Stage coach driver hid secret life 'til the end

Written by Joanne Burkett from facts that came from an article that was published in 1869.

Stage coach drivers were a cocky bunch, by and large. Drivers reveled in their skill at handling the reins that controlled four or six spirited horses and this often transferred itself into a certain swaggering, rough-talking arrogance. When discussing the average stage driver, historian Hubert Howe Bancroft said, "He was lord in his way, a captain of his craft, the fear of timid passengers, the admiration of stable boys, and the trusty agent of his employer."

Once settled on the "box," as their uppermost seat was known, they were usually all business. Most were not given to passing the time of day while working the reins, even though "off the box" they were often outspoken "experts" on a variety of subjects. But, most felt that talking while working was very unprofessional.

Bancroft was of the opinion that these colorful men, known variously as knights, jehus or whips, were usually very accommodating to their passengers, especially the ladies. However, another historian, J. Ross Browne, did not hold their conduct with the passengers in such high esteem, although he did like certain drivers. In fact, Browne commented, "Why stage drivers, who are paid a liberal stipend per month for putting passengers over the public highways, should be so vindictively hostile to the traveling community surpasses my comprehension."

Browne was probably nearly alone in his opinions. Most passengers simply idolized the drivers. In fact, to be selected to ride on the box next to the driver was considered quite an honor. Often, passengers would go to extreme lengths to be the one "chosen" to sit up front, even going to the driver's superior to cull the favor.

Drivers came from every walk of life and every part of the country. Many were known by colorful nicknames that were bestowed on them. There was "Sagebrush Bill," "Buffalo Jim," the twins, "Curly Dan" and "Curly Jerry" Robbins, "Uncle Jim Miller," "Dutch John," and "Old Shalcross."

One of the best-known of the California drivers was a bachelor who wore the moniker, "One-Eyed Charlie," having lost the orb to the kick of a cantankerous horse.

Charlie Parkhurst drove for more than 30 years, including the Sacramento to Placerville run. Over the years, it's said, he grew more and more emaciated in appearance, suffered painfully from rheumatism, and to add insult to injury, developed cancer of the tongue . He finally died in December 1879. But, during his prime, and well beyond, Charlie was known as a fearless driver, even though while driving alone once, his coach capsized and "bust in my sides." But, no one else ever reported an injury while with him.

J. Ross Browne, another writer from the era, recalled a ride to Placerville on the box next to Charlie. It was a ink-black night and the roads were so bad that it seemed to Browne that the horses were constantly plunging over precipices, with the stage following, noisily thrashing and bucking and making horrible crashing noises that sounded like "cracked skulls and broken bones."

Even after this horrific experience, Browne never lost confidence in Charlie's abilities. The way Charlie handled the reins and worked his horses, peering through the clouds of darkness, seeing the ghostly images of trees and stumps and boulders, and the alert perk of horses ears, was simply a miracle.

When asked how in the world he could tell where he was going, he replied, "Smell it. Fact is, I've traveled over these mountains so often I can tell where the road is by the sound of the wheels. When they rattle, I'm on hard ground; when they don't rattle, I gen'r'lly look over the side to see where she's agoing."

He did admit to fear, though, and said that when things were less than desired, "Backer's another sign; when I'm a little skeer'd, I chaw more'n ordinary. Then I know the road's bad."

After a stage driving career of 30 years, Charlie stated, matter-of-factly, "I'm no better off now than when I commenced. Pay's small, work heavy, gettin' old, rheumatism in the bones; nobody to look out for used-up stage drivers. Kick the bucket one of these days, and that's the last of old Charlie."

Charlie did drive a few more years and enjoyed his chew, an occasional drink, and a little dice-throwing for cigars. Finally, though, he did step down from his revered seat on the stage for the last time, retiring to a little farm near Watsonville. He was still alone when friends found his body. As they prepared him for burial, they made a ghastly discovery. Charlie was a woman. The story spread and most didn't believe it, but in fact, a doctor's report showed that Charlie had once birthed a child. After her death, papers showed that she had a sentimental side: she bequeathed $4,000 to a young boy who had been kind to her. Charlie was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery in Watsonville.

Permission is granted by the author to use or republish this article, but proper attribution to the author -- Joanne Burkett -- is requested.

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