AN EXCITING STAGE RIDE
In 1909, Idah M. Strobridge wrote The Land of Purple Shadows, about her life in pioneering California and Nevada. One chapter of her book, "In the Days of Hank Monk," describes a midwinter trip she and her mother took, during the Civil War, from San Francisco to an unnamed mining town on the other side of the Sierra. It had rained hard and continuously for two weeks. The woman and her small girl rode a steamer to Sacramento and then a railroad train to Latrobe. Water from the leaky railcar roof dripped onto the laps of the women and down the necks of the men. At Latrobe, they walked through heavy rain and mud deeper than the tops of their shoes to board the stage coach. Three stages and a fast freight wagon made the run to Carson City together, changing horses every twelve miles.
Leather curtains were fastened over the windows to keep the rain out. The stage lurched, rocked and rolled up the muddy road amid strong winds and pelting rain. At Placerville, the stages stopped to transfer the mails, and pre-teen Idah watched the men in oilskins go about their tasks. At Strawberry Valley, the stages stopped for the night. Passengers were awakened before sun up the next morning for breakfast.
Idah was surprised when she noticed that the stage coach wheels had been replaced with runners-they would sleigh over the mountains. But she was even more surprised when she recognized their driver as the incomparable Hank Monk. She had wanted to meet the Jehu even more than she had wanted to meet President Lincoln!
In my mind's eye I see him now-his clumsy, awkward movements his slow and bungling way of gathering up the reins, or reaching for the long-lashed whip. But, oh! The magic of his touch, as the horses answered the drawling "Gid-dap!" of the man whose master hand they instinctively gave their allegiance to. His fingers on the reins-a message went down the telegraph-line of leathers, unread by us, which every horse understood as a wire operator understands the Morse code. They leaped forward into the snowy road in answer, while I drew a long breath of delight. I was riding behind six strong and splendid young horses that were driven by Hank Monk!
The hardships of the ride-the cold and wind and snow-and the pleasures the fairyland of pine, fir and tamarack branches bowed with the snow-played second fiddle to the ecstasy the young girl experienced watching Hank Monk handle his team.
Hank encouraged his galloping team with the most unique and amazing language ever used for such purpose. From the bundle of furs on the box came that unceasing flow of words-forceful, grotesque and amusing-which kept the six horses at a pace that put the miles of lower roads quickly behind us.15
Sleigh bells jangled and the long whip snapped like firecrackers on Chinese New Years. As they topped the summit and headed down toward Lake Tahoe, the stages began to race. Clods of snow, thrown up by the horses' feet, pelted the passengers like snowballs.
He was putting his big bays to the utmost test of their speed, and now we were racing in earnest. Down the eastern slope of the Sierras we flew as though flung by some giant force from the crest of the mountains. The galloping horses leaped madly down, urged to renewed efforts by the cut of the lash swung far out over the leader's backs by the driver, as in and out of ravines and canons, swinging around sharp curves, tearing along the edge of precipices, where the slightest miscalculation would have hurled us hundreds of feet below, and where every turn must be figured to a nicety, we raced, and raced wildly ....
Twice had horses been changed since the race began. We had passed the other stages with a wild hurrah, coupled with Hank's jeers of derision; and the big animals jumped their length each time they threw their feet forward, gaining, steadily gaining-at every spring. Still he was urging them on. The pace was terrific for any but the best of roads which this one was not; here it was the maddest of reckless daring to attempt it. No one thought of that now; for the spirit that had possession of all-the gambler's chance to win (or lose) dominated each one of us. To win! To be first in at the finish! The disregard of life and limb-the taking chances with death-it was all forgotten.
Then, while running down a steep and winding road, the tongue of the stage snapped in two! With uncanny presence of mind, Hank steered the stage into a snow bank on the uphill side of the road. Hank himself was flung head first into a snowdrift and momentarily stunned, but he never released the reins. When the passengers helped him to his feet, he untangled the mess and lashed the broken tongue back together with rope.
Our blood was cooling, and with it our ardor for racing along grades.
"Go slower, Hank!" all cautioned him.
He shook his old head. "Why, I broke that pole on a purpose, so I could fix a jint in the middle; it'll turn sharp corners quicker." Importunities were of no avail. And, like Gilpin, away we went again; the 'jint" working much better than it might be expected. Or, it might have been we were too much occupied in keeping our seats to note precisely how it worked.
Faster than ever, now, went the team down the slopes of the Sierra Nevadas; and Hank shouted, and whipped, and swore his six whirlwinds into a fury of speed. The stage lurched from side to side of the road, and we swung perilously near the outer edge of the grade as the jointed pole snapped us around the sharp turns; but he only redoubled his yells and let the long lash sting the flanks of his flying horses. Faster and faster. It seemed the speed was like that of a comet, as Hank coaxed and cursed his living comets into a pace that was killing. We waited for them to break their necks-and ours. They did not. And no doubt they enjoyed the mad run as well as their master. Hank was too good a horseman to force them to their injury. And as to his language- Why, he cursed his team roundly, but always lovingly cursed them. His oaths were terms of endearment which they and he understood.
Past our rivals we dashed, as we came down into the valley; and-in spite of the delay and the broken tongue (or perhaps because of it), with the great Hank Monk driving them as no other stage-driver ever did or could guide horses-the six big bays were first in at the finish when we drew up in front of the Carson Stage office.
While Hank was making repairs, the other two stages and the fast freight wagon tore past the disabled stage, all aboard raising whoops of joy. They were going to beat Hank Monk into Carson! Hank's passengers, realizing his action had saved their lives, were content for Hank to nurse the stage into Carson.
From “Hank Monk: He’ll Get You There On Time” by Rich Pitter