George Monroe, model stagecoach driver
George Monroe, model stagecoach driver
History
November 14, 2016

George Monroe, model stagecoach driver

The man who would become renowned for driving stagecoaches — and three U.S. presidents — into Yosemite Valley started life in Georgia and headed West at the age of 11.

In stagecoach days, drivers carried Wells Fargo treasure shipments and passengers across the frontier. It took skill to drive a coach and Wells Fargo added rigorous standards of its own: superior reinsmanship, self-reliance and upstanding character.

(FYI, it still takes driving talent and good character to drive Wells Fargo stagecoaches today.)

In 1855, 11-year-old George Monroe came west from Georgia. When Monroe had grown, he came to exemplify the greatness of fact and legend of the best stagecoach drivers. He was described by his employers as “the best all-round reinsman in the West.”

Early on, George Monroe exhibited a knack for training and driving horses. At age 22, he took a job driving for the A.H. Washburn and Company stage line into Yosemite. That stage line carried passengers and Wells Fargo & Co.’s Express into Yosemite Valley. Monroe expertly navigated the treacherous cliffside roads into the Valley and became the best driver around.

George Monroe
George Monroe in an uncharacteristically quiet moment.

One time, the brakes of Monroe’s coach failed between Mariposa and Merced while full of passengers. Monroe stayed cool, and at an opportune moment drove his team into a clump of brush, bringing the stage to a safe halt. Grateful passengers passed the hat and presented Monroe with $70.

In 1879, the celebrated Monroe was asked to carry a fellow celebrity into Yosemite — Ulysses S. Grant, 18th President of the United States. Grant’s schedule took him and Mrs. Grant down the dangerous, 26-mile route into Yosemite Valley, with hairpin turns and fallen rocks and chuckholes. There was a stretch so narrow, the stagecoach’s wheels brushed against the granite walls of the cliff. Inches from the other wheels was a thousand-foot gorge.

The crusty general chose to sit next to the driver, a place of honor in those days. An expert horseman in his own right, Grant’s assessment of Monroe’s skills would make or break his reputation as a stagecoach driver. Monroe did his magic and Grant was duly impressed: “He would throw those six animals from one side to the other,” the president marveled, “to avoid a stone or a chuckhole as if they were a single horse.”

By 1885, Monroe had driven two more Presidents to Yosemite: James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes, as well as Gen. William T. Sherman. George Monroe died in 1886 when a stagecoach overturned and mortally injured him. Ironically, Monroe was not the driver, but a passenger — it’s a good bet he’d have avoided the accident entirely if he had been “in the box” as driver.


Note: This story was originally published on Feb. 18, 2008.