“There is certain relief in change, even though it be from bad to worse! As I have often found in traveling in a stagecoach, that it is often a comfort to shift one’s position, and be bruised in a new place”
- Washington Irving (American author of Rip Van Winkle). 1783-1859
On April 6, our little group of hikers walked under a scorching sun in the rugged Santa Susana State Historic Park – in the northwest San Fernando Valley - and narrowly escaped rattlesnakes, and poison oak.
Full disclosure: yours truly forgot her camera. My thanks to Edith de Guzman, Jolly de Guzman, Chris Imhoff and Mr F who shared their photos with me.
- Three Californian Indian tribes lived here before the Europeans arrived:
- Chumash (sea- shell or bead people)to the west
- Tongva (people of the earth) to the east
- Tataviam (people facing the sun) to the north
- Though the wildflowers are sparse this spring, the drought tolerant Sticky Monkey Flower (Mimulus aurantiacus),
an evergreen shrub with deep-green, sticky leaves and orange/yellow/red flowers which flowers from March to June
was blooming on the dry hillsides.
Native Americans used the crushed leaves as a soothing poultice for minor burns and skin irritations, and the roots to treat fever, and diarrhea.
Even if you’ve never been to LA County most of you would recognize the scenic beauty and unique rock outcrops of the Santa Susana Mountains because you’ve seen them in thousands of Wild West movies and TV shows.
In the mid 1800′s the lack of an accessible route over the Simi Hills – in the western San Fernando Valley – was one of the major obstacles to traveling between Los Angeles and San Francisco.
In 1859, the California Legislature approved $15,000 to improve an old wagon road through the Santa Susana Pass.
The Old Santa Susana Stage Road was carved out of the rock face of the hills. The steepest stretch, “a peril to man and beast,” was known as Devil’s Slide.
Only highly skilled drivers could keep control of the stagecoach and their horses on this hair-raising segment of the route:
- Passengers had to walk down, carrying rocks to help block the wheels
- The horses were blindfolded before they’d go down the pass
We could see deep ruts made by the wagon wheels in the rocks on the sides
The Old Santa Susana Stage Road was part of the Overland Stage Route between Los Angeles and San Francisco via Santa Barbara, from April 6, 1861 until the opening of the railway line in 1876.
Coincidentally we’d walked on the 152nd anniversary of the first Mail Stage run.
A stagecoach is a strongly sprung covered wagon for passengers and goods, drawn by four horses. Widely used before the introduction of railway transport, it made regular trips between stages or stations, which were places of rest provided for stagecoach travelers.
- The stagecoach driver managed the teams of horses, and an armed guard sat next to him to protect the valuables in the strong box.
- By 1866 Wells Fargo held the monopoly of long-distance overland stagecoach and mail service with an intricate web of stations, horses, men and stage coaches.
Although movies make stagecoach travel seem like a comfortable, fun way to travel, Mark Twain’s 1861 memoir “Riding The Overland Stage” describes otherwise:
passengers crammed together with mailbags, jostled by every bump, breathing dust, and at the mercy of Mother Nature.
Traveling by stagecoach you’d encounter harsh weather, hostile Indians, as well as outlaws.
Between 1870 and 1884 Wells Fargo recorded 313 stagecoach robberies and 34 attempted holdups (with a loss of $405,000) in the gold regions of California and South Dakota.
Many travelers suffered from motion sickness because the coaches swayed from side to side, and when the coach traveled over a section of rough road the passengers would bounce on the hard seats, and very often hit their heads on the roof.
You couldn’t be a “sissy”.
Somehow nine passengers would be crammed inside the coach on three bench seats:
- each of the benches held three people
- back and middle rows faced forward, and the first row faced backwards.
- Those in the first and middle rows had to ride with their knees dovetailed.
- The center seat only had a leather strap to support the back
- The top held the luggage – each passenger was restricted to 25 lbs – or as many as twelve passengers
- Travelers rode with baggage on their laps and often had mail pouches beneath their feet.
Passengers had to get out and walk (in boiling sun, or snow storm) if the coach needed to be lightened, or when the driver needed help pushing it up a hill.
The stagecoaches traveled at breakneck speed twenty-four hours a day – covering about sixty or seventy miles a day – stopping just to change horses, which gave travelers their only opportunity to use the facilities and to gulp down a quick meal …
Mark Twain described the beverage he was offered by one station keeper:
“It purported to be tea, but there was too much dish-rag, and sand, and old bacon-rind in it to deceive the intelligent traveler. He had no sugar and no milk–nor even a spoon to stir the ingredients with.”
If a traveler got off the stage to rest, she could easily be stuck there for a week or even longer if the next stage had no available seats.
Although this post is much too long, I have to share this list of rules Wells Fargo posted in their stagecoaches:
- Abstinence from liquor is requested, but if you must drink share the bottle. To do otherwise makes you appear selfish and unneighborly.
- If ladies are present, gentlemen are urged to forgo smoking cigars and pipes as the odor of same is repugnant to the gentler sex. Chewing tobacco is permitted, but spit with the wind, not against it.
- Gentlemen must refrain from the use of rough language in the presence of ladies and children.
- Buffalo robes are provided for your comfort in cold weather. Hogging robes will not be tolerated and the offender will be made to ride with the driver.
- Don’t snore loudly while sleeping or use your fellow passenger’s shoulder for a pillow; he or she may not understand and friction may result.
- Firearms may be kept on your person for use in emergencies. Do not fire them for pleasure or shoot at wild animals as the sound riles the horses.
- In the event of runaway horses remain calm. Leaping from the coach in panic will leave you injured, at the mercy of the elements, hostile Indians and hungry coyotes.
- Forbidden topics of conversation are: stagecoach robberies and Indian uprisings.
- Gents guilty of unchivalrous behavior toward lady passengers will be put off the stage. It’s a long walk back. A word to the wise is sufficient
The Old Stagecoach Trail and the Old Santa Susana Stage Road are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
This post is part of FrizzText’s A-Z photo challenge “tagged S” this week