeles Star, over Outland’s shoulder. Had the author applied his stated contempt for ostentatious display in compiling bibliographical materials to his handling of newspaper sources a stronger narrative would have resulted.
Nevertheless, stagecoach buffs will enjoy this volume. Factual references relating to alterations of routes and stations abound. Professional historians will wonder about any economic, political and/or social significance involved with these changes, but I suspect this group will not compose much of the book’s readership. This is regrettable because Outland does mention some developments of historical significance-namely, the adjustment of staging practices confronted with rival forms of transportation, and the priority placed on mail over passenger service.
Interesting chapters on the personalities directing staging companies as well as the antics of highwaymen plaguing coastal stages give the book nostalgic charm. The hazards of stage travel, in addition to holdups, are also described in rich and documented detail. Western script writers for the mass media will find this volume a fine source. Those who regularly rode the coastal stages knew the meaning of “true grit.” The mail had to get through, flooded streams and other obstacles notwithstanding. Outland thoroughly supports the conclusion to a chapter appropriately entitled “Wild, Wooly, and Wet”: “It was a dangerous era in a dangerous country, where dangerous conditions were the norm.”