History Pages: 38 - End of the Line: Last Stagecoach to Santa Cruz
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The year 1880 marked the end of the old and the beginning of the new in travel from Santa Cruz to the San Francisco Bay area. The completion of the South Coast Railroad over the mountains from Los Gatos to Santa Cruz allowed much faster and more comfortable passenger travel, and greatly increased freight capacity. Away from the railroad tracks, of course, horse-drawn conveyances were used for at least another thirty years, but the railroads soon took over the longer routes, especially for hauling freight.
From the 1850s to 1880, a variety of stagecoach and freight lines operated on various roads between San Jose to Santa Cruz, over and around the mountains. The shortest but most difficult route came south through Los Gatos and up to the mountain pass at what is now the top of Highway 17. From there, the road descended to Scotts Valley and on to Santa Cruz. Most of the old roads are still there: El Rancho Drive and Graham Hill Road out of Santa Cruz to Felton and Scotts Valley, respectively; Zayante Road and Glenwood Road to Mt. Charley Road, which ran on up to the summit. From there, Old Santa Cruz Highway parallels Hwy. 17 down toward Los Gatos.
Mt. Charley Road was originally a toll road built and operated by Charles McKiernan, known to all as “Mountain Charley” (photo at right). McKiernan established his homestead in the early 1850s at the pass later named “Patchen”, which was right at the summit of the “howling wilderness” so feared by early flatlanders. He had to constantly defend his livestock from the numerous mountain predators, and became something of a local legend after surviving a mauling by a bear, always wearing a hat pulled low over his eyes to hide the scars on his head.
Mountain Charley later used some of his toll road income to invest in a stagecoach company which, of course, used his toll road. That arrangement worked well for McKiernan but, as the population increased, so did opportunities for competitors. In 1858, a group of investors including Santa Cruz development dynamo Fred Hihn financed construction of an alternate route from the summit down to Soquel (now Old San Jose Road). Rival stagecoach lines used both roads, as well as the more roundabout but gentler route east through the hills to Watsonville, San Juan Bautista and Gilroy (today’s Soquel Drive, Freedom Blvd. and Highway 129).
The Watsonville-Santa Cruz stage lines were the first to be affected by the changing times, when the Santa Cruz Railroad opened in 1875. By that time, the best-known stage driver on that road had already retired to a place near one of the regular stops at Seven Mile House (where Day Valley Road now takes off from Freedom Boulevard). A loner sometimes known as “Cockeyed Charley” after losing an eye to a horse’s kick, Charley Parkhurst was one of the pioneer stage drivers in the area.
Charley’s death in January of 1880 was another sign of the passing of an era. The death notice was soon followed, however, by some strange news. During burial preparations, it was discovered that Charley was a woman. Apparently, no one had ever suspected, and the revelation caused quite a sensation in the local community.
Parkhurst was also the first woman to vote in Santa Cruz County. The name Charles Darkey Parkhurst, age 55, can be found on the Soquel precinct poll list for 1868. Unfortunately for historians, Parkhurst left no autobiography, so we don’t know what circumstances lay behind the decision to spend life disguised as a man.
We know a lot more about a younger stage driver, George L. Colegrove (also spelled Colgrove - photo at left). Colegrove moved south from San Francisco in 1869 to drive the stage from San Jose to Santa Cruz. Before long, he graduated from employee to entrepreneur, owning his own coaches and horses, and bidding for the rights to run on various routes. A successful stagecoach line required a significant investment. A single horse and lightweight buggy were fine for getting around town, but the steep, winding mountain roads – often in poor repair – required a lot more horsepower (literally). Coaches started out from San Jose with a four-horse team, switched to a six-horse team outside of Los Gatos, and switched back to four horses in Scotts Valley. A minimum of fourteen horses was required for a daily one-way run.
The coaches, too, were problematic. The familiar Concord coaches we all know from western movies (see 1869 photo at top) were well-suited to flat roads, in good weather, but were too heavy for the steep, winding, muddy, slippery Santa Cruz mountain roads in the winter. To overcome this problem, stage operators switched to smaller, lighter “mud wagons” in the rainy months. Besides the cost of the extra coaches, a barn was needed to store the unused hardware, adding to operating expenses.
During the 1870s, tourism to Santa Cruz increased, as did a desire to see the natural beauty of the area, including the privately-owned “Big Trees” park near Felton. Colegrove saw another opportunity, and purchased a third type of coach especially designed for tourist excursions. Known as a “Yosemite wagon”, it was a more open design, with well-padded seats providing comfort for wealthier bottoms - many of them coming on chartered sightseeing trips from San Francisco.
Colegrove’s operation enjoyed continued success, right up until the completion of the South Pacific Coast Railroad in 1880. Toward the end, a lot of his business was in transporting the construction crews to-and-from the entrance to the long tunnel at Wright’s – the last section of the rail line to be completed. Once the tunnel was opened and the rails connected, although private horse-drawn conveyances continued to make the journey “over the hill” for many years, competition from the railroad doomed the stagecoach business.
One of the qualities necessary for success in life is the ability to adapt to changing circumstances, and that’s what Colegrove did. Reasoning that “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em”, he went to work for the railroad. First as a brakeman and later as a conductor, Colegrove became part of the first railroad crew to work the South Pacific Coast Railroad extension to Santa Cruz. Later, he moved to the Southern Pacific along with the trains when that company took over the SPC in 1887.
After 38 years working on the line between Santa Cruz and Oakland, Colegrove retired to the latter town in 1915. In 1932, at the age of 90, he dictated his remarkable life story to a young stenography student. A copy of that typewritten manuscript can be checked out from SCPL, as can the other books listed below.
- Colegrove, G. L. (1932). The life story of George L. Colegrove: Pioneer California stage driver and railroad man, as told by himself.
- Payne, S. M. (1978). A howling wilderness: A history of the Summit Road area of the Santa Cruz Mountains 1850-1906. Santa Clara Co., Calif.: Calif. Hist. Center, DeAnza College
- Rowland, Leon. Santa Cruz: The Early Years (1980). Santa Cruz,Calif: Paper Vision Press. (1868 poll list: p.84)
- Young, J. V. (1979). Ghost towns of the Santa Cruz Mountains. Santa Cruz, Calif: Paper Vision Press.