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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Legendary Hank Monk

Gregarious, quick of mind and firm of hand on the reins, stage driver Hank Monk was a legend in his own lifetime—revered across the West for his skillful handling of half-broken stage horses over narrow mountain roads—so famous, in fact, that he was mentioned by name in Mark Twain’s Roughing It.

He came to California in 1852 already a seasoned driver, having started his staging career at a tender age in New York, some say as early as age twelve. In California he was hired by James Birch’s California Stage Company to drive stage between Sacramento and Auburn; later between Sacramento and Placerville. In 1857 and thereafter, he drove for Jared Crandall’s Pioneer Stage Line between Placerville and Genoa, Nevada, continuing with the line when Brady and Sundland bought out Crandall and later sold to Wells, Fargo & Company. Monk drove treacherous Sierra Nevada passes for nearly twenty-five years, with only two relatively minor accidents.

He was also an irrepressible raconteur; or as his generation expressed it, a yarn-spinner. Of all the tales he spun, the most famous is his story of the wild ride he gave Horace Greeley in 1859. Greeley, the influential editor of the New York Tribune, was touring the West. Anxious to arrive on time for a scheduled meeting in Placerville, he boarded Monk’s stage at Genoa, Nevada. As the coach mounted the summit Greely first complained they were going too slow—then as the team plunged downward and the terror-stricken editor was, according to Hank, “bounced around like a loose ball in such a terrific way that his head shot clean through the roof of the stage”— Greely yelled at Monk to slow down. “Keep your seat, Horace, I’ll get you there on time,” Hank replied, totally unperturbed as he guided his team over steep and winding stage roads.

Doubtless, Hank embellished a few truths at Greeley’s expense; certainly Greeley hotly denied that any part of the story was true. Nonetheless the tale took on a life of its own even before the works of Mark Twain, humorist Artemus Ward and California poet-playwright Joaquin Miller spread it—and Hank’s name—far and wide. The whole business angered and humiliated Horace Greeley, who died in 1872 during his campaign for the presidency of the United States. Hank’s legend led to his having many famous men in his coach, including Union Civil War General William Tecumseh Sherman and President Rutherford B. Hayes.

Life-long bachelor Hank Monk charmed almost everyone he met (except Horace Greeley), and was said to be kind to all. Not yet sixty, he died of pneumonia in Carson City on February 28, 1883.

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