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One Hundred Years in Yosemite (1947) by Carl P. Russell


CHAPTER VI


*

STAGECOACH DAYS

Woodcut from the first edition (1931)
Woodcut from the first edition (1931)

For twenty-three years after the coming of the first sightseers, Yosemite Valley was accessible only by horse trail. The twelve thousand tourists, who frantically clung to their Yosemite-bound steeds during this period, included many Easterners and Europeans not accustomed to mountain trails. They had departed surcharged with enthusiasm but sometimes were caustic in their expressions regarding their mode of conveyance and the crudity of the facilities found at their disposal both en route and in the valley. Not a few of the comments made by visitors found their way into print. Yosemite bibliography is not limited to items printed in English. The entire world sent representatives to the valley during that first period of travel, and foreign literature carried the story of Yosemite wonders quite as did American publications. The reader may form some opinion of what the printed word has done for Yosemite, if he will scan the titles which are given in the bibliography appended to this volume. In addition to these, of course, are hundreds of books and articles to which no reference has been made in the present work.

The merchants of the towns along the routes of approach, as well as the businessmen within the valley itself, felt the need of providing more adequately for the greater numbers that might be brought to their attractions. Foremost among the provisions, naturally, was the construction of wagon roads.

To Dr. John T. McLean, the president of the Coulterville and Yosemite Turnpike Company, belongs the honor of first making the Yosemite Valley accessible to wheeled vehicles. The Coulterville Company was formed in 1859. It had extended its road to Crane Flat, and, at the insistence of Dr. McLean arranged with the Yosemite commissioners to build and maintain a toll road to the floor of Yosemite Valley. The commissioners had agreed that this company should have exclusive rights on the north side of Yosemite Valley; that is, no other company was to build a road into the valley from the north for a period of ten years. Under this agreement, the Coulterville Road was projected in 1870 and completed to the Merced River in 1874. The following paragraph from a letter sent by Dr. McLean to the president of the Yosemite National Park Commission, 1899, gives interesting information on the discovery1 [ 1 ‘The Walker party, 1833, may have been the first to see the Merced Grove. See p. 8. See also Wegner, J. H., Yosemite Nature Notes (1930), p. 67. ] of the Merced Grove of Big Trees, as well as a statement regarding the opening of the Coulterville Road:

While making a survey for this road a grove of big trees was discovered, its existence not having been previously known except to Indians before these explorations for the building of this road were prosecuted. It was determined to carry the road directly through this grove, which was named the Merced Grove by me because of its nearness to the Merced River. In order to carry the proposed road through this new-found grove of Sequoia gigantea it was necessary, in order to secure the best grades and shortest distances to Yosemite, to leave the road already built at Hazel Green instead of at Crane Flat six miles farther east. It was thought the greater length of road required to start from Hazel Green and build through tin Merced Grove would be compensated by the advantage the roar would have of passing through this grove of over 50 Sequoias of the way to Yosemite. The additional cost in construction of the road by reason of this new departure from Hazel Green instead of from Crane Flat was about $10,000. The work of construction was vigorously prosecuted, and on June 17, 1874, the Yosemite was first opened to travel by wheeled vehicles over this road, on that day a number of stage coaches and passenger and freight teams passing over it to the level of the valley.

The Big Oak Flat and Yosemite Turnpike Company applied to extend their road to Yosemite Valley after the commissioners had conveyed exclusive rights to the Coulterville Road. The commissioners refused to violate their agreement with McLean’s company, but the Big Oak Flat Company secured the passage of an act by the state legislature, which granted the privilege asked. In July, 1874, the Big Oak Flat Road was completed to the floor of Yosemite. Needless to say, this second road functioned to the everlasting detriment of the Coulterville route.

In the fall of 1874, Washburn, Chapman, Coffman and Company of Mariposa sought the right to extend their Mariposa Road to Yosemite Valley. The commissioners granted their request on the same terms as given to the Coulterville Company. On July 22, 1875, amid much celebrating, the Mariposa Road was completed to the valley floor.

The easier mode of travel introduced by this road construction, coupled with the increased publicity from the pen and brush of enthusiasts, made for a substantial increase in the number of Yosemite visitors. In keeping with this wagon-road building was the steady extension of the Central Pacific Railroad. Stockton, Modesto, Copperopolis, Berenda, Merced, and Madera were, in turn, the terminals. Seven routes to Yosemite made bids for the tourist travel. The Milton and Calaveras route permitted of railroad conveyance to Milton. Those who were induced to take the Berenda-Grants Springs route took the train to Raymond. The Madera-Fresno Flats route afforded railroad-coach transportation to Madera. The Modesto-Coulterville route meant leaving the rails at Modesto. The Merced-Coulterville route involved staging from Merced. The Mariposa route also required detraining at Merced, but the stage route followed took travelers through Hornitos and Mariposa. Those tourists who chose the Milton-Big Oak Flat route left the train at Copperopolis and traveled in the stage to Chinese Camp, Priests, and into the valley on the Big Oak Flat Road. Dodgers, pamphlets, and guidebooks furnished by the competing towns and stage companies produced a confusion to say the least.

The conveyances were of two types. At the height of the season, when travel was heavy and roads dry, the Standard Concord Coach was employed. At other times, a vehicle commonly termed a “mud wagon” was put to use. During this era of horse-drawn vehicles, the trains of pack mules were, of course, replaced by great freight wagons. Today, in driving over the old wagon roads, one is led to wonder how passenger vehicles succeeded in passing the great freight outfits. Some years ago, in searching through the objects left in a deserted house in the ghost town, Bodie, I came upon a manuscript describing staging as it was practiced in that famous mining camp. What the unknown author has to say about the business there applies to neighboring mountain regions, and is a reminder of a phase of life of the ’eighties.

The stage coach is to California what the modern express train is to Indiana, and people unaccustomed to mountain life can form but little conception of the vast amount of transportation carried on by means of coaches and freight wagons.

Even though California may truly be termed the “Eden” of America, yet there is not a county in the state but has more or less traffic for the stage coach, and in the northern and eastern part of the state, especially, there is an entire network of well-graded roads, resembling Eastern pikes. These roads are mostly owned by corporations and, consequently, are toll roads.

Over these are run the fast stages drawn by from two to ten large horses, and the great freight wagons drawn by from fourteen to twenty mules.

The stage lines have divisions, as do railroads, and at the end of each division there is a change of horses, thus giving the greatest possible means for quick conveyance. Over each line there are generally two stages per day, one each way. These carry passengers, mail, and all express traffic. At each town is a Wells Fargo office, and business is carried on in a similar manner to that of railroad express offices. Telegraph lines are in use along the most important roads.

The stage lines have time cards similar to railroads, and in case a stage is a few minutes late, it causes as much anxiety as does the delay of an O. & M. express. A crowd is always waiting at the express office; some are there for business, others through some curiosity and to size up the passengers.

A stage from a mining town usually contains a bar of gold bullion worth $25,000, which is being shipped to the mint. Bullion is shipped from each mine once a month, but people always know when this precious metal is aboard by the appearance of a fat, burly officer perched beside the stage-driver, with two or three double-barreled shotguns. He, of course, is serving as a kind of scarecrow to the would-be stage robbers.

The average fare for riding on a stage is 15 cents per mile.

The manner in which freight is transported is quite odd, especially to a “Hoosier.” Wagons of the largest size are used. Some of these measure twelve feet from the ground to the top of the wagon bed; then bows and canvas are placed over this, making a total height of fifteen feet, at least. Usually three or four of these wagons are coupled together, like so many cars, and then drawn by from fourteen to twenty large mules. All these are handled by a single driver. A team of this kind travels, when heavily loaded, about fifteen miles per day, the same being spoken of always as the slow freight. In some mining districts, however, where business is flush, extra stages are put on for freight alone. These are termed the fast freights. This business involves a large capital, and persons engaged in it are known as forwarding companies. Even the freight or express on goods from New York is sometimes collected a hundred miles from any railroad, and so even to those living in the remote mountain regions, this is about as convenient, and they seem to enjoy life as well as if living in a railroad town.

The city of Bodie has its entire freight and passenger traffic carried as mentioned above. A short time ago its population was 10,000; there were three daily papers and free mail delivery, and all the improvements necessary to any modern town or city.

The prospect of a holdup always added to the thrill of staging. Yosemite literature is not replete with road agent episodes, but highwaymen did occasionally appear along the routes to the valley. “Black Bart,” whose fame as a gentleman stage robber was world-wide during the early ’eighties, met his downfall in the Yosemite region on his twenty-eighth robbery.

Black Bart was a very unusual bandit. He took no human lives. In fact, he never fired a weapon in any of his exploits. He carried an unloaded shotgun and bluffed, successfully, twenty-seven times. His forays began in 1874, and his returns were such that he was enabled to reside in San Francisco as a respected and rather dapper citizen. His absence from the city on the occasions of his robberies was accounted for through his story of visiting mines in which he held interests. His desire to be well dressed and his penchant for clean linen proved his undoing. It was a laundry mark on a handkerchief which brought about his capture after his twenty-eighth robbery. Not all the holdups along Yosemite roads took place in the distant past. D. J. Foley’s Yosemite Tourist for July 10, 1906, carries the following account of a robbery that brings the melodramatic influence of highwaymen into the very end of the period of stage coach days. It was entiled “Five Stages Held Up by the Lone Highwayman of the Chowchilla, An Event Full of Excitement and Interest,” and reads:

This is the story of a plain, ordinary “hold-up” of the Raymond-Wawona-Yosemite stages; and the time was Saturday afternoon at ten minutes of four. The place was about six miles this side of Ahwahnee, upon the side of the Chowchilla Mountain, about a mile and a half this side of where a similar, but less important, event took place last August.

The point, carefully selected by the bold robber was an ideal one. The road here is in the form of the letter S, flattened out, and he selected the upper part of the letter, about all of the other parts being visible.

The first stage was in charge of Will Palmer, one of the new drivers. Puffing and sweating, the team of four were rounding the turn in the road, when Walter Brode, who, with Mrs. F. J. House, occupied the front seat, yelled: “Hold up!” For up the road a hundred or more feet away he saw the fellow jump out from behind some brush and, with his old 44 Winchester up to his shoulder, he was advancing toward them. And in tones, musical and soft but determined, he said:

“Throw out that box!”

The driver was not aware of the presence of the express box, but it was there and Mr. Seth Hart threw it out like a gentleman. “Get out of that stage,” came the cool, determined command, supplemented with that ugly-looking 44.

And out they got.

Then he requested one of the ladies, Miss Bowen, to “pass the hat around,” which she did under protest.

The other stage was then about due and so he moved down the road a bit to a point where he could keep them well “covered,” and yet not be seen by the approaching stage. In the meantime all their hands were up, for that big “44” was pointed their way.

Around the turn came the second stage with “Josh” Wrenn as driver. No especial importance was attributed to the unusual sight, believing it to be a joke. But the illusion was quickly dispelled when out rang that soft and musical command: “Get out of the stage,” and out they got, the vicious-looking “44” being much in evidence. He lined them up with the others and then ordered a boy of about fifteen to “pass the hat around.” The boy was badly scared, and justly, too, and was about to comply with the request, when up spoke C. E. McStay, a well-known business man of Los Angeles, who very kindly offered to take the boy’s place. To this the robber consented, not suspecting the “job” that was so quickly put up on him. For “job” it was, and one, too, that saved the passengers many dollars and valuables. “I quickly thought of and settled this proposition,” said Mr. McStay. “If that boy passes the hat and searches us, for this is what he was ordered to do, he will not use any discretion, and we will all be heavy losers; whereas, if I can do that honor I shall take but little, unless I have to.” All this and more, too, was thought out by Mr. McStay in less time than it takes to write this, and so he acted at once, and to him is due the credit of the “buncoing” that followed; for this mild-mannered, soft-voiced Lone Highwayman of the Chowchilla was most thoroughly “buncoed” in this change of “hat passers,” and he suspected it even before the first stage was ordered to “move on.” But that’s another story. And so in the fullness of his nerve—it’s the real California—Los Angeles kind, too, Mr. McStay became the apparent Chief Assistant of the Lone Highwayman of the Chowchilla.

The third stage drove up in due time with the experience of the second stage duplicated. The fourth wagon had a load of ladies, and he did not order them to get out. Tho thus honored it was from this wagon that he secured most of his coin. The passengers of the fifth wagon “lined up” with the others. On this stage, in charge of the driver, Ed Gordon, was a sack, for the Sugar Pine Mills, with over $500 in it. From the zig-zag below they saw the crowd “lined up” and they, suspecting the cause, helped the driver to hide the sack under the cushion of the seat.

During the forty-year period which rightly may be considered as the stagecoach era, a combination of influences were at work. Politics sadly affected the management of the state grant (brought into existence in 1864), and sheep threatened the upper country not under the jurisdiction of the Yosemite commissioners. A national park came into existence which physically encompassed the state park and figuratively engulfed the state management.

Improvements grew apace. New hotels and public camp grounds were created; trails were built; the road system was improved and enlarged; electricity developed; and a climax reached with the construction of a railroad almost to the very gates of the valley. In 1907 the Yosemite Valley Railroad changed the entire aspect of stagecoach days by bringing its coaches to El Portal.

With the advent of this new transportation, the long stage ride was no longer necessary, but great fleets of horsedrawn vehicles were still employed to convey visitors from the railhead to Yosemite Valley. The various stage companies continued to operate, but except for the Big Tree routes, their traffic was greatly reduced. The Yosemite Valley Railroad menaced the business of staging, but a far more ominous threat had already appeared on the scene. Motor-driven vehicles were proving to be a success. The automobile was introduced to Yosemite more than a decade prior to the time when its official entry was permitted by park regulations. The first car to climb the Yosemite grades was a Stanley Steamer, and its driver was A. E. Holmes of San Jose. In a letter to J. V. Lloyd, Mr. Holmes testifies as follows:

This trip was made in the month of July [1900] by way of Madera and Raymond in a Stanley Steamer car that was manufactured just outside of the city of Boston. I was accompanied on this trip by my brother, F. H. Holmes.

At that time Boysen took our photographs in the Valley; one at the foot of Yosemite Falls, and another near Mirror Lake.

The body that is shown in the photograph is not the original body that came with the car, but one that was made just for the trip into the Yosemite.

To what extent noisy automobiles were regarded as a menace may be sensed upon considering the following “Instruction” posted about the park and published with Rules and Regulations during the later years of the stagecoach era:

(4) Bicycles.—The greatest care must be exercised by persons using bicycles. On meeting a team the rider must stop and stand at side of road between the bicycle and the team—the outer side of the road if on a grade or curve. In passing a team from the rear, the rider should learn from the driver if his horses are liable to frighten, in which case the driver should halt, and the rider dismount and walk past, keeping between the bicycle and the team. . . .

(9) Miscellaneous.—Automobiles and motor cycles are not permitted in the park.

What the railroad did to the stagecoach, the automobile, aided by storm, did to the railroad. On December 11, 1937, as a result of prolonged and heavy warm rains which melted the early snow cover at elevations as high as 10,000 feet, a flood developed in the basins of Yosemite and Tenaya creeks, and to a lesser degree in the other Yosemite watersheds. The notch at the top of Yosemite Falls was filled almost to the brim with muddy water that was estimated to leap 150 feet away from the cliff at the top. In the valley itself Yosemite Creek was half a mile wide, and the Merced River overflowed its banks on a similar rampage. Flood scars were clearly visible in the chutes of the valley walls nine years later. In the Merced Canyon far below the valley several miles of both the All-Year Highway and the Yosemite Valley Railway were destroyed.

The expense of replacing miles of twisted rails and missing roadbed, the loss of passenger traffic to automobile travel, and finally the loss of freight revenue when the Yosemite Sugar Pine Lumber Company sold its major holdings, combined to put the railway out of business. In 1945, wrecking crews took up the track, and another pioneer railroad disappeared.

Woodcut (Stage coach)

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