Because mail contracts made up the bulk of the profits for most stage companies, the company that won a route contract from the postal service was the one most likely to succeed. The routes used by mail stages became life lines into the territories, and were soon traveled by immigrants and fortune seekers.
The journey from Memphis, Tennessee, to San Francisco, California, routinely lasted twenty-five days. Travelers could find themselves packed tightly into such wagons with up to eight people inside the coach, several more on top, and mailbags stuffed in among the passengers. Stage lines built station stops every ten to fifteen miles along the route. Here horses could be changed and passengers could take a short break to stretch their legs.
Because stage lines held their mail contract money in hand, drivers were not shy about abandoning mailbags by the side of the road if the room was needed for a paying passenger's baggage. Abandoned mail bags were occasionally picked up by the next stage.