Dennis Cassinelli: The remarkable story of Charlie Parkhurst
During the early days of the Comstock Lode, before the railroads were built, the preferred method of transportation for passengers and small freight was by stagecoach. These sturdy coaches, drawn by teams of four or six horses, followed the rough and treacherous mountain roads taking people, baggage, mail, gold and newspapers to every community in western Nevada and eastern California.
Several stage lines met the demand for stage business, including the Pioneer Stage Company, Wells Fargo, and the California Stage Company. Experienced and hardened stage drivers were required to navigate the sharp curves, poor roads, winter snow and spring mud commonly encountered along these trails. Some of the best drivers included Hank Monk, Charlie Parkhurst and George Monroe. Passengers would sometimes schedule their trips to be driven by one of these drivers.
Stagecoach companies were big business during the Comstock’s productive years. The Pioneer Stage route
followed the old trail from Placerville, over the Sierra past South Lake Tahoe, to Genoa. The company had 12 Concord coaches with six horses each. On average, more than 100 passengers used the line daily to reach Virginia City from California.
Always on the mind of drivers and passengers was the possibility that a stage could be held up by highwaymen or road agents. The stages routinely carried considerable quantities of gold, silver and other valuables across the Sierra Nevada mountains and many of the passengers usually carried considerable wealth on their persons. To protect and deter criminal activity. the stage drivers were usually heavily armed and guards accompanied shipments of gold and silver.
Now I will tell a few things about an interesting driver known as Charlie Parkhurst, born in 1817 in New Hampshire. Charlie spent his early years working with horses, stables and learning to become a stagecoach driver. When shoeing a horse one day, Charlie was badly injured when the horse kicked him in the face, causing him to lose the sight in one eye. From that time on, he sometimes wore a patch over the eye and was often called One Eyed Charlie. He kept pretty much to himself and traveled from place to place for several years learning his trade. Wherever he went, Charlie seemed to move on before anyone got to know him very well. It was as if he had a secret he was trying to keep from everyone.
Charlie did indeed have a secret that he believed might prevent him from from becoming the highly respected stagecoach driver he wanted to be. What he failed to tell his employers wherever he worked was that he was not a man at all, but a woman who loved driving the stage so much, she disguised herself as a man. The clever disguise worked well, for few people knew the secret until the day she died. Her disfigured face helped disguise her appearance.
Charlie Parkhurst arrived in San Francisco in 1850, and started driving for stage lines throughout the California gold rush country. She worked for the Pioneer Stage Line until it was taken over by Wells Fargo in 1866. She learned to drink, chew tobacco, smoke cigars, use profanity and fit in with other stage drivers despite her small stature and the lady like hands she kept covered with her riding gloves. For the next 15 years she earned the reputation as one of the finest stagecoach drivers in the West.
Once, when a notorious road agent named Sugarfoot attempted to rob Charlie’s stage, she cracked her whip defiantly and the horses bolted away. She began firing her six shooter at the gang and raced away without loss or injury. Later, Sugarfoot was found dead at the scene with a fatal bullet wound in his stomach. In appreciation for her bravery, Wells Fargo gave Parkhurst a solid gold watch with chain. Another time, as Charley braked the stagecoach down Carson Pass, the lead horses stumbled off the road. The jolt threw Charley from the coach and despite being dragged, she held the reins to bring the coach to a stop.
In the late 1860s Charlie Parkhurst retired after years of hard work and a life of deception and secrecy. When Ulysses S. Grant ran for president in 1868, Charlie became the first woman in California to vote in a presidential election. Charlie spent her final years doing odd jobs, farming, raising some cattle and hauling freight for neighbors. Charlie Parkhurst died in December 1879 at the age of 67 from throat cancer and rheumatism. When neighbors came out to her cabin to lay out the body for burial, they discovered the renowned stagecoach driver was actually a woman. Only later did they learn she had been born Charlene Parkhurst and was able to hide her femininity with loose fitting men’s clothing and a patch over one eye. She was laid to rest in Watsonville. Fellow stagecoach driver and friend Hank Monk is buried in Carson City.
Dennis Cassinelli is a Dayton author and historian. You can order his books at a discount on his blog at denniscassinelli.com.