By Helen Margaret Bowles
After I left school I took a course in drafting and went to work for Mr. Requa, the architect. When World War I started things let up, so I bought a jitney bus, a Model T Ford, in Los Angeles, with my life’s savings, which was about sixty dollars. I taught myself to drive it over in the park. I drove along the roads pretending I was picking up passengers. When I went down to get my chauffeur’s license it created quite a sensation, because the jitneys had only been running a few months and I was the only woman who had applied.
I had a great time. I ran from Fifth and Broadway up to University and over to Park Boulevard. I used to make more in a day there than I would as a draftsman in a week. Of course, when the Exposition started we used to make a lot of side trips. We took people out to Point Loma, the old mission, down to Tijuana, and had a lot of fun. The fare on the jitneys was five cents. We had a starter down at Fifth and Broadway, an old man who loaded us. We had signs on our cars telling where we went. Passengers could get off or on anywhere along the line.
I always had wanted to get on the run over to Imperial Valley, but there seemed to be no chance for me as it was thought to he too rough a job for a woman. However, the big companies, which ran big cars, got into a rate war. The fare to El Centro went down to one dollar, and the companies could not run their busses so. They always called in the jitneys when there was any such situation to be met, and I finally got a break and got to haul a few loads over in my Ford. Each time I did that I loaded up in the Valley with passengers who wanted to come to San Diego, after I had stayed over for a week or two to take runs between El Centro, Holtville, and Calexico for drivers who wanted to go on vacations. I got to know people that way, and finally Tom Morgan, of United Stages, decided I would be more of an asset than a liability, so he told me that, if I would buy a Dodge touring car, he would put me on as a regular driver.
By way of explanation, the United Stages didn’t own their automobiles. They just operated ticket offices; the tickets they sold were good on any United Stage, it made no difference whose car it was. They got a percentage and the drivers got the rest. If we had only one passenger we still had to make the run, and we lost money on it. If we had a full load we had a good pay day.
After about a year on the run I was caught over in the Valley by the 1916 Flood. The driver of the last car to come in said that he had just got through, and that some of the bridges were washed away, and so was the road. There were a number of people who wanted to go back over to San Diego, and they asked me whether I would go. I didn’t know what I was getting into, so I said, “Sure,” and we loaded three Hindus, a banker, and a salesman. The Hindus all had bicycles and a lot of baggage. We were pretty crowded in that five-passenger Dodge. We met one or two cars on the way; the people in them told us we could never make it, but we went along on our way to the Mountain Springs Grade. There we had to go up the wash at the bottom of the gorge, and that was very bad.
Up at Jacumba the bridge was gone and the road was just a river; it was completely washed out for two or three hundred feet, so we had to put up at the old hotel at the west end of town. It was not the old adobe; I think it was a wooden hotel, painted green. We stayed there all night. The men slept in the hotel and I slept in the car.
That night Tom Morgan came up with a friend of his in a new Maxwell. This other man had the Maxwell agency, and he wanted to show what a Maxwell could do by coming up to Jacumba. When he saw that river he decided that the Maxwell had gone as far as it could. Morgan thought it would give his company a good name if he could get a car through to San Diego, so he obtained some rope and some shovels. We built a road to the best fording spot, and the men went over to the far side, taking the end of the rope with them. The other end was tied to the car. I drove, and we got the little Dodge across that way. We put up the following night at the Warren Ranch in Campo. We had a lot of trouble with bogging down all day long, often going right down to the axles. The three Hindus (they were father and sons) were very strong and willing, and pulled like a team of mules. One time we were bogged down so deep and they pulled so hard the rope broke, and they all fell over backwards. The father’s turban came off; it was full of gold pieces which scattered in the mud. That was where they carried their money.
The next day we heard the same story that we wouldn’t get through, but we managed to work our way along to Dulzura. We had a lot of trouble at Potrero, though. At one slide the men dug a trench along the side of the hill, and I had to keep the car wheels in that. I went across just hoping it would hold. The others preferred to walk.
The bridge at Dulzura Creek was out, so we found some planks which we used as bridges from high point to high point across the deep parts. When we heard that the Sweetwater Bridge was out, we decided to go around by way of Coronado and come into San Diego by ferry. We got in at about four o’clock in the afternoon after four days on the road from El Centro.
They didn’t even try to run any more stages to the Valley for a while, but they tried to run them to Los Angeles. We could drive our cars as far as Sorrento Slough, just beyond Torrey Pines. There we rowed the passengers across in a boat and used a car borrowed from a rancher to carry them up to Oceanside. We crossed the San Luis Rey river on foot, on a plank which was only about ten inches wide, and a foot above the water. The passengers would just get petrified. We had to tell some of them to close their eyes and put their hands on our shoulders so we could lead them across. From there the Los Angeles cars would carry them right through.
It was quite a while before they got the bridges back in. I went back to the Imperial Valley run when there were enough roads fixed for us to get through by a different route, through Descanso and Campo.
Our line, the United Stages, had an office back of the Grant Hotel, on Third Street, I believe. We had another in Los Angeles and one each in El Centro, Holtville, Calexico, and the other valley towns. A man named Hayes was running the Pickwick Stage Line, which had five or six cars, all owned by their drivers. There was also the White Star and the Red Star, the earliest stages that ran over to the Imperial Valley. Mostly they carried baggage, but they did carry a few passengers of different companies. They only had two cars, I think; they stayed with big equipment. They used to run Stanley Steamers, which had practically stopped by the time I started because they couldn’t compete with the little cars. After the Mountain Springs Grade was opened up almost any little car could make it through. Those big steamers were probably the only automobiles that could have made it through Devil’s Canyon and the terrible roads.
The horse stages still ran carrying the mail on a lot of routes, even after the automobiles got most of the passenger business. Model T Fords could go almost any place a stagecoach could, and were widely used. As I mentioned, I started with mine on the El Centro run, but I had to get a Dodge. The Dodge was more comfortable to ride in. When I went on the Los Angeles run I had to get an eight-passenger Hupmobile to work for United. However, I found I could do better with A. R. G., a new company formed to operate between San Diego and Los Angeles. They insisted on Packard Twin-Sixes, so I bought a Packard Twin-Six. Until the end of the war I drove for them, often making three trips a day, sleeping in San Diego and Los Angeles on alternate nights. We were paid $15.00 for each trip and I was making $45.00 a day.
People never seem to be satisfied. They tried to form a union for some reason, and they began to have a lot of trouble, so I finally stopped driving for good.