9.27.2008,6:35 AM
Butterfield Trail: Beginnings
Another morning, another day. As I look out the window of the train, thoughts go round to a familiar train: what did this all look like 50, 100, even 200 years ago?

I decided to find out. On the Butterfield Overland Mail Route.

One hundred and fifty years ago on September 20th (1858), a stage coach loaded with bags of mail from cities and towns on the east coast and one passenger crossed the Red River into Texas. Shortly after leaving the stage station owned by Benjamin Colbert, a half-breed Chickasaw, several black slaves pulled and pushed the stage down an embankment, onto a wooden barge and out into the wide waters of a sluggish river that separated Indian Territory from the state of Texas.

Driving the team of horses forward and pushing the stage up the cutout embankment on the Texas side, the coach and its contents began its ride on a 740-mile trail from the Red River, west into the prairies and Cross timbers, and south along the plains to El Paso. Across creeks, murky rivers, dusty plains, rocky hillsides, rolling prairies, and over passes, stage coaches of the Butterfield Overland Mail connected newly acquired and settled California and states on the east coast.

The endeavor was an awe-inspiring feat. Although in some respects, it was doomed before it started. Yet as the first trans-continental US mail carrier, it blazed the way for the railroads into the frontier and across the country. The stage line attracted entrepreneurs and settlers and it proved to be the fastest carrier at the time for both passengers and mail. And it demonstrated perseverance and will power.

As those two and one-half years of the stage’s operation navigated through rough country and tumultuous times, changes rapidly forced the demise of the southern route. And that is what I discovered along the trail: changes. They still roll along.

I wanted to begin my trek not in Texas but north of that watery border, the Red River. It seemed fitting to embark on the trail just as did the westbound stages, entering Texas from Indian Territory on an already old and well used trail: the Texas Road.

The two most used trails into east Texas were the Shawnee Trail that passed through Preston and the Texas Road. The former was a favorite trade and military route, the latter crossed several miles east down river at various points. One was where the modern highway is (Hwy 75) and another about one mile downstream where Colbert established a successful ferry service connecting the two river banks.

This was my primary goal and destination last weekend: Colbert’s Ferry. I had hoped to access the exact site on the Oklahoma side. Like many locations on the original trail, “you can’t get there from here.”

Disappointment on the first day was to be reversed in ten-fold on the second.

Leaving early Friday morning, we reached Eisenhower State Park on the southeast end of Lake Texoma. I had spent an enjoyable weekend there two years ago and it was the obvious place to set up base camp for the first and part of the second day.

In the three years I’ve been visiting Texas State parks, I’ve learned arriving early means getting choice campsites. At 11:00 in the morning, most of the campgrounds were empty. On recommendation from the staff at the registration desk, we quickly located the primo campsite on a bluff overlooking two coves of the enormously long lake. It was perfect.

After setting up camp, we stripped the bikes down to usual street fare and hit the road again; destination Oklahoma. Crossing the bridge on HWY 69/75, we pulled off on the east side of the highway.

Here, and in the expanse of a mile downstream, are over a century of stories, including one that made the newspapers in New York City and other eastern centers. But it all began about a mile downstream where one man who bridged two cultures impacted transportation and politics of two states for many years.

Next: River Crossings and "You can't get there from here."

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posted by Macrobe
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