Along Stagecoach Line, Hero Is A Horse

Our summer roadtrip called, "Honey, Stop the Car!" takes us to Northern California's Gold Country, where we find a tribute to a local legend gunned down in a stagecoach robbery in 1901.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: Back with our summer road trip. Honey, Stop the Car. So you're driving along, spot something and decide to pull over. Might be the statue of a local hero, sometimes you'll see them perched on a horse. Whereas NPR producer Cindy Carpien discovered on a drive in Northern California, sometimes the hero is a horse.

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CINDY CARPIEN: My eye caught the stone monument and in a blur what looked like a wagon wheel half embedded in the top. I made the U-turn with the refrain this better be good. And all I could say is there was no disappointment with Old Joe.

DENNIS CLIFFORD: Old Joe was a stagecoach horse who was killed here at this spot on July 3rd, 1901 in a robbery attempt.

CARPIEN: Old Joe wasn't just any horse, says Dennis Clifford. Old Joe was the much beloved horse that children treated with apples along this California stagecoach line. Clifford is a blacksmith and history buff who grew up in the Sierra Nevada foothills where gold was discovered at John Sutter's Mill in 1848. This 40-mile road, that runs between two major canyons, was developed out of necessity during the Gold Rush.

CLIFFORD: And it's about 10 miles of climbing before you get to the area where it flattens out. This was where the horses were always tested and so were the drivers.

CARPIEN: And the passengers held on tightly to their seats. But no one knew the route better than Old Joe.

CLIFFORD: This was one of the reasons they felt safe when they got on the stage. Old Joe is here; we know we're going to be OK.

CARPIEN: But not if someone is planning a robbery. Now, Dennis Clifford, we are standing here 110 years later to the day, July 3rd, when Old Joe met his demise. And you could almost imagine in this hot July sun the stagecoach approaching, climbing, toward the town of Foresthill. Now, what happens next?

CLIFFORD: Well, at this point, the robber steps out, shotgun leveled at the stage and yells halt, at which point the driver stops the stage and says to the robber you must be fooling. He lowers that gun and kills poor Old Joe. And it took years for people up here to get over Old Joe.

CARPIEN: And harder still that the perpetrator was never caught. Maybe that was a good thing.

CLIFFORD: He certainly would have been hung had he been found.

CARPIEN: And all for $70. The Wells Fargo strongbox wasn't holding gold bullion on that day. Old Joe's monument sat in the same place alongside the old route for almost a century. In the 1990s, the Foresthill Road was widened. Old Joe's remains are now under it, but he got a new bigger monument less than a hundred feet from the original where the Foresthill school bus used to make a stop.

SHANTI WARLICK: This was the only big attraction except for the mailboxes.

CARPIEN: Thirty-seven-year-old Shanti Warlick waited for the school bus every morning by the old Old Joe monument. At three-and-a-half-feet high, it was perfect climbing for elementary schoolers. Now, it sits just to the side of the new one. And out of habit, Shanti brushes the dust from the old marble plaque.

WARLICK: We felt like we knew him. Here's this poor horse and he's going about his biz and some robber shot him. So, we took it on ourselves as kids to take care of him. We would keep the weeds cleared from around his headstone and sit and talk with him - and how's it going, Joe - when we showed up in the morning. He was like our faithful friend that was always here every day for us.

CARPIEN: And even though the school bus doesn't stop by the monument anymore, someone does come and paint the wagon wheel every year - gold, of course. Cindy Carpien, NPR News.

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SIMON: You can follow the NPR summer series, Honey Stop the Car at NPR.org.

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