I have found a real picture photograph (courtesy of the Eastman Collection, Univ. of Calif. Davis, circa 1940s) that shows the adobe building identified as the stage depot erected in 1856. At the time this was taken, the building as adjacent to US Route 80 (now designated as Historic U.S. Route 80 by California). See blog below for current photos.
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
In 1934, the station was reconstructed of sod (today it is part of the San Diego park system, with primitive campsites available).
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.
There is some dispute over what this adobe ruin was. Many list it as a station on the Butterfield Stagecoach Line, while others dispute this claim based on there being no historical marker, no protection for the ruin, no “Araz Junction” Station on the stage line maps, and it being too small.
Balanced against those arguments is the fact there was a Pilot Knob Stage Station in the Second Division in California, between Fort Yuma and Los Angeles. The ruins are located north and slightly east of the Pilot Knob formation, which in the mid-nineteenth century would have been one of the few landmarks around.
Pilot Knob seen from the northeast
I know of no other ruin or site in the area identified as the stage station location. Whether it was a stage station, or a storage building for a station or local mine, it remains a haunting reminder of our Western heritage.
In 1877, the Southern Pacific finished building its main line linking Los Angeles and Yuma. In the early 1900s, the Inter-California railway was begun, to branch from the Southern Pacific mainline at Niland (then Imperial Junction) south to Calexico and then west via a loop through Baja California, to rejoin the SP mainline at Araz Junction.
In 1906, during the flood creating the Salton Sea, the SP built a spur line from Araz Junction south to the break in Colorado River (in Mexico), forming part of the ultimate Inter-Cal line. So, whether Araz Junction was the site of the Pilot Knob Stage Station, or not, it did play a significant role in the development of the Southwest. The branch line south was abandoned in the 1960s, but the mainline remains.
Main rail line from Araz Junction ruin, 2017
To get there: Near the California/Arizona border, just west of Winterhaven, take exit 166 from I8 onto CA-186N. The adobe will be on the right side before you enter Winterhaven. All photos in this post are by the author.