May 2007 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts







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 The Land of Volcanoes

June 23-25, 2007

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Friends of Last Chance Canyon is a new organization interested in sustaining and protecting areas within the El Paso Mountains, near Ridgecrest, California. The main focus is preserving and protecting historic sites like Burro Schmidt's tunnel and the Walt Bickel Camp.

Please click on either logo to visit the FLCC site.



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Mules can taste the difference--so can you











Explore Historic California!

     Not too many years ago, the family station wagon was the magic carpet to adventure. Today, that family station wagon is likely to be a four wheel drive sport utility vehicle or pick up truck. SUV's and other 4x4's are one of the best selling classes of vehicles. Ironically, industry statistics show that once purchased, few owners will dare to drive their vehicles off the paved highway. Click your mouse through our website and enjoy our armchair adventures and the histories behind them. If you are interested in taking one of our guided tours with your vehicle, please contact us at:

     Several years ago, we bought our first SUV. We went to a one-night class at a local community college entitled "How to 4-Wheel Drive" by Harry Lewellyn. The following weekend we attended the hands-on day tour. We liked what we were doing so much that we began going out nearly every weekend and learned how to negotiate a variety of dirt roads. Our spare time was spent doing research on the history and ecology of our favorite areas. A one-day outing turned into 16 years of leading others on mini-vacations throughout Southern California and the Owens Valley.

     Our 4WD outings involve driving on easy to moderate dirt roads and are ideally suited to novice and intermediate level drivers. All tours are suitable for stock vehicles in good condition, although some tours do have vehicle size restrictions.

     Our tours are operated under permits issued by the Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Forest Service, and other authorities.

     We share our knowledge of the backcountry over the CB radio with our guests. We frequently stop to explore mining areas, old and new, and ponder the rocks, plants and animals we may encounter. We'll occasionally visit an old cabin or deserted mountain lookout.

     California has a fascinating history, from geologic unrest and prehistoric petroglyph scribes to the "Radium Queen of the Mojave" and the "Human Mole of Black Mountain." Load up your 4X, fasten your seatbelts and get ready to explore historic California.

Roger, Cecile and Marty

Along the Butterfield Trail

 By Robert C. Likes

This month we again feature author/historian Robert C. Likes, and an article he wrote for Desert Magazine in October, 1970.

Bob is also the author of From This Mountain—Cerro Gordo, and at least four other Desert Magazine articles. In past issues of EHC we have featured his stories on Mono Mills, and Panamint City.

Through the magic of the internet, Bob stumbled across our website and  has become a good friend, and mentor. He has been a source of constant encouragement and source of information about many of our favorite places, and just a delight to know!

Bob is currently in rehab after suffering a stroke. The Likes family and close friends encourage everyone to send good wishes and  a line or two about how important his works have been to desert rats and ghost towners in the new millennium.

Even if you don’t know of him or his works, he and his buddies at Rocketdyne who formed the Ghost Town Club were the forerunners to modern day 4x4’ing, and backcountry exploring, and we can thank them for paving the way and preserving histories for us!

Please feel free to e-mail Bob at: 

The Southern Emigrant Trail - later called The Butterfield Overland Stage Route - stretched from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco. Probably the deadliest section of the trail was through the desert areas of Southern California.

           GREAT TROUGH in the Anza-Borrego desert area of San Diego County winds through the desolate Carrizo and Vallecito Valleys and then rises into the cool, green costal hills of southern California. This natural passageway is the legendary Carrizo Corridor.

           Along its course of rutted and sandy washes flowed a steady stream of California history, for this was the last leg in the journey along the southern Emigrant Trail and the colorful butter field overland Stage Route.

           Kit Carson passed this way in 1846, guiding General Stephen Watts Kearny and his dragoons through the corridor when it was nothing more than a wilderness between waterholes. One year later, Colonel St George Cooke and his Mormon Battalion followed Kearny’s route and established the first wagon road into Southern California. This wagon road became known as Cookes Road, or Sonora Road, until the discovery of gold brought a flood of Americans westward in 1849. From this date on, it was called the southern Emigrant Trail.

           In 1850, great herds of sheep and cattle were driven across the old trail to feed the exploding population on the west coast. Because thousands of animals perished and left a trail of bleaching bones from Yuma to the Carrizo Corridor, the southern Emigrant Trail was called the Jornada del Muerto - Journey of Death.

      By 1856, the United States Government realized it had a growing communication problem with this far-flung empire on the Pacific coast. A mail contract linking San Antonio with San Diego was awarded in 1857. The first mail crossing the Colorado Desert and through the Carrizo Corridor on mule back was known as the “jackass Mail.”

     A second and larger contract was awarded to John Butterfield in 1858. The first mail pouches were loaded aboard the departing Butterfield Stage in St. Louis, Missouri, and in exactly 23 days, 23 hours and 30 minutes, the mail pouches were safely delivered in San Francisco, California, more than 2800 miles away.

The Butterfield Stage makes its way to California.

     Exploring the Butterfield Overland Trail from the vanished Carrizo springs Station to the old Warner Adobe reveals the least spoiled section of its entire route in California.

Although this section was the gateway to the promised land, it is doubtful that the traveler looked forward to making the passage. With its annual rainfall of something less than five inches, this lonely land supports only an arid growth of ocotillo, cholla and indigo brush, though there are stands of smoke trees and mesquite in the washes. In 1847, Colonel Cooke described the eroded hills and rocky slopes as “…the worst 15 miles of road since we left the Rio Grande.” When the Overland Stage established a route through the corridor, it was the epic battle of man against the elements, with a succession of Indian raids, holdups and accidents, thrown in just to make it interesting.

     The Carrizo Gap, through which the Carrizo Wash passes, is the eastern entrance to the Carrizo Corridor. Following this route, the butter field Overland Stage located the first way-station at Carrizo Springs. This section of the old trail crosses a navy bombing range and special permission is required before entry. The stage station at Carrizo Springs has completely vanished.

     After leaving Carrizo Springs the old stage road followed the Carrizo Wash east until it reached the junction of the Vallecito Wash. Turning up the Vallecito Wash, the trail plowed through the sand to a point nine miles from the Carrizo station where it left the wash to reach Palm spring, a short distance away. The first native palms, Washingtonia filifera, seen in California by a non-Indian were the ones at Palm Spring. Pedro Fages first described the palms in 1772. Sixty-five years later Colonel Cooke reported a clump of 20 to 30 palms at the spring, but by 1853, after a steady stream of gold seekers, the number of palms had dropped to three or four.

     When the Butterfield line built an animal changing station at the spring in 1858, the majestic grove of palms had been reduced to a few burnt stumps. Today the site of the Palm Spring station is marked by a monument standing in a clump of green mesquite, and three small palms. The spring still provides water at this small oasis, and the serenity is in marked contrast to the flurry of activity that took place when this was a vital oasis along the Butterfield Trail.

     After leaving Palm Spring, the old road continued following the shifting sands of the Vallecito Wash until it reached one of the most famous way stations along the route. Vallecito was the first oasis with an abundance of water and green grass, providing welcome relief for the weary passengers after days of exposure to the hat and glare of the desert.

     W. L. Ormsby, a passenger in 1858, commented, “….a perfect oasis,” then went on to say, “ …a most refreshing relief from the sandy sameness of the desert.” The Vallecito station was originally constructed of sod-bricks with a roof of hand-hewn beams, pegged and tied in place with rawhide, then covered with willow poles and tulles before a final topping of sod. The famous station was reconstructed in 1934, and today it is a San Diego County Park.

     Many colorful stories centered around the Vallecito stage station. One such account was the night “Ol’ Bill,” one of the drivers, was held up a few miles south of the station. Five men on horseback engaged in a running gun battle with the passengers on the stage as Ol” Bill had his team going “hell-bent-for-leather.” Just when it looked as though the stage might reach the safety of the Vallecito station, one of the animals on the team was shot and the stage came to a terrifying halt.

     Using the coach for cover, “Ol’ Bill and his armed passengers continued to hold of the bandits, forcing them to retreat. After another volley of gunfire, the bandits rode off into the night. Soldiers who had been stationed at Vallecito and who had heard the shooting, came riding up just as Bill was cutting the dead animal out of the harness. After a brief exchange of words, the soldiers rode off in pursuit of the outlaws and bill headed the stage toward Vallecito, feeling sure the bandits would be caught.

     The next morning, Ol’ Bill was astonished to see there were no prisoners. When questioned about this, the corporal in charge of the detail of soldiers smiled, then replied, “Well, let’s look at it this way, bill. Vallecito has no accommodations for prisoners - outside of the graveyard, that is.”

     From Vallecito, the road went west, gradually gaining elevation until it reached the upper end of Vallecito Valley, where it turned and entered a narrow canyon. This was the only passageway between Vallecito and San Felipe Valleys, and it was here that Colonel Cooke and his men were almost defeated in their attempt to blaze a wagon road into Southern California.

     “I came to the canyon and found it much worse than I had been led to expect,” Cooke later reported, “…there are many rocks to surmount, but the worst is the narrow pass.” All of their road building tools had been lost when the party forged the Gila River in Arizona, so axes were used to increase the opening. Even then, the chasm was too narrow by a foot of solid rock, and Cooke ordered the wagons to be taken apart and carried through. It required two days for the men to work their way out of the canyon. The pass was widened for the Butterfield run, and was known as Cookes Pass or Devils Canyon.

     For some unexplainable reason, the pass now bears the name of Box Canyon, and for obvious reasons, it is by-passed by the paved highway. There is a historical marker here, and a parking area from which you can look down into this famous pass. However, a far more rewarding experience is to climb down into the narrow defile and view it from the same perspective that confronted Cooke in 1847.

     Box Canyon was the end of the Carrizo Corridor and the old stage route became easier as the team of horses followed the rutted ribbon into more open country. After crossing a dry lake bed, the trail led straight up a rocky ridge with a grade so steep passengers had to get out and either walk up or push the coaches up the incline. Because of this, the ridge became known as Foot and Walker Grade. Upon reaching the summit, the course ahead became routine and allowed the coach and exhausted passengers to move swiftly through the lower reaches of the San Felipe Valley. The next stop was the San Felipe Station. The site is located on private property just north and a little west of Scissors Crossing.

     The next 16 miles of the pioneer trail continued north through the increasingly fertile San Felipe Valley and crossed another pass before it dropped down between the rolling hills surrounding the station at Warner’s.

     The historical marker at the old Wilson Store proclaims it to be the butter field Overland stage station, yet according to historian William Wright, this structure had not yet been built when the Butterfield Stage discontinued operations in 1861. Wright claims the Wilson Store was one of the two buildings constructed in 1863 at a spot known as Kimbleville. He acknowledges the Wilson store was later used as a stage stop, but not for the Butterfield line. Instead Wright says the old Warner adobe, built in 1849, is the real Butterfield stage station. The Warner adobe is located one and a half miles north of Wilson’s store, and equidistant between the San Felipe Station to the south, and the Oak grove Station to the north. However, both the Wilson store and the Werner adobe are historic landmarks, and worth the time to visit.

Old Stagecoach Trail, by Margorie Reed, 1958.
Original painting at the Wells Fargo History Museum
Old Town San Diego, California.

     At Warner’s the trail branched, one heading southwest to San Diego by way of Santa Ysabel; the other pressed on in a northwest direction across the small valley and through the hills until it reached the Oak Grove Station ten miles away. The store at Oak Grove utilized the foundation and ancient walls of the original Butterfield Station. From here the stage route generally followed what is now State 70 until it reached Temecula, with a stop between at Aguanga.

      With the termination of the Butterfield Overland route in 1861, the decline of the Southern Emigrant Trail began. More northerly routes were being discovered and used, particularly the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes. New routes were being used from San Diego to Yuma via Camp and Jacumaba, and even the discovery of gold in the mountains west of the old trail in 1870 did little to revive its use.

     In the early 1900s, the pioneer trail through the Carrizo Corridor lay almost forgotten. It was simply a road that “began nowhere, and ended nowhere” - a sad epitaph compared to the address Colonel Cooke gave his men upon completion of their assigned task.

    “History may search in vain for an equal march of infantry,” he said. “We have dug deep wells which the future traveler will enjoy…..we have worked our way over mountains….. hewed a passage through a chasm of living rock more narrow than our wagons…and thus marching half naked and half fed, and living upon wild animals, we have discovered and made a road of great value to our country.”

     Much of this famous route lies within the boundaries of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, and so the areas of historic interest are preserved for present and future generations to see and appreciate.

 Read More about the Butterfield Stage

Adventure No. 12 Anza-Borrego State Park:  


Vallecito Station


Phantoms Of Vallecito Station


Life and Times Of the Vallecito Station by Ruth MacGill



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