Last March 28, as the sun fractured behind iron-gray clouds, six Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet gazed in awe from Sacatone Overlook. Three miles east, on terrain bleak as Sinai, railroad trestles perch 1000 feet above Carrizo Gorge. The wooden structures look out of place: a jagged brown incision across forsaken ground. Seen through binoculars, they become delicate, sculpted webs that appear suspended from above.
One of the seven wonders of San Diego County, the "Impossible Railroad" spans 11 miles of Carrizo Gorge: 17 tunnels and 14 side-hill trestles — made from pine, spruce, and heart redwood — wind north-south. The trestles visible from Sacatone, over the chasm's deepest stretch, are called the "Seven Sisters." The name doesn't refer to the Pleiades, or the "sister" colleges of New England, but to seven courageous women who journeyed by wagon from San Diego to Tucson in 1870.
Last March the six sisters made the trek. In a light rain they marveled at the wooden latticework and the rugged Jacumba Mountains and desert beyond. Sacatone gave them their first glimpse of the barren expanse their forebears crossed 136 years ago. "They feared they'd die in the wilderness," guide Sister Mary Murphy told her companions, "as had so many others; Sister Maxime Croissat called it 'the abomination of desolation.'"
In 1868, Tucson was a lawless frontier town. It had almost 3000 residents, half of them Catholic, but no school. Bishop Jean Baptiste Salpointe campaigned for a schoolhouse and nuns to teach. He and Bishop John Lamy (the legendary "Apostle of New Mexico" in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop) sent urgent letters to Carondelet, Missouri, where the Sisters of St. Joseph had a congregation.The letters were in French, native tongue of the order from LePuy, France. The Mother Superior's replies were polite, but she could spare no teachers.
"Now," Salpointe insisted on June 5, "how many Sisters can you let me have? if it were possible I should like a sufficient number for two houses."
On his return from a trip to France, Salpointe stopped at Carondelet, in south St. Louis. Mother St. John finally agreed, but couldn't send anyone until March 1870, at the earliest.
When he brought no teachers, Salpointe's parishioners became angry. His journey taught him something, though: a direct route from St. Louis to Arizona was too hazardous. For many who fought it, the Civil War didn't end in 1865; Renegades robbed wagon trains and stragglers. And Chiricahua Apaches — led by Cochise, and later Geronimo — were uprising in New Mexico and Arizona.
"As to the route for your Sisters to take," Salpointe wrote in January, "I abstain from saying today."
On May 10,1869, a golden spike joined the transcontinental railroad lines at Promontory, Utah. Travelers no longer took 30-plus days to cross the U.S. They could make it in seven. To avoid Apache territory, Salpointe devised a roundabout plan and promised to raise $800 for expenses.
The trip cut against the grain: women weren't supposed to venture into the wild west in 1870; also, their journey would become increasingly primitive: by rail from St. Louis to San Francisco, then steamer to San Diego, then a two-horse-drawn wagon to Tucson — and often, it turned out, on foot up and down mountains and across alkali wastes.
Though most had never heard of Arizona, Carondelet's nuns welcomed the "Far West Mission." Five of the seven chosen came from Moutiers, the Mont Blanc area of France: mother Emmerentia Bonnefoy, and sisters Euphrasia Suchet, Maxime Croissat, Ambrosia Arnichaud, and Hyacinthe Blanc. Martha Peters was a lay sister from Ireland.
The seventh was born in Hemmingford, Canada, in 1843. Annie Taggert became a university math teacher. She fell in love with John Corrigan, a Catholic. But she was Anglican, and their parents were against a marriage. Undaunted, Annie and John eloped to Independence, Missouri, where they began a family during the Civil War. In 1866, a plague of black diphtheria took the lives of John and their young son and daughter.
As she struggled with the unthinkable, Annie taught math at a Kansas City boarding school and converted to Catholicism. She joined the Carondelet congregation in 1867. When she became a nun, she took the name Monica.
"She was as much at home," writes Sister Marie McMahon, "begging alms in the camps of Arizona and Mexico, or settling gang wars in Kansas City, as in the quiet halls of a convent."
"She was known to stand in saloon doorways on payday," says Leo W. Banks, "ordering thirsty miners home to their families." Sister Monica was 27 when the trek began. Her diary is its record.
On April 20, 1870, seven sisters boarded a train at the Pacific Railroad Depot in St. Louis. "Sad hearts" tinged their sense of adventure. "It is quite probable," wrote Monica, we may never again meet here below."
The transcontinental railroad was just a year old, and their first train had few passengers. Polished seats and polite, well-groomed stewards made it feel brand new. That night they changed trains, and boarded a havoc of emigrants, crying babies, and squawking chickens — reeking of stale cigars and rotting eggs.
The sisters couldn't afford berths. Also, the cars were so full of strangers, they had to keep constant watch on their carpetbags. As a result, they rarely slept. To their surprise, most of the passengers were ministers, of various denominations, headed west to preach. Their quibbles often turned into debates, then heated, theological harangues. Every one "maintained his own opinion," writes Monica, "and proved it from the Bible."
On April 24, two miles west of Sherman, Wyoming, the sisters — crossed their first railroad trestle. Dale Creek bridge loomed 150 feet above the creekbed.Though buttressed by guy-wires and poles joined end-to-end, the gigantic wooden structure swayed in the wind like a drunk. To avoid being blown overboard, locomotives had to creep across at four
miles an hour. Passengers who dared to look out the windows saw no land, on either side, and feared they were falling from the sky.