By Marion Beckler
A sign on Highway 78, by the Borrego turnoff, points to “Yaqui Well”. It is a monument to pioneering days but its story is not there for the public to see. The Anza-Borrego State Park authorities have curbed and covered it to preserve it, but they have put up no information on it. Here is the story as it was told to me by the grandson of the man who built it:
A hundred years ago, while Arizona Territory was being settled and Army posts were maintained to protect the settlements from Apaches, there was one supply line that kept both the people and the Army alive; that was the mule freighter business of W. H. Ball.
From 1857 to 1884 Ball Freighters traveled from San Bernardino into Arizona, carrying food supplies, merchandise, and tools, all that was needed by the struggling towns of Phoenix, Prescott, Wickenburg and Army posts. The east and west had been connected by the railroad, but that railroad was to the north, cut off by such rugged country as the Grand Canyon, and in 1884 a railroad was put through that served Arizona. Then Ball’s indestructible freight wagons were used in Death Valley, hauling borax. They can still be seen there.
The stage coaches of that period have been glamorized in western fiction. Their dash through the desert, combating highwaymen and hostile Indians, makes fascinating history. But the mule-freighters get no attention. Their mile-long line of wagons, moving along in their own dust, lack glamor. Yet for thirty years they meant survival to those remote communities whose nearest neighbors were the Apaches.
Apaches never molested Balls’ Freighters, not while thirty to forty tough mule-skinners drove with rifles ready. Immigrant wagons often traveled along with them for protection. The freighters took their own pace, stopping wherever night overtook them. They made their own roads, following wherever possible, the flat country.
Ball had three routes. The northern road took him across the Colorado at Needles. By the southern route, Ball followed the stage road as far as Warner’s, then on up to Montezuma Valley and down the Grape Vine. And here, in the wash, Ball found water.
This is the way the late Elmer Ball, grandson of W. H. Ball, for many years a resident of Escondido Valley, tells the story:
“The Old Man found the water at the foot of the Grape Vine, but it wasn’t much good – muddy and hard to get out. So he left two Yaquis there. He told ’em how to fix the well. He said he’d pick em up on his next trip.
“Indians respected the Old Man. He always did what he said he would. On his next trip down from San Berdoo he found the well just as he had told ’em to fix it, a wooden curb four-foot square, and the well deepened so the water was sufficient. They drew it up in buckets….”
So now the water wasn’t “hard to get out”. All the mule-skinners had to do was draw it up in buckets till they had satisfied the thirst of a hundred or more mules, and then fill the supply barrels carried on the sides of each wagon in that mile-long train!
From Yaqui Well the mule-train would start out on that long drag over the desert, through burning sun, windstorm, or pleasant spring weather. Whatever the weather, they plodded ahead at mules’ pace, for this three to four months’ trek, with those vital supplies to the communities they served. They might return empty, or they might bring ore from the mines. There were no stations, no change of mules. The mules they started with made the entire trip; they stopped to make camp wherever night overtook them. These were hardy pioneers, who well deserve to be remembered.
So, also we can remember the two Yaquis who trusted “The Old Man” enough to work for him and dig the well so that there would be water for the start across the desert. The well was allimportant, and deserves its place in history. Maybe we can even see, in our imaginations, that mile-long cloud of dust, hear the rumble of heavy wagons and the crack of the bullwhip “like a pistol-shot”, as the life-line of Arizona pioneers moves steadily onward through the years when they were needed.