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Robbers posed threat to stagecoach passengers

Courtesy of the Madera County Historical Society

The Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company, headed by Henry Washburn, operated stages to Yosemite from Madera and later from the town of Raymond. The drivers were, of necessity, a rough and ready bunch. Not only did they face the perils of navigating the winding dirt roads to the mountains, they had to face the ever-present danger of meeting highwaymen along the way. Among the best of the drivers was Sam Owens, who is pictured here circa 1885, in the middle of the first row of drivers.


Soon after the California Lumber Company founded Madera in 1876, another corporate venture was launched which proved to be indispensable to the growth of the fledgling town.

The Yosemite Stage and Turnpike Company was organized to transport tourists to the Yosemite Valley via Madera, and for more than a dozen years it completed its task with ease. The carriages were large and comfortable, given the conditions of the day, and the trips were completed with few mishaps, most of the time.

Occasionally, however, the passengers received more than they bargained for. Sometimes they fell prey to human scavengers who hid in the hills, poised to swoop down on any unsuspecting party and relieve them of their valuables. Such was the case with a group of Yosemite Valley visitors in June 1885.

The travelers left Captain Mace’s Yosemite Hotel in Madera on May 23, and spent several days camping in the Valley. On June 3, they caught the Madera-bound stage for the return trip home.

In the late afternoon, just as the two stages rounded a hairpin curve in the road, out stepped two masked men, one short and squat and the other rather tall and lanky. Both men were dressed in black and had their clothes on wrong-side-out.

The smaller man was armed with a rifle and a pistol and the other with a shotgun. The highwaymen ordered the drivers to the ground and then lined the passengers up on the road. Everyone was told to put all of their money in the dirt and then to take off their watches, charms, and other jewelry and place them beside the cash. The hapless tourists were even forced to part with their sleeve buttons. Finally, they were relieved of their checks and railroad tickets. Nothing was sacred, not even the Wells Fargo & Co’s “treasure box.

At this point, it was a pretty routine holdup. No one was hurt; everything was given up peacefully, and it looked as if the badmen were going to be content with their booty. Then they demanded the unthinkable. They forced their victims to shed their clothing. When this ultimate humiliation had been accomplished, the bandits bid the party farewell, calling the drivers, Philip Toby and George Foster, by name and urging them to “drive on.”

The passengers looked at one another in disbelief, and as they continued their descent to Madera, their suspicions grew.

Once they were back in the lobby of the Yosemite Hotel, someone notified E.H. Cox, the resident Southern Pacific Railroad agent, and sent a telegraphic alert to the sheriff in Fresno. In the meantime, Constable Hensley of Madera set out in a futile chase for the robbers. At the same time, the Fresno Expositor sent a reporter to Madera to interview the victims. What he found moved him to his journalistic best.

“Since the...stage robbery on the Yosemite Road by two tyros in the art, by which two stage loads of tourists were deprived of such superfluous luxuries as watches, rings, and a little filthy lucre, there has been not a little amusement about the hotel here,” wrote the newsman, as he described the precautions taken by the next scheduled group of Yosemite tourists against future depredations.

For instance, one portly gentleman who profusely denounced the cowardice of highwaymen revealed that he was ready for any emergency. He pulled the Expositor reporter to a corner of the hotel lobby, reached into his pocket and pulled out a key to his valise. With a flourish he opened the case and took out a handkerchief all tied in knots.

Very delicately he unwrapped his bundle and finally produced a brand new, ivory-handled pistol, which the reporter claimed would do nothing more than “make a highwayman as mad as blazes if he were shot with it.”

Another victim of the robbery was “so thoroughly imbued with the idea that everyone was a robber that when it became necessary for Mr. go out of his office to hunt up change, the tourist...followed him nervously from place to place with all of the vigilance of a detective on his first hunt.”

Such was the terror under which the men of the party appeared to suffer. Apparently the women were not as fearful.

One female came up to the reporter inquiring, “Do you think they will rob us?”

When Mr. Badger, Captain Mace’s hotel manager, replied in the negative, the lady exclaimed, “Oh I do wish they would, and her face fairly beamed with enthusiasm at the idea of a romantic encounter with real, live robbers in the dark forests of the mountain glens.”

To calm everyone’s nerves, one hotel guest offered the story of a stage robbery in which he was involved in Mexico. The gentleman related how he, while the robbers were busy with the other passengers, somehow got his trunk behind a tree, got out his two six-shooters, and with one in each hand, took his seat on the trunk, with his back to the tree.

He claimed the robbers came around to finish up with him and were so amused with what they found that after a hearty laugh they left him in peace.

The record does not indicate whether the two bandits were ever caught, nor was it ever revealed whether the next group of would-be Yosemite travelers went ahead to make the trip. What we do know, however, is that the fear quickly wore off. It wasn’t the first time that someone had lost a valuable to a highwayman in Madera County, nor would it be the last.

Madera County pioneers were not to be thwarted by a handful of ne’r-do-wells. The stages continued to run from Madera to Yosemite until the Berenda to Raymond railroad took most of the tourist business. Today most of the horsedrawn coaches that have survived are silent museum relics, but much of their rich heritage is preserved in the pages of diaries and old newspapers. The search for those lost stories is well worth the effort.


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