Stagecoach driver Eli "Pop" Church: Teller of tall-ish tales
The stage road from Truckee to Tahoe City was the most popular route to visit the magnificent Lake of the Sky from 1868 until 1900. The trip was bumpy and dusty at times, but stage drivers such as Elijah “Pop” Church and his many tales of the Sierra made the trip as interesting as visiting Lake Tahoe itself.
Church drove a six-horse coach for several different stage lines over the decades, with Church Street in Truckee being named after him. He was compared favorably to legendary stagecoach driver Hank Monk and customers often paid extra to sit on top with Pop.
Eli’s tales often centered around the geology the of the Truckee River Canyon. The volcanic and glacial features were the perfect inspiration for a vivid imagination, or were they really true?
Church had names for the various rocks along his route: One he called the Devil’s Anvil, sitting in the midst of a pile he called Devil’s Playground. Others had similar names from the underworld, and a few named after the heavens. Further up the river, Pop pointed out a cliff that featured the weathered face of the Duke of Wellington, and others that resembled popular actors of the time.
High above the Truckee River Canyon, the rocks forming Big Chief No Name were a favorite of passengers. The legend of Chief No Name, with his prominent triangular nose, bulging chin, and high forehead was a tale to remember. The Chief was frozen in solid rock after causing the death of his daughter and her lover.
Coming to Squaw Valley, Church would explain how the glaciers filled the narrow canyon with ice, carving out the beautiful bowl-shaped valley that exists today. Volcanic flows millions of years old were pointed out as the stage rolled on.
At Squaw Creek, resting the horses at Billy’s, a rundown shack of a roadhouse, Church told of the early days of Squaw Valley. He spoke reverently of the Grosch Brothers, Ethan and Hosea, who had stumbled onto the fabulous wealth of the Comstock Lode, then in 1857 fought their way through a blizzard, crossing the Sierra through Squaw Valley. The brothers hid their treasure and papers in a tree near Emigrant Pass, but then died before they could cash in on their discovery.
A few years later, Placer County built a “road” from Auburn to Virginia City, passing through Squaw Valley and Tahoe. It drew no more than a hundred emigrants and gold seekers, but it did put Squaw Valley on map.
Church would delight his passengers with the story of the Red, White, and Blue mining boom of 1863. He could easily point out the remains of crude cabins, piles of rocks from the frantic digging of silver miners, who for a short season, thought they had a new Comstock Lode.
There were still men around Truckee and Tahoe City who had participated in the frenzy that created the one season wonder “towns” of Claraville and Knoxville. The quartz ledges were barren of treasure, but the clusters of tents and shacks found more fame as ghost towns than they ever did as mining camps.
As the open-sided stage would pass along the river, they would see the breathtaking scenery, but also man’s breathless work. The Truckee Lumber Company had dozens of log chutes operating along the river. Eight-foot diameter saw logs would come shooting down log troughs from the top of the cliffs, hurtling along by the dozens at 60 mph before splashing into the Truckee River.
A quieter venture, fish ranching, was described by Church at two locations. One was Hurley and Morgan’s Outlet Point Tahoe Fishery, the other Comer’s Tahoe Fishery, five miles south of Truckee.
All of this historical and natural history, mingled with the crack of the whip and the rumble of the wheels, made the 15-mile trip go by quickly. Eli Church was pure entertainment, and stage owners such as John Moody kept Elijah a happy man at any cost.
Coming into view of a large pile of rocks high on the cliffs, Church would launch into the legend of The Battle of The Braves. Now Church was widely known for his tall tales, but he swore that this one came straight from a local Washoe brave, now 142 years old.
About 250 years ago, the great and powerful tribe of Warokethas held mighty sway over this section of country, ruled by the wise and honest chief, called Ahthere. This Chief wooed and finally married the fairest of two daughters of a neighboring chief.
In the course of time, the two wives each gave birth to a baby boy, at exactly the same month, day, hour, and minute. They grew into fine strong young men, spending the summers hunting and fishing on Lake Tahoe.
Ahthere, now advanced in age, was fishing on the lake when a great monster of the deep struck the frail bark canoe and tore it apart. Ahthere fought back but was soon drowning in the wake left behind by the monster’s huge tail.
As with most bodies in Tahoe, Ahthere’s was never recovered. This monster had been sighted in the 1870s by Sam Davis, reliable reporter and editor of the Carson Appeal. Of course it was right about April 1 when he saw the ugly monster.
Ahthere’s two sons, So-lo and Nee-hi, both worthy of the honor, were appointed co-chiefs of their people. They led their tribe well and all prospered for years, but there was trouble brewing in the family.
So-lo, the poor Indian, had taken to begging his chewing tobacco from his esteemed brother Nee-hi. This resulted in resentment on Nee-hi’s part, which continues to this day. So one day when So-lo asked Nee-hi for a chaw, Nee-hi replied that he hadn’t any and So-lo should go buy his own from now on.
This angered the selfish So-lo and he declared war on his brother. As half of the tribe had always sponged their tobacco from the better half, the tribe was then split into equal factions, each thirsting for the others’ scalps. The stalemate went on for years with the tribes devoting all of their energy and resources to the feud.
A great battle finally broke out in the mountains above the Truckee River, with the roar echoing along the ridges. For seven long hours the perfectly matched warriors raged furiously at each other, killing each other equally as well. The waters of the Truckee River soon turned red.
As sunset crept down on the battlefield, the last few exhausted warriors parted and backed away. Both of the chiefs lay slain on the rocks, as were 700 of the tribe’s finest men. One of the brothers’ younger brothers now took charge of the few warriors and the women and children.
The new chiefs banned all tobacco, declared an armistice and peace reigned again. They started a yearly ceremony, still practiced today, to renew their pledge against using the devil weed. In memory of the fallen braves, who were piled into a 60-foot-long heap and covered with rocks, the tribe held a tribute every spring.
Time, snow, rain, and wind have taken their toll, and the monument has collapsed to its present rock formation. But the memory lives on, and when the thunder echoes off the rockpile just right, you might hear the muted sounds of the ancient braves battling in the heavens.
Pop Church’s tales and history lessons carry on to this day in many of Tahoe’s popular legends, however the roar of traffic on Highway 89 between Tahoe City and Truckee has drowned out the echoes of Eli Church’s rumbling stagecoach.
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