The stage stopped in front of the stone toll-house at Sunshine Station. No need to change horses yet. Nate greeted old Mr. Blanchard, bearded and almost toothless as he smiled and joked and collected the toll.
“Any word ‘bout the road agents who held up the stage last week?” Nate asked.
Mr. Blanchard shook his head. “Nary a sign of ‘em,” he said.
“Probably moved on,” said Nate. “I heard there was another robbery yesterday down by Hawthorne. Could’a been the same bandits.”
The Second Promise, Chapter 4.
Mr. Blanchard is long gone, of course, but the dirt road’s still there, and so are the ruins of a stone house, said to be Sunshine Station. The road follows Bodie Creek, and close to Bodie, the remains of long-abandoned mines can still be seen on the harsh gray gravel hillsides.
Even though the Bodie road heads more or less easterly to Aurora, it was the fastest way to reach San Francisco. You’d travel by stagecoach to Aurora, another stagecoach to Carson City, board the Virginia and Truckee Rail Road, and meet the transcontinental Central Pacific train at Reno. During Bodie’s heyday, two or three stagecoaches left in each direction every day.
Stagecoach robberies were common, especially when the stock market crashed and men were laid off. On the Bodie Road past Sunshine station, the road curves through Bodie Canyon, flanked on both sides by steep red-rock cliffs. In fact, old-timers reported that robberies were so frequent that the stage horses would stop of their own accord when they reached Bodie Canyon, waiting for a holdup to take place!
Most stagecoach holdups did not result in injury to the driver or passenger. The bandit was interested in a quick, easily-carried haul, so he could disappear before any other travelers appeared. He was armed and usually masked with a bandana; once the passengers were out of the coach, he’d order them to deposit all their money, watches, and jewelry into his hat. Unless the coach carried a “treasure box”, there was no armed guard.
Here are a couple of stories from William B. Secrest’s fascinating book, The Great Yosemite Hold-Ups (Saga-West Pub. Co, Fresno, 1968.) Secrest mined the newspapers of the time, which relished (and perhaps embellished) the details of stagecoach robberies and the posses who pursued the bandits.
How “The Black Kid” robbed five vehicles and two United States cavalrymen.
In May, 1900, driver A.H. Foster pulled his stagecoach out of Raymond, south of Mariposa, California, taking a party of stone-cutters up to the big trees in Yosemite. At a sandy stretch of road, a lone man with a shotgun stepped out from behind a tree and told Foster to pull the coach out of sight. The outlaw had blackened his face with soot or charcoal under his mask, and tried to disguise his voice.
The quarrymen were lined up and asked to put their valuables in the outlaw’s hat. The reporter commented: “Adhering to a time-honored custom, the driver of the stage was not robbed.” Foster sat on his perch. The robber said they had to wait for other stages. Foster suggested a drink while they waited, so they all drank some beer. It got hot on the stage, so Foster asked if he could sit under a tree. The robber granted permission and gave Foster his card, “in case we ever meet again.” His name, in crude printing: “The Black Kid”.
A freight wagon and wood team arrived, and this time the drivers were robbed and directed to stand in line with the quarrymen. (I guess time-honored custom didn’t apply where there were no other passengers to rob).
Next: two soldiers riding ahead of a troop of cavalry on the way to Yosemite. The bandit waved his shotgun, and they dismounted and dropped their weapons.
Next: a stage full of tourists, driven by Bright Gillespie. The bandit, cool and polite, passed the hat, which quickly filled with money. He declined to take a watch or a woman’s purse, and allowed the passengers to keep some money for themselves. They stood around joking about their situation.
Next: another stage, driven by Ernest Stevens, with 15 or 16 Chinese passengers. They didn’t speak English, but the shotgun needed no translator. The bandit collected $225 from them. He tried and failed to open the Wells Fargo box. (I don’t know why there was no armed guard on this stage.)
Apparently satisfied with the robbery of five vehicles, “The Black Kid” finally allowed everyone to go, but he put the soldiers in a stage and two passengers on their horses. Foster’s stage headed out, and the soldiers’ horses bolted back down the road to their troop of 6th United States cavalry, only 300 yards from the hold-up site.
Major Percher was in charge of the cavalry troop. When he finally realized what was happening, he galloped forward to the site of the robberies. The bandit was gone, the soldiers were gone, confusion reigned, and in the end, the cavalry scrambled to chase the bandit. They found his camp, but never found him.
Hold-up Photographed by Austrian Consul.
On August, 15, 1905, Anton Veith was Austrian consul and the editor of an agricultural newspaper, on his way to Yosemite from Raymond in an open tourist coach. Veith carried a camera, protected from dust. Fellow passengers included two blacksmiths, an Austrian companion, and women, uncomfortable in linen dusters.
Veith was awakened from a doze by the command, “Get down!” by a masked figure in a battered felt hat and ragged duster, carrying both a rifle and a pistol. The bandit made the men get off, robbed the pockets of the two Austrians, and turned to the stage and the women. In an apparent show of class solidarity, he did not rob the driver or the two blacksmiths.
Veith politely asked whether he could photograph the robber with the stage, permission was granted, and Veith was allowed to retrieve his camera from the stage. The outlaw posed, the picture was taken, the men got back into the stage, and the robber waved as the stage went on its way. Although there are several “posed” photos of stagecoach holdups, this is the only known photo of the real thing.
After awhile Farnsworth, the driver, turned the stage around and went back to Raymond to report the robbery. Interviewed later, Anton Veith said the robber was a gentleman. He had even left Veith’s rosary on the road for him, hanging on a bush.
Today, the Bodie-Aurora road is a rocky dirt track, often interrupted by fallen boulders and deep puddles. The header picture, by Paul Abernathy, shows a cabin in Bodie today. The road to Aurora is at the far bottom right.
These days, well-off adventure travelers choose to explore exotic wild places, often in third world countries. Those vacations, less comfortable and predictable than a bus tour or a cruise, are still carefully organized and seldom dangerous. But in 1883, stagecoach driver Nate Young and his passengers, who were just trying to get to the train, were at real risk for robbery on the Bodie-Aurora Road.