With western expansion taking place during the 1840s and 1850s, there was a growing desire for better communication between the east and west coasts of the United States. Even though plans for the construction of a transcontinental railroad were being worked out, a more immediate realization was an overland mail delivery system that would span the country. In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail Trail was established, spanning from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California, and passing through the southern states of Arkansas, New Mexico and Arizona. Before this route, mail bound for western states had to be transported via ship across the Gulf of Mexico to Panama, where it was then freighted across the small country to the Pacific; once there, it was put on another ship that would finally deliver to California.
In planning the mail trail, the Postmaster General opted for a southerly route, called the Oxbow Route, which—although 600 miles longer than more northerly route options—would remain in operation throughout the winter months. The Postmaster General advertised, "from St. Louis, Missouri, and from Memphis Tennessee, converging at Little Rock, Arkansas; thence, via Preston, Texas, or as nearly so as may be found advisable, to the best point of crossing the Rio Grande, above El Paso and not far from Fort Fillmore; thence along the new road being opened and constructed under direction of the Secretary of the Interior, to Fort Yuma, California; thence, through the best passes and along the best valleys for safe and expeditious staging, to San Francisco."
One and one-half miles north of its present-day historic plaque, stands the Mountain House, a stage station positioned in Kern County along the great Oxbow Route (aka Butterfield-Overland Trail). This relay station and many others provided various services for mail carriers that traveled the route. In its time, the Mountain House station gained a bad reputation as a result of seven murders that were committed there. Strange tales and rumors about the station began to spring up; one of the white ox who went to drink from the spring and mysteriously disappeared, one of the possum that hid at the watering trough disturbing the flow, and many others. In 1861, with the start of the Civil War, services provided by the overland mail system were discontinued.
The Mountain House building is located on private property and does not have public access. The site’s California Historical Landmark plaque, however, can be visited at post mile 19.1 on Bakersfield-Glenville Highway (6.3 miles southwest of Woody).
Learn about Butterfield's eventual competition by reading the Pony Express overland mail route nomination.
Kern County was named after the Kern River, which Captain John C. Frémont had named in honor of Edward Kern (a topographer who traveled with him throughout the west during his 1845-46 expedition). Established in 1866 from parts of Los Angeles and Tulare Counties, this county is known for its early explorers and trailblazers and its historical travel routes. Important routes such as the Grapevine, the Butterfield Overland Route, Walker's Pass, and the Tejon and Tehachapi Passes are all a part of this county.