The opening of the Yosemite Valley Railroad Company's line between Merced and Merced Falls today marks the passing of the stage business as far as Merced is concerned - a business that has meant a great deal to this city ever since the city has been on the map.
In the early days of California, before "the iron horse" brought us the more rapid means of transportation, staging was of coarse the only method of transporting passenger from one place to another in this section of the Golden State. George Powell of this city, whose picture appears on this page of the Sun, drove a stage between Sacramento and Stockton before there was a railroad in the State. Later he drove stage between Stockton and Mariposa, before the city of Merced was even thought of, and still later, when the railroad reached this point and the town was "laid out," Powell was one of the first on the ground. He hauled the first load of lumber to Merced, in December, 1871, bringing it here from Modesto, and it was used in building the little wooden stage shed that still stands alongside the Stoddard brick stable. After that Mr. Powell drove stage for many years between Merced and Mariposa, and between Merced and Yosemite Valley. Powell also made the first wagon track between Merced and Snelling. That was in 1872, and in that same year (thirty-four years ago) the six-mile house, was opened by Fred Gardenshire, who died only a few months ago in Stockton and was brought to Merced for burial.
Early Staging to Yosemite.
Tourist for Yosemite Valley were first handled by the Fisher & Co. stage line, which ran from Stockton to Mariposa in the early sixties. In connection with the Fisher stages, Washburn & McCready operated a carrying business with saddle horses, receiving passengers from the Fisher stages at Mariposa and then taking them on into the valley on horseback.
These conditions prevailed until the railroad reached Merced in 1872, when Washburn & McCready organized a stage business of their own, from Merced to Yosemite. The first year, their stages ran by way of Coulterville, and after that by way of Mariposa.
In '72 a second stage line was established between Merced and Yosemite, by M. McClenathan and Frank Ross, the latter is now operating the stage line between San Jose and Mt. Hamilton. The competition between the two stage companies was very keen, the rivalry resulting in the reduction of the fare from Merced to Yosemite to $1, for a short time. It is related that one gentleman came to Merced from quite a distance, intending to take advantage of the low rate to see Yosemite Valley. The afternoon he landed in Merced the agents of the rival lines got after him and handed him such a "line of talk" that he couldn't make up his mind which company he wanted to patronize. Finally he went to bed, intending to decide the question next morning just before the stages were to start. When he went to bed the fare was $1. During the night the owners of the stage lines "got together," and when the prospective traveler woke up in the morning the fare was $50.
First Wagon Road.
The first wagon road open to the floor of Yosemite Valley was the Coulterville road, opened June 18, 1874. Its construction was commenced by the people of Coulterville, but they found the undertaking too large for them, so Dr. McLean, then a practicing physician in Mariposa, took up the work and completed it. He died three years ago, but his daughter still owns the road.
In 1873 A. H. Washburn purchased the Big Tree Station, now known as Wawona, and began the construction of a wagon road into the valley from that point. The road was completed in 1875.
Some of the Old Drivers.
In those early days of staging between Merced and Yosemite all stages were drawn by six horses, and the "handling of the ribbons" was an art that required considerable ability. Among the well known drivers of those days, on the Merced-Yosemite line, were Geo. Monroe, Wm. Burns, Mr. Dowst, Hi Rapelji, Al Sleeper, Geo. Powell, Al Cody (known as Buffalo Jim), Joe Ridgeway, M. McClenathan, Rice Markley, Brock Thurman, Phil Toby, and "Gassy Aleck." The latter is now driving stage on the famous "Seventeen Mile Drive" at Del Monte. With the exception of "Gassy Aleck," the only men in the above list who are now alive to tell their experiences of the early day stage driving in California are Geo. Powell and Al Sleeper, whose pictures appear in today's Sun. Mr. Powell is a resident of this city, while Mr. Sleeper is still engaged in the business of driving stage between Merced and Yosemite.
Merced a Stage Center.
The history of staging from Merced in the early days is so closely interwoven with the general life of that time, that an article on the subject necessarily branches out into the interesting occurrences of that period. When the railroad was completed to Merced in 1872, this city not only became the terminus of the Yosemite Valley stage line, but became also, the point of departure for stages to Visalia,
Bakersfield and Los Angeles. It may be seen therefore, that the stage business in
was one of considerable proportions at that time, giving the place all the aspects and characteristics of a frontier town. The railroad company built an elegant four story hotel (El Capitan) at their depot, and for many years was considered one of the finest hotels in the San Joaquin valley. It was opened with a grand ball on the fourth of July, 1872. H. A. Bloss was then proprietor, and during the succeeding years, while he was the landlord he entertained some celebrated guests who were here en route to Yosemite. Among them were President U. S. Grant, General Sheridan, General Sherman, and P. T. Barnum the great showman. On his return from Yosemite Barnum delivered a lecture in Garibaldi Hall, on Front street.
When Grant came back from Yosemite two six-horse stages containing the Merced band and committee of citizens went out a few miles and escorted the President and party back to town. The citizens had hundreds of Roman candles which they fired off as the party drove into town. This scared the horses on one of the stages, driven by Geo. Powell, and a runaway resulted. The six runaway horses became tangled up and fell in a heap on Front street, in front of the Garibaldi store, but luckily no one was seriously hurt.
It was on the 26th of April, 1873, that the first public celebration was held in Merced. There was a big parade, of which A. J. Meany was marshal and M. T. Hubbard and Martin McClenathan aides. Among those present on that occasion were Lew Hewlett and wife, Sheriff Cunningham and the Sperrys of Stockton, S. C. Bates and wife, Norman Salter and wife, Charles Livingston and wife, Colonel J. J. Stevinson, R. B. Parker, and many people from Snelling and other points. The receipts of the hotel on that day amounted to $2,600.
First In the Valley.
Before the wagon road was opened to Yosemite Valley al freight had to be taken in on pack mules. J. C. Smith, for many years proprietor of the Cosmopolitan saloon in this city, was one of the pioneers of Yosemite. He open a saloon there in 1872. He took the first safe into the valley, built the first bathtub ever seen in the valley, and owned the first billiard tables in the valley. The billiard tables were packed in on mules, in sections. Geo. Conway, now of this city, went to work for Mr. Smith at that time, so Conway may also be counted as one of Yosemite's pioneers. George was only twelve years old then, and his top-piece was not so smooth and shiny as it is in the year of our Lord 1906.
Tom Hall, who conducts the barber shop on Huffman avenue, was the first man to open a barber shop in Yosemite. That was in the early seventies, when 50 cents was the price of a shave and a haircut almost necessitated a bond issue.
But let us get back to the story of the stage operations. In '73, while two stage lines were running from Merced toward Yosemite, Frank H. Farrar, the well known and popular attorney of this city, was agent for one of the companies, and says the receipts of the company he represented was $160,000 for one season. At that time the fare to Yosemite was $65.
Finally the two companies were merged into one, with Washburn as proprietor. Then the railroad was completed on to Madera, and Washburn transferred his stage headquarters from Merced to Madera, running his stages into Yosemite from the latter town. Still later the Southern Pacific built the branch line to Raymond, and again Washburn transferred, this time to Raymond.
For many years the Washburn line from Raymond was the only stage line into the Yosemite Valley worthy the name, and that company practically enjoyed a monopoly of the business until 1896, when D. K. Stoddard of this city established the line that has done so much toward bringing Merced into prominence throughout the world. Owing to the friendly relations existing between the Washburns and the Southern Pacific, no railroad connection could be secured for a stage line from Merced to Yosemite until 1896, when the San Francisco & San Joaquin Valley Railroad was completed through this valley. That new(line) opened the way for the new Stoddard stage line, and Mr. Stoddard saw the opportunity and took advantage of it. He opened the line in May 1896, and his first passenger was Governor Budd. The trip was made a memorable one. The Governor was serenaded by a brass band at Coulterville, where he made speech to the people. This was the beginning of the stage business that soon grew to such proportions that Mr. Stoddard require assistance, financial and otherwise, in handling it. So in 1902 Mr. Stoddard organized the Yosemite Transportation Company, with local capital, and the business continued to grow. In 1904 the Santa Fe became interested in the line. The capital stock was increased, new stages were built, new stock purchased, and passengers for Yosemite were handled on the wholesale plan. The Yosemite Transportation Company will of course continue in business as heretofore, except that it will hereafter operate from Merced Falls instead of from Merced. Later its base of operations will again be changed, as the railroad is completed on toward the valley.