I understand why Ben Halladay was legendary in 19th century America. “The Stagecoach King” might have been “"illiterate, coarse, boastful, false, and cunning” and “not one to hesitate over the niceties of business ethics”, but he was also a self made man who amassed a fortune in transportation. According to legend, Ben Halladay's legendary business savvy was proven when he challenged several driver applicants to show how closely they could steer one of his coaches to the edge of a cliff. It was a dangerous evaluation, so risky that one applicant refused to even take the test. That was the driver Ben Halladay hired, or so the story went. But the test was a myth. It never happened. But the story does illustrate how difficult it can be to separate truth from legend - like the iconic driver in the myth, the legendary Charley Parkhurst.
The technology Halladay built his empire upon was the iconic Concord Coach (above), famous in thousands of western movies but designed and built in eastern Connecticut. It was one of America's first hi-tech exports, and familiar from Missouri to Oregon, from Australia to South America and South Africa. A ticket for a Concord Coach provided, “...fifteen inches of seat, with a fat man on one side, a poor widow on the other, a baby in your lap, a bandbox over your head, and three or more persons immediately in front, leaning against your knees....” The 3 inch wide leather cross braces, which supported the coach's body, were so effective at dampening road ruts and rocks into Mark Twain's rocking “cradle on wheels”, that many of the passengers suffered from motion sickness. But then the function of the cross braces was to benefit the horses and the coach, not the riders. Concord Coaches did not break down, so the saying went, they wore out.
They called stagecoach drivers “Whips”, although they were not expected to use that device very often. The best drivers, such as the hard drinking, tobacco chewing Charley Parkhurst, steered the 2,500 pound 12 foot long Concord Coach with the sensitive fingers of their left hand, via the “ribbons”, or leather leads to each pair of horses. With his right hand the driver constantly “feathered” the brake, to prevent the coach from crowding the horses. That left no hand free to snap the whip.
Charley Parkhurst (above) was an orphan out of Lebanon, New Hampshire, hired out as stable hand in Worcester, Massachusetts while just six or seven years old . Sleeping in the stables reinforced Charley's affection for horses. Seeing this, the stable owner, Ebeneezer Balch, taught Charley the delicate art of driving two-in-hand, four-in-hand, and even six-in-hand - six horses controlled by three “ribbons” entwined through gloved fingers. Over decades the 5 foot 6 inch Charley became so well known around Providence, Rhode Island as an adept and skilled driver that in 1849 when local businessmen Frank Stevens and James Birch decided to “Go West” to start a stage company, they paid the passage aboard a California Clipper ship for the 38 year old Charley. One of the other travelers, James Duchow, described Charley as “...a very queer fellow indeed”.
The California route favored by Charley Parkhurst was the nine hour 25 mile climb over the Summit Road, winding through the 3,000 foot high Santa Cruz mountains, between San Jose, at the southern edge of San Francisco bay, and Santa Cruz at the northern lip of Monterrey bay. The fare was $5 per passenger. “Six Horse” Charley Parkhurst drove that route for seven years for the California Stage Company, and became known, as his coach rumbled past the isolated cabins along his route, to toss candy to the children. Then one day, unexpectedly, James Birch was drowned at sea and Frank Stevens gave up and sold out. But by then Charley was so well respected in California that every passenger line on the west coast sought out his skills.
The economics of frontier stagecoaches demanded that they have government subsidies - U.S. Post Office Contracts. The California Stage Company was paid $1,000 a year (the equivalent of $23,000 today), for delivering mail between Santa Cruz and San Jose, and similar subsidies kept communications open all the way from San Francisco to the gold fields in the Sierra Nevada foothills. Even with these subsidies, Charley's new employer, the Pacific Express Company, went bankrupt. They were succeeded by the Pioneer Stage Company, a subsidiary of the Butterfield Stage Lines, owned by Ben Halladay. And then in 1866, the Stagecoach King sold out to Wells Fargo, lock, stock and barrel, for $1.5 million ($22 million today).
There was no reason for the Stagecoach King and the reticent Charley Parkhurst to have ever met during the brief time that Charley worked for Ben Halladay, thus destroying the myth of the drivers' test. Besides, Charley was already paid well enough that he was able to invest in a “relay station” just north of Watsonville. He partnered in this with another driver, Frank Woodward. These stations were franchises, which allowed the company to remove from their balance books the riskiest and largest expense of operating a stagecoach line – the feeding and caring for the stock. But the cost to those who took on that risk was illustrated when Charley was kicked in the head while shoeing a horse. He lost the sight in his left eye, and became known thereafter as “One-eyed (or cock-eyed) Charley”.
It was not a surprise that Charley's and Frank's relay station, like most, failed after a year or so. So, after 56 years of an already hard life, Charley was forced to go back to driving. But he was no longer a young “whipper snapper”, and suffered from the bane of all those who make their living with their fingers. Charley was quoted in a Monterrey newspaper, explaining, "Pay's small and work's heavy. I'm getting old. Rheumatism in my bones -- nobody to look out for old used-up stage drivers.” But that would prove not to be so. By 1870 Charley had retired to a small house on Bean Creek outside of Watsonville, a property provided by the Harmon family. His only known close friend, of 20 years, Frank Woodward, often stopped by for a visit, and helped Charley in making deliveries for the neighbors.
“Cockeyed” Charley Parkhurst died at 75 years of age, on Thursday, December 18, 1879. The cause of death was cancer of the tongue, probably a by-product of all the tobacco Charley had chewed for forty-odd years while commanding a Concord Coach. Having come into this world an unwanted orphan, at his death Charley was surrounded by the Harmon family and Frank Woodward. Death must have been a release for the old Whip. His will left $600 to 12 year old George Harmon. But the old driver's story was not yet ended.
When the neighbor women came in out of respect to wash “One-Eyed” Charley's corpse, they discovered that Charley Parkhurst was a woman, born Mary Parkhurst in 1812. Her mother died giving her birth, and her grief stricken father had given the infant up to an orphanage. Was Charley/Charlie a lesbian? The modern assumption is that he/she was. But that may be a modern lens distorting past visions. When Frank Woodward was informed of the discovery, he cursed good and long. But history can never tell us why he cursed.
All we know for a fact is that from the moment Charley Parkhurst had left the orphanage, still a child, he had lived as a man, competed as a man, succeeded as a man. It was his preference, for whatever reason. And perhaps it is truer to Charley's memory to let the matter rest there, as the San Francisco Morning Call put it a week after the old man's passing. “"No doubt he was not like other men, “ wrote the newspaper, but “He was in his day one of the most dexterous and celebrated of the famous California drivers...and it was an honor to be striven for to occupy the spare end of the driver's seat when the fearless Charley Parkhurst held the reins of a four-or six-in hand.” Charley Parkhurst was fondly remembered by almost everyone who had ever known him.
Six years earlier, on September 18, 1873, the Wall Street financial firm of Jay Cooke and Company had unexpectedly declared bankruptcy, and within hours the American economy collapsed into what was called for decades “The Great Depression”. Like hundreds of thousands of others, The Stagecoach King Ben Hallady lost a fortune that day, maybe two. He had to sell three of his mansions, one on K Street in Washington, D.C., another along the Hudson River in upstate New York, and one in Portland, Oregon. That left him with just one. A year later he lost control of a railroad he was building in Oregon, and the bitter old rich man spent the last thirteen years of his life suing the other robber barons who had robbed him. He died on July 8, 1887, at just 68 years of age. He was fondly remembered by almost nobody.
The two lessons I draw from this tale is that, first, all the good do not die young, and second, that secrets only have power over the people who keep them - Oh, and also that the one thing legends are not, is reality.
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