THE CHEYENNE-DEADWOOD STAGE ROAD
Before the organized large-scale fighting against the Indians reached its climax there began an upsurge of civilian activity vitally affecting Fort Laramie. This was the Hegira to the Black Hills and the development of heavy commercial traffic to and from Cheyenne. The historical axis of which Fort Laramie was the fulcrum now did a 90 degree turn, from the east-west orientation of the Old Oregon Trail to the north-south flow of traffic over the new route to the Black Hills.
Fort Laramie's destiny was welded to that of Cheyenne when that "Magic City of the Plains" about 100 miles to the south began as a huddle of shacks springing up at "the end of track," when the Union Pacific construction crews reached that point in 1867. The Sioux wars and the stampede to South Dakota combined to make Cheyenne a great supply depot and jumping-off place for the Black Hills while Fort Laramie became its principal gateway and guardian. This dual role was assured by the construction of a handsome new iron bridge over the North Platte, just in time to accommodate the new wave of Argonauts.
The traditional method of crossing the North Platte, after the often-disastrous wet crossings by early emigrants, was by a precarious Government-operated ferry. Recognizing how much their prosperity depended upon freighting contracts to supply new camps and agencies north of the Platte, and disturbed by competition from a new road north from Sidney, Nebraska (with a timber bridge near Courthouse Rock), Cheyenne business interests agitated for a proper bridge at Fort Laramie. Congress passed a bill in January, 1874, authorizing $15,000 for this improvement. The successful bidder was the King Bridge Company of Cleveland, Ohio. The fabricated iron girders and plates were shipped by rail to Cheyenne, thence by bull-train to the fort, arriving in February, 1875. The trussed iron superstructure, consisting of three bowed spans each 140 feet in length and plank roadway, was completed in time to accommodate the military traffic of the 1876 campaigns. While the Army was settling accounts with the Sioux and Cheyenne, the clatter of civilian traffic over the marvellous new span reached a crescendo.
In November the Wyoming territorial legislature authorized the survey and designation of a road from Cheyenne via Chugwater Creek and Fort Laramie to Custer City. The firm of Gilman, Salisbury, and Patrick, awarded a monopoly in commercial transportation, pushed the construction of a chain of road ranches or stations, assembled personnel and equipment and, by March 1, 1876, their new line was in operation. The assemblage of vehicles on the new Black Hills Road included bull-trains, buckboards, spring wagons, anything that would roll. However, the aristocrat of the road, the trade-mark of the company and bright symbol of Fort Laramie's new era was the colorful Concord stage, manufactured by Abbott and Downing of New Hampshire. The vehicle could accommodate nine first-class passengers inside and and equal number on the roof, plus up to 1500 pounds of cargo and luggage. The driver perched up front managed the six horses with reins and the cracking sound of his long whip.
The run to Custer City from Cheyenne was 180 miles, or 266 miles to Deadwood after that fabled gulch became the main attraction. The route from Cheyenne to Fort Laramie followed the Chugwater and Laramie Rivers where there was a series of road ranches. The stop just below the fort was Three Mile Ranch, just off the military reservation, which doubled as a place of entertainment, completed with assorted belles, for off-duty soldiers. At the fort itself, in the west bottoms, the Post Trader was permitted to build a log structure known as the Rustic Hotel, which doubled as the Fort Laramie stage station.
A large part of our inherited imagery of "the Wild West" stems from the epidemic of crime along the Cheyenne-Deadwood Trail. Those who preyed on Black Hills travellers included unreconstructed Indians from the agencies, but most criminal activity was the work of white outlaws. Sometimes there was no way to tell whether a given atrocity was the handiwork of red man or white. While Indian strays killed mainly for revenge, the outlaws were bent on plain stealing, with their killings of company employees and passengers incidental to that main objective. The fine art of highway robbery reached a new peak in their assaults on armored stage-coaches with treasure-boxes of gold heading for Cheyenne. Fort Laramie cavalry patrols were frequently assigned to guard danger spots or track down criminals. Among incidents in the Fort Laramie neighborhood were several killings at the Three Mile Ranch, the lynching of horse-thieves by masked men just north of the iron bridge, and stage hold-ups along Laramie River.
The majority of stage passengers got through intact, as did the gold shipments which sometimes had a value of $30,000. Among notable patrons were Generals Sherman, Sheridan and Crook, Chiefs Red Cloud and Spotted Tail, and the notorious Wild Bill Hickok and Calamity Jane. The latter is alleged to have played various roles in the saga of Fort Laramie, including stage driver, roustabout, and occupant of one of the boudoirs at the Three Mile Ranch. William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was another celebrated visitor of the period, as scout for the Fifth Cavalry.
Last Updated: 01-Mar-2003