Thoughts + Articles

Trail Blazers and Time Keepers

What do Horseback, Railroads, Steam Boats, Telegraphs and Wagon Trains have in common?

How it all began.

The new technological revolution of trains, steamboats, telegraphs, canals, and stagecoaches created more interconnected communities and economies. The demand grew for a safer and secure way to send payments, and a need for reliable places to obtain money, especially while traveling. 

In the early 1940s, Henry Wells and William Fargo were both involved in the shipping business.

Henry Wells: Henry Wells grew up working on the family farm. He was the third of four children. At 16, he was apprenticed to a tanner and shoemaker. He began working as a freight agent in 1836 on the Erie Canal. Then he worked for Harnden Express Company, a messenger service that traveled by railway from Boston to New York. They safely and responsibly transported money and other valuable items by railway. First the messengers carried the valuable items by carpetbags and then trunks. Henry Wells suggested to William F. Hamden “that service could be expanded west of Buffalo, New York.” Hamden encouraged Wells to begin a business of his own.

Henry Wells in 1841, formed Wells & Company, with partner Crawford Livingston. They competed in the express business with the United States Post Office by “carrying mail at less than the government rate.

Side note: Henry Wells growing up, faced his biggest challenge “coping with a severe stutter.” He worked with a speech therapist in Rochester, New York in 1824. “Taking what he learned from the therapist and integrating his own methods, Wells traveled to several cities to help others with speech impediments. Despite his best efforts, his stutter remained pronounced. Wells later joked, “I cured everybody but myself.” 

“His difficulty speaking never kept him from making friends, though, and his energy, outgoingness, and friendships formed the foundation of many of his business endeavors.” (Article: “The men who founded Wells Fargo”.)

William Fargo: William Fargo, the oldest of 12 children, went to work at 13 years of age delivering mail by horseback for “over a 30-mile area”. Later working “in the grocery business, as a baker, and in a village inn.”  

Fargo in 1841 “became the first freight agent at Auburn for the Auburn & Syracuse Railroad, and his excellent performance led Henry Wells to employ him as an express messenger the next year.” (Wikipedia William Fargo)

American Express Company: By 1850, Henry Wells (Wells & Co.), William G. Fargo (Livingston, Fargo & Co.), and John Warren Butterfield (Wells, Butterfield & Co.) successor of Butterfield, Wasson, & Company began American Express Company with $150,000. Today, May 17, 2022, that $150,000 in 1850 would be equal to $5,559,788.46.

They initially began their company in New York City by the Hudson River and Long Island Sound. They shipped their goods by larger ships and barges and “made agreements to use” the railway in New York and in the Midwest.  (Wikipedia American Express)

Henry Wells was American Expresses first president and William Fargo its vice present.

When Henry Wells and William Fargo saw a need they filled it!

How American Express Travelers Cheques (originally spelled) were invented in 1891:

When J.C. Fargo, President of American Express, the brother of deceased William Fargo founder of American Express, was visiting Europe between 1880 and 1890 with “letters of credit”. He “found it difficult to obtain cash anywhere except in major cities.” He returned frustrated and infuriated.

“ Fargo went to  Marcellus Flemming Berry and asked him to create a better solution than the “letter of credit”. In 1891, Berry launched the American Express Traveler’s Cheque “in denominations of $10, $20, $50, and $100.” American Express established itself as an international company by inventing the “Traveler’s Cheques”.  (Wikipedia American Express)

Wells Fargo: In 1852, Henry Wells and William Fargo began a new venture during the gold rush. They opened Wells Fargo in “their first West Coast office in San Francisco” making it “into a national company” shortly after founding it.

Overnight they followed their “customers into the mining camps and settlements” providing “banking services, transporting gold, mail and other goods, and passengers securely.”


Today, May 17, 2022, we use the internet to immediately send a message and encrypt the message if it is sensitive information. The person receiving this message will have to get the code to get in.

 First Telegraph:

In the 1850s, “Americans used another network of electrical wires to communicate — the telegraph. It operated by transmitting electrical signals along a wire using Morse code, a messaging method created by Samuel F. B. Morse of using recognizable patterns to represent alphabetical letters. Instead of sending a physical letter to another town by horse or train, a message sent by telegraph could travel instantaneously.”

In 1853 the first telegraph wires were connected between several cities in California. 

 “Wells Fargo reportedly sent one of the first messages along the newly strung wires. The company’s agent in Marysville reported to the Sacramento office: Marysville, Oct. 18, 8 o’clock, A.M. I sent a messenger down to-day with treasure. Look out for him. W. B. Roberts.”

The next day managers at Wells Fargo saw their telegraph message published in the local Sacramento newspaper. They learned the hard way that the telegraph was a “quick but unsecured communication.” Wells Fargo then developed an “encryption using secret codes” to send gibberish scrambled messages. They decoded the messages with a “cipher book” which was changed frequently and kept under “lock and key.”

Wells Fargo by telegraph was now able to “instantaneous communication between cities.” The telegraph could send secure messages, encrypted, to report fires, robberies shipments of money, and deliveries. It was a new tool for its customers to send money and valuables faster and safer.

In the United States Henry Wells “built the earliest commercial telegraph lines.” He was working for a cheaper mail delivery service. As an advocate for the education of women “he founded Wells College for Women in Aurora, New York in 1868.”  

By1858, their Stage Coaches were bright red with gold lettering and gold wheels. When they rolled into town they brought excitement to the day, arriving with visitorsmail, news, money, and other goods. “Wells Fargo Wagon song” from the movie, “The Music Man” (1962). According to the Wells Fargo Wagon song they brought food, bath tubs, chairs, dishes, double boiler, and other items. 

From 1870 to 1872, William G. Fargo, “a skilled manager”, served as President of Wells, Fargo & Company and from 1868 to 1881 as President of American Express Company. 

During the Civil War, William Fargo was the Mayor of the City of Buffalo, New York. In the 1850’s he “directed the Overland Mail Company” sending “cross-country stagecoaches through Southern California” and in the 1870’s he “was a director of the Northern Pacific Railroad, which” traveled across the Great Plains. “Fargo, North Dakota is named after him.” (Wells Fargo History Museum- Let’s Go See it)

During the Civil War, Wells Fargo expanded through “the center of the country” combining “the route with other major lines” to become the “largest stagecoach empire in the world.”

21st Century Wells Fargo innovations: 

Henry Wells and William G. Fargo over 166 years ago joined “together to provide banking and express services to western pioneers.”  Their red Wells Fargo stagecoach has endured “as a symbol of the opportunity, innovation, and perseverance”.  

Wells Fargo in the 21st century was “the first bank to offer secure account access to internet banking  customers in 1995”, and  allowed “mobile and online customers to manage their financial lives from a single location on their phones, tablets, or computers.”  (Wells Fargo Wagon History)

When Henry Wells and William Fargo saw a need they filled it!

Richard Sears: In 1886, Richard Sears, a railroad station agent in Minneapolis, Minnesota, began selling gold watches at $14 apiece. A year later he opened up a shop with Alvah Roebuck, a watchmaker in Chicago. In 1895, Julius Rosenwald, investor, joined the company.

They began a modest mail order business, selling watches and then started selling clothing, toys, household goods, and appliances. The rise of Sears embodied the rise of American consumerism in the 20th century. 

They recognized, early on, the growing opportunities that came with mass mail and electricity moving Westward. Their mail order catalogs became a staple in the mailbox of every farm and home across the country. 

Sears also capitalized on the opportunity from the US Government with the Rural Free Delivery Act of 1896; essentially having the government underwrite the cost of mail and shipping delivery to their customers. 

They were incredibly lean and flexible. When the Great Depression arrived following the crash of 1929, Sears acknowledged the benefits of being thrifty. By the end of the Depression, the number of retail stores doubled. 

Sears’ early catalogs advertised  themselves as the “Cheapest Supply House on Earth” or “the Book of Bargains.” They sold medical and veterinary supplies, musical instruments, firearms, bicycles, sewing machines, baby buggies, clothing, household goods and other products.

Richard Sears’ motto was “We Can’t Afford to Lose a Customer.”

He made sure that Sears stayed competitive in terms of price and value.

What was the key to Sears early growth?

 “It’s remarkable customer service. Sears’ simple, warm and customer-service-centered approach helped it stand out among mail-order competitors.”

In 1906, Sears sold its first stock to the public. “The company was worth $40 million with close to $50 million in annual sales and around 9,000 employees. That same year, it built a distribution complex in Chicago with some 3 million square feet of floor space.”

Innovations: In 1908 Sears catalog offered 447 different house design kits which included all the materials. The houses included “the grand “Magnolia” ($5,140 to $5,972) to the popular “Winona” ($744 to $1,998).”

Sears house kits were advertised with the promise that “We will furnish all the material to build this [house design]. All the parts arrived (usually by train) precut and ready to assemble. From 1908 to 1940, Sears sold between 70,000 to 75,000 homes.” (History When the Sears Catalog Sold Everything from Houses to Hubcaps)

Sears continued its expansion by opening stores. As more people began to own automobiles, “the mail-order boom in the United States slowed down.”

Sears stayed successful by “expanding consumer credit with its “No Money Down” policy.”

Sears in the 1920s launched Kenmore appliances brand and Craftsman tools. In 1931 they launched Allstate auto insurance.  

Through the Great Depression “Sears’ catalog, retail and factory profits totaled more than $12 million”, (in 2018 over $201 million). That year, 1931, was “the first-year retail sales outstripped catalog sales”.

Sears built its business on staples like socks, underwear, towels and bedding, which helped keep sales going even during the Depression.

Sears retail stores had almost doubled by the late 1930s. By 1945 Sears “topped the $1 billion mark in sales for the first time.” At shopping malls Sears stores were the anchor.

Before the holidays began, families circled items in the “Wish Book”. Sears remained strong with their Craftsman, Kenmore brands, and Allstate Insurance through the Great Depression.

Sears began to decline in the 1990s challenged by stores such as, Target, Walmart, and Kmart. Also increased “dominance of e-commerce” took a toll on Sears.

In 2018, retail giant Sears filed for bankruptcy after 132 years in business. 

What happened to Sears?

Sears had become too big with too many stores and employees and its competition was thriftier and leaner in selling less products with less overhead for less money.

 They announced they “would close 142 unprofitable stores in the face of mounting competition from big-box stores and, of course,” (History When the Sears Catalog Sold Everything from Houses to Hubcaps)

Jeff Bezos: In 1986, Bezos graduated from Princeton University with a degree in electrical engineering and computer science. His first job was working for Fitel, “a finch telecommunications start up , where he … built  a network for international trade.” Then he “was promoted to head of development and director of customer service.” 

From 1988 to 1990 Bezos “transitioned into the banking industry when he became a product manager at Bankers Trust.” In 1990, “he joined D. E. Shaw & Company, a newly founded hedge fund with a strong emphasis on mathematical modeling.”   He continued working at D. E. Shaw through 1994 when he became “D. E. Shaw’s fourth senior vice-president at age 30.”

In 1995, Jeff Bezos’s began Amazon as a business on line as a bookseller shipping “books to all U.S. 50 states and 45 countries.” The day Amazon went live online “billed itself as Earth’s Biggest Book Store”. His motto “get big fast.” At the beginning his advertising was “Word of Mouth”. As orders came in he would drive orders to the post office. (Wikipedia Jeff Bezos)  

Amazon’s milestones: Amazon by the end of 1996 was worth $15.7 million. Jeff Bezos in 1997 “took the company public with an initial public offering that raised $54 million.” 

Bezos that same year, “personally delivered his company’s one-millionth order, to a customer in Japan who had purchased a Windows NT manual and a Princess Diana biography.” 

Amazon’s continued innovation: In 1998, Amazon began selling music CDs, and by 1999 it added   products including “toys, electronics and tools.” 

December 1999, Jeff Bezos by Time magazine was named “Person of the Year.” During this time, Amazon “shipped 20 million items to 150 countries around the globe.”

 The company began in 2000, to introduce “a service allowing individual” sellers “and other outside merchants to sell their products alongside Amazon’s own items.” 

In 2006, “Amazon launched a cloud computing and video on demand services.” Amazon introduced its Kindle e-reader in 2007.

2010 Amazon Studios began making movies and TV series. In 2015, they earned the Golden Globe. (Transparent). Later for “Manchester by the Sea”, “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Comedy Series)

By 2011, they were “selling more e-books than print books.” Every year Amazon continues to innovate and develop new products that their customers need .

Amazon acquired several companies such as Zappos and Whole Foods. By 2015, Amazon became “the world’s most valuable retailer” exceeding Walmart. “Two decades after its founding and with Bezos still at the helm, Amazon’s market value was $250 billion. In 2017, “Bezos was named the richest man in the world”. 

Bezos on July 5, 2021 “stepped down as CEO of Amazon to focus on his aerospace company Blue Origin.” Bezos transitioned “to executive chairman of Amazon’s board.”

(History Amazon opened for Business)

Today, May 17, 2022, Amazon sells books, food, vitamins, clothes, house hold items, furniture, computers, musical instruments, music, CDs, videos, DVDs, toys, etc.

When Jeff Bezos saw a need he filled it! 

In a few minutes on the internet you can look up what you need and have it delivered to your door by the dark blue Amazon van with the Amazon Prime log on the sides. It is always an exciting moment when a package arrives at our house from Amazon. 

American Express, Wells Fargo Bank, and Amazon are getting stronger every day and continue to innovate, evolve, and change to help others!

 It’s all about excellent customer service that keeps on giving!

How is the innovation and customer service at your business?

Madeline Frank, Ph.D., is an Best Selling Author, speaker, business owner, teacher, concert artist, and parent. She helps businesses and organizations “Tune Up their Business”. Her observations show you the blue prints necessary to improve and keep your business successful. Her latest book “Leadership On A Shoestring Budget” is available everywhere books are sold. If you need a speaker or virtual speaker contact Madeline at:

This entry was posted on Tuesday, May 17th, 2022 at 8:14 pm and is filed under Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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