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James E. Birch (1827 - 1857), stagecoach line entrepreneur, founder of the California Stage Company, largest stage line in California in the 1850s and San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line the first transcontinental mail route in the United States.

James E. Birch was born Nov. 30, 1827 in South Carolina. Not much is known of his early life but that it is thought that he was poor and went to New York before making his way to Providence, Rhode Island in 1847, where he worked in a livery stable. About the same time, James Birch formed a friendship with Frank Shaw Stevens, a young man who had come to Providence from his native Vermont. Birch met and became engaged to the half-sister of his employer Otis Kelton, Julia Ann Briggs Chace of Swansea, Massachusetts.

Birch, was a stagecoach driver in Providence, and his fiancée decided that they wanted to live in a mansion in the bride’s native Swansea, with servants and all the finer things of life. Since this dream was not attainable in his present circumstances, Birch, an enterprising 21 year old, decided to join the Gold Rush for California. On December 23, 1848, Birch sailed for California on the steamship SS Crescent City, along with more than 100 others to the Pacific Coast.

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California Stage Company

In the spring he arrived in Sacramento City which was fast becoming the supply center for the mining region, as well as the starting point for the thousands of prospectors heading for the gold fields, most by foot, some by horseback. Prices for land, goods and services were high and climbing daily. Instead of heading for the gold fields Birch determined to start a stagecoach business to provide transportation to the various mining areas, as well as provice mail delivery to the prospectors in these outlying spots. Previously, most mail for the miners had been held in San Francisco until it was personally picked up by the miners.

Initially the stagecoach was an old ranch wagon Birch had picked up and drove himself hauling passengers from Sacramento City to Coloma in the rugged foothills of the Sierra Nevada and to points between, including “Sutter’s Fort” a resting/relay station near Coloma. For the 50 mile trip at a speed of 10–12 miles per hour, Birch charged 2 ounces of gold (about $32 in 1849) each way. Miners were in a great hurry to reach each new mining area as it opened up, and then claims were staked and one area became saturated, Birch was very adept at forecasting where the next important area would be and at quickly providing service there. For the first several months Birch had a partner, Charles F. Davenport, a close friend and former owner of a stage company in Rhode Island who had made the California trip with Birch, but by August 1849 Birch had bought out Davenport and become sole owner of the enterprise.

On August 18, 1849, an advertisement was placed in Sacramento’s Placer Times announcing the dissolution of the partnership and presenting James E. Birch as the sole proprietor. By the spring of 1850, Birch was no longer driving stage himself and, leaving the driving to his employees, he turned his full attention to managing the business. With the arrival of a fleet of top-of-the-line stagecoaches which he had ordered from the East, his firm became the envy of all others. Although business was sometimes adversely affected by frequent stagecoach robberies, and periods of terrible weather that sometimes forced the temporary closure of some lines, a rapid expansion followed. Before the end of 1851 he was providing service to all the northern and southern mining areas east of Stockton. Birch then returned to Swansea where he arranged for and oversaw the building of a mansion, and on September 12, 1852, he and Julia Chace were married and began living on their new estate.

In March 1853, James Birch returned to California. Since he first started his business he had made good use of advertising in the two Sacramento newspapers and elsewhere, and with his outgoing personality and obvious business acumen, he made himself a very popular figure of the time, receiving many glowingly favorable editorial mentions in newspapers both in California an on the East Coast. His method was to sell off lines to areas which were about to become played out an use the profits to start new more promising lines. In the face of increased competition, he lowered fares in a timely manner, and by the end of 1853 was so successful that he and others formed the California Stage Company with Birch as president, and his good friend Frank Shaw Stevens as vice-president. Incorporated with a value of $1 million at $1000 per share, the California Stage Company, had about 80 per cent of the stage business in the state, and paid frequent dividends.

In March 1854 his business was going so well Birch took the time for a brief trip back east. By the fall of 1854, the California Stage Company provided service to almost all northern and central California including non-mining areas, as well as to Los Angeles. In February 1855 Birch withdrew as president of the company, though remaining its largest stockholder, and returned to the East for a nearly two year stay. In 1856 a son, Frank Stevens Birch, named after Birch's best friend, was born to the Birches.

San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line

During this period Birch divided his time between Swansea, where he and his wife entertained lavishly, and Washington, D.C., where he lobbied certain legislators, such as his friend William M. Gwin, one of the first two U.S. Senators from California, in his attempt to obtain the contract for coast-to-coast mail service. Although the largest contracts were given to a southern Democrat by the newly elected President Buchanan, Birch did obtain the rights to the route from San Antonio, Texas to San Diego, California. Returning to California in the summer of 1857, Birch worked on consolidation of his interests as well as setting up the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line. Meanwhile on June 13, 1857, Birch's California Stage Company had just become the first stage company to provide service all the way across the extremely rugged Sierra Nevada.

Death at Sea

On August 20, 1857, heading back to New York to set up his new national office, he sailed from San Francisco to Panama, took a train across the Isthmus, and sailed for New York on the paddle steamer SS Central America. After a stop in Havana, the ship was caught in a hurricane and, after floundering for several days, sank on September 12, 1857. Many of the passengers managed to reach lifeboats and were later rescued, but James Birch was not among them. The tenacious Birch was one of the number of survivors clinging to a piece of the shlp's wreckage, tossed about in stormy seas for days, cold and hungry, with little water. Most died of exposure or, like James Birch, were swept away to their deaths with only three men ultimately surviving. Their survival is due in part to the fact that Birch had managed to keep with him a silver cup given to him by his superintendent, John Andrews, as a gift for Birch's baby and engraved "John to Frank".

George Dawson a sailor to whom Birch gave the cup before he died, used it to collect rain water for drinking and thus was able to survive until rescued nine days later. He later presented the cup to Birch's grateful widow who gave him a reward. A monument was erected near the Stevens family tomb in the cemetery in Swansea Village reading:

James E. Birch
Born Nov. 30, 1827
Was Lost With
The Ill Fated
Steamship
Central America
Sept. 12, 1857
"No dust have I to cover me
My grave no man may show;
My tomb is this unending sea,
And I lie far below.
My fate, O stranger, was to drown;
And where it was the ship
Went down,
Is what the sea-birds know."

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