They were Called Jehus—those stage coach drivers that made a major impact on the development of California’s transportation. Even though their prominent period in history was little more than half a century, they have been characterized as strong, brave, skilled and resourceful.
The mid 19th century marked the beginning of the stagecoach era. Wells Fargo laid out a north-south route across the State, which passed through Santa Barbara North County. Here the route had to deal with formidable natural features that caused hazards or obstructions to travel, including the Santa Ynez mountains, and the Santa Maria and Sisquoc rivers . During dry periods, travel through these areas could be safe, but in the time of heavy rain, it could be life-threatening. Roads were made only as wide and level as required for the coaches that used them.
The stage coaches, lightweight but durable, could survive the rough, poorly-graded roads. The widely-used Concord stage weighed 1500 pounds and accommodated nine passengers inside with one or two more occasionally riding on top with the driver. A six-horse team pulled the stage on steeper grades, but on long, flat spans four horses were adequate.
The stage ride was not comfortable, to say the least. An account written in the 1860s describes riding in a Concord stagecoach:
“The passengers rode three abreast, squeezed into back and middle rows, both facing forward, and a forward row, facing rearward. The facing passengers in the forward and middle rows had to ride with their knees dovetailed. All the passengers rode with baggage on their laps and mail pouches beneath their feet. They travelled relentlessly, day and night, with no more than brief moments of rest along the way.
The drivers faced huge challenges and dangers. The horses were a priority, whether a four-or six-horse team, and regardless of the difficulty of the terrain. Also, valuables, whether personal or freight, had to be protected from bandits who roamed the roads far from protection of the law. Sometimes, the very behavior of passengers needed to be controlled.
The story of a brave stream crossing by stage driver Ed Hecox is related in a Legacy Five publication of the Lompoc Valley Historical Society. Hecox got the mail through one stormy night by risking his life in the flooded Salsipuedes Creek. He saw he couldn’t get the stage across, so he unhooked one of his lead horses, shouldered the mail sack, mounted the animal, and attempted to ford the stream. The horse floundered in the swirling torrent and threw Hecox into the flood, but he grabbed a twig and hung onto the mail bag. His staunch leader finally got them across. Later that stormy night, while a few anxious folks waited for the stage, Hecox, wet and weary, rode into town with the mail bags on his shoulder.
More stories of stage drivers appear in “Stage Coach Days in Santa Barbara County” by Walker A Tompkins (1982).