Surprises in the Wild West of Los Gatos

When people hear the phrase “the wild west”, Los Gatos doesn’t tend to be the first thing to pop to mind. But truth be told, this was the wild west, complete with horse thieving, bandits of every kind, grizzly bear attacks, scary stagecoach rides, the danger of fire with only a bucket brigade, and every other advantage and disadvantage you can imagine in the 1800s.

Transportation was a challenge back then. The road to Santa Cruz was dirt, narrow, and fraught with danger. Hairpin turns could be lethal if another stagecoach was coming your way and you didn’t hear it in time. Just as now you might toot your horn on a narrow, blind mountain turn, the stagecoach drivers would use a loud whistle to announce their presence to avoid catastrophe.

Lynda Dydo as Charley Parkhurst in Los Gatos History Walk on May 6, 2007
Lynda Dydo as Charley Parkhurst in Los Gatos History Walk on May 6, 2007

One of the teamsters who ran the stage between Los Gatos and Santa Cruz was a character named Charley Parkhurst (“Parkie”). Initially hailing from the east coast, Charley was an exceptionally adept driver. Charley lost an eye due to an injury (I’ve read both due to a bear attack and a kick from a horse), Charley sported a black patch over the empty socket. For about 20 years, Parkie or “one eyed Charley”, traversed the hill (from about 1854 to about 1874). Charley eventually had to slow down and retire to his home in Aptos. There he died on Dec 18, 1879.

Charley Parkhurst’s surprise

That’s when the surprise came: it was discovered that he was actually a born biologically female. From what I’ve found online, it appears that Charley ran away from an orphanage at age 12, dressed as a male and continued that way the rest of his life.

You can find Charley’s tombstone in Watsonville at the Pioneer Cemetery.

Interesting fact about this Charley Parkhurst:

Charley Parkhurst voted on November 3, 1868 when Ulysses Grant was running for president of the United States. This makes Charley the first biological woman to have voted both in the state of California or anywhere in the US.

Charley Parkhurst is sometimes confused with “Mountain Charley” (Charles McKiernan), who also suffered the wrath of a grizzly. But they are not the same people – they just happened to both live and work nearby during the same timeframe.

Want to learn more? There are many resources and links about Charley on the Wikipedia page.

Your Garden, Prickley Pear, and the Wild West

February 18, 2008

Prickly Pear Cactus at Westhill Drive and Belgatos Road in Los Gatos, CAEver eat the fruit from a cactus bush? If you’ve tried prickly pear, then you have! 

Prickly pear used to be extremely widespread in the “wild west” and is still commonly found in the western U.S. today. In the Belwood area of Los Gatos, you can find it in at least three places: along Harwood Road, on Bacigalupi Drive and at Westhill and Belgatos Roads.

The fruit makes a nice jelly or can be eaten raw.  

It’s more than just a hearty fruit on a formidable looking plant, though. Back in the days of settlers, this cactus had an extremely important use, it kept the bears out. It grows into something of a tall, thick wall and develops large, strong, sharp needles. You’d think twice before getting too close to it. So did the grizzlies.

So the settlers grew prickly pear around the perimeter of their homes like a tall fence or wall, and the cabins were much better fortified against hungry intruders with sharp teeth and claws. All the better that each year, the fruit would ripen and could be consumed or preserved too!

Next time you see this local cactus, remember the wild west, imagine how important it would be to you and be glad that today, we think of this plant for food and landscaping only and not for home protection.