Weather Window | Hang on to your hat, Horace
During the colorful early days of Tahoe, stagecoach driver Hank Monk was as well known for his drinking ability as his driving skills. Despite his reputation as a man dedicated to the bottle, Monk was the most famous of all the “whips” for Wells Fargo, the preeminent banking entity in San Francisco. Monk is also remembered for possibly costing presidential candidate Horace Greeley the 1872 election when he lost to incumbent Ulysses S. Grant.
Before the railroads put western stagecoach companies out of business, travel via horse-drawn carriage was the rule. For several decades after the gold rush, miners, bankers and tourists relied on the rough and ready stage drivers to get them through the Sierra safely. The mountain routes were perilous, but drivers were aggressive; the crack of the whip was heard more often than the squeal of brakes.
The early mining booms brought so many coach companies to Nevada that it became a cutthroat business. Competition was tight and business went to the owner whose coaches made the fastest time, no matter how reckless the ride. Despite the danger of capsizing, rival coaches thundered down the narrow mountain roads and hugged the edges of cliffs. Drivers took curves at breakneck speed, but hardier passengers took the turbulent ride in stride. In fact, they often bet money to see which driver could make the best time.
Monk was a hard drinking, hard driving man. Tough, courageous, and sharp-tongued, so many stories have been told about him that it is hard to tell truth from fiction. Henry James Monk was born in Waddington, New York, on March 24, 1826. He had always loved horses and soon after his arrival in California in 1852, he began driving the stage between Sacramento and Auburn for the California Stage Company.
After the 1859 silver discovery in Virginia City, a new stage operation began running daily coaches from Placerville to the Comstock over a hastily cut road south of Lake Tahoe. Monk joined this upstart outfit, the Pioneer Stage Co., and took over the Placerville to Genoa route. Monk handled the reins with finesse as he guided his team of six muscular horses across the rugged Sierra passes. For years as a side job he took summer tourists up to Lake Tahoe, but they were often as interested in Monk as seeing the lake. Always meticulously dressed, he wore a wide-brimmed felt hat, yellow driving gloves, a frock coat and carried a silver-handled whip.
Locally, Monk was more celebrated for his drinking ability than his precocious driving skills. The phrase “to drink like Hank Monk” still survives in Virginia City saloons. His level of imbibing stood out in an era when men consumed alcohol before breakfast and then drank regularly for the rest of the day. Remembered as a man who could drive when he couldn’t walk, he was sometimes carried from the saloon to the waiting coach to resume his run.
Hank Monk’s colorful life was legend in the early west, but the incident with Horace Greeley launched him into the national spotlight.
A New York congressman, Greeley was an outspoken opponent of slavery and a women’s rights advocate. Besides being a nationally known political radical and social reformer, Greeley was also the founder and editor of the New York Tribune and ardent supporter of the transcontinental railroad.
In 1859, Greeley was touring the West and on June 29 found himself at an inn south of Genoa, Nev. He was concerned because the next day he was scheduled to give an important lecture in Placerville, Calif., nearly 90 miles away. Greeley spoke to the innkeeper about getting a ride for the next day and Hank Monk volunteered to take on the assignment.
CRACK THAT WHIP
At dawn on June 30, Monk cracked the whip and his stage with Horace Greeley as its sole passenger lurched forward. The road west from Genoa followed up the headwaters of the Carson River, over Luther Pass to Lake Valley, up Myers Grade to Johnson Pass, and down the American River Canyon to Placerville. Monk’s stage was making good time on the rough road, but Horace Greeley wanted a confirmation they would make it on time: “Driver,” he said, “can you get me into Placerville this evening by 5 o’clock, because the committee expects me and I do not want to disappoint them; this is the last telegraph station and if you are not sure, I will send them a message.”
Monk knew a challenge when he heard one and he immediately cracked the whip. “I’ll get you there,” was all Greeley heard from the driver’s seat as the stage picked up speed. The route to Kyburz was a steep downgrade filled with rocks in the road. They made the first 12 miles in 53 minutes. Greeley choked on dust and tried to hold on. They hurtled around blind corners and along narrow mountain trails.
The terror-stricken politician yelled out the window. “Driver,” he said, “I am not particular for an hour or two!” Greeley was a famous and imposing man, but Monk was unimpressed. He yelled, “Horace, keep your seat! I told you I would get you there before by 5 o’clock, and by God I’ll do it, if the axles hold!”
Monk was true to his word and Greeley was able to give his anti-slavery speech to a large and enthusiastic audience. Afterward, Greeley was a good sport about the rough ride and he bought Hank a new suit of clothes. Over the years, the story was told and revised, told again and embellished, until finally, on March 29, 1866, an unflattering version was read before an amused Congress in an attempt to discredit Greeley and his political campaigns. When Greeley finally ran for president in 1872 he lost badly.
Hank Monk retired on his Wells Fargo pension and spent his waning years as a local legend. He died of pneumonia in Carson City on Feb. 28, 1883. Hundreds attended his funeral and the coffin was covered with flower bouquets.
The Rev. G. Davis closed the service with an eloquent truth: “Too much credit cannot be given a man who follows a humble calling and takes an honest pride in doing all his work well.” Hank would drink to that.
Tahoe historian Mark McLaughlin is a nationally published author and professional speaker. His award-winning books are available at local stores or at thestormking.com. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out Mark’s blog: tahoenuggets.com.