After gold had been discovered in the Cuyamacas, ranchers accustomed to outback solitude witnessed an eerie parade: would-be miners trudging up an old Indian trail from Santa Ysabel to Julian City. The steep and rocky pathway became “so alive with people,” an observer wrote, “they appeared like files of ants.” By mule or horseback, the trip from San Diego took at least two days; on foot, 60 miles with a loaded backpack, much longer. Pedestrians often had to leap aside as freight wagons came roaring through.
The slow stampede to the “Grabble District” began in earnest on March 1, 1870. Wagons had brought 1200 pounds of gold-rich quartz to San Diego, dumping a ton in the showcase window of Dunham’s store on Fifth Avenue, where armed guards protected the mound around the clock. On March 15, word that someone had discovered seven pounds of the region’s richest quartz incited even more onlookers to trek east. While miners dug or washed gold at a feverish pace, movement through the mountains was the next closest thing to a standstill.
“Transportation was a vital issue in Julian mining days,’ writes Helen Ellsberg. “Supplies and machinery had to be brought in and the gold taken out.” On average, few miners made more than $2 per day — most, far less. Those who built the roads and moved the ore and heavy goods, however, often fared far better.
By April 1870, Julian City had at least 50 tents and makeshift shanties. The clink of pickaxes and sledgehammers, and the steady pock of hammers pounding nails for cabins, stores, and saloons echoed through the mountains. Almost as much as gold, an estimated 1000 miners prayed for contact with the outside world.
It came once a week on “Steamer Day.” Whenever the Orizaba or the Oriflamme, both steamships, docked at San Diego, a Pony Express rider sped the mail to Julian City in just a few hours. As the horse neared town, Count Dworakowsky, of alleged Polish nobility, clanged an iron triangle at his general store.
Work ceased. Mines emptied, as did the town’s many “rum mills,” where the disillusioned drowned sorrows. A grimy horde of handlebar mustaches and eager eyes assembled at the store. The Count would pull a letter from the mail pouch and read the name. If someone shouted “here,” he’d frisbee the letter in the general direction of the voice.
“I made the trip in good time and regularly,” said Chester Gunn, the Pony Express rider, “and the people depended on me.” Gunn charged ten cents for a letter or small package.
Customers paid gladly. “I had to make it in all kinds of weather, wet and sloppy, muddy, slippery trails, and cold winds with sleet and snow.”
By May, Fred Coleman — who discovered the first placer gold — and Indian workers had turned the half-broken pack trail, from Santa Ysabel to Julian City, into barely road enough for a stagecoach. The bigger rigs eventually drove Gunn out of business. He became Julian’s postmaster and planted some of the first apple trees in the area.
A year later, the San Diego Union complained: “Thousands of dollars of the people’s money have been paid out for public improvements, etc., and yet, the most needed, most important of all…have been sadly neglected. We now allude to the wagon road to the mining districts.”
A year later: “The road over the Santa Maria Hill is…the worst place between Julian and San Diego. Repairs…much needed through Poway.”
A year later: “Between San Diego and Julian the road is in terrible condition; road masters, with few exceptions, do not know of their appointment.”
The discovery of gold in Banner, in August 1870, magnified matters. It was one thing to transport machinery up to Julian, and quite another to move it six miles around Gold Hill and 1500 feet down to Banner. Miners called the steep grade “the worst mule trail in the world.”
Workers had hacked a skinny, precarious path from brush and timber — the last place you’d want a head of steam. To keep wagons from tumbling onto the mules, along with rough locks the drivers ran poles between the spokes of the rear wheels. They also dragged a tree behind to act as a brake.
Eighteen-inch, flat-iron “shoes,” nailed onto wheel-bottoms, allowed wagons to skid down the trail. Often two or three human brakes toiled behind, digging their heels into the dirt and tugging on ropes for dear life.
Heavy equipment required the “drop from above” method. To move, say, a boiler or a stamp mill, men fully secured it on a “stone sled.” Then, using thick ropes, they eased the giant bundle straight down the Banner Slide: a several-hundred-foot gouge on the slope. Sleds also dragged pine trees behind for brakes.
“When the object hit a snag,” says Richard Bailey, grandson of Julian’s founder Drue, “someone’d have to slide down and unhook it.”
On June 16, 1871, using Indian labor, Horace Fenton Wilcox completed a serpentine toll road down the Banner Grade. The fees: 25 cents for cart, buggy, or wagon with horse or mule; 50 cents for a two-horse buggy; $1 for a loaded four-horse wagon; 12½ cents for saddle animals; and 1 cent each for hogs, sheep, or goats.
Twenty-mule team wagons went free of charge. “Death Valley never had any monopoly on [those] outfits,” writes Wilcox. “When our roads were improved to make heavy haulin’ possible, they brought twenty-mule teams and wagons in here from Death Valley, and used ’em for haulin’ ore from these mines to San Diego.”
Wilcox fined prospectors on jackasses, trying to sneak through brush by the roadside, 25 cents.
Drury Bailey hated the toll road. He ran a stage line from Banner to Julian and complained that the grade and the prices were too steep. So he built a “miner’s road” to avoid the fees.
Early in 1870, North and Knight ran a twice-weekly stage from San Diego to Julian. The trip, which went from Sorrento to Ramona to Santa Ysabel, cost $5 east and $4 coming back. Depending on conditions, the stage used between four and ten horses and took at least two days, sometimes three.