the Most Famous Stagecoach Driver in the World
Before the railroad came to Healdsburg in 1871, travelers from San Francisco generally came by steamer through San Pablo Bay and up Petaluma Creek to Petaluma. From there many stage lines radiated out to different sections of Sonoma County.
Stagecoaches and their drivers provided some of the most colorful images of the last century. In his engagingly run-on style, local historian Julius Myron Alexander apparently gave an eyewitness account when he described just how colorful they were:
"The old stage coaches were works of the carriage-makers' art, brilliantly painted, red, green or yellow, with striping of spokes and bodies; with a canvas-covered trunk and baggage rack behind and the driver's seat high above the boot in which the mail and express was stowed under the driver's seat. When hitched to four or six fine matched stage horses with the harness mounting of silver or brass fixtures with many white or red rings and a brilliantly colored tassel hanging from the cheek piece of the bridle, with the expert driver mounted on the box, dressed appropriately and wearing a ten-gallon, pearl-gray John B. Stetson hat, full gauntlet gloves with long braided lash whip in his right hand, mounting a series of silver ferrules on its pliable hickory stock, made a spectacle to cheer the heart and delight the eye."
Of all the great and daring stage drivers of that day, none was more daring or so famous as Healdsburg's own Clark Foss, who almost single-handedly put the stage route to the California Geysers on the world's map.
Capitalizing on a Natural Wonder
The native Indian tribes had known and used the Geysers as a type of resort for centuries. Joel P. Walker and John Ransford were probably the first white men to explore the bizarre natural wonder in 1842. The Geysers are located in the steeply rugged Mayacmas range of mountains, which separate Sonoma from Lake and Napa Valleys in northern California, about 1700 feet above sea level. Early recreational visitors to those steam fumeroles and black bubbling waters stinking of sulfur, came by way of Knight's Valley to the foot of Geyser Peak, then on horseback by a narrow trail over the mountain.
Upon reaching their destination visitors beheld a ground tinted white, yellow and gray with chemicals. The hot air itself seemed loaded with a mixture of salts, sulfur, iron, magnesia, soda, and ammonia. All along the bottom of a wide ravine and up the sides of rugged hills, cracks and vents punctured the earth and through these steam hissed and inky black waters boiled.
The larger vents and boiling pools each acquired colorful names like "Witches Caldron" and "Devil's Wash Bowl". Some gave off sounds like a singing teakettle when they blew, another sounded like a puffing steamship, hence "Devil's Teakettle" and the 300 foot column of smoke spewing from "Steamboat Springs". Visitors reported an infinite variety of sounds, which in the middle of the Nineteenth Century were described as huge tanks of boiling potatoes, the cob-cracking of a grist mill, the sigh of the wind, murmur of pines, or dash of waves, "all in liquid, vibrating, tremulous tones".
Canvas tent and cabin lodgings were built at the Geysers as early as 1854. But it was Colonel A.C. Godwin, a merchant from the tiny town that later became "Geyserville", who was the first to establish a real tourist hotel in that spot that so often reminded visitors of hell itself. Trying to run a hotel there must have been hellish as well, because ownership changed almost yearly until 1866. Clark Foss was the fifth owner, but that was not how he became so well known.
Foss was not the first stage driver to brave the dangerous trail to the Geysers either. That honor belongs to R.C. Flournoy who, in May 1861, made the arduous journey in the company of "a lady"!
The heyday of the Geysers Resort was between 1855 and 1875. In the latter year 3500 people signed the Hotel Register. While the steam plumes, boiling waters, and infernal stink amazed many tourists, other world-weary sightseers were just plain disappointed.  As this visitor, Samuel Bowles, explained in the early 1860's:
"The Geysers are exhausted in a couple of hours. They are certainly a curiosity, a marvel; but there is no element of beauty;...like a three-legged calf, or the Siamese twins, ...once seeing is satisfactory for a life-time."
But no one it seems, not even our jaded visitor above, was ever disappointed by the stage driver that took over the route in the early 1860's, Clark Foss.
In the words of a younger stage driver, Bill Spiers, Colonel Clark Foss (often called "Old Chieftain" by his admirers) "could handle six horses like you'd handle that many cats. He would lift them right off their feet and swing them around corners so fast you couldn't see the lead team...he'd run down the last hill with a yell to wake the dead."
In 1879 the Independent Calistogan reported that Foss "drove his six-in-hand as though four fiends were after him, directing them by his thundering voice as much as with his huge fists, and at the same time snapping his long whip with a shot like a pistol, echoing through the hills."
One of the more harrowing parts of the journey teetered over a narrow hilltop ridge known as the "Hog's Back". As Bowles described it:
"For several miles the road lay along the hog's back, the crest of a mountain that ran away from the point or edge like the sides of a roof, several thousand feet to the ravines below; so narrow that...it was rarely over ten or twelve feet wide, and in one place but seven feet...and yet we went over this narrow causeway [with Foss] on the full gallop."
The same traveler, describing that last steep descent into the valley of the Geysers with Foss, said:
"The descent was almost perpendicular; the road ran down sixteen hundred feet in the two miles to the hotel, and it had thirty-five sharp turns in its course: 'Look at your watch,' said Mr. Foss, as he started on the steep decline; crack, crack went the whip over the heads of the leaders, as the sharp corners came in sight, and they plunged with seeming recklessness ahead, --and in nine minutes and a half, they were pulled up at the bottom, and we took breath. Going back, the team was an hour and a quarter in the same passage."
"Timid visitors hold him in mortal terror." reported another traveler in 1865. "One lady, learning that he was to be her driver, jumped out of the vehicle, steadfastly refusing to ride behind such a reckless Jehu."
An early settler in Healdsburg remembered that, "There was a party of six or eight wealthy gentlemen from the East, doing this coast for pleasure, and they wanted to take in the Geysers in one day. Foss arranged a relay of horses for every ten or fifteen miles of the circuit, and took them from Napa, by Calistoga, to the Geysers, back by way of the hog's back to Healdsburg, Santa Rosa and Petaluma, in the day. The party had been on a sharp gallop all that time except for a short stay at the springs. He received a fabulous fee for this service, and no end of gloves, whips, and other souvenirs by mail and express."
Clark Foss was born in Maine (one source says New Hampshire) about 1819. In 1844 he relocated to Troy, New York, and several years later traveled with his wife and family to California.
Settling in Healdsburg about 1859, Foss first tried raising hogs, but later established himself in the livery business. It was from this stable that the first regular stage to the Geysers originated about 1863. From this stage and his superlative handling of both horses and passengers, Foss built his worldwide reputation.
Due to the international renown drawing visitors to the Geysers stage route, Foss is often said to be the most famous stage driver in the world. Many marveling reporters returned to their home states and countries to sing his praises. According to one writer he was the "King Of Drivers", and Robert Louis Stevenson wrote of him in The Silverado Squatters.
Another reporter, writing for the Boston Journal in 1869 tells us the following about Clark Foss:
"Not only is he an unequaled driver, but he is a man of genius and a philosopher. In person he stands six feet two inches in his stockings, is as strong as a giant, has the voice of a tragedian, weighs two hundred and thirty, and is as fine a specimen of muscular development and vigor as ever went forth from the hills of the Granite State."
Those of us who will never have the chance to experience the exquisite terror of riding behind Clark Foss might gain insight from that reporter's description.
"Glancing carefully at his load, and taking a swift but sure look at his tackling to see that all is secure, [Foss] cracks his whip, shouts to the horses and away we go down the steep mountain side. Trees fly past like the wind; bushes dash angrily against the wheels; the passengers hold on as if for dear life; the ladies shut their eyes and grasp the arm of some male passenger; and speed down the declivity with lightning rapidity, the horses on a live jump, and General Foss [now he's a General!] whip in hand, cracking it about their heads to urge them on. The effect at first is anything but pleasant. At every lurch of the coach one feels an instinctive dread of being tossed high in the air and landed far below in a gorge, or, perchance, spitted upon the top of a sharp pine. If a horse should stumble or misstep, or the tackle snap, away we should all go down the precipice."
Foss's first route to the Geysers went from Healdsburg to a place where fresh horses were waiting called Ray's Station. This tavern and stables was on the northern end of Alexander Valley, off Red Winery Road. From there a toll road , built by Geysers owner A.C. Godwin in 1862, went around Geyser Peak and over Hog's Back Ridge to the Geysers springs.
In about 1865 the famous stage driver founded "Fossville" in the southeastern end of Knights Valley. The little settlement replaced Ray's Station as a rest stop and consisted of a post office, an immense barn with a great watering trough, and a long, low, "snow-white" cottage with verandah nestled in an encircling valley of green hills. In 1880 a writer called the secluded valley "the beau-ideal of sequestered loveliness."
The Fossville Hotel was said to have 25 guestrooms, the large main room boasting red plush draperies and crystal chandeliers. Famous visitors who signed in at the hotel register include P.T. Barnum's famous midget, Tom Thumb, Ulysses S. Grant, Richard Henry Dana, H.S. Crocker, Mark Hopkins, J. Pierpont Morgan, and W.R. Hearst.
Typically Foss would pick up his passengers, famous or otherwise, in Healdsburg, already wearied by the long journey from San Francisco. From there they would set off on the eight-mile ride to Fossville, sometimes by moonlight. Revived by a fine dinner and good night's rest at Foss's hotel, they would have the stamina for the tortuous but breathtaking twelve-mile road to the Geysers the next morning. That trip took about two and a quarter hours if the stage was not harassed by bandits.
Because his stage served many of the quicksilver mines in the area, bandits, or "highwaymen", regularly approached Foss. Reports claim that Foss developed great skill and daring in eluding them.
After being safely deposited at the Geysers visitors then had to brave the rugged attraction itself. Bowles complained:
"You grow faint with the heat and smells; your feet seem burning...You feel as if the ground might any moment open, and let you down into a genuine hell...And, most dreadful of all, you lose all appetite for the breakfast of venison, trout and grouse that awaits your return to the hotel."
And then, as if that were not enough, there was always the return ride behind Clark Foss. All of this excitement and exhaustion could be had for $50 round trip per passenger, which included an evening meal at the Fossville Hotel.
The road from Healdsburg over the Hog's Back, said to be the most beautiful and interesting of all the roads, was the main route to the Geysers until 1869, when a toll road was built from Knight's Valley. But by 1870 another route from Calistoga was giving the Healdsburg road tough competition. In that year the Russian River Flag newspaper indignantly claimed the following:
"In a circular setting forth the attractions of the famous Geysers Springs...the statement is made that the time from Healdsburg to the Geysers is six hours...[These Calistoga gentlemen] know that the distance is only twenty miles and that the route is run by the fastest stage driver in the world, Clark Foss. The assertion...looks like a willful misrepresentation to divert the travel from the Healdsburg route. It is a mountain road and has many steep grades, yet Foss' common time is four hours from Healdsburg to the Geysers, and when he is in a hurry he drives it in three hours."
The Healdsburg route and Fossville fell into disuse when Clark Foss moved his family and his stage route to Calistoga after the railroad was put through to Napa Valley. He built a toll road from Calistoga over the mountains by way of Pine Flat to the Geysers Springs.
Foss was not only famous for his daring and speed, but for the fact that he had never had a single accident in his long career. Sadly, Clark Foss' colorful and mishapless career came to a screeching halt in the late 1870's or 1880.
In a terrible accident Foss plunged his coach and team of young colts off into a deep canyon on the way from Pine Flat to Fossville. Seven passengers, including Foss, were badly injured. One young lady died and another was maimed for life.
After his recovery Foss continued to ride the stage for a short time, but could never regain his incredibly fearless spirit. In 1881 he handed over the reins to his son, Charles.
Shortly before his death in Calistoga in August 1885, Foss repented of his prior foolhardiness, saying he would not drive so recklessly again if he regained his health. According to one who heard him, Foss "fairly shuddered when even talking about it."
Charles C. Foss, taking up where his chastened father left off, ran the Calistoga-Geysers stage line (which also picked up passengers in Healdsburg) until at least 1910. He was said to always be a careful, if perhaps much slower, driver.
By 1913 passengers to the Geysers rode R.T. Bruce's dependable Stanley Steamer "auto bus" over much improved - if much less thrilling - roadways.
Safety and the value of human lives are of ultimate concern in any mode of public transportation. But it is difficult not to admire the skill and perhaps foolhardy daring that made Clark Foss of Healdsburg the "most famous stage driver in the world".
© 2003 Hannah Clayborn
Dr. William C. Shipley, Tales of Sonoma County, (Santa Rosa: Sonoma County Historical Society, 1965), pg. 6.
Rich Cartiere, "Joel Pickens Walker, Pioneer of Pioneers", in Russian River Recorder,, Spring, 1985, Issue 29, pg. 1.
Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, pgs. 29, 30. Bowles, Across the Continent, pgs. 280-282. Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi, pg. 524.
Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, pgs. 29, 30.
William H. Brewer, Up and Down California in 1860-1864 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1949) pg. 231.
Samuel Bowles, Across the Continent, (Springfield, Mass.: Samuel Bowles and Co., 1865), pg. 280.
Kay Archuleta, The Brannan Saga, (San Jose: Kay Archuleta, cr. 1977), p.74
Samuel Bowles, Across the Continent, (Springfield, Mass.: Samuel Bowles and Co., 1865), pgs. 279, 280.
Albert Deane Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi, (New York: American Publ. Co., 1869), p. 522.
Samuel Maxwell, "Early Healdsburg Memories", in Tribune, 26 March 1908. (1: 5).
Independent Calistogan, 26 Aug. 1885 (3). Tribune, 30 Dec. 1897, (biography of Mrs. Clark Foss); Joan Perry Dutton, They Left Their Mark, Famous Passages through the Wine Country (St. Helena: Illuminations Press, cr. 1983) pg. 85.
Dutton, They Left Their Mark, pg. 85, 86. Stevenson at Silverado, The Life and Writing of Robert Louis Stevenson in the Napa Valley, California, 1880 (Fresno: Valley Publishers, 1974) p. 31, 32. Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, p. 31. Independent Calistogan, 26 Aug. 1885 (3) and 2 Sept. 1885 (3). Tribune, 30 Dec. 1897, (biography of Mrs. Clark Foss). Boston Journal 31 Aug. 1869 (as reprinted in Russian River Flag 23 Sept. 1869 (3:3).
Boston Journal 31 Aug. 1869 (as reprinted in Russian River Flag 23 Sept. 1869 (3:3).
Independent Calistogan 2 Sept. 1885 (3). Albert Deane Richardson, Beyond the Mississippi, (New York: American Publ. Co., 1869), p. 521. Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, pg. 29, 30. Dutton, They Left Their Mark pgs. 85-90 (and addendum from original manuscript left out in printing, see author). Thompson, Robert A., Historical and Descriptive Sketch of Sonoma County, California (Philadelphia: L.H. Everts and Co., 1877), pg. 12, 19. Archuleta, The Brannan Saga, pgs. 74, 75.
Richardson, Beyond the Mississipi, p. 521.
Archuleta, The Brannan Saga, pg. 75.
Bowles, Across the Continent, pg. 281,282.
Dutton, They Left Their Mark, pgs. 86, 87.
Munro-Fraser, History of Sonoma County, p. 30.
Russian River Flag, 28 April 1870 (3:3).
Tribune 30 Dec. 1897 (obit. Mrs. Clark Foss). Independent Calistogan 2 Sept. 1885 (3).
Dutton, They Left Their Mark, p. 88
Independent Calistogan 2 Sept. 1885 (3).
Independent Calistogan 9 Sept. 1885 (3). Stevenson at Silverado, pg. 31. Tribune 22 Feb. 1900 (5) and 15 June 1910 (8:3). Dutton, They Left Their Mark, p. 88.
Tribune 10 July 1913 (1:3); 2 Oct. 1913 (1:2) and (1:4).