Very few images define the spirit of the Old West more than a colorful picture of a stage coach dashing through the spectacular scenery of the western mountains drawn by a team of four or six beautiful horses. For very good reason, this image has been adopted as the trade mark of the Wells Fargo Banking Company. Wells Fargo, Butterfield and Pioneer stage line companies all ran stage coaches carrying mail, freight and passengers throughout the Comstock region beginning in the 1850s.
Some of the drivers of these early means of transportation became a few of the most famous and interesting characters in Western history. Perhaps the most notorious of these is the famous Hank Monk, who drove stage coaches for all those mentioned above and became the most asked for stage driver during the Comstock boom period. Hank’s claim to fame came in 1859 when New York Tribune Editor Horace Greeley decided to follow his own advice he had given to his readers, “Go West, young man, go West.” Greeley had planned to visit the California Gold Country and was traveling across country by stage coach, since the railroads had not yet been constructed.
At that particular time, the route the Pioneer Stage Lines had to follow to get from Carson City to Placerville where Greeley was headed had to take a rather unusual route due to construction and other obstacles along the way. Greeley had scheduled to deliver a lecture to a large group of fans the evening of July 30, 1859. Hank monk had taken the reins of the coach in Carson City, Utah Territory on July 29th and passed through Genoa to a station about 15 miles further southwest where the the passengers spent the night. The next morning, Greeley told the driver that he had to be in Placerville by 5 o’clock that evening and was concerned the coachman would not be able to be there in time to keep the appointment. Hank was somewhat miffed with the request, but he politely told Greeley he would get him there on time.
Hank realized the request would demand all the coach, the teams of horses and he could muster to make it happen. With a burst of speed Greeley had not yet experienced on his historic trip, Hank Monk quickly pushed his steeds off at a full gallop. The coach had to stop about every 10 to 15 miles for fresh horses and refreshments if required. The route they followed took them over Luther Pass, through Lake valley, past Lake Bigler (Tahoe) and over the summit of Johnson Pass. When the coach stopped again to change horses at Strawberry Station, Greeley again asked Hank if he would make it to Placerville on time for the appointment. Once again, Hank replied, “I’ll get you there on time.”
On the downhill ride that followed, Hank Monk pushed the horses to the limits of their endurance. The trail was steep and narrow and the team and coach had to dodge oncoming traffic and pass slower wagons and riders on dangerously narrow curves. Just before the next station, a place called “Dick’s,” Hank checked in to see how his demanding passenger was doing. Hank reported later the man was bobbing up and down, back and forth, holding on to whatever he could find and finally called out to Hank, “Driver, I’m not particular for an hour or two!” Hank replied, “Horace, Keep your seat! I told you I would get you there by five o’clock, and by God I’ll do it, if the axles hold!
The last station before Placerville was Sportsman’s Hall. There a reception committee was waiting to take Horace Greeley the rest of the way to Placerville in a luxurious carriage. Greeley called out to Hank Monk to call on him when he arrived in Placerville, believing he ( Horace) would get there before Hank and the stage coach arrived. After Hank changed horses, he took an alternate route and arrived at the Pioneer Stage office in Placerville while the crowd of people was forming up to greet Horace Greeley upon his arrival. When the carriage arrived with the Greeley and his reception committee, they saw that Hank and the stage coach had already arrived.
When Greeley stepped from the carriage, Hank greeted him and asked where he had been, saying he had been there for an hour and a half. Greeley was so impressed, he took Hank Monk up the street and bought him the finest suit of clothes that could be found in Placerville.
The telling and re-telling of this story made Hank Monk the most famous stage coach driver ever to travel the roads of the American West. He went on to drive for the Wells Fargo stage on the Carson to Placerville route and later he worked for Billy Wilson’s line between Carson and Virginia City. Hank was proud of the fact that he could beat the time of the Virginia and Truckee Railroad with his stagecoach between Carson and Virginia by over an hour. Hank Monk also took on routes that served Reno, Steamboat, Glenbrook and Al Tahoe. The introduction of railroads into the Comstock region meant only that the stage coach services had to adjust their routes to serve areas where the trains did not go.
I recently paid a visit to the Fox Den lounge at the St Charles Hotel in Carson City. On the wall of the lounge they display a memorial marker telling that the hotel had been the headquarters and stage stop for Hank Monk when he drove the route through Carson City. On some of the routes, more than one driver were required. Hank Monk spent one season driving the stages with fellow driver Charlie Parkhurst. When there was no station available for the evening, the drivers would sleep under the stars. Hank carried a buffalo robe for such occasions to share with other drivers to protect them from the cold. The day came when Hank got word that his friend and fellow driver Charlie Parkhurst had died near Watsonville. When the undertaker prepared Charlie’s body for burial, he made the astonishing discovery that Charlie Parkhurst was a woman. Apparently she had kept this secret for her entire staging career from all but a few close relatives. When Hank heard about this, he was so exasperated, he exclaimed in his slow drawling voice: “Jehosiphat! I camped out with Parkie once for over a week, and we slept on the same buffalo robe right along.”
There just is not enough room in a single article to tell much more about the life of Hank Monk except to say that he talked with a slow, deliberate drawl and loved to play pranks on his passengers, especially those who rode topside and bugged him with silly questions as they traveled along through the mountains and valleys. He had a sad countenance and a morose manner about him that revealed that he was a very complex individual. This masked the sense of humor and his ability to tell a whopper to a passenger with such authority that the person left the stage never knowing that Hank had just pumped him full of crap.
After a career of over 25 years of hard driving, hard drinking and an incredibly interesting run, Hank Monk passed away on February 28, 1883 at the age of 56. He had been the driver for presidents and all the important people of the Comstock era. He is buried in the Carson City cemetery.
This article is by Dayton Author and Historian Dennis Cassinelli who can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All books sold through this publication will be at a 20 percent discount and Dennis will pay the postage.