VALLECITO: A STOP ON THE BUTTERFIELD STAGE LINE

Vallecito Stage Station today

In a remote part of eastern San Diego County, turn south off Highway 78 onto The Great Southern Overland Stage Route (S2) to Vallecito County Park and Stage Station.

Starting with the first known visit by the Spanish in 1781, the oasis at Vallecito became an important stop for Spanish and later Mexican travelers to Alta California; between there and the Colorado River loomed the deadly desert. On November 29th and 30th, 1846, General Stephen W. Kearny and the Army of the West camped in the little valley according to the research of the Kearny Trail by Arthur Woodward (curator of history, Los Angeles Museum; The Kearny Trail Through Imperial and San Diego Counties, manuscript 1931). Subsequently an army supply depot was established, but it was abandoned in 1853.

The original building was expanded by James and Sarah Lassator and their family, and became a stop on the San Antonio-San Diego Mail Line.

In 1858, the Butterfield Overland Mail began its famous passenger stage service from St. Louis, through Yuma, and Vallecito became a “home” stage station where passenger meals were served and horses were changed. The Civil War led to the end of the Butterfield service, but the building continued to serve as a station on other stage lines, only to be abandoned after the railroad was completed from Los Angeles to Yuma in 1877.

In 1919, J. Smeaton Chase published an account of his travels on desert trails, including a photo of the crumbling Vallecito stage station, which he described as:

At the lower end of the valley some arrangement of the strata brings moisture to the surface to form a ciénaga, with a few mesquites and much salt grass and sacation. Near by stood the long-deserted stage-station, …of what at first sight I took to be adobe bricks of the usual kind, but found were blocks of natural sod from the ciénaga. It is the only structure of the kind that I know, and the material appears to answer its purpose well, better in fact than adobe….

Chase, California Desert Trails, p. 247
Chase, California Desert Trails, p. 248

In 1934, the station was reconstructed of sod (today it is part of the San Diego park system, with primitive campsites available).

Reconstructed sod building

As a young woman the artist, Marjorie Reed (1915-1996), became a friend of Captain William Banning (1858-1946), son of Phinneas Banning. In his obituary, The Los Angeles Times (Jan. 28, 1946), reported that “his lifelong hobby, [was] the Concord coaches which he drove as a boy on western transport lines owned by his father…” Reed was so inspired by the Banning’s tales that she devoted much of her art to the Butterfield stage line and its stations; below is one of her paintings of Vallecito as it must have looked on a mid-nineteenth century night.

Vallecito Stage Station by Marjorie Reed, from the author’s collection

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