The Strange Tale of Charley Parkhurst
December 27, 2002
In the early days at Lake Tahoe, heavy December snowstorms signaled the end of the busy stagecoach season. The deepening drifts forced horse-drawn carriages to travel alternate routes during the winter months. Sometimes the narrow wheels were replaced with well-polished wooden runners, so that trained horses wearing special snowshoes could pull the stage as a sleigh. Despite the stage-to-sleigh innovation, blinding Sierra snowstorms often made the journey impossible anyway.
Stagecoach companies were big business during the silver boom years of the Comstock and 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. Thieves rarely met with much resistance from the stage drivers, since the drivers had passenger safety foremost in mind. The gang was usually after the Wells Fargo box with its valuable contents. Passengers were seldom hurt, but they were certainly relieved of their cash, watches and jewelry. If the road agents had time, the baggage and traveling trunks were searched as well.
Before the completion of the transcontinental railroad over Donner Pass in 1868, the only transportation through the Sierra was by horse-drawn stagecoach. Throughout the spring, summer and fall, rugged teamsters held rein over six wild-eyed horses as they tore along the precipitous mountain trails. During winter, converted sleighs hauled mail and the few passengers willing to endure the frigid ride. The beautiful alpine scenery passed by in a dizzying blur. Curious passengers who looked out of the carriage windows often turned pale with white-knuckled fear. Sheer granite cliffs towered over the crude narrow trails and abyssal canyons yawned into dark depths far below. The stagecoaches were driven by skilled and fearless men who pushed themselves and their spirited horses to the limit.
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 running 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 20 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, drank with the best of them, and exuded supreme confidence behind the reins. His judgment as to what could and could not be done with a coach was always sound, and his pleasant manners won him friends everywhere.
One time, as Charley braked his stagecoach down Carson Pass, the lead horses stumbled off the road. Charley bit 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 soon managed to steer the frightened horses back onto the road. Charley had saved all his passengers and was now a bonafide hero.
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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. The most notorious road agent 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.
Years slipped by and Charley eventually left the rough and ready stagecoach business and took up farming in the Sacramento Valley. Charley suffered from painful rheumatism and later developed cancer of the tongue and throat from years of smoking and chewing cheap tobacco. On January 3, 1880, the Sacramento Daily Bee published Charley’s obituary. It read; “On Sunday last, there died a person known as Charley Parkhurst, aged 67, 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. The immediate cause of his death was a cancer of the tongue. It was discovered when friendly hands were preparing him for his final rest, that Charley Parkhurst was unmistakably a well-developed woman! The shocking news could scarcely be believed by persons who had known Charley for a quarter of a century.”
Once it was discovered that Charley was a woman, there were plenty of people to say they thought he wasn’t like other men. Even though he wore leather gloves summer and winter, many noticed that his hands were small and smooth. He slept in the stables with his beloved horses and was never known to have had a girlfriend. Charley never volunteered clues to her past. Loose fitting 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 fistfight and drank whiskey like one of the boys. J. Ross Browne, Western author and traveler of the period, reported that Parkhurst never drove the day after payday. He was always too tired from drinking all-night and gambling for cigars.
In Nevada, the Gold Hill Evening News stated, “It is beyond question that one of the soberest, pleasantest, most expert drivers in this city, and one of the most celebrated of the world-famed stage drivers was a woman.” Turns out that Charley’s real name was Charlotte Parkhurst. As a child, she was raised in a Massachusetts’s orphanage, unloved and surrounded by poverty. Charlotte escaped 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 rest is history. Well, almost. There is one last thing. On November 3, 1868, Charlotte Parkhurst cast her vote in the national election. She became the first woman to vote in the United States, 52 years before the passing of the 19th amendment!
n Books and articles by Mark McLaughlin are available at local bookstores or at http://www.TheStormKing.com