Stagecoach driver turned to bounty hunting
For The Madera Tribune
A sheriff’s posse poses around the mortally wounded train robber, John Sontag. Shown second from the left is Hiram Lee Rapelje, a Madera stage coach driver turned bounty hunter.
Madera County has produced its share of rough and tumble, two-fisted drinking, street fighting pioneers. They pop up all through the pages of local history to spice up the pieces of our past. Very near the top of a list of such characters is Hiram Lee Rapelje, a local stage driver who was as quick with his guns as he was his fists.
Rapelje, came to Madera from Merced in the late 1870’s. In spite of his reputation as a brawler, he was hired by Henry Washburn to drive a stagecoach on the Madera to Yosemite route. Three times a week in front of Mace’s Hotel on Yosemite Avenue, Rapelje, climbed up into the driver’s seat and whipped up his six horses to begin the two day journey to the Big Trees and Wawona.
Hiram Rapelje, never had an accident; he never lost control, and highwaymen never accosted him. Washburn had chosen well, or at least he apparently thought so. When President Ulysses S. Grant visited Madera, Hiram Rapelje was picked to drive the stage that took him and his party to Yosemite.