“Jack Ass Mail” didn’t last long but the legend did

Time Before Now, June 1857 – The failed presidency of Franklin Pierce had struggled to a close in March.  The death of Pierce’s 11-year-old son in a train crash en route to his Inauguration and the slavery controversy tainted his entire four years in office.  The U.S. Supreme Court had ruled people of African descent did not have the right to be citizens in the infamous Dred Scott case.  And  author Jules Verne,  father of science fiction, wed Honorine Anne Hébée Morel.  His passionate love affair with Rose Herminie Arnaud Grossetière a decade earlier had ended, her parents disapproving of  “a man of so little promise.”


June 22, 1857

On this day James Birch became the proud owner of a U.S. postal contract known as “jack ass mail.”

In the spirit of planes, trains and automobiles, Birch (left) cobbled together a route from New Orleans to San Francisco.  The mail steamer went 560 miles to Indianola, Texas, caught a daily mail coach to San Antonio over a thousand miles of desert southwest, some of it by mule. Eventually it arrived in San Francisco via the California Steam Navigation Line.  

Birch partnered up with George Giddings who had already established the San Antonio-El Paso Mail. With the help of an experienced superitendant the pair organized a string of 87 watering stops 30 miles apart.  Generously referred to as stage stations, most were little more than a a makeshift shelter for the station minder and a corral for the horses.

Early stage station, circa 1850s

A trip not for the feint of heart, both the post and passangers traveled by “mud” wagon and mule from Fort Yuma, earning it the title of the “jack ass” route.   Tecnically called “Celerity” wagons, they were designed for neither comfort nor convenience.  Primitive forerunners of the stage coach, the open-sided buckboard could haul freight, mail and passengers when necessary over rough terrain and were frequently used as military ambulances.

Celerity Wagon

Starting out as a stage driver at Otis Kelton’s livery stable in Providence, Rhode Island, Birch soon partnered with a fellow Kelton employee named Charles F. Davenport, got engaged to his boss’s half sister, Julia Stevens, (left) and struck out to seek his fortune in California’s gold fields.  

By the time he tackled the challanges of the overland mail route, he was already a successful entrepreneur.  By age 26, Birch had already founded the California Stage Line and gotten rich transporting eager miners and supplies to the latest gold strike.  In a cash-scarce economy, Birch’s customers could pay their fare with two ounces of gold, about $32.

He’d also employed another old friend from the Kelton livery stable, Charlie “the Whip” Pankhurst. (Right)  One of California’s legendary stage drivers, Parkhurst successfully masquaraded as a man most of her life, her gender only discovered when she died.

 The stage line proved to be so successful that Birch could return to the East Coast for two years, and build Julia the mansion she had always dreamed of in Swansea Village, Massachusetts.   Completed in 1855, the wedding cake Victorian was just around the corner from her modest childhood home.   While living there, the couple entertained extravagently while Birch lobbied Congress for the overland mail contract.

 Julia’s Swansea mansion, 1855

Convinced that the San Antonio-San Diego route was secure, he returned to California.   Unfortunatly, he didn’t stay long.  He  boarded a steamer in San Diego bound for New York, intent on setting up a national headquarters there.  After leaving Panama on the shiny new “S.S. Central America,”  however, the paddle steamer was caught in a hurricane off Cape Hattares. It foundered and sank  along with its 578 passengers and crew and 30,000 pounds of gold from the California gold fields. 

Artist’s depiction of the sinking of the “S.S. Central America”

Some passangers were rescued but Birch was not among them.  He and a number of others were stranded, desperately clinking to the wreakage.  Several days later, in stormy seas, he was swept away, reportedly four days after the first jack ass mail delivery had reached San Diego.  

Birch’s postal contract was transferred to his partner, George Giddings, (left) who continued the route until 1861, in all making only 40 trips.   Eventually absorbed by John Butterfield’s Butterfield Overland Stage, Birch’s jack ass mail company went on to become American Express and Wells Fargo.  

Julia returned to her Swansea mansion with their infant son, Frank, following her husband’s death.  In 1858. she married his best friend, Frank Shaw Stevens, for whom their son was named.  

The advent of the railroads and the start of the Civil War effectively ended the era of the overland mail stage. Like the shortlived Pony Express, jack ass mail quickly outlived it’s usefulness, becoming a colorful remnant of the Old West. 

After more than 150 years, in 2014 the ill-fated “S.S. Central America” was salvaged along with some of the lost gold.   After protracted legal battles, the courts recently awarded most of its riches to the treasure hunters.

Vallecito County Park, 37349 Great South Stage Route, 1849 Julian California, features the historic reconstruciton of one of James Birch’s original stage stops.  A find for campers seeking a quiet desert setting, the park  has 44 primitive campsites with tables, fire rings and barbecue stoves, in addition to eight equestrian campsites with corrals. 

Administered by San  Diego County, it is located just four miles from Agua Caliente Regional Park, popular for its hot springs.  Open 7 days a week for camping; check in time is 2 p.m., check-out 12 p.m.  Day use visitors are welcome 9:30 to 5, extended to sunset on weekends, Labor Day through May.  Closed in summer.  Parking is $3.  For more information go to sdparks.org or call  (760) 765-1188.  For reservations: (858) 565-3600 or  (877) 565-3600.   

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.