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Woman stagecoach driver makes history

In the late 1800s, Mary Langdon built a business that covered hundreds of miles along the Pacific Coast in a male-dominated industry.
A stagecoach pulled by a team of four horses in a western landscape setting. The coach is being driven by a woman driver. There are several men seated around her on the top of the coach with additional passengers inside the coach body.
Featured photo caption: This photo of Mary Langdon (front left) was featured in a Wells Fargo history exhibit in 1893. Photo Credit: Wells Fargo Corporate Archives.

The story of Mary Langdon’s chosen career caused a stir in newsrooms across the nation in the 1890s. Some women had been known to drive a stagecoach from time to time, sure, but the management side of the business remained heavily dominated by men.

Langdon (seen in the photo above) was more than just an occasional stagecoach driver. She was also a stagecoach owner and a Wells Fargo contractor. And at the age of 19, she defied the odds and created a stagecoach empire.

A map of the states of the western United States including California, Arizona, Nevada, Utah, Oregon, Idaho Washington, and Montana. Red lines across the map indicate Wells Fargo’s stagecoach routes.
The red lines on this map from 1874 illustrate Wells Fargo’s stagecoach routes. Wells Fargo hired Langdon and others to carry its treasure box on their stagecoaches.

“Women are quite as well qualified mentally for such a life as men,” Langdon said in 1893. “What I have done any woman can do, I presume.”

Langdon came to California as a child during the gold rush and grew up in the mining town of Yankee Jims. She learned about stagecoach driving early from a local driver who invited her to sit next to him as he rode through town.

After attending school in San Francisco, Langdon married the owner of three Sonoma County stagecoach companies. She helped her husband manage his growing stagecoach operation until he died suddenly when Langdon was just 19 years old.

That is when life took a unique direction for the young widow whose husband had left her his entire business. Instead of selling the stagecoach companies or hiring a manager, Langdon continued running the operations on her own.

She later described her decision to a newspaper reporter from The Sun (New York): “Why should I have hired a man when I knew how to run the business myself? There was no reason, so I turned owner and driver.”

At the helm of three stagecoach companies, Langdon built an empire that covered hundreds of miles throughout the Pacific Coast. The U.S. Postal Service hired her to carry mail to homes along 150 delivery routes. Newspapers reported that she was the first and only woman at the time to hold a federal contract to carry the mail.

A large bear stands in an aggressive stance as a stagecoach driven by a woman comes around a bend in the trail. To the right there is a vertical landscape with cactus and trees.
An illustration from the 1910s of a bear interrupting a stagecoach. Langdon faced bears and other obstacles while driving the stagecoach.

Langdon was a hands-on manager; she would accompany drivers on the road and sometimes drive the stagecoach teams herself. She encountered robbers, bears, and bad weather from the driver’s box. Her daring driving earned her the respect of the dozens of other drivers she managed.

Langdon was contracted by Wells Fargo to carry its treasure box filled with gold, money, and important documents. Her stagecoach lines operated in Arizona, California, Oregon, Idaho, Nevada, and Montana. When Wells Fargo created its first history exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, they featured the picture of Langdon atop a mud-wagon with the reins in her hand and the treasure box at her feet.

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