Transportation in Idaho has always been rife with difficulties. Major thoroughfares grew from Native American trails used by early fur trappers and became more established wagon routes through the mining boom of the 1860s. In the 1880s and 90s, railways were built across the state. However, they generally followed these traditional trails and were designed more for the export of goods and resources from Idaho to other states instead of transportation within the state itself. Travel between the northern and southern portions of Idaho was especially difficult, even as the state’s population more than doubled from the fifteen years following Idaho becoming a state in 1890.
While automobile use exploded throughout the country in the early 1900s, Idaho’s geography and climate made it particularly difficult to develop roads of a high enough quality to accommodate motorized travel. In fact, the Idaho government did not effectively fund public roads until 1909. These factors combined to prolong Idaho’s residents’ reliance on the stagecoach as an integral form of transportation well into the 1910s.
Whether in service of the timber boom in northern Idaho, the agricultural expansion in the south, or mining concerns throughout the state, mud wagons, a particularly durable and utilitarian form of stagecoach, like the one in possession of the Snake River Stampede were integral in transporting goods, resources, and people to and from centers of commerce and rail stations. This coach dates to 1870 and was owned by Ed Matheson, who operated several stage lines in and around Silver City. I routinely ran the lengthy route from all the way from Murphy to Silver City, and occasionally all the way down to Chico, California, carrying up to 25 passengers and their luggage at a time. After 40 years on the trail, the mud wagon was decommissioned in 1910 and shelved until its purchase by the Snake River Stampede in the late 1940s.
The Snake River Stampede began in 1913 when a bucking contest was added as a feature to the Nampa Harvest Festival. Over the years, the bucking contests became more and more popular with the addition of events like calf roping and bulldogging. In 1937, the rodeo broke away from the Harvest Festival, was sanctioned by the Rodeo Cowboys Association as a professional rodeo and became the Snake River Stampede (SRS). A decade later, the SRS purchased the mud wagon from the Matheson estate to be used in parades and for transporting rodeo royalty, functions it still is used for today. The wagon appears in every Stampede performance, rides in ten parades per year, and is displayed without horses in another fifteen events throughout the area.
In 2013, after more than 140 years of hard-use and piecemeal repairs, the time came to decide the fate of the mud wagon. They could either retire it to a static display or endeavor a full-on restoration, which would require a significant investment to do correctly, as everything from the axels to the brake shoes to the canvas flaps needed attention. SRS ultimately decided to undertake the ground-up restoration with the help of Hansen Wheel and Wagon in South Dakota, as they saw the coach as belonging to the people of Idaho as much as SRS, and it was their duty to preserve the wagon for everyone’s enjoyment and enrichment.
It is part of the mission of SRS to maintain the connections between our present and our history surrounding agriculture, farming, and transportation. It was decided that this connection would be lessened without the horses in front of it. The coach’s current driver and caretaker of the team of horses Hal Bongiovi believes that having the wagon in working order helps people further engage in such history. It is a piece of history that you can feel, touch, and experience, and Hal has noticed a marked difference in the detail of questions he fields when people are able to see the coach in action as opposed to when it’s simply on display. Hal fully embraces his role as teacher and is excited to pass on his knowledge on how to drive, present, and maintain the stagecoach to the next generation.
The wagon not only represents a connection to the more distant past of Idaho’s early years, it also is associated with so many wonderful memories for longtime fans and members of the Stampede. Hal remembers his grandparents taking him and his siblings to the rodeo from the time they could walk, and the thrill of climbing up on the coach, touching the hands of the singers and actors as they paraded around the grounds, and he was far from the only one to have such fond memories. Thanks to the Snake River Stampede and its board of directors, the coach will be around for many more generations, allowing them to connect with such an important part of our history and create their own life-long memories.
Idaho Heritage Trust is proud to have contributed matching grants to Snake River Stampede for the restoration of this wonderful piece of Idaho’s history. Many thanks to Hal Bongiovi for his contributions to this article, and further information regarding SRS can be found at https://snakeriverstampede.com/.
Photo by Hal Coburn for Snake River Stampede
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