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Stagecoach travel was not for faint of heart

Madera County Historical Society

Although stage coach travel was dangerous in the 19th century, people still crowded aboard the horse drawn vehicles in front of the Yosemite Hotel to travel to the mountains.


It seems so far in the distant past, and yet it hasn’t really been all that long since the only method of transportation from Madera to the foothills and back was in buggies and stagecoaches or on horseback. Horse drawn vehicles strained at their harnesses in Madera County well into the 20th century, and today it all seems a bit romantic. Some folks still long for those “good old days” of simple transportation, and maybe for good reason, but when perusing the newspapers of the time, one has to wonder.

Take, for instance, that issue of the Madera Mercury dated Dec. 7, 1901. The headlines read: “Over a Cliff — Stage Load of Passengers Upset Near Coarse Gold — One Man Reported Killed — Three Badly Injured in an Accident Last Night.”

One of Ed Stevens’ stagecoaches had overturned.

Stevens ran one of those rip-roaring saloons in the mountains of Madera County. He drew some of his clientele from Fresno Flats and Coarsegold, but the bulk of his customers were lumbermen from the Sugar Pine mills. To accommodate them and to encourage business, he ran a round trip stage between Coarse Gold, Fresno Flats (today’s Oakhurst), Sugar Pine, and then up to his saloon.

On the morning of Dec. 6, 1901, Stevens’ stage was making its last run of the season. The Sugar Pine Lumber Company had shut down its mill for the winter, and Stevens had boarded up his place. He had made a pile of money during the summer, and now he was going to the valley to spend it. The few remaining men at the mill intended to take passage to Coarse Gold.

Alex Dusthimer hitched up the horses that morning and pulled out of Coarsegold empty, heading into the mountains. His intentions were to drive up to the mill to pick up Steve Anderson, Ed Ray, and Herman Dickie at Sugar Pine. Then he would take the short trip to the saloon to pick up Stevens and three “ladies” who spent that lumber season there. Then everyone would be hauled to Fresno Flats, where they would obtain lodging for the night.

Everything went according to schedule until they reached the Flats. There was no room in the inn. Sleeping accommodations could not be had anywhere. It was nightfall, and Dusthimer wanted to return to Sugar Pine, but Stevens insisted that they press on in the night towards Coarsegold.

About half way between the two towns, the road crossed the river near Tom Jones’ place. It was a bad road to travel in the daytime and an absolutely treacherous trail at night. It ran at least fifty feet above the river on a high cliff, with a sheer descent below.

Dusthimer knew the road like the back of his hand, but the difficulty of driving at night was just too much, and the stage went too near the edge in the darkness. In a moment it was tumbling end over end to the bottom of the ravine.

Somehow one of the passengers made it out of the wreckage and crawled to a nearby flume tender’s cabin where there was a phone link to Madera. By the next afternoon, help was on the way. One of the local livery stablemen took a team to the scene to bring the passengers to Madera. Coroner Jay also sent a deputy, accompanied by Dr. Byars, for word had it that somebody had died.

When the rescue party reached the scene, they discovered a miracle. Only one of the women was hurt. She suffered an injured back. The other two women had escaped the accident with a few minor scrapes and bruises.

As for the men, Steve Anderson, storekeeper at the mill, had a sprained ankle and Ed Ray suffered a dislocated shoulder. Herman Dickie and Dusthimer, the driver, came out unscathed. That left just Stevens for which they had to account.

Fate has a strange way of working its will. None of the passengers was seriously injured in the wreckage, and some came out with barely a scratch. However, the man who owned the stage — the man who had arranged for the last trip — and the man who insisted that the stage press on to Coarse Gold that night, in spite of the obvious dangers — that man lost his life.

They found Ed Stevens with a broken neck some distance from the splintered stage. They pulled his broken body up to the road, and put him in Jay’s wagon and brought him to Madera. He had finally made it to town but at a frightful cost.

That accident didn’t stop the stages from running in Madera County. They had to continue for awhile. Folks living a century ago had no choice. One thing, however, is certain. It was quite awhile before anyone could be persuaded to drive a team between Fresno Flats and Coarsegold at night.

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