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The Silver Dons, 1833-1865

CHAPTER TWELVE: The West Is Linked

The linking of the East and West by transcontinental stage was at hand and the question of the route to be selected emerged as a heated political struggle between the North and the South. In California there was a division, too, between the politically dom­inant North and the “cow counties” of the South. The North favored the proposed Central Route from Salt Lake across the plains and over the Sierra Nevada. The South favored a route over the Southern Immigrant Trail.

In Texas a group of citizens conducted a public meeting in El Paso to discuss the establishment of a mail coach line from San Antonio to San Diego by way of El Paso, and a resolution pointed out that its success would be a great factor in eventually determining the route for a Southern Pacific railroad. The report of the meeting, as published in part in the Herald, in October of 1856, read:

“This route is imminently the best and most practical, free from the snows of winter and the withering heat of summer; passing through a climate salubrious and delightful; tracking fertile and beautiful valleys and not endless treeless prairies and scorching deserts of sand; encountering abundance of wood, water and grass and not thirsty desert plains and bleak barren mountains, burning as a furnace in summer and frozen and ice-clad in winter; open and passable at all seasons, with everything to cheer the immigrant and traveler, in rich soil and varied landscape, with no mountain barriers — no natural wall to cross the pathway, the route contemplated is superior for a great mail route and immigrant road across the continent, to any other north of it, and there can be none south, passing through our own territory.”

The many immigrants who had traversed the Gila route with such sufferings might have wondered if they had dreamed it all. During 1856, four overland mail bills were submitted to Congress, and President Franklin Pierce signed another bill authorizing $300,000 for building a wagon road over the Southern Trail. On August 18, Congress passed an amendment to the Post Office bill authorizing the establishment of Route 12,578, the Great Over­land Route, from the Mississippi River to San Francisco. The selection of the eastern terminal, the contractor and the actual route was left up to the Postmaster General. It also authorized him to set up an immediate interim service that would provide adequate mail connections between the East and West until the Great Overland Route 12,578 could get into service. The Post Of­fice Department called for bids, which were to be opened July 2, 1857, and the power struggle between Northern and Southern factions was on.

Two principal companies emerged, one an Eastern giant, the other, a Western giant, both capable, both financially sound. The Eastern group was a combine headed by John Butterfield of New York, which collectively controlled the most powerful express com­panies on the Eastern Seaboard. Leading contender from the West was an ambitious young empire-builder with an idea, initiative and money. He was James Birch, 28. In three years in the North­ern California gold fields, Birch had built his own stage line, merged it with four other operators, and in January, 1854 was president of the California Stage Company, the largest and most efficient stage line in the West.

The election of James Buchanan as President in 1856 offered little encouragement to Birch, since Buchanan and Butterfield were intimate friends. But Buchanan’s Postmaster General, Aaron V. Brown, was a Southerner. Birch resigned as president of the California Stage Company and went to Washington to see Brown. On June 14, 1857, Brown awarded to Birch a four-year contract to carry the mail over Route 8076 from San Antonio to San Diego. It was an extension of a contract previously held by G. H. Giddings, for Route 8076 from San Antonio to El Paso. Birch had seventeen days to get his 1478-mile line into operation. His contract speci­fied a two-way service, twice a month, with coaches and passenger service both ways, for a subsidy of $149,800 a year, or aver­aging $3120 a trip each way, beginning on July 1, the day before the Postmaster General was to open bids on the Great Overland Route 12,578.

At San Diego, under Birch’s plan, mail and passengers could continue to Los Angeles and San Francisco by steamship. It was promptly derided as the line that ran from “nowhere to nowhere.”

Birch hired Isaiah C. Woods, a well-known stageman, to ramrod the line as superintendent. George Giddings was named division superintendent at San Antonio and R. E. Doyle at San Diego. Gid­dings got the line moving before Woods arrived at San Antonio. He dispatched the first mail by mule train from San Antonio on July 9 under the charge of James E. Mason as conductor. The first 650 miles from San Antonio to El Paso was over well-beaten wagon roads through Comanche and Apache country frequently travelled by Army supply trains. From El Paso and up to Maricopa Wells, now Phoenix, the route of 454 miles was one of mesquite, sage­brush, cactus, sand, rocks, unbroken trail through heat and dust that led one traveller to write, “if God ever pronounced this part of the earth good, it’s more than man ever did.”

From Maricopa Wells, the trail turned west again, following the Gila River 190 miles to its junction with the Colorado at Fort Yuma. From there, it dropped south into Mexico for fifty miles around the sand dunes of Imperial Valley, then went northwest across the forty-eight miles of desert to Carrizo Creek, climbing into the Cuyamaca Mountains from Vallecito, then turning southwest downhill to San Diego.

The original plan was to stock way stations with fresh animals and supplies as the first mail trains passed through the country. Giddings sent out one advance group under William Alexander Anderson Wallace, 40, Indian fighter and frontiersman better known as “Big Foot” Wallace. About 123 miles west of San An­tonio by Fort Clark, they were attacked by Apaches who killed one driver, wounded two others, routed eighteen soldiers with the party and made off with twenty-four head of stock. But the mail went on.

San Diego had yet no inkling that the first mail was on the way. And in San Antonio the news had not reached there that, two days before the first mule train left San Diego, Birch already had lost his chance at the Great Overland Mail contract. The New York Times on July 7 reported that Postmaster General Brown had decided to give the Great Overland contract to Birch, but was over­ruled by President Buchanan, who gave it to Butterfield and the powerful combine. But it was specified that San Francisco — not San Diego — was to be the terminus.

Thus, the first transcontinental mail, operated by James Birch, a man who was never to see it in operation, was obsolete before the first letter left the depot. And the second mail train was on the trail before San Diego found out for sure that the mail was coming to San Diego at all. Capt. Henry Skillman left San Antonio with the second mail in a light ambulance wagon on July 24, as sched­uled. Skillman was a full day out of San Antonio when the San Diego Herald of July 25 carried the announcement that the con­tract had been signed and that scheduled mail would leave on the 9th and the 24th of each month. The Herald declared:

“We deem this a more important measure for the immediate prosperity of San Diego than would the passage of a railroad bill to connect us with the Atlantic States — for that probably would not go into operation for ten or twelve years while this is of present benefit and insures a railroad by the Southern route and by opening up the rich country by which the stage route passes.”

In anticipation of the business expected over the new line, Wells Fargo & Co. reopened its forwarding office in San Diego, with Eu­gene Pendleton in charge. The Herald in August of 1857 also indicated that a stage line was operating between San Diego and the Jesús María Mines in Lower California. Two new hotels were opened, the Colorado and the Franklin, both on the west side of the Plaza. The old Exchange house had been rebuilt into a three-story structure and renamed the Franklin by Lewis and Maurice Franklin.

By the first of August, the Herald was happily advising its read­ers to send by steamer to San Francisco for stamps and envelopes, since none were available in San Diego. On the same day Birch arrived by steamer in San Francisco, already aware that Butter­field had edged him out of the Great Overland contract.

Woods had ordered Doyle to dispatch the first east-bound mail from San Diego on July 24, the same day on which the second west-bound mail was to leave San Antonio, but as Doyle could not find enough good mules in San Diego, it didn’t leave until August 9. Even then R. W. Laine, the conductor, had to buy ten more mules at Warner’s Ranch because the ones he brought from San Diego were not strong enough to make the entire trip. Laine followed the wagon road through Ramona, Santa Ysabel, Warner’s and San Felipe, the same route taken by the first west-bound mail.

At 11 a.m. August 31, 1857, Conductor Mason’s arrival at San Diego set off the wildest celebration the little village could muster. The first dispatch was fifty-three days out of San Antonio, but the trip had been made in good time. The San Diego Herald said: “Today arrived the first mail from San Antonio, Texas, making the journey in thirty-four travelling days. San Diego is rejoicing.” And indeed, it was. Since El Jupiter, the old bronze cannon, had been cracked some years earlier by an over-enthusiastic charge for another celebration, Ames, the Herald’s editor, and an old sea captain named Stevens, borrowed two anvils and commenced fir­ing in a manner befitting the first scheduled linking of the Atlantic and Pacific by overland carrier. They turned one anvil upside down and set the other one on it so they were base-to-base. In the hollow pocket between the two bases they poured a charge of gunpowder, or blasting powder, with a fuse to be touched off with a red-hot iron rod. What it lacked in ballistics, the anvil salute more than made up with a cloud of smoke and an ear-splitting roar. While Ames and Stevens fired a 100-anvil salute, the rest of the cele­brants greeted the first mail with a fusillade from shotguns, pistols and rifles, and exploding firecrackers.

San Diego celebrated not knowing that already politics had dealt a death blow to the San Diego and San Antonio Mail. Birch, himself, had only a short time to live. On September 12, Birch, returning to New York from San Francisco, in the hope of saving his line, was one of 400 persons lost when the steamer Central America sank in a storm off Cape Hatteras. Two days later, the Great Overland contract was awarded to the Butterfield combine, allowing them a full year to get into service.

Conductor Laine and the first east-bound mail were twenty days on the trail from San Diego when they met Woods forty miles east of Tucson. The mail went on, but Laine turned around to guide Woods back to San Diego. They found the water holes west of Yuma dry and were forced to cross ninety-four miles of desert without stopping. They arrived at Carrizo with spent animals and the mail already six days overdue. Leaving the coach at Valle­cito, to follow on the regular immigrant route by way of the narrow twisting gap cut through Box Canyon by Capt. Cooke and the Mormon Volunteers and up through Warner’s, Woods took a short cut over the Cuyamacas, following for eighteen miles an old Indian trail up into Green Valley. Obtaining fresh horses at Lassitor’s place, he took the mail into San Diego on September 9, thirty-eight days out of San Antonio.

Lassitor’s place was owned by James R. Lassitor, who had oper­ated a store and hay station for military trains and immigrants at Vallecito, then married the widow of John Mulkins, who resided in Green Valley. He cut wild oats in Cuyamaca Valley, which he hauled down Oriflamme Canyon along the old “hay road”.

For the next seven weeks, Woods was busy in San Diego acquir­ing or, equipping men, coaches and animals and dispatching them to take up stations along the Western division from San Diego to the Pimos Villages turn-around east of Tucson. He announced passenger service on October 3. Woods sent two coaches from San Diego heavily loaded on October 6; two more on October 22, and by October 27, when he started over the mountains with the mail, a mule train and a herd of mules, he had three more coaches being built in San Diego. A month later he noted in his journal that the line had more than 200 mules west of the Rio Grande, seven coaches on the line and three being built in San Diego, “so we can already take passengers thru from ocean to ocean by stage coaches.”

The coaches probably were built by John Van Alst, a carpenter and wagonmaker, and Robert D. Israel, a blacksmith. Van Alst and Israel formed a partnership which they announced in the San Diego Herald on September 26, 1857. They continued as partners until January, after which Van Alst carried on the business alone.

The evidence indicates that the only San Diego passengers who travelled the full distance east by coach were the few who went with the new coaches being sent around the long northern wagon road by way of Warner’s to join the line east of the mountain barrier. At the same time, other passengers on the line were being sent from San Diego to Yuma by mule train. Later, the service was improved so that passengers went by stage to Lassitor’s, in Green Valley, then went by mule down a mountain trail to Valle­cito, where they transferred to stages again and continued their trip. This system continued as long as the line ran.

From San Antonio the fare was $100 to El Paso, $150 to Tucson and $200 to San Diego. Between intermediate stations the fare was fifteen cents a mile. Passengers were provided with food except where the coach stopped at public houses. They were allowed to carry thirty pounds of personal baggage, exclusive of blankets and arms. The carrying of pistols and rifles was recommended. Extra baggage cost forty cents a pound from San Antonio to El Paso and $1 a pound to San Diego. Postal rates were three cents a half-ounce.

By January, the line was advertising “the entire distance except eighteen miles, is by coach.” But the mail apparently moved con­siderably faster than passengers. Service was being constantly improved, although passenger travel was always uncomfortable, dirty, dangerous and uncertain. By March, the mail was going through in as little as twenty-three and a half days, and in June it made its record speed of twenty-one days from San Antonio to San Diego. When Birch’s creditors learned that he was dead, the line almost collapsed, but G. H. Giddings and R. E. Doyle took it over and the name was changed to Giddings & Doyle, with Woods as superintendent.

Woods, having completed his full circuit of the route from San Antonio to San Diego and back between August and January, filed his report with the Postmaster General. He stated that the 1476-mile route included 1300 miles of road “superior to any other” and that the rest of it was “fair,” except for twenty-two miles of sand from Cooke’s Wells to Alamo Mocho, but that it was a good road in all seasons. Of the desert in Arizona in August, he said that “the air is pure and clear and the heat produces a copious perspiration, so that it gives no feeling of oppression in breath­ing.” In winter, when it turned so cold the water froze in the can­teens, the people sleeping on the ground didn’t suffer from it, according to Woods, and the only people who got sick were those who ate too much fruit along the way in the Rio Grande Valley.

The stories told by the passengers were somewhat different. A correspondent for the San Francisco Herald, who signed his dispatches with the initials “B.H.M.” wrote from Tucson on November 25:

“The next day after writing you from San Diego, I made arrangements for my passage to Tucson by depositing $50, and after some days’ delay, took my place in the coach and away we started for San Antonio and intermediate places. After rolling over a very good road for twenty miles we stopped for dinner near a house where dwelt a fair maiden, of whose beauty I had heard even at Sacramento. We went to the house, as some of our party were acquainted there, and saw the fair Stephana, and were regaled with a bottle of native wine, a dish of olives, etc. There is a little vineyard and a few fruit trees; the first, and in fact, the only fruit trees I saw growing in San Diego County, except at the town and the Mission . . .

“At night we reached San Pasqual, a battle ground where a few Americans were killed in 1845 . . . Our coaches were heavily laden, each having about 1500 pounds of freight for the Pimo Village to be used in trade for corn and wheat with the Indians there . . . We remained three days at San Pasqual, wait­ing for mules from a neighboring rancho. The mules were all muy broncos, and the drivers had an exciting time breaking them to harness. In crossing the mountain, when in front of San Pasqual, one of the stages broke down and had to return to San Diego for repairs. With the other we moved on . . . to Santa Ysabel Rancho . . .

“The weather at Santa Ysabel is cool, frosts nearly every month in the year. There was a vineyard there but when we passed along (October) the grape season was over. We purchased barley at our stopping place sufficient to reach Cariso Creek, a place some seventy miles farther on, paying four cents per pound . . .

“The next day we passed Warner’s Rancho, reaching in the evening San Felipe which is neither a town nor a rancho, but an adobe house, brackish water and poor grass, like that usually growing on salt land. The population of San Felipe consists of a German who occupies the aforesaid adobe house and supports himself by selling necessities to travelers. We next arrived at Vallecitos, a city very much like San Felipe, but one grade inferior, as the water and grass are not quite so good. The proprietor was away, courting an emigrant girl, and had a young man employed at a dollar a day to attend the business of the “hotel.” “

Another passenger, Charles F. Runing, correspondent for the San Francisco Chronicle, rode the stage by the alternate route to Green Valley, and at Lassitor’s place, climbed aboard a horse for the hard ride down Oriflamme Canyon. His report reads:

“We had four passengers . . . We made twenty-one miles that afternoon and stopped at Ames’ Ranch . . . For supper we had jerked beef, tea and algunas tor­tillas mal hechas (some poorly made tortillas). Our landlady was an Indian woman. Next day — twenty-seven miles to Lassitors . . . arrived there late at night, slept in low but with fire in the middle, Indian fashion. Had a good sup­per and breakfast — fresh butter, bread, mutton, coffee.

“We started next day with part fresh animals, and part former ones. We had only eighteen miles to travel that day, three of which were over snow, and we had a very steep hill to go down. The country is very hilly and almost destitute of vegetation . . . We rode on horseback that day, and slept in a house on a hard dirt floor. Here we met passengers coming from the other end of the route, five in number; they complained very much, and had had a very hard time of it; one was a newly married lady, and I thought it must have been a rather dangerous honeymoon; however, she was fat and hearty and had got along better than any of the men. The place is called Vallecitos, and from the name one would expect to see a few houses, but we found only one solitary habitation . . .”

As Giddings & Doyle, the line continued operation through 1858, while Butterfield was stocking and building 139 stations between Tipton, Missouri, and San Francisco. Butterfield’s route was to overlap the Giddings & Doyle route for 750 miles between El Paso and Vallecito. Butterfield had to construct corrals, dig wells and cisterns, and assemble 1200 horses, 600 mules and 100 coaches. There were wagon shops and blacksmith shops to set up, fords over rivers to prepare, and 750 to be hired to staff the way stations.

He went into operation on schedule, the first stage leaving Tip­ton on September 16, opening the Great Overland Mail Route 12,576, a total of 2800 miles on a twenty-five-day schedule, termi­nal to terminal. San Diego was by-passed, the main route now passing through Warner’s Ranch and Temecula to Los Angeles. There were five stations in the present limits of San Diego County, at Carrizo Springs, Vallecito, San Felipe Valley, near Scissors Crossing; Warner’s, in the ranch house and store that were rebuilt after being burned down in the Garra uprising, and at Oak Grove.

But the San Diego line did not die quickly. A month after But­terfield started running, his line took over the mail transport between El Paso and Yuma, thus cutting route 8076 into two sec­tions, San Diego to Yuma and El Paso to San Antonio. Then, strangely enough, the Post Office department increased the sub­sidy on the San Diego and San Antonio Line to provide weekly delivery. But it was a dying gesture, for its passengers still had to ride mules over the mountains from San Diego to Vallecito. On October 1, a year later, Giddings & Doyle announced that the line was discontinuing passenger service. Political opposition to the line persisted in the North. The San Francisco Call stated:

“The editorial friends of I. C. Woods in this city are working hard to create a diversion in favor of the San Antonio and San Diego Jackass Overland Mail route. We hope that the Congress will not hesitate to lop off this useless mail . . . and apply the money now spent for the comfort of I. C. Woods to the Central Overland route, a mail which is of the first importance to California and the contiguous territories.”

In its last days, the line was branded the “Jackass Mail,” and as such it has been known ever since. It continued to haul “Jackass Mail” for two more years until the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 caused its discontinuance. So ended San Diego’s hope that was dying even as it was being born, when the San Diego Herald said: “It was looked upon as the most important event which had ever occurred in the annals of San Diego.”

The advent of stage transportation to the Pacific Coast also brought to an end an experiment in the use of camels for which the Congress appropriated $30,000 in 1855. The idea of using cam­els had swept the country as a result of the published reports of the long and dry marches across the deserts which were necessary to reach California. Lt. Beale, who as Indian agent for California and Nevada had explored much of the Southwest, and himself had been interested in the use of camels, was placed in charge of the project, and the public mind envisioned “fast camel passenger trains” running from the Missouri River to the Pacific Coast. On May 14, 1856, the United States’ vessel, Supply, arrived at Indi­anola, Texas, with twenty-three camels, nine dromedaries, and one calf, or thirty-three in all. With them were six Orientals. One of them was a camel doctor. Another load of forty-four camels ar­rived the following February.

Lt. Beale put them through severe and successful tests and fi­nally, on October 14, the “ships of the desert” reached the Colorado River on the road to Bakersfield, and Beale managed to coax them across. But the experiment was a failure. Soldiers never took to the camels, treating them as harshly as they did their mules, with stubborn results. And the San Diego and San Antonio Mail Line, and then the Butterfield stages, had overtaken them. The camels were sold, those stationed at Fort Yuma being driven up to Benicia and auctioned off: Others were turned loose in the desert and the Apaches hunted them down and found camel meat to their liking. For many years reports of the sighting of camels in the desert persisted. One of the last confirmed reports was in 1881, when a Prescott, Arizona, newspaper reported that nine had been captured by Indians near Gila Bend and sold to a circus at Kansas City.

By-passed by the transcontinental stages, discouraged by the results of the railroad surveys, and with the prospect of even a camel caravan now gone, San Diego, possessing a fine natural har­bor, an unmatched climate, and a land inviting to settlers, had no means by which to divert the river of west-bound immigrants who were turning north as they reached the jagged mountain barrier at the southern tip of the Coast Range. In a day of plod­ding oxen, sweating mules and wagon wheels, San Diego was virtually walled off from a commercial world whose routes followed the natural valleys and watersheds.