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The jingle of harness bells, the stomp of hooves, the whopping noise of a whip, grinding wheels and a all-enveloping cloud of dust were the familiar sounds and sights for forty galloping years as stagecoaches rolled to and from Wawona.
The mountain stage coaches, first with leather springs and later with steel, were of local design and construction. Excellent examples can be seen by the covered bridge and in the Wagon Shop of the Pioneer Yosemite History Center. The early traveler also saw freight, spring and “mud” wagons and even a classy buggy or two.
The Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company employed twenty to forty drivers and had some forty stagecoaches and buggies that were pulled by 700 horses. 15 In the height of the summer season, as many as eleven stages a day ran from the Raymond train station to Wawona, Yosemite Valley, Glacier Point and the Mariposa Grove. The teams had to be changed every few miles, so the Washburns kept stage stations at nine places between Raymond and Kennyville now the site of the Ahwahnee Hotel). 15 A great deal of hay and other provisions were hauled in by lumbering freight wagons with five-ton capacities pulled by a ten-mule team. The mules were driven by jerkline — one line — by a man riding one of the wheel animals. One man who did that was called simply “Jerkline Jones.” 36
The trip from Raymond to Wawona, 44 dusty miles, took ten hours, including a lunch stop at Ahwahnee. 37 After passengers had rested overnight at Wawona, they spent six more jolting hours on the 20 miles to Yosemite Valley.
Dusters or shielding coats of some kind were more of a necessity than a convenience to stage passengers. Summer dust was thick, cloying and so covered passengers that vigorous use of feather dusters at hotel stops was needed before they could be recognized as to race or sometimes even sex.
The swift trips were frightening, occasionally injurious and usually hard on nerves and soft muscles. At all regular stops, the stagecoach was drawn up expertly to a wooden platform so that passengers could mount and dismount their high seats with relative ease. The stages were said to look like boats on the outside, sardine cans on the inside with passengers jammed together. 38
This fantastically smooth-running operation was remarkably safe. There were few accidents and no fatalities to passengers during the Washburn tenure. There were holdups, though.
The Mariposa Gazette reported six stage robberies between 1883 and 1906. After one robbery, a group of passengers told their exciting experience when safely back at the hotel. An office employee asked a little old lady how much the robber had taken from her.
“Twenty-five dollars,” she replied.
“Oh, that’s a shame,” the clerk sympathized.
The lady spoke spiritedly. “I wouldn’t have missed it for a hundred!” 39
Former stage driver Eddie Gordon tells of the time a robber foiled pursuers, looking for horse tracks, by escaping on crude walking boards. (These “trackers” may be seen in the Wagon Shop at the Pioneer Yosemite History Center).
Gordon drove his team, “a mighty good one,” from Wawona Point, above the Mariposa Grove, to the Hotel in 45 minutes and, once, by changing horses, galloped the 29 miles from Glacier Point to the Wawona Hotel in three hours! 40
The stage drivers were the envy of small boys and admired by most of their passengers. They lived in the men’s bunkhouse, where the Sequoia Building is now, and had a special table in the back dining room. Pay earned was $60 a month plus room and board.
Most drivers were natives of Mariposa; Tom Gordon, Henry Hedges, Sam Uren, James Warner, John Stevens, C. K. Salmon, J. K. Ashworth, the Skelton brothers, E. W. Church, “Bright” Gillespie, Hy Rapelje, Johnny White, Ernest Stevens and Charles Fobes.
Some stagecoach drivers were deservedly famous. In article called “The Passing of the Sierra Knight,” in the July 1903 Overland Monthly, Ben C. Truman wrote that “After on experience of nearly 40 years, and having never known another such all-round reinsman as George Monroe. Just as there are the greatest of soldiers and sailors, artists and mechanics at times, so there are greater stage drivers than their fellows and George Monroe was the greatest of all. He was a wonder in every way. He had names for all his horses, and they all knew their name. Sometimes he spoke sharply to one or more of them, but generally he addressed them pleasantly. He seldom never used a whip, except to crack it over their heads.”
Although automobiles were in common usage from about 1905 on, Yosemite officials didn’t seem to think they were here to stay. They weren’t permitted in the Park at all until 1913, on the Wawona Road until 1914, and were not given general use of the roads until 1916.
There were some 60, annoying regulations protecting horses that drivers had to obey. Until August 8, 1914, automobile owners had to leave their at the Wawona Hotel and continue to Yosemite Valley by stage. 41 One frustrated motorist who mode the trip in 1911, wrote angrily, “On July 16th, we took our places with some other victims of this piece of transportation idiocy, on an open four-horse stage to Yosemite (Valley). The going was very slow. It was hot and dusty and we soon got irritable and uncomfortable. Why the traveling public should be subjected to this outrage is beyond me.” 31
In May 1916, “Stonewall Jackson” Ashworth “cracked the last whip” as he drove the final Washburn stagecoach from the Valley to Wawona. 12
The automobile was here to stay, replacing the horse and ending the romantic but rugged era of the stagecoach.
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