The last coach came through in 1861, as, once again, San Diego waited with naive excitement at the promise of a railroad connection back east.
Red dust swirls out of the dried arroyo as the cowboy shouts to six wild-eyed horses hauling his stagecoach around the bend of Carrizo Corridor, just missing another stage careening from the other direction. Passengers below lean out their windows, yelling and waving their hats to the passengers on the other stage.
"Let’s go see the stage station at Vallecito. That really gives you a feeling for what the stage years were like."
It’s a rare meeting, two stages climbing out of the desert. This coach and six horses have been on the road 18 days and 18 pitiless nights since leaving St. Louis, Missouri. The four-horse coach skewing ’round the other way is five days out of San Francisco. No question of stopping and greeting. Drivers are on a schedule: 21 days, Missouri to California, California to Missouri. The fastest link across the continent.
Marjorie Reed's bullet crucifix. “I first walked through this valley in 1937. See that ditch winding down through the old rocks there? That was the old Butterfield Stage Route. A track, really."
The year is 1858. The Butterfield Overland Mail Stage, crossing twice a week through the backcountry of San Diego County, is part of the Great Southern Overland Stage Route. For those aboard the eastbound stage, it’s time to grit their teeth: they’re about to enter the Colorado desert — hellish heat, bad water, sand dunes making every turn backbreaking work. For the sandblasted passengers of the westbound coach, this arroyo at Agua Caliente spells the gateway to relief water, greenery, solid ground, the beginning of the end of their journey.
“I’ve been painting Butterfield stagecoaches for 60 years. I’ve had four husbands, but this love has been with me longer than any of them."
Marjorie Reed backs away from examining this painting — her painting—of two coaches meeting. Sitting in the sunny portico of the Butterfield Ranch Cafe, part of an oasis along the Great Southern Overland Stage Route of 1849, she beams with pride — not just for this painting, but a lifetime devoted to stagecoaches, this road, a grand adventure in the American saga.
“I’ve been painting Butterfield stagecoaches for 60 years,” she says. “I’ve had four husbands, but this love has been with me longer than any of them. And I’ve traveled every inch of the Great Southern Route, from Tipton, Missouri, through Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, right up here through San Diego County and on to San Francisco.”
And she has five books about stagecoaches, illustrated with her paintings and text, to prove it.
At first glance she seems a frail little woman: 80 years old, 75 pounds, hardly filling her white blouse and slacks. But you notice the eyes. Blue. Open. Bright. She looks up with those eyes and says, “Don’t let’s just sit here and talk about it. Want to go see it? Grab your hat!”
Ten minutes along the road, we’re standing on the edge of a high pass overlooking a valley of rocks and sand and mesquite bushes. Fading off toward the far Imperial Valley desert floor is Vallecito Valley. Wind blasts silently up and over this pass, nearly blowing Marjorie off her feet, which she negotiates with little skips.
“I first walked through this valley in 1937,” she shouts. “See that ditch winding down through the old rocks there?” she points, wind flapping the sleeves of her blouse. “That was the old Butterfield Stage Route. A track, really. If you were standing here in 1858 at the right time, you’d see one of their coaches and six horses coming up the valley in a cloud of dust. As they got near the final climb down there, you’d hear the rattle of the harness, the rumble of the wheels, the shouts of the driver, the snorts of the horses. They’d be getting up speed to make the slope.”
We stand there, imagining coaches roaring up this ridge, horses shining with sweat, muscles bulging, their driver sitting up high on the right side of the buckboard, cracking the horses’ backs with his six sets of reins. The guard rides shotgun to his left, his rifle cradled in his arms. Passengers gawk out the window, the great triangular canvas box for the mail and baggage bouncing around on its straps behind the coach body... “Gaaarn! GIT” In the silence I can see the damned thing rattling up toward us along a track through the valley floor’s bushes. In fact, a meandering dust-track looks as if it may have been the road....
“Is that it?” I shout. “No,” says Marjorie. “That’s a horse trail the parks people have cleared recently. It’s changed a little in 150 years. Let’s go see the stage station at Vallecito. That really gives you a feeling for what the stage years were like. I’ve painted it hundreds of times.”
And she skips down the road like a kid.
The Butterfield Stagecoach era lasted four years, from 1858 to 1861. It came just before the railroad, and like the railroad, it marked the end of the Wild West, while embodying the very heart of it. Transcontinental stage lines just preceded the Civil War and almost garnered San Diego a direct connection to the East.
Ironically the steam train’s development back east made the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage possible out west. By the mid-19th-century in the Atlantic states, steam trains were taking over horse-drawn stage lines. Stagecoach drivers were retiring. At the same time, the New Frontier was opening up west of St. Louis. A race was heating up to create a mail link with the growing cities on the West Coast. It would be years before an east-west railroad could be built, but congressmen from the West wanted those links, and they wanted them now.
John Butterfield, a good friend of newly elected President Buchanan, watched his eastern stage lines evaporate. He sold the president on the virtues of financing a Great Southern Mail Stage Route to the West, and he put out the call to “all his boys” — the drivers — to join him in a great enterprise.
Butterfield had no trouble gathering his drivers, and they had no problem corralling 2000 horses and mules to spread along the stage route. But selling the concept of a southern route to Congress was another matter. It was a question of politics: ever since the Gold Rush of ’49, the North wanted the most direct access (west along the 40th parallel) to prosperous San Francisco. The southern state senators wanted the route to go along the 30th parallel — well south—so they’d have access to Pacific ports, while avoiding Northern states. If they broke with the Union, a link through the South could mean securing California for the Confederacy.
Compromise won out: the route would start at the railhead of Tipton, just west of St. Louis, Missouri, but it would plunge down to the Mexican border and beyond, then scoop up through California to San Francisco. That way — via Fort Smith in Arkansas, El Paso, Texas, and Fort Yuma in Arizona — the route avoided crossing the Continental Divide and meeting winter snows. Water and grass were said to be good enough year-round through this southern scoop-route — at least as far as the Colorado Desert and the California mountains.
Those mountain ranges destroyed San Diego’s hopes of joining the grand stagecoach scheme. The north-south amphitheater of mountains ringing San Diego made it easier for the stages to enter the county through the south, exit to the north, and make for Los Angeles and ’Frisco. A competing stage line, started by 28-year-old Californian lames E. Birch and backed by Southern senators, ran from San Antonio, Texas, to San Diego, California. The problem was getting to L.A. and on to San Francisco. In Birch’s plan, that section would be negotiated by steamship. The idea never flew. In Northern California, Birch’s San Antonio-San Diego service was derided as the line that ran from “nowhere to nowhere.”
The U.S. Postmaster General awarded the great east-west overland mail contract to John Butterfield, whose stages were up and running in no time. He built or acquired 250 coaches, hired 2000 employees and as many horses and mules, and formed relays of men, coaches, and animals at 140 stages across the continent — including 6 in San Diego County’s backcountry: Carrizo Creek, Palm Springs, Vallecito, San Felipe Ranch, Warner’s Ranch, and Oak Grove.
Beginning on the 16th of September 1858, Butterfield’s coaches traveled twice a week in both directions, roaring through the 2800-mile route, the distance between Moscow and Peking.
On that first trip, the only through-passenger from St. Louis to San Francisco was a young journalist. Waterman L Ormsby, of the New York Herald. A new father, the 23-year-old Ormsby often longed to be home in New York with his wife and child. Yet he loved adventure. His dispatches became the hot item in the Herald, as readers followed him through every stage-stop. Never again would his career live up to this early moment of glory.
I could not but be impressed with the fact that [I] was the only member of the press who witnessed the deposit of the first mail bag, on route for San Francisco overland.... There were only two small bags...so that in case of accident to the wagons the mail can be thrown across a mule and proceed on its destination.
As we drive down paved S-2 toward Vallecito, I think of Ormsby’s diary entry just after passing the first stage post in San Diego County, Carrizo Creek (which we can’t visit because it’s part of a Navy bombing range). Ormsby was entering San Diego County after 18 butt-bumping days and 100 horse-and-crew-change stages; after crossing one of the toughest parts of the route, the Colorado desert.
An emigrant train had just passed, and we met numbers of cattle which had been abandoned as being too weak to travel; there they stood, almost living skeletons, gradually dying of thirst, with water within a few miles of them. I could almost imagine they looked supplicatingly at us and begged us for just one single drop. Some were standing, others lying, and others just gasping in the agonies of death — a sight almost enough to sicken the stoutest heart. The loss to emigrant trains, especially large ones, is very great from this cause. Very often one-half or two-thirds of a large drove of cattle will have to be left on the road, too weak to proceed, from want of water. The Indians gather up these stray cattle by carrying water to them or driving them to the nearest creek, as, by the custom of the country, cattle thus picked up are seldom reclaimed by their original owners.
Then his mood changes.
Vallecito, or Little Valley, is a beautiful green spot — a perfect oasis in the desert; it is about five miles square, surrounded by rugged timberless hills, and the green bushes and grass and hard road are a most refreshing relief from the sandy sameness of the desert. There are a number of springs, some of them salt. There is but one ranche [sic], where we changed horses. The sand sparkles in the sun with large quantities of mica, which the uninitiated often mistake for gold dust, as it much resembles the precious metal in color. We found, here, part of Mr. Foreman semigrant train, which from 33 wagons had dwindled down to 7, with but a tithe of the cattle with which they started.
One hundred thirty-seven years later, our little party bounces up the same hillock, with the Vallecito stage station sitting on its low summit, looking for all the world as it did to Ormsby in 1858, thanks largely to a local rancher named Campbell, who rebuilt the crumbling adobe in 1934. I’m looking at Marjorie’s painting of Vallecito in 1858, in the book that first made me aware of her, The Butterfield Overland Stage in California. I’ve brought it with us to match past and present. In this painting, blue uniformed, red bandanna’d U.S. Cavalry soldiers relax on the trunk of an old mesquite tree while their horses rest in the shade. In the background, bone-weary genteel folk are walking from one of the red Butterfield coaches, entering the adobe.
The old mesquite tree is still there. Its 20-foot branches lean on sand for support. “This is what they called the Home Station,” says Bill Daley, the volunteer parks man who’s met us here. “Good meals were served here. Supplies came from Palomar Mountain. Beef stew, venison, sauerkraut, bread, butter.... Many stage posts had nothing; you were expected to pack much of your own food, but not here.”
Stages roaring in would spot the warm glow of the lanterns through adobe windows. It became a legendary sight among travelers. It meant the long desert hell was over, at last they were in the California of their dreams.
We wander inside. The huge original fireplace still stands, straw still sticking out of the old adobe (why hasn’t some goat nibbled these things off?). The plank above the fireplace must’ve been a natural place to plonk a tankard and a plate.
“I often used to come down here and paint,” says Marjorie. “I’d come trekking down here in my old 1929 Model A Ford with my husky dog Boy, and we went all over the desert. Down to Agua Caliente just south of here, all deep sand. I had to let a lot of the air out of my tires. I was the only one around here.
“Agua Caliente was the most beautiful place. The water had come in and made basins in the ground. And can you believe? Hot water in one pool and beside it cold water on the other. So you had hot and cold water running all the time! My private campground! Except for an old prospector; he’d be there camping with his burro sometimes. And he’d have a fire started and he gave me the history of the area. That’s partly what got me interested in all this. That was a very choice piece of my life.”
What also got her interested was a strange experience not far out of Pomona.
“I was studying with Jack Wilkinson Smith [a famous Western artist from Alhambra]. He often gave lessons to the children of friends, but mostly he turned them over to me. So I had one little girl, and I went out on the old dirt road around Pomona, and I was painting stagecoaches then, in my own way, and this little girl was sitting beside me with her little sketchbox, and I was painting with my easel. And there was a road going ’round with a curve here, and the mountains in the background. It was a real nice place. So I pictured a stagecoach coming ’round the curve.
“I said to her, ‘Dorothy, you may not want to put a stagecoach in, but you can do anything you want. You can put in a man on a horse, but I’m going to do a stagecoach and you can watch me.’ So I got the stagecoach in, I got the dog in, I got the painting done. I started to put my stuff away, and all of a sudden, around the curve, came...a stagecoach! I couldn’t believe it. My eyes had been glued there, and I kind of shivered, and I whispered, ‘Dorothy, do you see a stagecoach coming around that curve?’
“ ‘Yes,’ she said.
“So I wasn’t crazy. Here came this beautiful Concord coach — beautiful! And an elderly man driving, and he pulled up right beside us at the side of the road. I can still see him wrapping the reins around the brake, jumping off, and he came down and he looked at my painting and he says, ‘That’s a horrible stagecoach! That’s an old English stagecoach. That’s not a Butterfield coach!’
“This was Captain William Banning. Son of the famous stagecoach driver Phineas Banning, the one that had the stage line to San Pedro and Wilmington in the older days. He said, ‘I’ve got my barns, with all these beautiful stagecoaches. I’ll give you permission to come, and all my stagecoaches are in this barn and the horses. And you can spend all the time you want using them for models. I want you to do a good stagecoach.’ ”
Not long after, Marjorie embarked on a 20-year odyssey following the trail of the most famous trail of all, the Butterfield, and painting it from one end to the other.
But Vallecito has always been her favorite. “In the ’30s, I’d come up here and walk up there along the old road through this valley. Oh, I'd find little tiny kids’ shoes — I think they were from the Mormon Battalion, probably — all kinds of oddments. I kept them for a long time— pieces of stagecoaches, old rusty hinges. I’ve still got the hinges. And here at Vallecito, oh! This was where I got my prize. I camped with my dog here, and I saw something on the ground. I said, ‘That looks funny.’ And I picked it up and it was a little crucifix made out of a bullet, with a hole to hang a chain. I still have that. That was right here by the station. I wonder who had held on to that as they crossed the desert.”
We’re standing under the porch, looking down toward a clump of spring-fed mesquite trees, very green against the dun-colored hills. Bill Daley points to them. “If you looked outside, back then, you might have seen three, four hundred covered wagons here, resting up, (while everybody bought] supplies after their big crossing of the desert. That’s why James Lassitor built this stage station, James Ruler Lassitor. He built it of salt grass sods and operated it as a stage depot and resupply place for immigrants from the East coming in. He made his money from sales of supplies, food, equipment. The immigrants were desperate for food and repairs. He prospered.”
Some of them were just plain desperate. I wander through the dark storeroom to the kitchen and bedroom area. “This is where the Lady in White came off one of the stages,” says Bill. “She was looking very frail, sick from the bad food and the stress of traveling — day, night, day — without respite. The horses were changed, the drivers were changed, but the passengers just had to keep going, night and day, stage to stage. But she couldn’t get back into the stage.”
Legend has it that the Lady in White lay down in here, where I’m standing, in this dark little adobe alcove off the kitchen. Soon, she expired, right on this dirt floor. In her white dress they found papers and the name of her betrothed, a gold prospector who’d apparently made money up in the goldfields. She was on her way to Sacramento to be married.
According to Bill, the Lady in White was buried in the cemetery, down at the bottom of the slope, beside one of two bandits who used to haunt the road between here and Yuma. “Four miles east of here,” says Bill, “they robbed a wagon and buried $65,000 in $50 gold coins. One bandit was killed, the other skedaddled. People come around here with metal detectors looking for that gold. Some say it’s in a cave on the mountainside. It’s never been found.”
I ask him — I have to — if the lady’s ghost wanders here. “Well, I’ll tell you the one thing that does happen, and this is straight: Sometimes when I’m alone, I’ll hear a horse’s snort, like they do when they’ve exerted themselves. I’ll go outside, and there’ll be nothing there. As usual. Some say they hear coach wheels, but the horse’s snort, that’s all I hear. When you’re alone, that does make the hair stand on the back of your neck.”
Correspondent Ormsby was amazed Butterfield managed to get the whole rickety apparatus created in the first place — and held together over such distances.
Considering that the contract was signed just a year before the route went into operation; that an exploring party had to be sent over the road to lay out the details of the line; that over 100 wagons had to be built, nearly 1500 horses and mules bought and stationed, corrals and station houses built, men employed — the work appears to be superhuman.
One aspect of stagecoach life that didn’t impress Ormsby was the bandit. He wanted the government to step in.
As I have frequently mentioned, the route needs thorough military protection. There are many places where a few resolute men could rifle the stage at will and possess themselves of a valuable mail. Instead of posting large bodies of men in comfortable quarters in populated districts, the government might advantageously distribute them along the route, where they might serve the double purpose of keeping the Indians in check and protecting the mail from desperate white men, who are nonetheless to be feared….
John Butterfield, of course, was most worried about the mail. This was, after all, a mail contract. “Conductors should never lose sight of the mails for a moment,” his written rules ordered employees. “You will be particular to see that the mails are protected from the wet, and kept from injury of every kind while in your possession.... A good lookout should be kept for Indians. No intercourse should be had with them, but let them alone; by no means annoy or wrong them. At all times an efficient guard should be kept, and such guard should be always ready for any emergency.”
His other enemy was time.
It is expected that all employes [sic] of the Company will be at their posts at all times, in order to protect the property of the Company. Have teams harnessed in ample time, and ready to proceed without delay or confusion. Where the coaches are changed, have the teams hitched to them in time. Teams should be hitched together and led to or from the stable to the coach, so that no delay can occur by their running away. All employes will assist the Driver in watering and changing teams in all cases, to save time.
We’ve left Vallecito and popped into Marjorie’s home in the valley, an idyllic wood cabin under a pepper tree not 50 yards from the old Butterfield road. She shows me the lead cross and other souvenirs from the coaching days and sits me down next to a cowboy mannequin wearing an expensive Stetson. The cabin is also where she paints. One magnificent oil of a stage leaving Taos Mission in the snow at night dominates her main room’s wall. “It’s God who paints,” she insists. “Not me. I just hold the brush. He’s very quick with the brush.”
Her brush puts life and fire and motion into the horses and the coaches and the landscapes she paints. Some works are said to be worth $ 10,000 to $ 15,000, but she refuses to sell any for more or less than $500. I don’t like money,” she says. “It does bad things to people.”
Then we’re off again, zooming up through two valleys. San Diego’s backcountry stage route is like a long, genteel staircase, leading uphill toward Palomar and Volcan Mountains. At least one of the valleys used to be a lake until earthquakes ruptured its walls. Now we’re at the head of Earthquake Valley (its name was recently changed to Shelter Valley), walking up another dry arroyo, this one surrounded by great crags of rocks. We arrive at a 20-foot drop of smooth concave stone, a spectacular waterfall during a storm. “How would a stagecoach get through this?” I ask Marjorie.
“Look at the rocks down there,” she says. “Those were rocks blasted away by my fourth husband for the county. But he wasn’t the first.”
The first Anglos here were the Mormon Battalion, which came through here in 1847. Their wagons stuck in this steep canyon, too narrow for passage. A Lieutenant Colonel Cooke saw the problem, took off his coat, rolled up his sleeves, grabbed a pick, and ordered his men to “set to.” They hacked away at the overhanging rocks, widening the path by a foot, up the four and a half miles to the top of the pass.
Eleven years later, New York Herald correspondent Waterman Ormsby was impressed, as his stage squeezed up between the rocks along the creek bed. His report read:
Twenty-eight miles from Vallecito, our road...proceeds through a very narrow pass— the most wonderful on the route. It appears to have been the bed of a fierce torrent, but it was now dry. The channel appears to have been cut through the solid rocks with the regularity of a deep cut for a railroad, and perpendicularly up the steep sides of the narrow pass the jagged rocks tower, apparently ready to fall and crush all beneath them. Our progress through this portion of the road was quite slow, necessarily, and it required all [the drive]) Mr. [Warren] Hall’s skill to guide our team and wagon safely through the pass, for in some places there was hardly an inch to spare. It is the most wonderful natural road I ever saw or heard of; one of the drivers, however, thought the journey rather dull and declared that, if God ever pronounced this part of the earth good, it was more than man ever did…
For Ormsby it held special significance. Box Canyon was the last barrier between desiccated desert roads and the lush California landscape he’d heard about. Right above Box Canyon lay San Felipe Valley, a place of farms and trees — and good roads.
To me [Box Canyon] seemed a special dispensation of Providence to make us the more appreciate the beautiful road which lay just beyond, for, just as we came up from the rugged pass, we struck a beautiful hard road which would rival [New York City’s] Third Avenue in its palmiest days.
It seemed to infuse new life into ourselves and animals, and I felt as if I could at that moment turn back and cheerfully re-traverse the dreary journey which I had passed, in consideration of this little patch of good road. It led directly across the bed of a large lake, now dry, but which in forcing an outlet had evidently cut the deep pass through which we had just come. We were now fairly out of the desert, and from this point on until we reach San Francisco — a distance of over seven hundred miles — the route is through a series of fertile valleys, abounding in fruits and agricultural productions, compared with which the gold fields of the state sink into insignificance. In the valley of San Felipe we saw a number of prosperous Indian ranches, where they raise corn and melons and live much like white folks….
By three o’clock, Marjorie has directed us to the top of the next valley, driven us off-road across wild dry fields to the base of another pile of rocks. I’m fool enough to complain about the bumps. “You think this is bad! What do you think it was like for the immigrants for three weeks!” she exclaims.
Ormsby was understated on the issue.
For much of the distance the traveller has to rough it in the roughest manner. From Red River to El Paso there are few accommodations for eating, beyond what are afforded by the company stations and their own employees. In time, arrangements will be made to supply good meals at these points. The first travellers will find it convenient to carry with them as much durable food as possible. As for sleeping, most of the wagons are arranged so that the backs of the seats let down and form a bed the length of the vehicle. When the stage is full, the passengers must take turns at sleeping. Perhaps the jolting will be found disagreeable at first, but a few nights without sleeping will obviate that difficulty, and soon the jolting will be as little of a disturbance as the rocking of a cradle to a sucking babe. For my part, I found no difficulty in sleeping over the roughest roads, and I have no doubt that anyone else will learn quite as quickly. A bounce of the wagon, which makes one’s head strike the top, bottom or sides, will be equally disregarded, and ‘nature’s sweet restorer’ found as welcome on the hard bottom of the wagon as in the downy beds of the St Nicholas [a New York hotel]. White pants and kid gloves had better be discarded by most passengers.
Ahead of me, Marjorie is loping up the slope, over rocks, through an arroyo, whooping and shouting. “I can’t believe this! This is Foot and Walker Pass, but look what’s happened to the road!” Her slim figure is silhouetted against rocks and sky as I gasp after her. “In 60 years! This used to be flat across this gully, now it’s turned into chasm. I guess the rain got into the wagon wheel tracks and started digging.”
The climb was called Foot and Walker Pass because it’s the steepest bit of road this stagecoach has to negotiate. Not just six strong horses pulling, but everybody has to get out and push to get the coach up the slope.
I take a bit of comfort in the thought, puffing along behind Marjorie, that folks back then were puffing away as I was, sweating over these same boulders — except they had a driver at the top twitching his whip, waiting for them to get back on board and not spoil his timetable.
“Remember, boys,” John Butterfield always exhorted his drivers. “Nothing on God’s earth must stop the U.S. mail!” Mail for Butterfield was where the contract money came. Passengers were second priority.
By the time I reach the top, Marjorie’s standing like an alert prairie dog on a top rock, surveying the next valley. I take several lungfuls, then open up her book to page 17, where a red coach-and-six are shown coming over this exact spot (except her coach is coming the other way, downhill). You can almost hear the horses snorting, the brakes screeching. The rocks, the emptiness, the golden shine of distant Mount Volcan in the afternoon sunlight; this sight, for the Mormons, Ormsby, for us, really hasn’t changed.
It’s getting toward twilight as we pull into “one of the most welcome and most famous of the stopping places on the old southern immigrant trail,” Warner’s Ranch. Marjorie’s painting, on page 16, shows a coach-and-four galloping up to a large, well-kept colonial adobe cottage.
“Here always were to be found food, warmth, and supplies,” reads another text.
No longer. The old adobe is still standing, but only just. It leans into pine trees near a corral and a ranch employee’s house. The famous porch, where folks gathered, drank a pint, chatted, and stretched their legs, slopes dizzily downhill. J.J. Warner, an American who’d become a Mexican citizen and was deeded this 44,000-acre spread by the Mexican government, did good business here. It was the crossroads for those breaching through the hills to go south to San Diego. “The present owners,” says Marjorie, unhappy as she looks at the wreck, “they could do more. They have a huge and prosperous ranch. All that money! This was one of the most important stops. They put cowboys in it for a while. That helped wreck it. Now it’s just falling down. And yet it is an important part of our history!”
Another ten miles up the road, we see just what could be done at Warner’s. The last Butterfield Stage stop in San Diego County, Oak Grove, was the division chief s headquarters. The long, low-porched adobe has been restored in recent years — partly by Marjorie, although not to her satisfaction. It’s still lovely, with porches protecting the adobe all around the long building.
“But this is what you have to see,” Marjorie says. Crawling through a gap in the fence, she walks down a slope, clinging to the hurricane fencing, then runs down a loose earth abutment. I follow, watching for snakes, rocks, stakes, and end up running blind down the flat and almost into — a stagecoach.
It’s as if I’ve stepped into an ancient pachyderm burial ground. Dozens of hooped covered wagons. Two or three stagecoaches wobble on wheels, their cabins leaning crazily. In the gloom of dusk, the scene looks surreal, Disney-like. The shiny stagecoach station alongside skeletons of another age, lying like elephant carcasses beneath the century-old live oaks.
“Don’t look at the new coaches,” says Marjorie. “They’re not real. See? Plywood. These are just nostalgic versions.” She doesn’t even give them a look. She can’t stand Hollywood. Forty years ago, Disney offered her a job drawing Mickey Mouse. She went for two days but hated the regimentation, the formula art they wanted her to do. She’s been out on the road ever since. Still, the covered wagons do look real, and somehow in the gathering night, they punctuate the voyage.
San Diego never made it into the stagecoach era: too difficult for coaches to climb over the mountains and into the little border port. The much-derided “Jackass Trail” was the mail connection in those days, a mule-trip over Oriflamme Pass beyond Cuyamaca reservoir, connecting with stages at Vallecito. Marjorie wouldn’t even stop at the turnoff, south of Box Canyon.
Even the Butterfield turned out to be an interim measure. That compromise in Congress, awarding the mail-carrying rights to Butterfield’s Southern route, eventually became untenable — not because of nature or Indians, but because Americans started killing each other: the Civil War. You couldn’t start off north and go south anymore.
The nail in the coffin was the railroads. No amount of horses could match them. The last coach came through in 1861, as, once again, San Diego waited with naive excitement at the promise of a railroad connection back east. And again, the mountains won. The gaps east of Los Angeles guaranteed that southern city would become the great western terminus. San Diego slumped back into its small-port disappointment — a disappointment that might’ve saved it from becoming what L.A. is today.
As for Ormsby, his arrival aboard that very first Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach in the outskirts of San Francisco became one long celebration.
The villagers gathered around, asking all sorts of questions.
‘Have you got the States mail?’
‘What’s the news from the States?’
‘Is the cable working yet?’
‘Have you got any through passengers?’
‘Only the correspondent from the Herald!’
‘Why, then, we shall hear about it.’
‘How did you like your trip, sir?’
‘How did you manage to sleep?’
‘What, slept in the wagons?’
‘Did you ride day and night?’
‘Well, I declare, I should think you would be tired.’
‘Have plenty to eat?’
‘What, beans and jerked beef?’
‘Glad to hear you say they’d have better soon.’
‘Meet any Injuns?’
‘None at all, eh?’
‘Well, that’s some comfort.’
‘How long have you been?’
‘Left St. Louis on the 16th of September.’
‘Well, that beats all stage tidin’.'
‘Going to come through twice a week, eh?’
‘Well, that is good now, ain’t it?’
‘How’s the line on the other end?’
‘Of course, all the States people are slow.’
‘Let ’em come out here and see a little life.’
‘Here we do live — live fast, too.’
The first Butterfield stage roared up to the stage office in San Francisco, “our driver giving a shrill blast of his horn and a flourish of triumph for the arrival of the first overland mail in San Francisco from St. Louis.... But the mails must be delivered, and in a jiffy we were at the post office door, blowing the horn, howling and shouting for somebody to come and take the overland mail.”
Finally at half past 7:00 a.m. on Sunday October 10, 23 days, 23 1/2 hours from the time John Butterfield had placed the bags in the coach at St. Louis, another man took the mail bags from the coach. “And I had the satisfaction of knowing that the correspondent of the New York Herald had kept his promise and gone through with the first mail — the sole passenger and the only one who had ever made the trip across the plains in less than 50 days,” writes Ormsby.
Once he got to San Francisco, Ormsby’s derriere no doubt persuaded him to return to New York by ship, via Cape Horn. But his dispatches showed a man of spunk and curiosity, with a prophetic eye to the future.
“A wall will be erected along the [Mexican] frontier, on the line of which settlements will grow, and beyond which the bloodthirsty Indians will not be allowed to pass,” he wrote, en route, as if to assure future xenophobes.
As to the future of communications, his foresight was uncanny. “I looked forward in my imagination to the time when, instead of a wagon road to the Pacific, we should have a railroad; and when, instead of having to wait over 40 days for an answer from San Francisco, a delay of as many minutes will be looked upon as a gross imposition, and of as many seconds as ’doing from fair to middling.’ ”
It’s almost dark. Marjorie has to get back to her cabin. There’s roadrunners to be fed. Quail to be protected. Deer to leave food for. “You know what else I did, after my last husband died?” she says as she leads the climb up the fence line to the car. “I went to the Holy Land. Eleven times! I lived with the Bedouin. I have a hundred paintings of them....”
While she’s in Middle Eastern desert, I’m still in California’s...around 1858, looking at the old stage station, wishing the lanterns were lit, a huge pot of stew bubbling inside. I wanted Warren Hall, the coach driver, inside smoking his pipe, primed to tell tales of handling six horses up Foot and Walker Pass, letting loose a few yarns about life on the road — when the road really was a road — for those ready to rip up old lives to start anew. Now that would make a helluva story.