The old wagon road offered a rough ride
The old wagon road from Truckee to Tahoe City was a busy summer thoroughfare in the mid-1870s. Up to four stage coaches a day made the round-trip along the river, carrying hundreds of vacationers and locals alike. Most of time it was a safe trip, but once in a while tragedy struck. Such was the case in August of 1875.
James Cardwell was a hotelman, who at various times ran hotels at Donner Summit, Truckee, Tahoe City and Virginia City. In the summer of 1875 he was a partner with A.J. Bayley and the Grand Central Hotel in Tahoe City, the finest resort on the lake. To accommodate the hotel guests, Cardwell ran his own daily stagecoach on the windy road along the Truckee River.
On Saturday August 21, stage driver Jack Hanscom was making his usual run to Truckee on the Tahoe Turnpike with a full load of passengers. His six-horse stage was rolling along smoothly, which pleased Cardwell, who was riding in the coach.
Another rival stagecoach was ahead of them, so they were eating dust, and they were running a little late to make the connection with the Central Pacific’s Overland Limited at Truckee. The full load and pile of baggage on top slowed the top-heavy coach down more than usual.
As Hanscom was guiding his stage north with all the speed it could handle, he came to Squaw Creek Hill, or Big Hill as some called it. At the time the road just south of Squaw Valley was on the east side of the river, and it rose up and over the knoll rather than hugging the river, creating a short but steep hilly section.
The Truckee and Lake Tahoe Turnpike had its roots in 1860 when a crude wagon road was built from Tahoe City to Squaw Valley and the Truckee River. John Huntington and partners believed they would make a clear profit from the wagon loads of hay being hauled from the meadows on the Truckee River and Squaw Valley to the Comstock Lode via Lake Tahoe.
The toll road was still a work in progress, and in 1875 Huntington had cleared a new shortcut on Big Hill. Cardwell, thinking that he might save a few minutes, directed Hanscom to take it. The 16 passengers had no clue what was about to occur, as they were concentrating on their return from a Tahoe vacation.
As Hanscom, who was a very careful driver with great experience, was cresting the hill, he slowed the team down from the usual 6 mph. He took up the reins a little tighter and had the team under perfect control. He had his foot on the brake, but in coming down the steep section, the wooden brake staff broke squarely off, letting the stage surge against the team of horses.
At that point the shortcut joined the main road and with the extra speed, the stage was going to beat the clock and the other stage. All Hanscom had to do was swing around one turn and the race was won.
Without brakes, the only thing Hanscom could manage was to keep the team in the road, and make the descent faster than planned. The inside passengers were unaware of the lack of brakes, and continued gaily chatting away, while those on the top of the bouncing stage hung on as tight as they could.
The moments of terrible suspense seemed to take forever for those who were on top. They knew they were staring death in the face, and relied on Hanscom to make the best of a bad situation. The team of horses struggled against the weight pushing behind them, and responded by galloping faster. The horses crowded the downhill edge of the narrow, windy road, and there was nothing that Hanscom could do. The coach, which seemed to come alive as a mad demon, thundered down the hill.
Hanscom could have saved himself and jumped free at any time after the brake broke, but instead he stuck by his reins. As the out-of-control stage hit the last curve, it tipped over onto two wheels, then slammed into a large pine tree.
This tree prevented the stagecoach from rolling down the slope toward the river, but Hanscom and the seven outside passengers were thrown 30 feet down the hill, striking trees, rocks and brush. The inside passengers were in no better shape, as the side and top of stage exploded open, spilling them out into the pine tree and down the hill.
One man was lucky enough to jump off the rear as it went over and was completely unharmed. Others had no warning and were tossed about wildly. Only two of the 16 were uninjured and they quickly pulled the injured back up to the stage road.
Hanscom was among the injured, and it appeared that his injuries would prove to be fatal. He had a large gash in his leg, a back laceration, and thought he had broken his back. Mrs. Charles Miller was suffering from back injuries, which were feared to be permanent; Mrs. J. M. Eckfeldt received a severe bruise on her arm; and Mrs. L. M. Tucker landed on her face, suffering many cuts and bruises, but not altering her beauty in the long run.
James Cardwell escaped with only bruises and a black eye. Charles Hamilton suffered a broken leg, which looked like the worst injury at the time. Others had more minor injuries, but were in shock from the accident.
Once he had determined that all had survived, James Cardwell hopped upon one on the uninjured horses, and fairly flew bareback to Tahoe City for help. Once back at the Grand Central Hotel, he telegraphed to Truckee, pleading for help for the injured passengers. Cardwell then took a wagon and rescuers back to the scene.
The Truckee telegraph operator quickly rounded up Dr. George Curless, who gathered a crew of men together, rounded up another stagecoach and team, and with an escorting posse rushed to the scene. In the meantime a rival stagecoach, belonging to Truckee Hotel owner John Moody, came upon the accident and stopped to render whatever aid they could.
They took some of the worst injured to a nearby logging camp of the Truckee Lumber Company at Squaw Creek and comforted them until Dr. Curless arrived. Soon, all of the injured were treated, and Dr. Curless took his shook-up patients to Truckee for further care.
While all of the passengers aboard the stage were adamant that Hanscom had done all he could to avoid the wreck, other rumors began to circulate. Hanscom was accused of being “a reckless fellow,” and that the stage was “old and neglected.” Neither was true, as Hanscom was one of the most trusted drivers in the mountains, and in all his years had never been called reckless.
The stage was brand new that season, and the brake staff appeared to be in perfect order when the stage left the Truckee stables that morning. This was not a cheap stagecoach, for Cardwell knew of the need to have quality running gear on the rough mountain roads.
It took Hanscom a few months to recover enough to climb back aboard the bouncing seat and take the reins, but he continued to make the summer runs to Tahoe City for five more years, until he drowned in Donner Lake. Later passengers had no fear and some considered him a hero. The hill, in use until the State Highway was completed in 1929, acquired another name, that of “Cardwell’s Hill.”