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It has been amazingly difficult to assemble the following facts about the many stage lines that served this portion of the Southern Mines. The rivalry and competition among the various stage line companies, especially of the ’50’s and ’60’s, led to a constant change of schedules, rates, ownership and routes. This account has been pieced together over a period of years and many of the data come from articles and advertisements in the old newspaper files of Stockton, Sonora, Mariposa, etc. There are bound to be omissions but the facts presented (taken from publications current at the time) are probably correct. Only the stage lines of major interest and importance in serving the Big Oak Flat Route to Yosemite Valley are presented.
According to early Stockton papers several stage and express lines operated between that city and the Southern Mines in the early ’50s. Adams Express Company had an office in Chinese Camp, serving Big Oak Flat and Coulterville. Reynolds & Co.’s Express operated from Stockton and served Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties by fall of 1850, however, the more remote camps were required to have their own pack-animal expressman to pick up parcels at Chinese Camp. In the Sonora “Union Democrat” of September 27, 1850, there appeared a notice that the first daily stage line in the Southern Mines was to run between Sonora, Knights Ferry, Chinese Camp and Coulterville. No guarantee was given that the whole trip could be made by stage, but only as far as the road permitted. The journey would then be completed by saddle animals for which there was no extra charge unless the passenger needed a second animal for baggage. The stage left Sonora early in the morning by way of Montezuma and Chinese Camp and, under favorable conditions, arrived in Stockton at two in the afternoon. At this time the Big Oak Flat Road had not been extended beyond Red Flat or Shepley’s Flat, a few miles east of Chinese Camp.
The transportation business was profitable and competition immediately began to increase. On June 16, 1855, the Sonora “Union Democrat” carried an announcement by A. J. Snow of Jacksonville that his express would be able to accommodate six passengers and that he was making four regular trips weekly. In this he reminded the traveling public that his express had been the first to run between Jacksonville and the Garrotes and asked for their continued patronage. In the same year his chief competitor, Archy Yochem, put a notice in the Sonora paper that his express would extend its run from Big Oak Flat to Coulterville and Mariposa, leaving Sonora daily, except Tuesdays. Stage stations were generally twelve miles apart. These early conveyances were commnonly known as “mud-wagons” and about the only consideration given to a traveler’s comfort was a stretch of canvas over the top to protect him somewhat from the scorching sun or downpour of rain. One passenger called her stage “a hard, lumbering, springless, unpainted fiend.” This was the hypercritical lady who, upon leaving Stockton via stagecoach, remarked upon the presence of an insane asylum in proximity to the hotel. “Can this have any connection,” she demanded bitterly, “with its being the returning point for YoSemite tourists?”
In 1856 the road to Big Oak Flat was widened to accommodate heavy freighters. The middle ’50s formed a period of unrest and dissatisfaction in various parts of the diggings. Many miners moved out; then as ditch companies were formed bringing in the necessary water, they swarmed back into the Mother Lode country. The staging business became profitable again. There was such a rush to the Big Oak Flat diggings that it was sometimes necessary to wait two or three days in Chinese Camp to get a seat on the stage. Passengers were often required to walk up Moccasin Hill unless extra horses were added at the base. Generally six horses were needed for this stretch. In 1860 two daily stages entered Big Oak Flat, one from Sonora and one from Stockton, each via Chinese Camp where horses and drivers were changed. There was also a change of horses at Crimea House, then called Mound Springs Station. At the same time a four-wheeled vehicle with a seat along each side served as a stage between Big Oak Flat and Second Garrote, the end of the wagon road.
One of the earlier stage lines was a spring wagon run by M. J. Dooly from Stockton to Sonora via Knight’s Ferry and Chinese Camp. Upon Dooly’s death it was absorbed by C. H. Sisson.
According to Bancroft’s Guide, No. 5, by 1869 tourists en route to Yosemite Valley could buy tickets at C. H. Sisson and Company’s office in Stockton whence stages left daily at 6 A.M., except Sundays. The fare was $20.00 including the transfer to Simon Shoup’s stage at Chinese Camp. If the traveler started from the latter settlement the fare was only $13.00. No extra charge was made for the horseback trip from Hardin’s Mill, the road terminus at that date, on to the Yosemite. At Shoup’s Chinese Camp office the traveler might decide which route he wished to take to the valley—Big Oak Flat or Coulterville—and might board the stage so designated. Bancroft’s Guide, No. 8, states that the routes were identical to the top of Moccasin Hill (then sometimes known as Rattlesnake Hill) where Mr. and Mrs. Kirkwood (later Mrs. Priest) established a small stopping place in 1855—a modest inn which became historic Priest’s Station.
At Kirkwood’s the Coulterville stage, having made a change of horses, crossed Rattlesnake Creek and descended southeastward to Coulterville, thence to the terminus of its road where a saddle train met the tourists.
The traveler who chose the Big Oak Flat stage continued on from Kirkwood’s after the necessary attention was given to the teams and stopped for the first night at Savory’s Hotel in First Garrote (Groveland). At suppertime Mr. Shoup told his women passengers to don riding habits in the morning in order to be ready for the 28-mile saddle trip which would commence at Hardin’s the following afternoon. He also hesitantly informed them that those who wished to change to bloomers at Tamarack Flat, well up in the wilderness, for the uncomfortable ride down the cliff to the valley floor would most certainly be given a chance to change back to the modest habit and sidesaddle as soon as they struck level ground.
By the spring of 1870 the staging terminus had moved up the mountain to Hodgdon’s and, according to Bancroft’s Guide No. 8, there was a charge of $5.00 for the saddle trip to the floor of the valley via J. M. Hutching’s mule train. As soon as the road reached his property Jeremiah Hodgdon broke into the staging game, running a small “mud wagon” from Hardin’s Mill eastward to his primitive stopping place. By fall of 1870 the road had progressed to Crane Flat where L. T. Gobin had established a comfortable stopping place. This stretch of road was very narrow and steep and a control station was maintained at Hodgdon’s. The guidebook referred to this section of the road as “Hardin’s Route.”
In June of 1871 the Central Pacific Railroad’s “Copperopolis Short Line” from Stockton to Milton, Calaveras County, was completed. Passengers and goods could now come as far as Milton by train. Sisson & Co.’s stage line then ran from Milton to Chinese Camp. The rates were, of necessity, lowered. In this same summer of ’71 Hodgdon pushed the stage route as far as Tamarack Flat where it was met by J. M. Hutching’s string of saddle mules.
In 1872 Hodgdon formed a partnership with Simon Shoup and an arrangement was made whereby Shoup’s stage met Hodgdon’s at Hardin’s Mill three times a week. Hodgdon then took the passengers on to Gentry’s where they were met by the saddle train, keeping them firmly at his new hotel all night en route. The Shoup-Hodgdon project was known as the Yo Semite Stage Line and the saddle train was owned and operated by J. M. Hutchings of Yosemite Valley. Hodgdon built a large barn on a tributary of North Crane Creek close to his stage station. James (“Johnny”) Hardin finally acquired an interest in the line and continued to run a small stopping place on his flat.
In 1873, in addition to Mr. Shoup’s interest in the aforementioned line, he started his tri-weekly “Sonora to Garrote Stage Line,” according to the Sonora “Union Democrat,” October 25, 1873. Thence, until July 17, 1874, travel down the cliff was by mule train and the journey from Chinese Camp to the Valley floor was generally known as either “Hutching’s Route” or “The Big Oak Flat Route.”
Shoup and Hodgdon were still partners in ’78. The Sonora “Union Democrat” for April 13th of that year wrote, “Mr. Shoup and Jerry Hodgdon are below fixing preliminaries for their line of stages which we understand are in readiness now to connect with Olive and Co.’s line from Stockton.” On November 9, 1878, the Sonora “Union Democrat” stated that Hodgdon had been awarded the government mail contract to Yosemite, deliveries to be made three times a week six months out of the year and once a week during the winter and spring. Interviews established that he made his winter trips on snowshoes.
In 1879 Hodgdon sold out to Charles Kassabaum and John D. Meyer of Groveland but kept an interest in the business. He and his son Thomas remained as drivers for a short period. After almost two years Kassabaum and Meyer dissolved their partnership. Mr. Meyer then gave full time to his cattle raising and Mr. Kassabaum afterward became a director in a later stage line.
In the ’70’s the “Nevada Stage Company” moved a large portion of their equipment and many of their drivers from Nevada into California. This is a development in staging seldom mentioned by historians, but as late as the early ’80’s, stages bearing the sign “Nevada Stage Co.” ran into the Yosemite Valley over the Big Oak Flat Road. This interstate transfer has been corroborated by interviews. The owners of this line are given as Parker, Pease and Cluggage and their “Yosemite Run” operated from Milton to the Valley via Chinese Camp. In 1881 an advertising booklet put out by the Nevada Stage Company states: “A stage meets the train at Milton at 9:35 A.M.; stops for lunch at Copperopolis; arrives at Priest’s Station at 6:00 P.M. for dinner and the night’s stop. Leaves Priest’s early in the morning via Big Oak Flat and arrives in Yosemite Valley at 5:00 P.M. The round trip amounts to $35.00.” Six horses were generally used and at times, when snow still lay on the higher elevations, snowshoes for the animals were added.
Travel to the Yosemite was on the increase and “Jerry” Hodgdon’s stopping place became far too inadequate and primitive, especially for women travelers. When John Shine of Sonora became manager of the Nevada Stage Line he appealed to Henry Crocker to build a stage station and pleasing stopping place on his property between the South Fork of the Tuolumne and the road, and a few miles below Hodgdon’s Meadows. By the spring of 1881 Mr. Crocker’s 15 structures were almost completed. The stage company was indeed proud of its attractive stopping place and only the overflow went to Hodgdon’s, whose primary interest had always been cattle raising.
On March 1, 1886, the Great Sierra Stage Company was incorporated, having purchased the “Yosemite Run” of the Nevada Stage Company. Its directors were William C. Priest, of Big Oak Flat, Colwell Owens Drew and Charles Kassabaum of Groveland, Henry R. Crocker and Thomas H. Beals whose property lay in the Santa Maria voting precinct above the settlements. John Shine of Sonora became the company’s superintendent and manager. The Great Sierra Stage Line ran stages from Milton to Yosemite Valley via Copperopolis, O’Byrne’s Ferry and Chinese Camp. By this time the road was completed to the Valley floor, and tourists were no longer required to change to horse or mule back for the final descent. The stages were no longer of the mud wagon type and more attention was given to the comforts of the traveler.
Among the company’s best remembered drivers, many of whom drove for the Nevada Stage Co., were Martin Burrell, Rice Markley, William Carlton, Joseph Ridgeway, John, Dennis and Andrew Shine, “Al” Harkness, Donald McLean, Adam Thomager, Ned McGowen, Joseph Mulligan, Messrs. Mott and Stoddard, Joseph Johns, Archie McLean, Tom, Jack and Bill Gibbons, Clark Stringham, Samuel Smith, Billy Walton, Billy Hendricks, George Townsend, Thomas Hodgdon, Thomas Jackson who married Margaret Solinsky of Chinese Camp, and William Hodges, distinguished by a scar on his head from a bullet fired by the bandit Vasquez.
After an indefinite period the line was purchased by Capt. W. A. Nevills, a wealthy mining man of the county, and was known as Nevills and Guerins. By 1902 the line was sold to D. A. Lumsden, Saul and Paul Morris of Chinese Camp, and was entitled The Big Oak Flat-Yosemite Stage Co. Nevills became their manager.
In 1897 the construction of the Sierra Railroad was begun, joining Oakdale with Jamestown and Sonora. Chinese Station, a short distance from the town, served Chinese Camp. Yosemite passengers no longer used the Copperopolis Short Line unless they intended also to visit the Calaveras Grove of Big Trees.
In 1902 an advertising booklet was circulated, stating that Paul Morris of Chinese Camp was then the company’s General Manager. From him and other sources we have gathered that later the firm was managed by Paul Morris, “Dave” Lumsden remaining in the company, at least for a time. Meanwhile Saul Morris managed the large Morris Brothers’ store in Chinese Camp.
In the early 1900’s this company owned thirty well-built “Henderson” stages equipped with thorough braces. Concord stages were never used on the route above Chinese Camp. Some three hundred horses were cared for by twenty hostlers along the road and the company’s thirty drivers were carefully chosen. Several horseshoers, road bosses and other personnel were also employed and repair work was done at Egling’s shop in Chinese Camp. This was the peak of staging to Yosemite. In 1914 the stage company added to their toll rate sign: “Automobiles defined, vehicle not used with horses.” As more and more automobiles entered the Valley the Morris brothers foresaw the end of their profitable business and closed out the run.
For over fifty years the number of accidents was amazingly low. During the last decade the Morris brothers attributed this to detailed inspection of the road before each spring opening of the upper stretches to guard against washed-out bridges, fallen trees and dislodged boulders; and also to a most careful selection of drivers for their skill and discretion. The safety of the passengers was a matter of personal pride to the owners of the line.
Between 1869 and 1915 toll gates were placed in sequence at Sprague’s Ranch, Hardin’s Mill, Crane Flat and Colfax Springs. For several years before the road was purchased by Tuolumne County, the toll gate stood at the crossing of the South Fork of the Tuolumne River; at present the location of a modern inn, “The Cliff House.” The sign read:
BIG OAK FLAT AND YOSEMITE TURNPIKE ROAD COMPANY
|Paul Morris, President||George A. Sprague|
|Robert Simmons, Road Supt.||Secretary-Treasurer|
* * * * * * * * *
Franchise granted, Feb. 20, 1869 by State of Calif. to run 50 years.
* * * * * * * * *
Rates of Toll
|Each passenger each way to Yosemite Valley||$ 1.00|
|“ “ “ “ in private vehicle or stage||$1.00|
|“ “ “ “ “ automobile||$1.00|
|“ “ “ “ on horseback||$1.00|
|Freight teams each way, 2 animals||$2.00|
|each additional animal||.50|
|Loose horses or cattle—each||.10|
|Loose sheep or goats, each||.05|
|Bicycle, one passenger||.50|
Rates of toll to Crocker’s
|Each passenger each way in stage or vehicle||.50|
|“ “ “ “ “ automobile||.50|
|Freight teams each way, 2 animals each way||$1.50|
|“ additional animal||.25|
|Foot travelers, each way||.25|
|Bicycle each way||.50|
Automobile defined, vehicle not used with horses
Paul Morris, C. O. Drew, Geo. Sprague, E. T. Gobin, Robt. Simmons, Dan Corcoran.
Attorney, John B. Curtin, Sonora, California
Main office: Priest Hotel, Big Oak Flat, California
Rates of Toll Set by Board of Supervisors of Tuolumne
and Mariposa Counties.
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