Two stories about One Legend

AN EXCITING STAGE RIDE

Currier & Ives Print of Hank Monk & Horace Greeley on the stage

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



RIDING HIGH: HANK MONK and HORACE GREELEY


Did one of the most famous rides in American history cost a presidential candidate the race for the nation’s highest office? As the story goes, New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley’s stagecoach ride with the colorful Hank Monk at the reins later played a major role in Greeley’s loss to incumbent Ulysses S. Grant in the 1872 presidential election.

More people today recognize the famous phrase, “Go West, young man, Go West,” credited to Greeley, than know of the much-maligned social reformer of the mid-19th century. In 1859, the forty-eight-year-old former New York congressman, outspoken abolitionist, and women’s rights advocate, was touring the West he had been touting to the nation. On July 30, he found himself at an inn south of Genoa running late for a lecture on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada. Turning to the stagecoach driver, Greeley asked the thirty-three-yearold Monk if it was possible to cross the massive mountain range in time to make his presentation in Placerville, California that evening. Monk assured the worried Greeley that he would get him there on time.

Leaving around dawn, the stagecoach followed the Carson River to Hope Valley, then turned north over Luther Pass to Lake Valley. From there, the stage climbed Meyers Grade to the top of Johnson Pass and shortly after noon pulled into Strawberry to change horses. According to Monk’s version of the story, Greeley, in some distress, asked the driver if he was certain that he could get him to Placerville by 5PM. Knowing Strawberry was the last telegraph station before his final destination, Greeley wanted to send a telegram notifying the reception committee if he was going to be late. Monk emphatically responded, “I’ll get you there.”

The New York City editor experienced the ride of his life. He later wrote, “Yet at this breakneck rate we were driven for not less than four hours or forty miles changing horses every ten or fifteen, and raising a cloud of dust through which it was difficult at times to see anything.”

“Just before I got to Dick’s [Station] I looked into the coach and there was Greeley,” Monk told a writer for San Francisco’ Golden Era the following year, “his bare head bobbing, sometimes on the back and then on the front of the seat, sometimes in the coach and then out, and then on the top and then on the bottom, holding on to whatever he could grab.”

At one point, according to Monk, Greeley cried out, “Driver, I’m not particular for an hour or two!” Monk responded, “Horace keep your seat! I told you I would get there by five o’clock, and by God I’ll do it, if the axles hold!”

The shaken and disheveled Greeley arrived in time to meet the reception committee some twelve miles east of Placerville. Monk traveled on to the town, arriving there before Greeley. When the two men met up again upon Greeley’s arrival, the Eastern greenhorn bought the daredevil stagecoach driver the finest suit of clothes available in Placerville as a token of his appreciation.

Greeley wrote his version of the harrowing ride on August 1. It was published in the New York Tribune after his account reached New York City by mail. Hank Monk, with the Tribune story and other accounts making him a national figure, regaled all who would listen to his role in the now famous ride. Mark Twain heard the story from Monk while he was living in Nevada Territory in the early 1860s, comically recounted it in his1866 western lecture tour, and embellished the tale in Roughing It (1872).

Humorist Artemus Ward, after hearing the story during his visit to Nevada in December 1863, wrote an anecdotal account of Greeley’s stagecoach ride from hell in his work Artemus Ward: His Travel and Complete Works (1865). On March 29, 1866, Ward’s comical version was read in the House of Representatives by New York Congressman Calvin Hulburd as a jab at his nemesis Horace Greeley and entered into the Congressional Record.

While Greeley tried to disassociate himself from Monk and the unflattering story; it continued to dog him right up to the 1872 presidential election. Some writers have suggested that the story may have actually cost him the election. In truth, historians have noted that Greeley was a long-standing controversial figure and savagely satirized by cartoonist Thomas Nast, independent of the exaggerated stories surrounding his stagecoach ride in 1859. Essentially, his stand on the major issues of the day led to his resounding defeat in the presidential election.

Shortly before the election, Greeley suffered a major financial loss in a famous diamond mine swindle, and then his sickly wife died. Overwhelmed by the devastating turn of events, America’s premier social gadfly sank into a severe depression, dying before the electoral votes were cast. Hank Monk, on the other hand, died in Carson City in 1883, eulogized as one of the greatest stagecoach drivers in American history and remains a folk hero.



From Myth #111: Riding High: Hank Monk and Horace Greeley by Guy Rocha, Former Nevada State

Archivist

 

For further information, see Hank and Horace An Enduring Episode In Western History (1973) by Richard G. Lillard and Mary V. Hood; Hank Monk: He’ll Get You There On Time (1995) by Rich Pitter. Original version in Sierra Sage, Carson City/Carson Valley, Nevada, July 2007 edition.

 

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