Published on Friday, September 16, 2011
Knight of the Road
By Janett L. Grady
On an early July morning in 1859, four stagecoaches line up in front of a stage office in a small California town. The teams stomp impatiently, their hides shivering off the vicious flies. Also impatient are the passengers: a blue-eyed gambler in a shiny top hat and checkered vest; a farmer's daughter in dusty trail clothes; gold miners in mud-caked boots and pants; and a sleepy-eyed cowhand.
Hired hands, loaded down with carpetbags and miners' picks and shovels, hurry in and out of the office, stopping momentarily in the doorway so the harried manager can check off items on a long list.
Finally, all the passengers are aboard. The gambler takes a long cigar from a silver box, strikes a match to it and settles back in his seat, face impassive. The farmer's daughter stares at the cowhand, a small smile creasing her face. The cowhand is snoring.
The drivers pick up their ribbons and the guards, riding shotgun, hook high-heeled boots over the footboard and cradle their weapons. The dispatcher shouts, "All aboard for Mormon, Brighton, Usley, and Hangtown!" The manager waves at one driver, then another, and another. Whips crack like fireworks. Teams leap into their collars and big wheels roll.
This was an ordinary scene at a California stage depot, from which stagecoaches spanned out for hundreds of miles going from town to town. For more than half a century, the stagecoach was transportation on the frontier. It rumbled into American legend to become an inseparable symbol of The Wild West, as did the stagecoach driver, as important in our folklore as the rancher, the cowboy, the sheriff and the outlaw.
Not just anybody could drive a stagecoach. A driver-or knight, ribbon handler, jehu, or whip, as he was sometimes called-was a skilled operator who usually possessed only the bare rudiments of an education and was celebrated for his pronounced, though probably not profound, views on all problems of state, religion, business and love.
"The average stage driver," wrote historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, "was by no means the least original and fantastic of the conglomeration of humanity in California."
These knights of the road were swaggering in conduct, rough in speech, but usually quite accommodating to their passengers. Above all, the driver was a trusted agent of his employer, expected to be sober and dependable. Most of them were. As a rule, passengers idolized their drivers. After all, driving a stage took courage and a great deal of skill. A ride on one frontier stage was a backbreaking, bone-twisting experience.
"I felt like a mess of eggs being scrambled," is the way one bruised traveler described his trip. He was not experiencing anything out of the ordinary. Stagecoach rides were bumpy. The roads were primitive and the driver, with one eye on the lookout for highwaymen, had little time for worrying about passengers' comfort. Passenger safety, however, was a major concern. Most drivers delivered travelers to their destinations in one piece.
Charlie Parkhurst was one of the best-known stagecoach drivers in California. Charlie drove stages over many runs, among them Stockton to Mariposa, Oakland to San Jose, San Juan to Santa Cruz, and Sacramento to Placerville. No passenger of this jehu was ever known to have been hurt. Small in stature and slight of build, Charlie was nevertheless one of the toughest drivers who ever handled the ribbons. Charlie was also caring and kind. Before starting a run, Charlie would often stretch around to look at the passengers and ask, "Are you ready, ladies and gentlemen?" Then off they'd go, bumping along in a cloud of dust with old Charlie holding the lines and cracking a whip. "Giddy up, Jake! Git along, Mack!"
J. Ross Browne, western observer and author, recalled riding in the box next to Charlie one dark night from Sacramento to Placerville: "The roads were so bad that the horses seemed to be eternally plunging over precipices...the stage following them with a crashing noise, horribly suggestive of cracked skulls and broken bones. But," said Browne, "I had implicit confidence in old Charlie. The way he handled the lines and peered through the clouds of dust and the volumes of darkness and saw trees and stumps and boulders and horses' ears, when I could scarcely see my own hand before me, was a miracle of stage driving."
Whenever the stagecoach rumbled into a station, Charlie would feed and water the horses, examine their hooves and mouths and check their general health. With a mechanic's instinct, Charlie would leave nothing about the coach unchecked, not a screw, wheel, axle, bolt, strap or chain. Charlie would also make every effort to attend to the wishes of passengers.
As the years of hard work passed, Charlie's health began to fail and a bit of rheumatism got worse. Then one day a horse kicked Charlie full in the face, and Charlie lost an eye. Thereafter called "one-eyed Charlie" by newer customers, Charlie continued to drive.
Finally, after more than 30 years of driving, Charlie stepped down from the box, turned over the lines to a younger driver, and retired to live alone on a little farm near Watsonville, where life was quiet and the farmers and townspeople were kind and friendly.
As if the usual infirmities of old age were not enough, Charlie developed cancer of the tongue. Charlie died on December 29, 1879. The body was found by some old friends and, anxious to give Charlie a decent ride across the Great Divide, they prepared the body for a decent burial. It was then discovered that Charlie was a woman. At first, there were those who wouldn't believe it. But a doctor not only confirmed that Charlie was a woman, he also attested to the fact that Charlie had been a mother.
Charlie was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Watsonville, and her grave can be visited to this day.
The stagecoach, and stagecoach drivers like Charlie, had met the challenge of the time. They helped form one of the most colorful epics in the history of the American West.
Janett L. Grady is a senior citizen who lives and writes with her husband in Palmer, Alaska.