Tahoe Nugget #76:
Strange Tale of Charley Parkhurst (3 Photos)
May 19, 200
Stagecoach companies were big business during the Comstock's heady years of massive silver production. One of the most successful lines was the
Pioneer Stage Company. The Pioneer Stage route followed the old trail between Placerville, California, over the Sierra past South Lake Tahoe, to Genoa, Nevada. The company maintained twelve superb Concord Coaches
with six horses to each stage. Business was brisk. On average, more than 100 passengers used the line daily to reach Virginia City from California. Besides passengers, the stages hauled gold and silver bullion as
well as mine company payrolls.
Stage robbery was a constant danger in the days before law and order arrived in the Wild West. Bandits employed many strategies to ambush a stagecoach. The most common method
was for the highway robbers to hide behind a thicket of trees or lay flat on the ground. When the stage approached, the crooks would jump to their feet with their guns drawn. The gang was usually after the Wells
Fargo box with its valuable contents. Passengers were seldom hurt, but they were often relieved of their cash, watches and jewelry.
One of the most famous drivers was Charles Darkey Parkhurst. Charley came
west from New Hampshire in 1852, seeking his own fortune in the Gold Rush. He spent the next 15 years driving stages in both California and western Nevada. Over the years, his reputation as an expert "whip" grew
legendary. Charley handled all six reins plus the whip with an easy dexterity. From 15 feet away he could slice open the end of an envelope or cut a cigar out of a man's mouth. Parkhurst smoked cigars, chewed wads
of tobacco, fought and drank with the best of them, and exuded supreme confidence behind the reins.
One time, as Charley braked his stagecoach down Carson Pass, the lead horses stumbled off the road. Charley
bit down hard on his two-bit cigar and used all his strength to stop the run-away coach, but the terrain was too rough. The wooden wheels nearly splintered when the stage struck the rocky embankment. A wrenching
jolt threw Charley from the rig, but he hung on tight to the reins. The horses dragged Charley along on his stomach, but he managed to steer the frightened horses back onto the road and pull them to a halt. Charley
had saved all his passengers and was now a bona fide hero.
During the peak of the Gold Rush, bands of surly highwaymen stalked the roads. These outlaws would level their shotguns at the drivers and shout,
"Throw down the gold box!" Charley Parkhurst had no patience for the crooks despite their demands and threatening gestures. One of the most notorious road agents was nicknamed "Sugarfoot" When he and his gang
accosted Charley's stage, it was the last robbery the thief ever attempted. Charley cracked his whip defiantly and the horses bolted. Charley then grabbed his six-shooter, and with bullets blazing, raced away
without loss or injury. Sugarfoot, however, was later found dead with a fatal bullet wound in his stomach. In appreciation of his bravery, Wells Fargo gave Parkhurst a large watch and chain made of solid gold that
Charley carried with pride.
In 1862, Charley relocated to work as a stage driver on the route from Santa Cruz to San Juan Bautista. A few years later, tired of the demanding job of controlling a half dozen
spirited horses on narrow, winding roads, Parkhurst opened his own stage station. He later sold the business and retired to a nearby ranch where he farmed and worked in the woods near Soquel, California. The years
slipped by and Charley died on December 29, 1879, at the age of 67.
A few days later, the Sacramento Daily Bee published his obituary. It read; "On Sunday last, there died a person known as Charley Parkhurst, who was well-known to old residents as a stage driver. He was in early days accounted one of the most expert manipulators of the reins who ever sat on the box of a coach. It was discovered when friendly hands were preparing him for his final rest, that Charley Parkhurst was unmistakably a well-developed woman!"
People that had known "Charley" for a quarter of a century were stunned. Her real name was Charlotte Parkhurst. As a child, she was raised in a Massachusetts's orphanage, unloved and surrounded by poverty. Charlotte ran away when she was 15 years old and soon discovered that life in the working world was easier for men. So she decided to masquerade as one for the rest of her life.
The doctor who examined her body confirmed that she had once given birth, but Charlotte never volunteered clues to her past. Loose fitting men's clothing hid her femininity and after a horse kicked her, an eye patch over one eye helped conceal her face. She weighed 175 pounds, could handle herself in a fist fight and drank whiskey like one of the boys.
The rest is history. Well, almost. There is one last thing. On November 3, 1868, it was reported that Charlotte Parkhurst voted in the national election, making her the first woman to cast a ballot since New Jersey became the last state to revoke the right in 1807. Parkhurst voted one year before Wyoming Territory finally broke the gender barrier and granted women's suffrage, but it was more than 50 years before Congress finally passed the 19th amendment in 1920, reestablishing a woman's right to vote in the United States.
*The complete story of Charley Parkhurst can be read in Sierra Stories: True Tales of Tahoe - Vol. 1, available for purchase at this link: www.thestormking.com/Products/products.html
Photo #1: Stage drivers
entertained passengers with tall tales while keeping an eye out for road agents and bandits.
Photo #2: Artist's rendition of Charley Parkhurst. Note quizzical look from male passenger.
Photo #3: Charlotte
is buried in Pioneer Cemetery in Watsonville, CA. Visitors still place flowers on her grave.