Madera County has produced its share of rough and tumble, two-fisted drinking, street fighting pioneers. They pop up all through the pages of local history to spice up the pieces of our past. Very near the top of a list of such characters is Hiram Lee Rapelje, a local stage driver who was as quick with his guns as he was with his fists.
Rapelje came to Madera County from Merced in the late 1870s. In spite of his reputation as a brawler, he was hired by Henry Washburn to drive a stagecoach on the Madera to Yosemite route. Three times a week in front of Mace's Hotel on Yosemite Avenue in Madera, Rapelje climbed up onto the driver's seat and whipped up his six horses to begin the two day journey through Fresno Flats to the Big Trees and Wawona.
Rapelje never had an accident; he never lost control and highwaymen never accosted him. Washburn had chosen well, or at least he apparently thought so. When President Ulysses S. Grant visited Madera County, Hiram Rapelje was picked to drive the stage that took him and his party to Yosemite.
Rapelje also liked to dabble in law enforcement. On more than one occasion he joined posses and assisted officers of the law in chasing criminals, especially hold-up men. By the early 1890s he was making his living as a bounty hunter. That's what prompted U.S. Marshal George E. Gard to invite him on a special hunt. The prey was a pair of train robbers, John Sontag and Chris Evans.
Sontag and Evans had been running wild for several years, robbing Southern Pacific trains all over the Valley. By 1892, Wells Fargo and the Southern Pacific put up a reward of $10,000 for the outlaws, dead or alive.
The result was chaos. More than 300 armed citizens dogged the footsteps of U.S. Marshal Vernon Wilson as he combed the mountains in search of Sontag and Evans.
"The woods were so full of man-hunters that at least 11 deputies were seriously wounded by other officers. Anyone who went deer hunting during this time was in danger of being shot by over-zealous posses." On Sept. 13, 1892, Wilson and his posse finally found the fugitives in a cabin hideout in the Sierra, and in the gunfight that followed, the marshal and one of his deputies, Andy McGinnis, were killed.
No one was sure whether the fatal shots came from the rifles of the outlaws or the members of the over wrought posse, and to add insult to injury, Sontag and Evans both escaped.
Throughout the winter of 1892-1893, Sontag and Evans continued to evade the law, but in the summer, a new face appeared on the scene who was determined to bring the train robbers to justice. He was the new U.S. Marshal, George Gard.
The first thing that Gard did was to correct Wilson's mistake. He secretly formed his own posse and kept it small. One of his first choices to ride with him on the manhunt was the Madera County stagecoach driver and bounty hunter, Hiram Lee Rapelje.
On June 10, 1893, Rapelje left Madera County to join Jud Elwood, George Witty, Thomas Burns, William Stack, Joe Carroll, and Harry Stewart as members of Gard's posse. Accompanied by a reporter from the San Francisco Examiner, the posse headed for Tulare County. The marshal had received a tip that Evans and Sontag would be coming out of the mountains on the next day to visit Evans' wife.
The posse hid out at a place called Stone Corral, not far from Evans' house and waited, but not for long.
It was Rapelje who first spotted Sontag and Evans coming down the trail out of the mountains. Apparently he had become a little careless, and allowed himself to be seen. Evans was the first to detect the deputy and opened fire. Rapelje returned the favor, and the ball was on.
With bullets flying everywhere, the bandits sought refuge behind a haystack. There the battle continued for several minutes. When the outlaws stopped returning fire, the posse eased around behind and found Sontag mortally wounded. Evans, however, was nowhere to be found.
The San Francisco reporter insisted upon a photograph, so they dragged Sontag to the edge of the haystack and propped him up. Then the posse gathered round to pose for the picture, much as a group of hunters who had just bagged a mountain lion might have done.
Evans was caught a few days later in a mutilated condition. One eye had been shot out, and his right arm was so shattered that it had to be amputated. After a stretch in Folsom prison, he moved to Portland, Ore. and died in 1918.
As for Rapelje, he left Madera County for good. His exploits in chasing outlaws, especially the Sontag-Evans duo, had gained him quite a reputation. He became a well-known deputy sheriff in Fresno and lived out the remainder of his life in that city.
In time the iron horse and the horseless carriage replaced the horse and buggy, and there was no need for stagecoaches. Madera County soon forgot about that special breed who, six in hand, piloted the horse drawn vehicles from the flat lands to the mountains. It forgot about men like Hi Rapelje who helped keep the towns both alive and lively, and perhaps it's just as well.
Madera County grew up, and somehow many of those characters from her past just don't fit any longer. We don't feel any more kinship with them than they would with us. Progress does take its toll on historical empathy.