By Michael Raffety
Reading John Poimiroo’s column about Yosemite’s Wawona Hotel brought back memories. Having gone on some writers trips sponsored by the Nevada Tourism Department and written a three-part series about the first trip, I must have wound up on a list of writers invited to the Wawona.
It was a winter trip — about 20 years ago — that included the option of downhill ski lessons or cross-country skiing. I did not choose wisely. I thought it would be fun to ski out to Glacier Point as I did in the winter of 1979. My guide, however, didn’t seem to take us on a well-skied path. I found myself slogging through very deep snow on some mythical shortcut. We never got to Glacier Point. I just got to the point of exhaustion and barely made it back to the bus. The bus, in fact, was pulling out when we arrived. I should have gone for the downhill lesson.
When I go on a writer’s familiarization trip, I like to carry a laptop and get at least a start on the story in evening back at the motel. On two different nearly week-long trips through Nevada, I had the stories half-written and broken into a series and close to finished by the end of the trip.
The Wawona was different. After dinner we were kept there till nearly 9 p.m. with history slide shows. I never got a chance to crack open my computer. In fact, I never wrote anything about the Wawona. I swore every winter I would write something about it, but the notes have disappeared and so has my guilt.
I didn’t have the motivation of writing a column at that time.
The one thing that intrigued me from the history presentation was a photo of a black man named George Monroe who drove a stage into Yosemite. I always assumed he was one of the Monroes from Coloma.
I got out the “I Remember” book and looked up the Monroes. The Monroes of Coloma owned 80 acres. The founding patriarch of the Coloma Monroes was actually named Gooch. Peter and Nancy Gooch came to California in 1849-50 by wagon train from Missouri as slaves. The Gold Discovery Park Association said, “We believe their owner was William Gooch, a partner in the Crescent Hotel in Placerville. Nancy had to leave behind her son, Andrew, who was not old enough to be a productive worker.”
California was a free state that didn’t allow slaves, so Peter and Nancy were freed. Peter earned money as a handyman and Nancy did washing and mending for miners. By 1870, nine years after Peter died, she had acquired property and saved up $700. She used that money to pay off Andrew’s debts as a tenant farmer. Before the emancipation he had been sold to the Monroe family and had been given that name. He was 24 and married when he came out to California with his wife Sarah and sons Pearly and Grant to farm in Coloma.
And that is how someone named Gooch became the mother of someone named Monroe. My best guess is that Andrew Monroe came from Monroe County, Mo., nicknamed “the Heart of Little Dixie.” Monroe County, formed in 1831, was named after President James Monroe. The county seat is Paris. The 2010 census pegged Monroe’s population at 8,840.
Andrew and Sarah eventually had seven children, the youngest of whom was James Monroe. A clear, large photograph of the entire family of six sons and one daughter is displayed on page 65 of “I Remember.”
Andrew died in 1921. The Gold Discovery Association said he died while helping Pearly drive cattle to Placerville. James, who had been based in Oakland, where he worked in Pullman rail cars, returned to Coloma to help Pearly with the Monroe farm in Coloma. As Coloma’s population declined Pearly kept buying land until the ranch totaled 360 acres.
Grant Monroe, who in “I Remember” is seated on the family wagon holding the reins for a two-horse team, went on to become a stage coach driver and teamster in Placerville.
James Monroe, born in 1886, lived to age 101, dying in 1987 in Sacramento.
And now I switch to the other Monroe, who in 1855 came west from Georgia at the age of 11. Here again I am guessing he came from Monroe, County, Ga.
While the Monroes of Coloma became steady middle class, George Frazier Monroe by age 22 became a swashbuckling stage coach driver for the A.H. Washburn Co. stage line into Yosemite Valley. The photos of show a handsome, well-dressed man with a casual, if not cavalier, pose, with one foot on a rock and holding a driver’s whip.
Shirley Sargent’s “Yosemite’s Historic Wawona” talks about George Monroe: “Their salaries were $40 a month for six months work… ‘Kingpin driver’ was George Monroe. ‘His employers say of him that he never met any accident, never failed to be on time and never cost the company a quarter of a dollar for damages to passengers, horses or vehicles …’ reported a Mariposa Gazette.”
One of the stage stops was named after him and still shows up on Yosemite maps — Ft. Monroe. Also Monroe Meadows in Yosemite near Bridalveil Falls.
On Oct. 2, 1879, Washburn and stage driver Hi Rapje met former President Ulysses S. Grant at the Madera train station and started a 12-hour journey to Big Tree Station (Later renamed Wawona in 1882) in Yosemite. Grant rode on top with the driver. The next day Grant’s stage driver was George Monroe who took them into Yosemite Valley to Bernard’s Hotel. On Oct. 5 Monroe returned Grant and his entourage to Big Tree Station. Grant rode up top with Monroe.
The trip on Washburn’s road, is described on the Wells Fargo history Website: “Grant’s schedule took him and Mrs. Grant down the dangerous 26-mile 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.”
Grant, an expert horseman, recounted his trip up top with Monroe as stage driver: “He would throw those six animals from one side to the other to avoid a stone or chuckhole as if they were a single horse.”
Monroe later drove two other presidents — James A. Garfield and Rutherford B. Hayes as well as Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman and actress Lillie Langtry.
Monroe’s mother, Mary, was a free woman from Ohio. His father, Louis Augustus Monroe came from Georgia in 1854 and became a barber in Mariposa. George remained in Washington, D.C., to complete the school year. He was brought to Mariposa by his uncle.
George Monroe, called Knight of the Sierra, is ranked up there with other famous California stage drivers like Hank Monk (King of the Coachmen) , Clark “Old Chieftain” Foss, Charley Parkhurst (known as Cockeyed Charley) , Charley Webster and Gen. Phineas Banning.
From the Sierra Sun Times comes an 1896 quote from Henry Washburn: “After an experience of nearly 40 years and having had as much as 50 regular drivers some seasons, I have never known another such an all-around reins man as George Monroe…. He had names for all the horses, and they all knew their names. Sometimes he spoke sharply to one or more of them, but generally he addressed them pleasantly. He seldom used a whip, except to crack over their heads. … He drove over my lines for nearly 20 years and never injured a person.”
George Monroe died at the age of 42 when he was a passenger in a stage when a runaway horse tipped over the coach. Despite his injuries, he helped the driver stop the runaway team, but died a few days later.
The Nov. 27, 1886, Mariposa Gazette carried a long obituary eulogizing George Monroe and his qualities as a man and as a stage driver.