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On the Butterfield Overland Trail

Reconstructed Vallecito Stage Station

Reconstructed Vallecito Stage Station

Along the edges of the Anza Borrego State Park are a couple of San Diego County Parks on Highway S-2: One is the Vallecito Regional Park and, a little further down the road, a natural hot springs park at Agua Caliente. After taking our hike down to what remains of the Butterfield Stage Route at Box Canyon, we headed to Vallecito for lunch.

At Vallecito is a reconstruction of the original stage station that served as a place to rest and change horses on the Butterfield Overland Trail between 1858 and 1861. One traveler in 1859 referred to the station as being located in “a beautiful green spot—a perfect oasis in the desert.” (In fact, it’s the first real green spot on the trail west of Yuma, Arizona.) And so it was for Martine and me. We picked out a shady picnic table and reached into our bags for the groceries we had bought that morning in Borrego Springs, looked around at the exhibits in the stage station, and hung around until we were ready for our next hike.

The Butterfield Overland Trail was in use for such a short time primarily because of the Civil War. The route between San Antonio, Texas, and San Diego went through too much Confederate territory; and, besides, a transcontinental railroad was already in the works. Once that was completed in 1869, stagecoaches were on their way out, at least for long distance transport.

One of the few descriptions of the experience of stage travel comes from Mark Twain in Roughing It (1859), which tells of a journey by stagecoach between Missouri and Carson City, Nevada Territory:

Our coach was a great swinging and swaying stage, of the most sumptuous description—an imposing cradle on wheels. It was drawn by six handsome horses, and by the side of the driver sat the “conductor,” the legitimate captain of the craft; for it was his business to take charge and care of the mails, baggage, express matter, and passengers. We three were the only passengers, this trip. We sat on the back seat, inside. About all the rest of the coach was full of mail bags—for we had three days’ delayed mails with us. Almost touching our knees, a perpendicular wall of mail matter rose up to the roof. There was a great pile of it strapped on top of the stage, and both the fore and hind boots were full. We had twenty-seven hundred pounds of it aboard, the driver said—“a little for Brigham, and Carson, and ’Frisco, but the heft of it for the Injuns, which is powerful troublesome ’thout they get plenty of truck to read.”

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