By Rudolph Wueste Lt. Col., A. U. S., retired
Illustrated by Wallace F. Hamilton
Sweetwater River Bridge, on State Highway 94, spans a normally dry watercourse and is one of the more picturesque spots in our mountains. But the Sweetwater is not always dry, and it was here that near-disaster overtook what probably was the last pack-train operated by the United States Army — at least, so far as San Diego County is concerned.
The year 1916 stands out and apart for all San Diegans who lived here then, and its annals make interesting reading for those who have come since to enjoy the salubrious local climate. The torrential rains of January of that year and their purported cause have recently been covered by Barbara Tuthill in her Hatfield the Rainmaker. Following the climax of those rains on January 27 and the death and destruction following in their wake, there came incidents no less dramatic but not so well publicized.
As a military attraction at the Panama California Exposition of 1915-16, the 1st Cavalry Regiment, U.S.A., was encamped in Balboa Park; we well remember their functions at retreat in the Plaza de Panama, with their carbines, pistols and sabres. From its inception, the Cavalry had certain civilian components such as its wagon trains and pack trains. By 1915 the wagon trains had been militarized, but not the pack trains. The packmaster at the Exposition was Tom Remington. As a youngster in Wisconsin the glamour of the Cavalry had caught him and, having a way with animals, he landed a job as a civilian packer. It didn’t take him long to reach a top position as packmaster, and before coming here, he had served from Yosemite Valley to the Mexican border. To him we are indebted for the details of what might be called — at least in theory — “The Relief of Morena.”
The Exposition assignment looked like pretty soft military duty until one evening shortly after January 27. A big truck rolled in, loaded with subsistence supplies – mainly hams, bacon and flour. The order had come down, through channels:
“Take this to Morena; there are people starving there.”
No questions were asked. The supplies were loaded aboard the standard number of pack mules, together with the necessary grain rations for the animals, 51 in number. Morena Dam, 63 miles distant and with two raging water-courses to cross, was the destination.
Even though riot fully loaded, all of the 50 mules and the one horse of a train participated in a march, to take care of casualties, cripples and sickness. The pack saddles were skeletonized affairs made comfortable for the mules’ backs by improvised willow twigs and padding of hay to relieve pressure and. chafing. The animals got one meal a day – supper – nine pounds of grain and 15 pounds of hay, requisitioned where it could be found. The packs were cinched so tightly that the animals would get sick if fed at any other time of the day but evening. Each animal wore a halter and pack-saddle – nothing else. Halter and saddle were numbered, and the equipment never was exchanged; a mule got to know its number and would respond when that number was called. The bell-horse — the fifty-first animal of the train — carried no pack; he was the leader and the faithful mules followed him implicitly. “If that bell-horse wandered into the door of a cafe,” Tom said recently, “the whole train of mules would follow him.”
The first night was spent at Spring Valley, where hay could be procured; and even that first day had indicated the supersaturation. of our countryside. A mule would wander slightly to the right or left of the traffic-hardened crust of road and – presto! – down it would go to its belly. Nothing to do but remove the 200-pound pack, get the animal back on its four feet and proceed, maybe for only another 50 feet, when it would go down again and the whole rigamarole would be gone through once more. These difficulties increased as the train continued on into the mountains.
The second day found the pack train confronted by the Sweetwater River, a tawny, turbulent torrent – no bridge, nothing but water. But it had to be crossed, and gingerly the train stepped in. At the left bank there was an uncharted hole, where five mules lost their footing and rolled beam-end over beam-end toward Sweetwater Dam. Tom and his packers jumped in, got to the mules and cut the single ropes which were the final security of the packs. The loosened packs went on down into Sweetwater Lake, but the mules were saved.
By evening Jamul ranch was reached, and the ranch had hay for sale. The fourteen packers were wet but rugged; they turned in and slept in their sodden clothes and shoes. They were up early the next morning and at noon were confronted by their second unfriendly cross-drainage — the Cottonwood. L. W. Smith had rigged a cableway across it; Tom transferred his packs across to the left bank and led his mules about a mile upstream, where he found a crossing with sloping banks for a take-off and landing. The pack train got across, re-loaded the packs and headed on toward Potrero. The Potrero Grade was one of the worst damaged pieces of road in the county — entirely obliterated in places by semi-liquid avalanches which had floated gargantuan boulders down from the haunches of Tecate Mountain. At Potrero they found a corral and a supply of hay. The next day they made Camp; Morena was only nine miles away.
The arrival of the “relief expedition” at Morena was something of an anti-climax. Tom looked in vain for the “starving people” — and instead found Seth Swanson, the city’s dam-keeper, and his wife. Instead of being without food, they invited the fourteen packers in for an excellent meal.
But orders are orders. They unloaded the packs, including one bulky package which, when it was opened, proved to be a family Bible weighing 12 pounds; hams and bacon had gone down the Sweetwater, but the Bible came through unharmed. The Swensens still have that Bible — and also a receipted bill for the groceries.
The trip back to San Diego took the same amount of time as the trip out from town. The members of the pack train became heroes on paper, and each one received a citation from the City Council; citations are inexpensive. No one thought of a ten-dollar bill apiece, which would have financed some well-earned relaxation in San Diego.
There is no more cavalry; it is mechanized. There will never be another Battle of Balaclava and there may never be another 1916 flood. If there is, there will be no 1st Cavalry to succor the “starving” people at Morena. It will be done by air-lift.
In spite of it all, Tom must have liked San Diego. After his civilian service he enlisted in the Army — and, of course, became a cavalryman. Now a retired member of the San Diego Police Department, he is an investigator with Convair, which is about as far from San Diego’s last pack-train as one can get.