The Ghosts of Fish Slough
Stagecoaches no longer link the Owens Valley to the rest of the world, but back in the 1860's they were a civilized means of travel, for passengers, freight, and for mail. Six- horse teams pulled stagecoaches ten to fifteen miles at top speed over rough terrain until they reached a stage station, where new horses were placed in the traces and the journey resumed. One such stage station existed here at Fish Slough.
An idyllic spot any summer day, the "slough," or water filled depression, is fed by Sandy Springs Creek which bubbles up from the ground. Inviting to swimmers beneath the cottonwoods and the first foothills of the White Mountains and while enjoying the icy waters you can watch hawks circling overhead, dragonflies hovering over the reeds, monarchs sailing past the milkweed plants, red-winged blackbirds, and possibly a pair of great blue herons. In past years, a roseate spoonbill was sighted at the Slough. Maybe you will see it too, or perhaps you will simply soak in the silence. A silence steeped in the past.
It's 1865. Trains do not yet run through the Owens Valley. No highways lead automobiles through towns. Fish Slough is not just a sunny recreation spot, but the main depot for the United Stage Company, a branch of Wells Fargo Express. Phillip P. Keough is Superintendent for the stage company. Headquarters, stock, barn and corral are all located nearby. Bishop passengers meet at Fish Slough to travel to points north.
After passengers have been picked up in town and loaded at the Fish Slough depot, they set for Old Benton by way of Yellowjacket Springs. Adobe Meadows, the next stop-over is a small settlement 'mid haying and cattle country ... a very important source of hay and beef for the mining camps. From Adobe Meadows, roads lead in many directions. The main road leads north directly to Aurora. A branch of this turns west, ending at Bodie. Another branch road takes off westerly through hills and canyons, crosses the Owens River near the Arcularius Ranch, follows Long Valley and then turns up the road by Laurel Creek to reach the mining camps.
The Fish Slough - Bodie route is preferable for travel in winter when snow accumulation on more westerly stage routes makes the roads impassible. The High Road from Round Valley and Sherwin Meadows, by Wicha Cabin, Spring, and the Rock Creek Station to Mammoth gets the most snow, and frequently closes down. Dry Road is an alternative to the Rock Creek route, but Dry Road is not always dry. Neither is the Benton Hot Springs - McLaughlin Canyon,Little Antelope route to Casa Diablo and Mammoth City.
Some winters there is so much snow the stages can't run for weeks at a stretch-- sometimes even months. Consequently, the United Stage Company, with its various stations from Fish Slough to Mammoth, deducts money from the mail contractor's pay, for failure to deliver the mail.
Generally the stagecoaches run, never mind the weather or road conditions. Can you hear those slow turning wheels grinding in the sand? See the driver moving along beside the carriage on the sand silhouetted by a brilliant moon"?
The coaches, traveling at an average speed of ten miles an hour, stop at stage stations about every two hours. But sometimes the roads are so muddy, so deep in sand, or otherwise unnavigable that the passengers have to get out and walk so the horses won't have to pull so much weight.
The roads don't even look like roads, sometimes. They are "neither graded nor straight. The drivers pick their way through cactus and sand, and around hummocks. This becomes the road, over time. Much of the road is sandy and rutted. If a bad spot develops in the road they drive around it. There are many miles of upgrade and downhill. Travel is slow and dusty. On a good section of the road they trot the horses. On an exceptional stretch they may gallop the horses. This is done to make up for the slow miles in the deep sand."
And the roads aren't always safe! The "bandido" Vasquez robbed a stagecoach carrying several passengers. One of the travellers searched at gunpoint, who had already relinquished five dollars and his wallet containing mining stock worth ten thousand dollars finally "balked at Vasquez's demand for his new pair of gloves." The passenger claimed he needed them in the February cold, to which Vasquez replied, "Very well, I'll buy 'em off you. I'll give you two dollars for 'em," and returned the man two of the five dollars he had just stolen.
However, bandits and roads not withstanding, it's a fairly comfortable, secure ride by stage. The stagecoaches are Concords, the type universally used, with a square, high body, a door on either side, resting on springs or leather straps to soften the ride.
The Concords are built back east, in the New Hampshire city of that name. Eight passengers can fit in a single coach, and little children can sit on their parent's laps. If more people desire passage, they can ride on the roof. The man in charge of the gold box or the express packages fills the seat next to the driver and carries a shotgun -- just in case. He stores his black iron box in a boot under the driver's seat. Other storage areas include a larger boot in back of the stage for general baggage, and the space under the passenger seats.
The carriage has an "arching roof with a railing around the outer edge. In front is the boot where the driver sits with his feet braced against the floorboard. Behind his feet are the treasure box, a set of tools, a buffalo robe, a water bucket, and mail pouches."
It is the aspiration of many young boys to drive such a carriage. Some dues must be paid, however. The boys work in the stables learning about horses. Drivers show them how to handle the long leather reins "connected to the bridles on either side of the horse's head. A driver has to be skillful to handle so many reins. He never shouts at his animals or hurts them. They obey him just by the way he pulls on the reins."
One such apprentice, James Birch, ends up owning his own stage company, the California Stage Company, which carries mail and passengers from San Francisco over the Sierra.
The Overland Stage Company, another branch of Wells Fargo, connects the Owens Valley with the eastern United States. There are "three divisions on the famous daily Overland Stage Line: Atchison, Kansas to Denver; Denver to Salt Lake City; Salt Lake City to Placerville. These grand divisions are subdivided into runs of from two hundred to two hundred fifty miles. Bossing the whole operation is the general superintendent; under him are the three division superintendents who boss the agents in charge of the subdivisions. These latter distribute hay and grain to the stations on their run, and see to it that the coaches are kept greased and in repair, the horses shod, and the harness mended. The stations, which are from ten to twelve miles apart, are of two types: swing stations, in the charge of a stock tender, at which the horses are changed; and home stations, which are larger and are where the driver is changed and meals served. The blacksmith and repair shops are at division points, which also are replacement centers for men and animals."
At the home stage stations meals can be purchased. Although passengers carry their own food and water to partake of in the coaches, the home stations provide decent meals. "Staples are bacon, eggs, hot biscuits, green tea and coffee, dried peaches and apples, and pies. Each meal is the same; breakfast, dinner and supper are undistinguishable save by the hour; and the price is $1 or $1.50 each."
The newspapers carry up-to-date schedules and fares, and frequently colourful vignettes or travelogues: "Passengers on the Bodie Stage remark the large number of deer trails crossing the road near the Summit beyond Deadman's Station, since the last snow. They all lead back into the mountains and we may therefore expect a season of fine weather. Mr. King, on the Bodie and Mammoth Road has completed a fine barn so is now able to house a larger number of horses in winter."
A sample schedule: "Lake and Bodie Stage Line, Carrying U.S. Mail and Wells Fargo Co.'s Express. Stages leave Mammoth City for King's Ranch and Bodie, Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 4 P.M. Time to Bodie, Where Close Connection is Made with the Carson Stage Line, Twelve Hours. Fare to Bodie, $25."
A typical ticket supplies a little more information: "Subject to terms and conditions of published tariff in effect, 100 pounds of luggage, not exceeding $25 in value, will be carried. Void if altered. Void 30 days after date. This ticket must be presented with any claim, within 48 hours of occurrence." (This ticket from the Kernville Stage and Freight Lines, established 1865, may be viewed not far from Fish Slough, in the Wells Fargo Co. room at Laws Museum).
Imagine what a terrific event is the arrival of the stage! If you miss the stage, there are other stations where you can catch it besides Fish Slough, although they could take you to unexpected destinations: Rock Creek, Casa Diablo, Deadman's, Goat Ranch, King's Ranch, Whiskey Creek, and McGhee Creek.
In the timeless silence of Fish Slough, sound of the old stage coach stop drift with the wind, down through time to bring their memories of yesterday.
- Abridged from an original article by Katie Wilkinson, published in the Inyo Register on July 29, 1984.
- Used by permission of the Inyo Register, Bishop CA.