True West
Surviving the Ride on the Jackass Mail Image Credit: True West
Surviving the Ride on the Jackass Mail Image Credit: True West

Surviving The Ride On The Jackass Mail

Crossing the desert proved an ordeal passengers could never forget.

Gerald T. Ahnert

A San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line (the Jackass Mail) ad stated: “Passengers and Express matter forwarded in new coaches drawn by six mules over the entire length of our Line, excepting the Colorado Desert of 100 miles, which we cross on mule back. Passengers GUARANTEED in their tickets to ride in Coaches, excepting the 100 miles, as stated above.”

The state of various well-used wagons should have been the first clue for the boarding passengers that the ad was more fiction than truth.

On June 12, 1857, James E. Birch, of Swansea, Massachusetts, entered into contract with the U.S. government for Route No. 8076 at $149,800 per annum, for a semimonthly service to commence on July 1, 1857, and to expire June 30, 1861. Birch had only three weeks to organize the 1,475-milelong trail through the frontier. He assigned Isaiah C. Woods as superintendent.

Birch’s wife, Julia, wanted a mansion filled with beautiful things with servants to care for them. Birch left Woods in charge whilehe returned to Swansea to finish building Julia’s mansion. On September 12 he booked passage on the ill-fated side-wheeler Central America that was laden with gold from the California goldfields. About 40 miles from Cape Hatteras, in a violent storm, the ship split her seams. Birch had refused the offer of a life-belt, and a survivor relayed Birch’s last words “No, Gabe; it’s no use,” as he strode away, smoking a cigar whose glow he ful


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