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Knights of the Lash: Old Time Stage Drivers of the West Coast

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By Major Ben C. Truman in 1898

 

California Stage CoachThe old stage drivers of the Pacific Slope during the fifties and sixties [1800s], nearly all of whom have themselves been driven over the "Great Divide'' were the last of their race. Time was, however, when the man who held the ribbons over a six-horse team on the summits of the Sierra and in the canons of the Coast and Cascade Ranges was more highly esteemed than the millionaire or the statesman who rode behind him. He was, moreover, the best liked, and the most honored personage in the country through which he took his right of way. He was often a "hail fellow well met," but he was the autocrat of the road at all times. His orders were obeyed with the greatest celerity [swiftness], and he was always the first to be saluted by the wayfarer, the passenger, the hostler, the postmaster, and the man at the door of the wayside inn. Our Sierra Jehu, was generally an American, in most cases from New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, Texas, Missouri, New Hampshire, or Maine.

 

All, or nearly all, of his class had been through grammar or higher schools, some of them colleges, as well, and a majority of them had pronounced opinions on politics and theology and could converse rationally and cleverly on all ordinary subjects.

 

All were gentlemanly and accommodating and favorites with the women who lived along their routes, few of whom they addressed except by their Christian names, while the pretty, plump, sixteen-year-olds they would tap familiarly under their chins. Some of the Jehus were young and green in the service, but the majority were grim and gray and professionally artistic. There were those who never indulged in liquors or wines of any kind; there were those who occasionally "spreed it," and there were those who could not keep their teams on the grades unless they took a "couple of fingers" at every inn and "joined" the "outside traveler" moderately often between "changes." No person ever gave a California stage driver a small coin, as one would a porter or a waiter; but a nice slouch hat, a fine pair of boots, a pair of gloves, silk handkerchiefs, or good cigars, were always acceptable. These old-time drivers all dressed in good taste. Their clothes were of the best cloths, made to order; their boots and gauntlets fine fitting and of good pattern, and their hats of a cream-white, half stiff and half slouch. Most of them used tobacco in various forms. Many of them were perfect Apollos.

 

George MonroeOne of the best-known of all Sierra whips was "Alfred," [George Monroe] a mulatto, who for a number of years, up to the time of his death, drove a stage daily between Wawona and Yosemite Valley. Probably no man, living or dead, has ever driven so many illustrious people. Grant, Garfield, Hayes, Elaine, Schurz, Sherman, Senator Stewart, Senator Morgan of Alabama, and hundreds of other Senators and Congressmen; governors of many of the States; Bull Run Russell, George Alfred Townsend, Charlie Nordhoff, John Russell Young, and scores of other eminent journalists; Albert Bierstadt, Thomas Moran, Tom Hill, C. D. Robinson, and other famous artists; Mrs.Langtry, Lady Franklin, the Princess Louise, and many hundreds of other persons of consequence, have been taken into the great Yosemite by Alfred.

 

He never had an accident; always made time, either way, to a minute; knew every peak and tree and rock and canon and clearing and hut and streamlet by the wayside. He was of medium stature, and weighed 165 pounds; he dressed neatly and wore the whitest and handsomest gauntlets of any driver in the Sierra. He was of a melancholy nature, oft times driving the entire distance from Wawona to Inspiration Point without uttering a word or relaxing a feature. But if he had a jolly crowd behind, he would watch his team carefully and listen radiantly to the jokes, stories, conundrums, and conversation, of those in his charge.

 

The last time I saw Alfred I was a Yosemite commissioner, and went over the mountains with him alone. He had on a new pair of gauntlets sent him by Senator Morgan of Alabama and a fine whip presented by Mrs.Langtry. He said that he had never permitted but one man to take the reins from him in his life, and that was President Grant.

 

"The General drove nearly all the way to Inspiration Point," said Alfred, "and lighted at least four cigars. He took in everything along the road, and made all the turns as perfectly as an old driver. I had a fine crowd that day, the General and Mrs. Grant and Ulysses, Jr.; Mr. Young, who has since been Minister to China and is now Librarian of Congress; and there was Miss Jennie Flood, the only daughter of the wealthy bonanza man, who was jilted by young Grant; Miss Dora Miller, the only daughter of Senator Miller, who is now the wife of Commander Clover, United States Navy, and Miss Flora Sharon, who afterwards married Sir Thomas Hesketh of England.

 

 

 

Mountain StagecoachMiss Sharon was the prettiest girl I ever carried into the valley, and Mrs. Langtry the most beautiful and agreeable woman. I have received presents from all the members of the Grant family. The General himself gave me a silver-mounted cigar-case containing eight cigars, and the girls sent me gloves and candy."

 

On the 17th of August, 1878, I rode over one of the summits of the Sierra from Quincy, Plumas County, to Oroville, Butte County, upon the seat with "Cherokee Bill."  This driver was not an Indian, but a regular Buckeye from the Western Reserve. He was a stout, clumsily-put-together creature, with stub beard, and drove a four-horse mud wagon.

 

He was rather more morose-looking and slovenly in his dress than most Sierra drivers, being clad in overalls and woolen shirt, but wearing good gloves and the regulation hat. I was the only passenger except an old clergyman, who occupied the middle seat on the inside. We left Quincy at six in the morning, with not a cloud in the sky. At ten the entire heavens were overcast, it began to sprinkle, and distant mutterings of thunder could be heard. At eleven o'clock, when within a thousand feet of the summit, we encountered the full violence of the storm. I had never seen lightning, thunder, and rain, like it. The rain descended not in torrents, but in shafts; the lightning flashed almost incessantly, and the thunders made a continuous roar, with now and then, a crash which resembled the fall of a hundred or more of the most noble taxodiums [type of Conifer tree] of the forest. I said to Bill, although I was already completely drenched:  "I guess I'll crawl inside."

 

"No!" he replied, "you don't want to get in with that thing; he refused to bury my poor boy a few months ago because he hadn't been baptized. I wish one of these pines would strike him dead. He's one of those old duffers who believes that our babies come into the world to be damned, and claims that it is wicked to bury a fellow-being if he hasn't been baptized by some old preacher like Kalloch. I 'd like to run him off into the canon."

 

We reached the summit at twelve o'clock, and here a sight presented itself such as I had never seen before. The storm had spent itself on the summit and had been swept into the stupendous chasms surrounding, with all of its celestial pyrotechnics and deafening artillery; and from a sunny elevation seven thousand feet in the air we could behold the jubilee of elements below. I saw Hooker's fight in and above the clouds on Lookout Mountain, at the commencement of the Atlanta campaign. I was reminded of that memorable episode by the sight before me, except that, instead of the din of small arms and the infernally-demoralizing "Rebel yell," the roar of heaven's artillery in the Sierra that 17th day of August was like that of ten thousand battles in the clouds. Bill reined up so that I could stand and get a good view, at which the inside passenger stuck his head out of the window and asked: 

 

"What is the matter, driver? What are you stopping here for? "

 

Bill was ferocious, and replied, "I'm listening to the salute the Almighty is firing over my poor boy's grave."

 

The preacher said no more, and I told Bill to drive on, which he did, but quietly said to me: "Do you think that preacher would ask for my certificate of baptism if he had a chance to bury me? Not much."

 

Virginia City, Nevada

Virginia City, Nevada, 1866.

 

 

For many years "Baldy" Green was a favorite driver in the Sierra, but in 1866, and for a long time afterwards, he drove out of Virginia City, Nevada, on the Austin Drive as far as Big Ned's, seventy-five miles from Virginia City. He was nearly six feet in height and proportionately built, and was altogether as handsome a man as one could wish to meet. His eyes were large, lustrous, and beautiful. His moustache was perfect. He wore a number seven boot and had a hand like a woman's. There was a sparseness of hair on his head and he was known as Baldy in consequence. To have addressed him as Mr. Green would have been as totally out of place as it would be to address Mrs. Isabella Beecher Hooker as Birdie.

 

He once drove Ben Holladay and the writer, Horace Greeley, from Virginia City to Austin, 185 miles, in seventeen hours. He also let himself out thirty odd years ago upon Vice-President Colfax and party between Big Ned's and Virginia City, putting them over the road on one occasion forty-five miles in four hours.

He was fond of John Barleycorn, and took his "snifters" with exceeding regularity. As a judge of that ambrosial decoction, known as whiskey-punch, Baldy Green was an accomplished juror.

 

Baldy had whips and canes and gloves and hats given him by Colfax, Richardson, Bross, Bowles, Fitzhugh Ludlow, Judge Carter, Hepworth Dixon, Captain Burton, Brigham Young, Jr., Ned Adams, John McCullough, Setchell, Senators Sharon, Fair, Stewart, and Nye, Tom Fitch, "Artemas Ward," and Jerome Leland. He had driven Forrest, Booth, Billy Goodall, the Western Sisters, Susan and Kate Denin, Billy Birch, Ben Cotton, Sher Campbell, Jerry Bryant, Barry Sullivan, Starr King, Talmage, Bishop Kip, Horace Greeley, "Yankee" Sullivan, John C. Heenan, Barrett, and scores upon scores of eminent men and women representing all professions and pursuits.

 

"Artemas Ward," said Baldy, "was the funniest man I ever had on the seat with me, and dear Ned Adams the jolliest. We sang and drank and told stories and laughed all the way. Mark Twain has ridden with me, but I never liked him. He seemed to study a long time before he said anything funny. And he never gave me a cigar or asked me to take a drink in his life. Joe Goodman was a good fellow. Jim Nye could rattle off stories all day. Tom Fitch was always broke. Ben Holladay was the most profane man I ever knew. Johnny Skae was always going to send me a new hat or some gloves, but they never reached me. Bill Stewart never said turkey to anyone. General Winters and General Avery were generous to a fault.

 

"Doctor Talmage once rode with me and said he could see God in all the tree tops. 'Do you drink?' he thundered in my left ear one night. I thought sure he was going to pull out a flask. But he didn't. He just said: ' You shouldn't.' Then he pointed to a new moon and said: 'There's no water in that moon.' And I just hazarded the reply that there was a lucky crowd up there, and then he opened his mouth like a cavern and shouted, 'Ha!' so loudly that my team came near running away.

 

But, that man Starr King was a glorious person. The music of his voice still lingers in my ear. Charley Forman was a generous fellow,  everybody liked him. John McCullough was a pleasant chap, I tell you, and he could get away with a good many drinks between drinks. Heller went out of Virginia with me once and every once in a while he would take an egg from under my nose, or from the tip end of my glove. And once he took hold of my nose as if to blow it, and let fall from it, it seemed, about a dozen half dollars which he rubbed together and then out of sight between his hands and then took them out of my hat. Ah, those happy times will never come again."

Short, stout, jolly Billy Hamilton is known as one of the oldest and best drivers upon the Pacific Coast and a man who has owned stage lines in many parts of Oregon, Nevada, and California. He could handle the "ribbons" with any of them for thirty years, and commenced staging in 1850. For many years he owned the lines from Colfax to Grass Valley, from Los Angeles to Bakersfield, from Mojave to Independence, and many others. Billy was fond of his "tod" when not driving. For twenty-five years he made more money than he knew what to do with, and he literally threw it away. He was generous to a fault and has loaned more twenty-dollar gold pieces in his life that he could never get back than you could put in a peck measure. 

I have ridden with Billy in the Sierra, through the Mojave Desert, and over the Coast Range, and considered him one of the most delightful whips in the world. He weighs 190 pounds and is sixty-five years old, and although he has struck bed-rock pretty closely a number of times, he was often helped out by Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker, (who never went back on any of the forty-niners who had done them a service), and now owns a pretty ranch in Kern county, where he resides when he is not at the Palace Hotel in San Francisco, playing "cinch " for half bottles of Extra Dry.

 

Buffalo Jim, who was laid to rest at Merced, in 1881, was a well known Yosemite driver twenty years ago, but had driven at times from Portland, Oregon, to Tucson, Arizona. I came down from the Valley with him once, when his only other passengers were two women from Los Angeles and two children and an Eastern clergyman. Jim was accounted a good driver, but upon the occasion referred to, there was something the matter with the nigh wheel horse (he was driving only four horses), which he attempted in vain to discover. The animal acted worse and worse for about a mile, when at last it commenced to buck and kick and finally broke in the dash board. At this, the team started on the run and Jim put down the brake as far as he could and yanked the team with all his might. His hat flew off and we went like the wind. The horses all kicked and ran, and I saw he was getting worn out and scared; and although I believe I could have helped him if he would have permitted me, (the two women were my wife and sister, and their children,) I know the peculiarities of these fellows and would not offer assistance, but merely said to those inside in answer to their questions: 

 

"The team is running away, but don't jump!"

 

As we happened to be on a smooth, wide piece of road where there were no big rocks or trees, I felt that the team would run itself tired and that the stage would not be turned over if the harness and brake held and it did not leave the grade. After a run of four miles Jim handed me the lines over the wheelers, saying:  

 

"Do the best you can, old man, for I am about gone up!"

 

The harness was getting shaky, and two of the traces had given away, but the under-gear, the brake, and the lines, remained all right, and we soon struck a stretch of deep sand and at last brought up the team within a few hundred yards of a swing station, which we managed to reach in bad condition. Jim was limp with fatigue, so much so, that he could not swear properly. We all drew long breaths, although none inside realized the closeness of the call we had just had on that mountain grade.

 

 

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