Dennis Cassinelli: Hank Monk: A stage driver to get you there on time
Very few images define the spirit of the Old West more than the colorful picture of a stagecoach 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 trademark 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. A stagecoach driver was often called a “jehu” after biblical King Jehu in the Old Testament, who was known for driving his chariot furiously.
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 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 and the teams of horses could handle. He had to muster all the strength he could 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 stagecoach 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 Greeley and his reception committee, they saw that Hank and the stagecoach 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.
This article is by Dayton author and historian Dennis Cassinelli, who can be contacted on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount plus $3 for each shipment for postage and packaging.