KANSAS CITY — Before riders saddled up on the Pony Express to move mail across the Old West, there were the stagecoaches that trundled across the Butterfield Overland Trail, a 2,800-mile, 19th century stage route from Missouri along the country's southern rim to California.
The Butterfield, which started in tiny Tipton and ended in San Francisco, marked the beginning of land delivery of U.S. mail to California and played a key role in opening up the West, said John McLarty, president of the Heritage Trail Partners, an Arkansas-based nonprofit that has been working to win a national historic designation for the trail.
Before the Butterfield Trail opened in 1858, mail to the coast took an arduous boat trip around the tip of South America, McLarty said.
"It's just so iconic to the American West," McLarty said. "If you think of all the scenes you've seen in cowboy movies, you think of it. You think John Wayne rode on the Butterfield Stage. It paved the way for the whole delivery of the mail and travel to the west."
The trail is now under consideration to become a national historic trail, a designation awarded in 1992 to the Pony Express route, a more northern path developed a few years after the Butterfield. The National Park Service has held a series of public meetings in locations along the Butterfield route this year to gauge public sentiment about making the route a national historic trail. More meetings are planned later this month and during May in Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas.
The route, named for its founder John Butterfield, operated from about 1858 to 1861, heading from Missouri down through Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona and California. The trail also had a second eastern starting location in Memphis, Tenn. McLarty said stagecoaches on the Butterfield would travel the 2,800-mile route in 24 days, stopping briefly at stations about every 20 miles.
"They went literally day and night," he said.
Gretchen Ward, chief of planning for the park service's National Trails Intermountain Region in Santa Fe, said the route varies considerably.
"Some areas are pretty rugged, and some areas you can still see wagon ruts," Ward said. "In some places you can actually drive down a road and be on the old Butterfield Stage route. It kind of depends on what part of the country you're in."
Ward said the park service is expected to have a completed report about the trail in 2014, and Congress will make the final determination about whether the route becomes a national historic trail.
McLarty, of Fayetteville, Ark., said Friday that the national trail designation would help raise awareness about the history of the American West and also be a boon to towns along the route. He compared it to the national designation for the Trail of Tears, which commemorates the forced relocation of American Indians.
"This would promote awareness of American history and the settling of the West and that nostalgic vision of the stagecoach rumbling along through the prairie," he said.