A Hands-On Retirement: Stagecoach Driver Bob Anderson

By Amy Lindblom June 15, 2012 12:00


Bob Anderson, photo by Ben Hicks

Next time you visit Columbia State Historic Park, look past the horses and stagecoach and check out the driver. It just might be Bob Anderson, who easily guides the four-horse team with a gentle tug on the leather lines entwined in his hands.

The 76-year-old Anderson retired from full-time truck driving about two years ago and returned to what he was born to do: driving horses.

“I had to drive trucks to make a living,” Anderson says. “But doing this is a lot more fun.”

On most weekends he drives Columbia’s team, which hauls coaches full of tourists for Quartz Mountain Stage Company. Anderson also drives a team of Percheron crossbred horses pulling a Wells Fargo stagecoach in parades throughout Northern California.

Tom Fraser, who owns Quartz Mountain, and Paul Fellingham, who has the Wells Fargo stage contract, knew Anderson as a top-notch driver. So when both men were looking for a new teamster and learned Anderson had retired from truck driving, they hired him.

It’s a perfect fit.

Anderson earned his reputation in the 1950s and ’60s as a Kennedy Meadows-based packer and wrangler leading hunters and backcountry enthusiasts into the Stanislaus National Forest’s Emigrant Wilderness.

“He knows his way around there like it’s his own playground,” adds his wife, Valerie.

Sharing a love of mountains and horses, Bob and Valerie met while working summers at Kennedy Meadows. They married in 1969 and began to raise a family, which meant Bob had to get a better-paying job to support his wife and children – two of their own and two from his previous marriage.

Driving trucks was a good fit for this calm, patient man.

Anderson has the skills to back 53-foot trailers into small spaces at loading docks. Like driving horses, it’s second nature. When he teaches rookie drivers how to back up, he knows in minutes if they are going to be good at it by watching their hands.

“If they look at their hands, and in their minds try to figure out which way to turn the truck, I know they aren’t going to make it,” he says.

Trucking kept him away from his family at times, but he never stopped working with horses.

Anderson first drove a team when he was 5 or 6. That was in Byron, where his father, Alex, and grandfather plowed the fields at their Contra Costa County farm.

With horse Dolly at Byron ranch, 1940s

“I probably wasn’t really driving the team, but I thought I was,” says Bob, remembering sitting on his dad’s lap at the time. “Just like when I put my grandson, Finn, on the coach with me. He thought he was driving the coach.”When Alex Anderson wasn’t farming, he competed with a team of show horses at county fairs from San Diego to Sacramento. School was out, and he brought son Bob along. It was an ideal life for a boy who loved horses and his dad.“I slept in the box stalls with the horse tack,” Anderson says.

At his Jamestown home, Anderson has photos of his father driving a team of horses during hay-baling season on their Byron farm. In another photo, his grandfather and brothers are behind a team of plow horses on land they leased in Ladybank, Scotland, near St. Andrews on the Firth of Forth.

“My dad was born in Scotland,” Bob explains. “We don’t have that land anymore, but we still have relatives there and go back every few years.”

His heritage, as the old photos show, is driving horses.

“I was born into this business; it’s in my blood,” Anderson says.

In 1954, he graduated from tiny Liberty High School in Brentwood with fewer than 40 classmates. Then he was drafted into the Army and spent 16 months in Korea before discharge. He returned to his Bay Area home, but suburbia was already encroaching on Contra Costa County’s ranchlands, and he began to look              for greener pastures.

Anderson found them in Tuolumne County, where he had spent a couple of summers during high school helping at the Ellinwood Ranch, owned by friends of his father’s.

“I stayed in a cabin at the upper end of Lyons Lake near the summer pasture, spent time at Kennedy Meadows, and enjoyed it thoroughly,” he says.

So he came back up to Jamestown and strung together a living packing mules out of Kennedy’s, shoeing horses and working as a hand at Reno Sardella’s ranch.

Ranch life also gave him the opportunity to drive horse teams.

Eight horses are the most Anderson can comfortably handle. Four horses typically pull the Quartz Mountain and Wells Fargo stagecoaches, but the mechanics are much the same, starting with the harnessing.

Every horse in the team is attached to two lines which join into a single rein. The driver of an eight-horse team has lines from each entwined between his fingers. The lead horses are up front, with the swing and pointer horses next and the wheel horses right in front of the stagecoach.

“Eight is all the horses you can handle because you run out of fingers,” Anderson says.

To turn a team of horses, he constantly moves his hands up on the lines, directing the lead horses into a turn. He allows the swing, pointer, and wheel horses to run straight for a time by letting their lines slide through his fingers. If a driver turns the whole team at the same time, the turn will be too sharp and the stage could end up jackknifed or in a ditch.

“A good driving horse won’t turn until the driver tells it to,” Anderson says. “It’s simple for me, just like other things are simple for other people.”

With an eight-horse team, the lead horse lines are nearly 50 feet long. When all lines are coiled for storage, they weigh so much that Anderson can’t lift them. Anderson drives enough to keep his hands callused and tough, but he recalls guiding teams of horses in the wilderness in the early spring before his hands toughened.

“I sometimes couldn’t even hold a coffee cup, my hands were so sore.”

Anderson is enjoying his retirement. He still drives a truck now and again. He also drives antique big-rigs for a friend to truck shows in Oregon and California. But his real passion is driving stagecoaches.

“It is a lot of fun, and you gotta be a little horsey to do it,” Anderson says.

He knows that tourists who ride Columbia’s stages are usually more interested in the horses and the stagecoach than the man who drives them, and he’s OK with that.

“Everybody wants to pet the horses, but nobody wants to pet the driver,” he grins.

So next time you see the stagecoach driver, at least give him a nod.

© 2012 Friends and Neighbors Magazine

By Amy Lindblom June 15, 2012 12:00