Wells, founder of Wells and Company, and Fargo, a partner in Livingston, Fargo and Company, were major figures in the young and fiercely competitive express industry. In 1849 a new rival, John Butterfield, founder of Butterfield, Wasson & Company, entered the express business. Butterfield, Wells, and Fargo soon realized that their competition was destructive and wasteful, and in 1850 they decided to join forces to form the American Express Company. Soon after the new company was formed, Wells, the first president of American Express, and Fargo, its vice-president, proposed expanding their business to California. Fearing that American Express’s most powerful rival, Adams and Company (later renamed Adams Express Company), would acquire a monopoly in the West, the majority of the American Express Company’s directors balked. Undaunted, Wells and Fargo decided to start their own business while continuing to fulfill their responsibilities as officers and directors of American Express.
On March 18, 1852, they organized Wells, Fargo & Company, a joint-stock association with an initial capitalization of $300,000, to provide express and banking services to California. The original board of directors comprised Wells, Fargo, Johnston Livingston, Elijah P. Williams, Edwin B. Morgan, James McKay, Alpheus Reynolds, Alexander M.C. Smith and Henry D. Rice. Of these, Wells, Fargo, Livingston and McKay were also on the board of American Express.
In 1855 Wells Fargo faced its first crisis when the California banking system collapsed as a result of unsound speculation. A run on Page, Bacon & Company, a San Francisco bank, began when the collapse of its St. Louis, Missouri, parent was made public. The run soon spread to other major financial institutions all of which, including Wells Fargo, were forced to close their doors. The following Tuesday Wells Fargo reopened in sound condition, despite a loss of one-third of its net worth. Wells Fargo was one of the few financial and express companies to survive the panic, partly because it kept sufficient assets on hand to meet customers’ demands rather than transferring all its assets to New York. Surviving the Panic of 1855 gave Wells Fargo two advantages. First, it faced virtually no competition in the banking and express business in California after the crisis; second, Wells Fargo attained a reputation for dependability and soundness. From 1855 through 1866 Wells Fargo expanded rapidly, becoming the West’s all-purpose business, communications, and transportation agent. Under Barney’s direction, the company developed its own stagecoach business, helped start and then took over the Overland Mail Company, and participated in the Pony Express. This period culminated with the ‘grand consolidation’ of 1866 when Wells Fargo consolidated under its own name the ownership and operation of the entire overland mail route from the Missouri River to the Pacific Ocean and many stagecoach lines in the western states.
Wells Fargo’s involvement in Overland Mail led to its participation in the Pony Express in the last six of the express’s 18 months of existence. Russell, Majors & Waddell launched the privately owned and operated Pony Express. By the end of 1860, the Pony Express was in deep financial trouble; its fees did not cover its costs and, without government subsidies and lucrative mail contracts, it could not make up the difference. After Overland Mail, by then controlled by Wells Fargo, was awarded a $1 million government contract in early 1861 to provide daily mail service over a central route (the Civil War had forced the discontinuation of the southern line), Wells Fargo took over the western portion of the Pony Express route from Salt Lake City to San Francisco. Russell, Majors & Waddell continued to operate the eastern leg from Salt Lake City to St. Joseph, Missouri, under subcontract.
By 1866, Holladay had built a staging empire with lines in eight western states and was challenging Wells Fargo’s supremacy in the West. A showdown between the two transportation giants in late 1866 resulted in Wells Fargo’s purchase of Holladay’s operations. The ‘grand consolidation’ spawned a new enterprise that operated under the Wells Fargo name and combined the Wells Fargo, Holladay, and Overland Mail lines and became the undisputed stagecoach leader. Barney resigned as president of Wells Fargo to devote more time to his own business, the United States Express Company; Louis McLane replaced him when the merger was completed on November 1, 1866. The Wells Fargo stagecoach empire was short lived. Although the Central Pacific Railroad, already operating over the Sierra Mountains to Reno, Nevada, carried Wells Fargo’s express, the company did not have an exclusive contract. Moreover, the Union Pacific Railroad was encroaching on the territory served by Wells Fargo stagelines. Ashbel H. Barney, Danforth Barney’s brother and cofounder of United States Express Company, replaced McLane as president in 1869. The transcontinental railroad was completed in that year, causing the stage business to dwindle and Wells Fargo’s stock to fall.
Central Pacific promoters, led by Lloyd Tevis, organized the Pacific Union Express Company to compete with Wells Fargo. The Tevis group also started buying up Wells Fargo stock at its sharply reduced price. On October 4, 1869, William Fargo, his brother Charles, and Ashbel Barney met with Tevis and his associates in Omaha, Nebraska.. There Wells Fargo agreed to buy the Pacific Union Express Company at a much-inflated price and received exclusive express rights for ten years on the Central Pacific Railroad and a much needed infusion of capital. All of this, however, came at a price: control of Wells Fargo shifted to Tevis. Ashbel Barney resigned in 1870 and was replaced as president by William Fargo. In 1872 William Fargo also resigned to devote full time to his duties as president of American Express. Lloyd Tevis replaced Fargo as president of Wells Fargo.
Until 1876, both banking and express operations of Wells Fargo in San Francisco were carried on in the same building at the northeast corner of California and Montgomery Streets. In 1876 the locations were separated, with the banking department moving to a building at the northeast corner of California and Sansome Streets. The bank moved in 1891 to the corner of Sansome and Market Streets, where it remained until 1905.
George Monroe – Considered one of the most skilled whips during his lifetime, a mulatto named George Monroe, sometimes called “Alfred,” gained renown driving stages for United States presidents. He held the reins when President Ulysses S. Grant visited Yosemite in 1879 and again during the visits of Presidents James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes. He also drove for General William T. Sherman. (7) Monroe never gave his reins to any passenger except for U. S. Grant. He also provided transportation for eminent artists, including Thomas Moran and Albert Bierstadt-both well known for their striking landscape paintings of Yosemite.