by lyle e davis
The history of the wild, wild west would not be complete if we didn’t take a closeup look at stagecoaches.
Why, here in San Diego County we’ve got lots of stagecoach history. Do the names Butterfield or Vallecitos mean anything to you?
We had the Vallecitos Stage Station in San Diego County, as well as the Butterfield Overland Stage Line. Remnants of both are still visible in north San Diego County.
Just to add a bit more flavor to the story . . . the Vallecitos Stage Station is said to be occupied by (gasp) ghosts!
One of the more popular stagecoaches was the Concord. The first Concord stagecoach was built in 1827. Costing $1200 - $1500, these coaches weighed more than two thousand pounds. The Concord Coaches had a reputation for being sturdy, roomy, and comfortable. At the front and back of the stagecoach were leather 'boots' where baggage, mail and valuables were stored during the journey, with the remainder of the luggage being placed on top of the coach. Sometimes, even passengers sat atop the coach, but most chose to endure the rugged trip inside, if it wasn't too crowded. If it was, a single stagecoach would hold nine passengers inside, and a dozen or more on the roof. The windows of a stagecoach had leather roll-down curtains, and three leather-covered seats that offered little legroom. Most travelers had about fifteen inches to squeeze themselves into if the coach carried a capacity of nine passengers. The one stuck in the middle usually had the worst of it, because there was no back support. Instead, they had to hold onto leather straps that hung from the ceiling. The average speed was only eight miles an hour.
Travel on a stagecoach was anything but romantic.
Consider what travelers had to put up with during the days when stagecoaches rumbled across the west.
The original Vallecito Stage Station was built about 1851, photo
courtesy San Diego Historical Society
In the late 19th century, travelers on the Butterfield Stage line discovered the discomfort of close quarters, dusty trails and lonely stage stations, as well as the threat of Indian attacks and outlaw robbers. (Later in this story, we shall participate in a ‘ride-a-long’ stagecoach ride, thanks to an excellent diary account of such a journey). But as hard as travel was in those days, the Old West still had a code of etiquette for stagecoach passengers. Here are some of the rules of stagecoach travel during the 1870s:
• When a driver asked a passenger to get out and walk, one was advised to do so, and not grumble about it.
• If the team of horses ran away, it was better to sit in the coach because most passengers who jumped were seriously injured.
• Smoking and spitting on the leeward side of the coach was discouraged.
• Drinking spirits was allowed, but passengers were expected to share.
• Swearing was not allowed, and neither was sleeping on your neighbor's shoulder.
• Travelers shouldn't point out spots where murders had occurred, especially when "delicate" passengers were aboard.
• Greasing one's hair was discouraged because dust would stick to it.
And according to the Omaha Herald in 1877, "Don't imagine for a moment you are going on a picnic. Expect annoyance, discomfort, and some hardships. If you are disappointed, thank heaven."
As the pioneer travelers would finish their difficult journey through the Colorado Desert they came across this lovely little valley. There were natural springs and grasslands - a distinct and lovely change to the desert trip that had come to be known as “The Journey of Death.”
Long ago the Spaniards explored this area and aptly named it Vallecito . . . which means “Little Valley.”
Stagecoach with guard sitting on top, circa 1913
The road through the valley was the only wagon road into southern California and during California's Gold Rush days, thousands of prospectors passed through Vallecito, refreshing both themselves and their animals.
About 1851, a pioneer by the name of James R. Lassiter saw opportunity in the valley and established a store and campground to accommodate the many emigrants. His home and outbuildings were made of sod cut from the plentiful ciénega (salt grass). Soon, other pioneers built homes and businesses in the valley to serve the many travelers.
Let’s go for a stagecoach ride! From a handwritten copy of an article published on 1 June 1866, a prominent British citizen, Edmund Hope Verney, journeyed from San Francisco to New York. Here is an extract of that diary that covers the trip as far as Salt Lake City. Stage coach traveling was exhausting and Verney describes both the rough conditions and his fellow travelers. Trouble with Indians pervaded. Verney made an extended visit to Salt Lake City and met with Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball. While unimpressed with Mormonism, he approved of Salt Lake City.
Excerpts from Verney’s cross-country stagecoach trip:
On the 1st of July I quitted the valley and the following day we reached Coulterville. We left Coulterville by stage the same evening at midnight, and at six the next morning, taking the stage I passed through Sonora , San Andreas , Mokelumne Hill , Jackson, and Drytown, and reached the Latrobe railway station on the morning of the 5th of July, where I joined the direct overland route between San Francisco and New York. Leaving Latrobe by the evening train, we arrived at Shingle Springs after a couple of hours' run. Leaving Shingle Springs by a six-horse stage, I arrived at Placerville at eleven P.M. When the coach arrived in the afternoon, I found a vacant seat, and pursued my journey to Virginia City. The road between that place and Shingle Springs is always kept in first-rate order; during the summer it is watered every night, and so kept hard. The coaches are first-class, the six horses are always carefully chosen and well matched, and the drivers are selected for their skill and good character. One passes heavy waggons drawn by long teams, both journeying east and west; the road is often narrow and steep, with sharp turns; and when the driver, rapidly swinging his six horses round a bluff, sometimes comes suddenly on a waggon labouring up the hill, only great skill and experience, and firm nerve, prevent either a collision on the one hand, or a capsize on the other. The hills are descended at full gallop, and ascended at a smart trot. At one place it became necessary for us to go very near the edge of the steep; the earth crumbled and sank under the outer wheels, and for a moment the coach heeled over a little, but, at the pace we were going, soon recovered itself. Accidents are very rare.
Placerville is a pleasant little town, with trees in the streets and ice in the hotels. Many of its houses are of brick or stone, and well built. Wooden houses are common in all parts of the United States, and are by no means ugly or uncomfortable; but in winter the better-built houses are far preferable. All houses are roofed with wooden shingle, usually made from the cedar. There are on this road two high points, the First and Second Summits, said to be about six thousand feet above the level of the sea. Between them lies Lake Tahoe , a large sheet of fresh water about forty miles in diameter. A small steamer plies on it, and it is resorted to in the summer for the sake of its excellent fishing. We passed the First Summit in the evening, just before sundown, and the view was magnificent; mountain after mountain rolling away in the distance as far as the eye could reach.
Typical stage of the Concord type used by express companies on the Overland Trails.
Buffalo Soldiers guard from atop, ca. 1869."
[Picture from the Library of Congress]
I have seen many of the celebrated views of the world, but never one which seemed to command so vast and immeasurable a view of this round earth. From the First Summit, the American river flows to the westward. During our ascent we followed its banks for many miles, and saw in several places the old emigrant road used in former days before the present one was made.
A wayside house in Strawberry Valley is worthy of mention on account of the simple derivation of its somewhat romantic name. It is kept by a man named Berry , noted for the good fare he provides for man and beast. It seems, however, that during one severe winter he ran short of provender, and fed some packer's mules with straw, and from this fact the valley has acquired its name.
Descending at a break-neck pace from the First Summit we reached the borders of Lake Tahoe, whose southern shores we followed for nearly twenty miles. It was now night but a full moon gave to the scene a peculiar beauty, lighting up points of the most distant hills, and shadowing valleys in the deepest gloom. All day had I been jolted on the top of the coach, but when night came I took my place inside, where was a vacant seat. This was my first experience of a night spent in a Concord coach. I can remember no night of horror equal to my first night's travel on the Overland Route. An American friend, who had himself crossed the plains, had recommended me to bring an air-pillow. This became my main-stay: I sat on it by day, or interposed it between the hard side of the coach and my ragged skin and jaded bones, and by night I put my head through the hole in the middle and wore it as a collar, like a degraded Chinaman. This saved the sides of my head during my endeavours to sleep, but occasionally a heavier jolt than usual would strike the cranium violently against the roof, driving it down between my shoulders.
I remember nothing between the shores of Lake Tahoe and the Second Summit; here I certainly did look out of the window, and then fell to bumping about again until we stopped for a short time at Carson City, at one A.M. Here we got out and stamped around for a few minutes while the horses were being changed, and were amused by a lady who had no money wherewith, to pay her fare any farther, and at the same time declined to alight. The mail agent was in an awkward fix: he did not like to engage in a fray in the dead hours of the night, as the awakened neighbours would be sure to side with the woman they did not know, for the pleasure of abusing the man they did know; and yet if he allowed her to proceed, the amount of her fare would be charged against his pay. At last, however, he was persuaded to leave her in possession by her assurance that she was a person of great consideration, owning houses and lands in Virginia City , and that everybody knew where she lived. So I poked my head into my air-pillow again and off we went.
At 4 A.M. just as the day was breaking, we stopped at the door of the International Hotel, Virginia City, and more dead than alive I fell asleep on a real bed for several hours. Virginia City is a remarkable specimen of the towns that seem to spring up by magic in the mining districts. It is situated near the foot of a conspicuous hill, Mount Davidson, in a land where rain never falls, where not a blade of grass is visible, and where trees are only to be seen in one distant valley. All that part of the State of Nevada, recently admitted into the Union, is known as the Washoe country, and is celebrated for the richness of its silver mines. Mountain snows melting in summer feed two or three considerable streams which flow for some distance and are then lost in sinks in valleys, where a few cotton-trees grow. About five miles from Virginia City are some hot springs. I had not time to visit them, but I believe that there are several acres covered with small geysers of various temperatures.
At half-past six in the morning of the 10th of July , I left Virginia City in a Concord coach. At last I felt myself fairly off on the great Overland Route, and a very charming journey it promised to be. The morning was cool, the sun was rising over the hills, and there was no wind to make the dust unendurable. Our coach was nearly a new one, and six beautiful glossy black horses, with flowing manes and tails, proudly champed their bits and pawed the ground, as we waited at the door of the stage-office for our final orders. Presently we dashed down the hill, through the lower streets of the town, and were soon rattling over the plain through the eternal sage-brush. The coach was quite full, nine inside and one out, the greatest number ever carried on this road. Three Mexican women and an American lady were among the passengers; the other five were miners, and proprietors of mule or waggon trains.
After journeying for two or three miles, we found there was plenty to try the temper of the passengers. We began to feel cramped, the heat of the sun made us hot and irritable: and not only was there a difficulty about stowing away one’s feet, but we had even to fit in our knees one with another, and then occasionally give and take pretty smart blows caused by the jostling of the carriage. Most of the men chewed tobacco, and those who occupied centre seats had to exert considerable skill to spit clear of the other passengers. Americans are generally adepts in this art, but we had one or two unskilful professors, although it must be admitted that they had hardly a fair opportunity of showing off their proficiency, from the jolting of the coach. Occasionally they would unconcernedly expectorate among the baggage on the floor. The smell caused by this abominable practice was intolerable and sickening at first, until one became somewhat accustomed to it. In railway carriages, in the best hotels, and even at the renowned West Point military academy, the disgusting habit of chewing tobacco prevails. After we had been an hour or two on the road the heat became oppressive; a light westerly breeze sprang up, which carried the dust along with us, and was at times stifling. The severe discomforts of this travelling can hardly be exaggerated, but one learns to endure them. The character, the language, and the manners of the class of people who chiefly use this route, however, became if possible even more repugnant to me each day. These I could not endure without disgust, and at the end of my journey, in spite of all attempts at reserve or civility, I felt myself cowed and humiliated in a manner not to be described. Even now I cannot think of my companions in some parts of the overland journey without a shudder. We changed horses about every ten miles, and soon discovered that distance did not lend enchantment to the horses. The beautiful long-tailed prancers of the morning were shortly changed for muddy bony beasts, with drum-like skins, which suggested the idea that they were only walking about to save funeral expenses. But great was our chagrin, after bolting our dinners at Cottonwood, forty-five miles from Virginia City, to find that the coach went no further, and that our journey must be pursued in mud waggons. This accounted for our starting with only one outside passenger in the morning.
Of a mud waggon, its sides and top are of leather or folds of stout painted canvas stretched over a wooden frame; inside are three seats, each carrying three persons; a platform behind carries the mail-bags and heavier luggage, while the front boot holds the express bags and small parcels; and there is one seat for a passenger alongside the driver. These carriages are generally painted red, without expensive or elaborate ornaments, and drawn by four, or sometimes six horses. Some mud-waggons are rather better than others, but all are very rough. The quality of the food supplied at the way-side houses, distinguished from the stations where only horses are changed by the name of home-stations, varied much. The meal set before us at Cottonwood was certainly good, consisting of meats and vegetables, bread, butter, and milk, and tea and coffee. And as a rule the meals supplied where the line is in regular working order are passable; but at some home-stations there was very little to be had; in one or two instances only bread, beans, and bacon, and even those very bad. The stages profess to stop for three meals a-day, and to allow half an hour each time. This sounds fair enough, but it must be remembered that no other time is allowed for washing or change of clothes; the latter is a luxury never attempted, the former seldom. Between Virginia City and Salt Lake City the electric telegraph follows the stage-road, and so the number of passengers and the hour at which they may be expected is telegraphed from station to station. Ten minutes after arrival the food is on the table; ten minutes afterwards, you choke yourself as the driver calls out "all aboard;” and ten minutes after that again, you are fairly under weigh, inhaling dust; and ten minutes later still you are suffering from a severe attack of indigestion. During the first part of the journey, tolerably punctual time is kept, but time once lost cannot be made good afterwards, and as the home-stations are at irregular distances, the results are apt to be inconvenient. One night at 11 o'clock we reached a home station where we ought, according to the way-bill, to have breakfasted. Breakfast was ready, but dead tired as we were, we refused to turn out. The driver warned us we were a long way from the next home station, but who thinks of the morrow when he is worn out with fatigue? The next day we had to pay for our neglect, as we did not reach a home station until two in the afternoon. By that time we were all more or less ill, and only a box of prunes from my hamper kept us at all alive.
The journey from Virginia City to Salt Lake City lasted five days and four nights. On the evening of the second day we crossed a brook called Reese River, and passed through a small town called Austin City. This was the only place on the road worthy of the name of a town, and it contained a few brick and stone houses. The road lay through desert alkali plains, barren red hills and mountains, marshes, and sands. The winds traversing these plains become impregnated with the alkali, which causes a bad taste in the mouth, and dries up the lips and the skin on the face and hands In some places there are pretty views: some of the hill tops and a few of the valleys were relieved by pine and cedar scrub, but little can be said in favour of the scenery.
On the morning of Friday the 14th, we reached Fort Crittenden, about fifty miles from Salt Lake City. Here we stopped to breakfast, and I made acquaintance with the Mormon innkeeper. He had but two wives, the youngest of whom I saw, herself a mere child, with her baby at her breast. Our mud-waggon from hence was rather better than those we were accustomed to, and the horses were finer and fatter. At a distance of twenty-five miles from Salt Lake City we forded the river Jordan, the water being about four feet deep.
On our right rose grand mountains, six or seven thousand feet high, thrown like a sheltering arm behind the City of the Saints; and on our left stretched the broad Salt Lake, with two mountainous islands standing out in bold relief, while the river Jordan, passing almost under our feet, was seen winding its way to the Dead Sea. The air of these regions is so pure, that distant objects are seen with a distinctness very deceiving. The drive into the city passes between fields irrigated by streams descending from the eastern hills. We changed horses every ten miles, and as we advanced, signs of prosperity were more numerous, for we saw houses, gardens, and small farms.
At length it became dark, and it was not until 9.30 P.M. that our long, long drive terminated as we drew up in front of the Salt Lake House. I was too much knocked up for sight-seeing on the first day after my arrival. Without feeling actually tired, I found myself continually dropping off to sleep, but the excitement of the journey gradually wore off. The first piece of news we heard by telegraph that morning was that a stage-coach, which runs three times a-week between Virginia City in the Idaho territory and Salt Lake City, had been attacked and robbed by highwaymen. The driver and four passengers out of five were shot dead; the fifth fell down severely wounded in the bottom of the coach, and was only saved by the bodies of his companions falling on him. The murderers escaped with a booty of seventy thousand dollars in gold dust. Last summer this same stage was robbed, and the passengers murdered; some of the robbers were caught and hung, while others escaped.
The general impression given by Salt Lake City is an agreeable one. The streets divide the town into ten-acre blocks: they are all 128 feet broad, and at right angles to each other. On each side is a stream of living water, and rows of cotton-wood and locust trees border the side walks. There is but one main street, in which the houses are built close to each other; everywhere else each house stands in its own garden or orchard. Some of them are large, two or three stories high, built of burnt bricks, red sandstone, or granite, but most are of white sun dried bricks. They look clean and cheerful: the door-posts, window-sills, &c., are of wood, painted bright green, or of rich red sandstone, and creepers adorn the walls. The gardens are well and tastefully kept, and fruit-trees are particularly successful. The streets chiefly used are gravelled; and as the plateau on which the town stands slopes gently to the southward, there is good drainage. Altogether, few towns have been so judiciously designed and so perfectly built; few enjoy so great natural advantages, which have been cleverly made the most of. The barren country we passed through would have prepared us to appreciate any place where there might be a spare blade of grass, but Salt Lake City would be considered beautiful anywhere. When it is remembered that seventeen years ago, this end of the valley was a desert, like the other, one is astonished at the enterprise and perseverance of the Mormon leaders. The city is 4000 feet above the level of the sea, so the climate has greater extremes than that of England . In summer it is hot and dry, and rain rarely falls at any season; in winter there are heavy snows, which caused great suffering to the Mormons on their first arrival. The Wahsatch Mountains, on the east side of the valley, are a spur of the Rocky Mountains, and much higher than the hills on the west side. From the east flow all the streams used for irrigation, fed by the ever-melting snows.
In 1854, two men, by the names of Samuel Warnock and Joseph Swycaffer, implemented the first regular mail route in southern California. The semi-weekly horseback delivery between San Diego and Yuma, Arizona, made Vallecito a regular stop along its route. In the fall of 1857, the nation received its first overland Atlantic to Pacific mail service when James E. Birch's San Diego-San Antonio mail began operation. The forerunner of the Pony Express and the northern stage lines, it was a known as the "Great Southern Overland," but more familiarly called “The Jackass Mail.”
In 1858 it became one of the stops of the famous Butterfield Overland Stage Route that traveled between St. Louis, Missouri, and San Francisco. With the new passenger service, Vallecito soon became a place of prominence as hundreds of travelers utilized the valley as a resting place.
Though a welcome relief after days of exhausting travel through the desert, the stage station also had its dark side. Like numerous other places of the Old West, the station was witness to murder, robberies, and daily human miseries.
Preserving the history and the legends, the old stage station has been preserved in the Vallecito Regional Park in San Diego County. The present building, built in 1934, is a reconstruction of the original Vallecito Stage Station. In addition to preserving history, the park also offers modern-day campers and picnickers a quiet place to enjoy the desert. The park is located on County Road S-2 about four miles northwest of Agua Caliente Springs.
Vallecito Stage Station
37349 County Route S-2
Park open September 1 through May 31
The other part of the stagecoach equation for the San Diego area, as well as much of the rest of the newly discovered western world . . . was that of the Butterfield Stage Line.
The Butterfield Overland Stage Company (1858-1861) was also known as the Butterfield Overland Mail Company. Although the Pony Express is often credited with being the first fast mail line across the North American continent from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast, the Butterfield Stage, a subsidiary of American Express, predated the Pony Express by nearly three years. Butterfield Overland Stage began rolling on September 15, 1858, when the twice-weekly mail service began. Each run encompassed 2,812 miles and had to be completed in 25 days or less in order to qualify for the $600,000 government grant for mail service.
In modern terms, what the two stage lines offered in mail delivery could be the contrast between today’s fiber optic network and a dial up computer connection. In the mid-19th century, bringing the continent together by stageline from St. Louis to San Francisco with such unheard of speed elicited wonder and excitement and tremendous pride.
The undertaking was enormous. Butterfield, in association with the principals for Wells, Fargo & Co. (for the American Express Co.), invested more than a million dollars getting the stage line organized. The company had to build or repair roads and bridges, set up and staff about 150 stations, purchase stagecoaches and wagons, as well as buy horses, mules, and feed. Water wells had to be dug and mountain passes cleared. And, there were 800 employees to be hired!
The passenger fare was $200.
Twenty-five pounds of baggage were allowed, along with two blankets and a canteen. Stages traveled at breakneck speeds, twenty-four hours a day. There were no overnight hotel stops—only hurried intervals at stations where the teams were changed.
Overland travelers who booked passage to San Diego on the Butterfield line left the Stage Coach at Warner’s Ranch and traveled a shuttle line that wound down into Santa Isabel, then to Rincon, through San Pasqual Valley, into Poway, over the mesa to San Dieguito Valley, and then back of what is now Del Mar, through Sorrento Valley and up Rose Canyon and on into Old Town.
Competition to Butterfield’s line was mounted by William Russell, William Waddell, and Alexander Majors in 1860 in the form of the Pony Express. It began relay operations along a central/northern route. While it succeeded in delivering the mail within 10 days time between St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, the company failed to get the U.S. mail contract and became enmeshed in debt.
The transcontinental railroad soon replaced the need for overland stagecoaches and the old Butterfield line was never resurrected.
After crossing the desert, the Butterfield stage stopped at Warner's Ranch. From there, the route was beside Temecula Creek, along the back side of the Palomar mountains to the stage station at the Indian village of Temecula, and then on to Los Angeles.
The only surviving station building is Oak Grove Butterfield Stage Station, near Warner Springs in San Diego County, California. It and the location of Warner's Ranch, another station 20 miles (32 km) away, were declared to be National Historic Landmarks in 1961.