The Journal of San Diego History
Winter 1972, Volume 18, Number 1
James E Moss, Editor

By Orion Zink

Images from the Article

Did you ever ride in the “LIMITED SAN DIEGO & IMPERIAL VALLEY STAGE?” Not likely, unless you were residing in the San Diego region in the period from 1911 to 1916.

That “Limited Stage” was only one of the many stage lines that have served this area during the past one hundred and fourteen years. However, that particular stage line has a unique place in local history, as it was the first or at least one of the first lines to make use of the then new fangled automobile.

Before embarking on the story of this little stage line, it might be of interest to touch briefly on the stages that ran in and out of San Diego during the years before the coming of the automobile.

The first of which there is record was the arrival in San Diego of the Overland Stage from San Antonio on August 31, 1857. It was one of a fleet of Concord Stages owned by James E. Birch.

A mammoth celebration was staged on its arrival at Old Town, San Diego; and that great event was given due publicity by John Judson Ames, in the September 5, 1857 issue of the San Diego Herald. Ames described the trip from San Antonio to San Diego as having been made in the “unprecedented” time of thirty-four days. He also stated, “the event created the greatest enthusiasm, and was hailed with a salute of one hundred anvils, the firing of crackers and the general congratulations of the people. It undoubtedly constitutes an epoch in the history of the Pacific Coast of the Union, which will be remembered with just pride, long after the mails will have been transported on the great continental railroad, the first rail of which, may be thus said to have been laid.”

San Diego had reason to celebrate. Mail arrived from the East Coast in only a few weeks, when it took months for a letter to arrive by steamer.

The Overland Stages proved their worth, and it was not long before additional stage lines entered this new and lucrative field. One of the earliest was the stage line from San Diego to Ft. Yuma owned by John G. Capron. This was the same John Capron who was a member of the party that went to the relief of the ill-fated Crabb filibustering expedition at Caborca, Sonora, Mexico. Old residents of San Diego still remember the beautiful Capron home which stood on the northeast corner of Twelfth Street and Broadway.

Seeley & Wright also were pioneer stage operators. They operated in the 1860’s, 1870’s and early 1880’s between San Diego and Los Angeles. It took two days to make that tiresome trip. Their first stage office was in the Franklin Hotel, and remained there until that hotel was destroyed in the Old Town fire in April 1872. After that it quite likely was moved to the Casa Bandini. This building was acquired by A. L. Seeley who added a story and converted it into the Cosmopolitan Hotel.

From early advertisements it appears that Concord Stages were used by Seeley and Wright. However, the late Simon Manasse, pioneer resident of Old Town, told the writer that when he was a boy, Seeley was using three-seated “buckboards.” Simon was born in Old Town, June 24, 1874. Among the Spanish-speaking population, these stages were referred to as “diligencias.” The first stages were drawn by six horses or mules, but as roads improved and distances shortened, four horses and sometimes only two were used.

After gold was discovered in Julian, new stage lines were set up to serve that area. Stops were made at El Cajon, Lakeside, Ramona, Ballena and Santa Ysabel at the foot of the grade leading to Julian. Among the stage operators who ran lines serving the back country or operated between San Diego and the border were Joe Foster, Frank Frary, and a man by the name of Allman, and no doubt many others.

One man who ran a stage line and about whom little has been written was Samuel W. Hackett, a retired sea captain. From 1878 until 1886 he operated a stage line from San Diego to Temecula. Punctuality was a trait of Hackett that earned for him the name of “0. T.” Hackett (On Time Hackett). It was said that you could set your watch by the time of arrival or departure of his stages. In 1889-90 Hackett served on the City Council and later became Superintendent of Streets. He became Master of a lodge and was honored by having a Masonic Lodge named after him.

After the turn of the century the horse drawn vehicles began to be replaced by automobiles. This change happened almost over night when it became apparent that “Dobbin” was on his way out. Reluctantly, the ill-smelling, animal-scaring automobiles began to be accepted. At first they were merely playthings of the “well-to-do.” They were so much faster than horse drawn vehicles, and some of the earliest could go at the neck breaking speed of twenty-five miles per hour!

One of the first San Diegans to recognize the possibilities of the automobile was Charles Wesley Grise, a machinist. He had been quite successful in his own profession, and was a bit reluctant to give up a trade that for years had provided a good living for him, his wife Lenora and their three daughters.

However, a fast stage line to Imperial Valley was needed, so Grise in 1911 bought a Cadillac touring car, hired a driver and opened a stage line to Imperial Valley?a business venture he was destined to remain in until 1914. He called his line the “LIMITED SAN DIEGO, IMPERIAL VALLEY STAGE.” The fare was fifteen dollars one way, or twenty-five dollars for the round trip. Tickets could be bought in San Diego at “Bell’s Cigar Store,” 1315 Broadway, Madison H. Bell, proprietor.

The San Diego City Directory for 1914 listed “Grise Auto Service,” as located on the southeast corner of Third and Broadway?probably just curb space, and quite likely the stages departed from that point. In the “SAN DIEGO TOURIST,” a monthly advertising magazine, the following ad appeared in every issue for 1914:

Leaving Pickwick Theatre Bldg.,
1027 4th, Between C & Broadway

Leave San Diego 8:00 A.M.
Arrive Jamul 9:00 A.M.
Arrive Dulzura 9:30 A.M.
Arrive Cottonwood 10:00 A.M.
Arrive Potrero 10:30 A.M.
Arrive Campo 11:00 A.M.
Arrive Warner’s Ranch 12:30 P.M.
Arrive Boulevard 1:00 P.M.
Arrive Jacumba 1:15 P.M.
Arrive Mountain Spring 1:45 P.M.
Arrive Dixieland 3:15 P.M.
Arrive Seeley 3:35 P.M.
Arrive El Centro 4:00 P.M.

Stage also leaves San Diego for El Centro at 4:00 P.M. daily

The ticket office at the other end of the line in El Centro was located in “Brad’s Smoke Shop.”

The departure time given in the “Daily Time Table” quite likely was fairly accurate, but the arrival time listed was for the gullible. Fairly good time could be made by the drivers until they hit the mountains, then anything could happen and usually did.

The “fabric” tires then in use were mounted on “clincher type” wheels. If you got a flat, you jacked up the wheel, removed the casing with tire irons usually fashioned from old springs, and patched the tube. If the hole in the tire was large, you inserted a “boot” made from an old tire. Then you pumped up the tire with a hand pump and held your breath, hoping the patch would hold.

It was not uncommon for a driver to have six or seven punctures or blowouts. When that happened it was an expensive trip, with a set of tires selling for around two hundred dollars.

Mountain Springs Grade at that time was a nightmare. Rock slides were common, and the stages carried dynamite to remove large boulders that blocked the road.

The first stages were touring cars, and folding seats were added to accommodate seven passengers. At first luggage was tied on the running boards and on the hood. Later a luggage rack was installed at the back.

The Grise’s three daughters, Mrs. Iona Buchholz, Mrs. Ruth Maxwell and Mrs. Vivian Henderson still live in San Diego. Mrs. Henderson provided the writer with the pictures and most of the material for this article. Although all three of the girls were small when their father was in the stage business, fortunately they have retentive memories, and recall many incidents related by their father.

Mrs. Henderson stated that her father had as many as eight cars in operation at one time, one of which was lost in the 1916 Otay flood and never recovered.

In addition to the stage line, Mr. Grise also ran taxicabs to Tijuana and operated “Jitney Buses” to Hillcrest. He seldom drove a stage himself, and the drivers he hired usually went armed, as they occasionally encountered “road agents.”

Mrs. Henderson recalled that the stage drivers on their return trip from the Valley often brought a crate of melons. These they dropped off at the Grise home in Mission Hills.

In an effort to retrace the stage route, and if possible obtain pictures of the places where her father’s stages stopped, Mrs. Henderson visited Mrs. Charlotte Holcomb of Dulzura. Mrs. Holcomb informed her that the stages stopped at the Dulzura Inn which was run by her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Charles Camp. The Inn, their ranch home, was destroyed by fire in 1923.

From Mrs. Stella Aiken, widow of Edwin T. Aiken who bought the Campo Ranch from the Gaskills, Mrs. Henderson learned that the stages stopped at the Campo Hotel one hour for lunch. This two story frame building burned down about the time of World War II. Mrs. Aiken recalled that one of the stage drivers was a man by the name of Ray Wellington.

It was hoped that a picture of Mr. Grise behind the wheel of one of his cars might have been preserved. Sadly, none could be found. But in the family collection of pictures, several photos of the stages were uncovered. These apparently were taken at various points along the stage route. To date, none of the passengers posing in the pictures has been identified.

In 1915 Grise’s “Limited Imperial Valley Stages” acquired a new name, the “Pickwick Stages.” With Grise still acting as manager, a three-way partnership was formed which later was dissolved in 1917.

Pickwick continued to operate until the 1930’s when the Greyhound Company bought the Pickwick holdings.

Today, the trip to El Centro by stage can be made in two and one-half hours?a pleasant contrast to the 1911 wearisome all day journey in Grise’s “Limited San Diego & Imperial Valley Stage.”

Orion M. Zink, a resident of San Diego since World War I, is Historian for San Diego Masonic Lodge No. 35, F. & A.M., which was founded at Old Town, San Diego in 1851.

In the 1940’s while gathering data for a history of San Diego Lodge, Zink interviewed many Old Town residents. The stories they told, the old homes they located and the pictures gathered at that time, proved so interesting, they are now in use as reference material at the San Diego History Center Library in Serra Museum and the San Diego Public Library. That material in manuscript form is entitled, “Places At Old Town San Diego.”

Mr. Zink, a Director on the San Diego Historical Site Board, and member of the Historical Society, has contributed a number of articles to the San Diego History Center’s quarterly publication. Among these are “The Exchange Hotel,” October, 1962: “George Parrish Tebbetts,” April, 1963; “Places In Old Town,” and the “Machado-Stewart Family And Their Home,” both of which appeared in the Winter, 1969, issue.