The Chidester Overland Stage
The operating name of the Chidester stage line is uncertain. It is variously referred to in records and articles as the Chidester Stage Line, the Chidester Overland Stage, the Fort Worth-Yuma Stage, Chidester’s stage, or the Chidester & Co. Stage, but it ran through Comanche County from 1878 until sometime between late 1880 and mid-1881 delivering passengers and mail. Col. John T. Chidester held a Star Route contract from the U.S. Post Office to carry mail on what was claimed to be the longest stage line in the country at the time and was called “the big route” running from Fort Worth to Fort Yuma, Arizona.
As the railroads built west, various segments of the stage coach mail route were dropped so that by mid-1881 the whole eastern end of the route from El Paso to Fort Worth got its mail via trains and no longer received mail carried by the Chidester stage. It ceased operations in Comanche County probably in early 1881.
Chidester and his stage line was the center of a major scandal originating in the Grant administration and continuing well into the administration of Chester A. Arthur when postal and civil service reforms were finally implemented.
John Thomas Chidester was born in Cooperstown, New York, on December 6, 1816. He died on March 5, 1892, and is buried in Oakland Confederate Cemetery, Camden, Arkansas. His ancestors apparently had long involvement in the stage and freight business particularly in New York. During his childhood the family moved to Georgia where John eventually began carrying the mail. As a young man he moved to Washington D.C. where he started delivering mail by stage coach. John moved to Mississippi where he married Leah Minerva Crocker on August 24, 1854. Together the couple had seven children. Centering his operations in Tuscumbia, Alabama, Chidester operated stage lines that carried mail and passengers throughout Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi. He was astute enough to realize that as the railroads expanded, his operations would be impacted. In 1857 John moved his operations westward purchasing an impressive house and facilities in Camden, Ouachita County, Arkansas reputedly paying $10,000 in gold for the home although his wife and family continued living in Alabama.
He was soon able to subcontract the Memphis, Tennessee to Fort Smith, Arkansas portion of the Butterfield Overland Stage route and established Chidester, Reeside & Company in 1858 to handled that contract. The Butterfield Stage passed through Texas entering the state north of present day Denison, and continuing on a route that ran through or near today’s Sherman, Gainesville, Jacksboro, Graham, to Fort Phantom Hill, southwest to Fort Chadburn on the Concho, up the Pecos to roughly the Texas-New Mexico state line and then west to Franklin (now El Paso). Chidester did not service any part of Texas during the days of the Butterfield but in 1859 Chidester established Chidester, Rapley & Co. which operated stages in northern Louisiana, southern Arkansas and northeastern Texas apart from his Butterfield contract.
When the Civil War came along Chidester’s stage operations were severely curtailed. His grandfather was said to be a Revolutionary War veteran but as a slave owner, Chidester’s loyalties apparently lay with the Confederacy. He brought his family to Camden sometime after 1861. Union elements learned that Chidester had either pilfered sensitive mail carried by his coaches or allowed Confederate interest to read that mail. Soon Union soldiers were sent to his home to arrest him. He hid in a secret room and when troops could not locate him they fired shots into the walls but failed to hit him. He eventually escaped to Texas and remained here until he was pardoned following the war on October 19, 1865. In April 1864 the Battle of Poison Springs was fought near Camden and the Chidester home served as the headquarters for both CSA General Sterling Price and Union General Frederick Steel, the home changing hands four times.
In 1866 John started to rebuild his stage lines which had only worn-out equipment, faced a shortage of horses due to war demands and did so with an even greater problem, a lack of money. He had pretty well restored service in Arkansas by 1868 but as the railroads began expanding in Arkansas in the 1870′s, the stage business began to decline and Chidester moved his operations to Fort Worth.
At this point, the reader should be aware that “Star Routes” were simply contracts to carry mail over a given distance from station to station. The routes were bid every four years. The term came into use when the clerks in the postal service grew tired of having to constantly write the words “celerity, certainity and security” on documents related to these routes and substituted three asterisks or stars in the paperwork. The Star Route scandal was one of the biggest in post Civil War Washington.
When the contracts were bid in 1873 for services to begin on July 1, 1874 the route from Fort Worth to Fort Yuma, Arizona was divided into four segments or Star Routes. One ran from Fort Worth to Fort Concho (San Angelo). A second from Fort Concho to El Paso; a third from El Paso north to Melissa, New Mexico and to points further north in New Mexico; and a fourth from Melissa to Fort Yuma. Although separate contracts, the segments from Fort Worth to El Paso were controlled by F.P. Sawyer and from Melissa to Fort Yuma by Bradley Barlow, both powerful contractors in the Star Route business. Until July 1876 when the Texas & Pacific Railway reach Fort Worth, mail had been picked up at the Houston & Texas Central Railway in Dallas supposedly on a separate Star Route.
During the period from July 1, 1874 to June 30, 1878, the exact route from Fort Worth to Fort Concho is not well documented. It may or may not have passed through Comanche County but appears to have gone through Weatherford to Fort Phantom Hill before turning south to Fort Concho.
The Postal Service advertised for its quadrennial contracts for Star Routes on November 1, 1877 with service to begin July 1, 1878. The earlier contracts for routes 31470, 31140, 39110 and that part of 39106 between El Paso, and Messilla, New Mexico were combined into one route numbered 31454. That route ran the entire distance from Fort Worth to Yuma, Arizona an advertised 1,560 miles with daily service to 32 stations along the route. The “big route” as the Fort Worth to Yuma route was called was substantially the same route that had existed under multiple contracts from 1874 until fiscal year 1878. That distance had taken 14 days for the stages to complete in the past but an additional three days were granted extending the time line for completing the route to 17 days even though the actual route was 102 miles shorter than advertised in the bid. Bids by contractors for the postal service’s 93 Star Routes jumped from $2,009,280 to $3,124,187 for essentially identical services. But with increases approved by postal officials during the first year of the new contracts, the cost increased to a whopping $3,706,997. Approval for still more increases totaling $761,535.30 were made in first 23 days of the 1879-1880 fiscal year under Second Assistant Postmaster-General Thomas J. Brady.
Chidester and his partner John Adams won the Fort Worth-Yuma route with a bid of $134,000 per annum but the award drew immediate protest since two of Chidester’s sureties were U.S. Senators who were prohibited by law from being “in any way interested in mail contracts”. It wasn’t until May 17, 1878 that the issue was in effect ignored by the Post Master-General and the award was made official. John D. Adams of Memphis, was a steam-boat operator who had the Tennessee steam-boat routes that were also eventually investigated. Chidester’s main political supporter other than those Senators providing his sureties, was apparently Texas’ U.S. Senator Samuel Bell Maxey who was a defender of the Star Route system and chaired the Senate committee on Post Offices. Maxey was a strong advocate of the appropriation requested by Post Master-General Brady for the increases listed above.
Chidester’s stages left Fort Worth daily at 6:00 a.m from the El Paso Hotel where he centered his operations. The seven story hotel opened on the west end of Main Street in Fort Worth in March 1878. Its lobby, highlighted with a statue of a golden goddess, became the focal point for stage coach travel in the southwest.The hotel was demolished in 1911.
Leaving the hotel, the route headed southwest toward what is now the Crestview/White Settlement sections of Fort Worth, through what is now Benbrook, then to Thorp Springs near Granbury, Bluff Dale, Stephenville, then to the farm house of Alex Dobkins located in what would become present day southwest Dublin (the town moved from its original site when the railroad built through the area in 1880), on southwest to Comanche, Brownwood, Camp Colorado near Coleman, then into Coleman, to Fort Concho (San Angelo) and then on to El Paso.
The Fort Worth Gazette reporting on the death of Chidester in its March 14, 1892 edition indicated that Chidester was living in Fort Worth in 1878 and recalled “the furor of excitement one bright morning when the portly colonel–he was a fine-looking man–stood on the public square surrounded by our principal citizens and gave orders to the driver and guards mounted on a brand new elegant stage coach, the first one to leave on the famous Star route…”
But all was not as bright as recalled fourteen years later by the Gazette. Complaints began to be received almost immediately by postal officials in Washington related to the service provided by Chidester. On July 12, 1878 the Post Master of El Paso wired Washington that he had not received mail since July 2, and followed that on the 19th with a telegram that mail delivery remained spotty. Special Agent B.B. Simmes surveyed the situation probably in the fall of 1878 as his report was submitted on December 18th. Included in the list of problems he noted: “From Comanche to Concho the mail service is far from satisfactory. The use of four-horse coaches is discontinued, and two-mule vehicles substituted, with stock of very inferior quality, resulting in delays and occasioning frequent and great irregularities. In consequences of these defects of service, the failures of connection at Concho between the first and second division, are of almost daily occurrences.”
Politicians from Texas and Arizona among others, began to protest the poor service and pressured for faster delivery, the politicians usually indicating that Chidester was being underpaid for operating a line of that length. Chidester responded that he was employing 92 men, had 378 horses and that he would need an additional $165,000 to cut the time required to complete the route to 13 days. And indeed, within 35 days of beginning his services, Chidester’s fee from the Post Office went from $134,000 to $299,000 for a service that in the previous year cost the Post Office $213,194 and was 102 miles longer. Chidester in effect claimed he needed an additional 88 men and 608 horses to travel an additional 29 miles to each day to cut the time required to complete the run down to 13 days. It was just the start of what the New York Times called “The Champion Swindle”.
All the problems with the mails were not the fault of the company. Several areas were subject to repeated robberies. Perhaps the most susceptible areas between Fort Worth and Comanche County were along the bottom of the Trinity west of town (Fort Worth) and the along Mary’s Creek in present day Benbrook which at the time was called both Miranda and Mary’s Creek. The “Bold Banditti” gang with its most infamous member Sam Bass, is credited with repeated stage robberies in these areas. Robbers reportedly hid out in Fort Worth’s notorious Hell’s Half Acre where the Convention Center stands today. In sections further west, holdups were so frequent that cavalry troops had to escort the coaches.
Whether or not it was due to the complaints, Chidester discontinued service to Comanche probably in late 1878 shifting his route though Sipe Springs. With the change, the line left Erath county from what is now Dublin, swung northwest across northern Comanche County making its crossing of the Leon at the Rock Crossing between present day Comyn and De Leon and continuing westward between what is now Downing and De Leon to Sipe Springs, a distance of about 28 miles.
The route through Sipe Springs was actually longer than going through Comanche and it seems likely that the change came because Captain J.F. Childress of Sipe Springs was, according to Carrie Childress(*) in a history of Sipe Springs written for the Comanche Chief, an old friend of Col. Chidester. The Childress home was located just across Copperas Creek from the actual town of Sipe Springs and it became the stage station providing food and lodging for the passengers.
The Chidester horses were kept in the livery in Sipe Springs proper and a fire in 1878 burned a saloon and the livery. Eight of the stage’s horses were killed. She also noted that J.A. Holman of Comanche was one of the relay drivers for the line, driving from Stephenville to Brownwood.
Former Texas State Representative H. Grady Perry in writing about Erath County, indicated that Chidester normally used 4 horse teams to pull his coaches changing horses every 15 to 30 miles. The line hauled passengers, freight and mail. He also wrote that Rocky Martin who initially settled on Rock Creek south of Dublin towards Carlton in 1880, was a stage driver for the Chidester Overland Stage and that Martin also ran a freight line from Bellmeade to Fort Kavett in Menard County.
Perry pointed out that better organized stage lines would have company owned stations with beds, food and fresh horses. Hotel facilites were available at about 100 mile intervals. But the stage line through this area seldom met the service requirements of the contract.
Chidester’s route through Comanche County did not last long. On September 20, 1880 the Texas & Pacific Railroad reached Weatherford replacing Fort Worth as the eastern terminus of the big route. On January 1, 1881 the rails reached Eastland and Abilene on April 18th each becoming the temporary terminus for the mail route. Almost simultaneously, the Texas Central rails reached Mt. Airy in December 1880, De Leon in April and Cisco in May. The same thing was happening on the western end of the mail route. The Chidester stage service to this area was discontinued sometime between late 1880 and mid 1881. Mail to Sipe Springs came first from Eastland and then from Carbon while much of the rest of the county’s mail came first from Mt. Airy and then De Leon after the Post Office was established in August 1881. Other stage lines unrelated to the Chidester operation later operated to carry freight and the mail from post offices along the rails such as one that operated between De Leon and Comanche and another between Carbon and Sipe Springs.
The Star Route scandal evolved out of the fact that western stage operators, in cooperation with government officials both elected and appointed, managed to receive the majority of the funding of all Star Routes in the nation while covering as little as a fifth of the mileage. They were accused of conspiring on the bidding process so that the low bid would be made by an individual and the other members of the ring would submit higher bids. After winning the bids, Postal officials made minor alterations to the required services while agreeing to substantial increases in cost. The scandal began in Grant’s administration and worsened in the Hayes administration.
In April 1881 only a month into his presidential term, President Garfield learned of the Star Route scandal when Postmaster-General Tom Jones accompanined by a special postal agent came to his office to tell him of a major scandal that had been uncovered. Two prominent names tied to Garfield were suspected of being involved. One was former Arkansas Senator and Garfield’s Republican National Committee Secretary, Stephen Dorsey who also was the co-owner of the National Republican newspaper. The second was a Garfield fund raiser Thomas J. Brady who had been appointed as Second Assistant Postmaster-General by Grant 1876 and reappointed by President Hayes. Brady had served in the Civil War, returned to his home in Muncie, Indiana to practice law, and had been appointed Consul to St. Thomas in 1870 serving until 1875. He also was appointed commissioner of internal revenue for Ohio and Indiana that same year. The New York Times broke the story a short time before Garfield was alerted. By then, Brady had already resigned as Assistant Post Master-General. Garfield started an investigation into the scandal but was shot by an assassin on July 2, 1881-five days before the auction of town lots in De Leon–and died in September. During the administration of his successor Chester Arthur, the ring was finally broken up and prosecutions made. The Star Routes issue served as the impetus for civil service reform and the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883. Chidester was neither convicted nor charged with any wrong-doing.