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.
Not as obscure as some of the other sites, the plank road through the Algodones Sand Dunes of southeastern California, along with the first bridge across the lower Colorado River, allowed the completion of the Coast to Coast Highway (later US 80).
Prior to the late Nineteenth Century the common way to travel from Yuma to the California coast was via northern Mexico. Between the sand dunes and the lack of water, passage north of the border was virtually impossible. From Yuma, the Southern Pacific tracks (Indio to Yuma opened in 1877) turned north shortly after entering California, and ran on the east side of the dunes, rather than crossing what became the Imperial Valley. Irrigation and the resulting agricultural boom in the valley led to people wanting to traverse it, but by train the route required a loop south from Imperial Junction (later Niland) across the valley into Mexico at Calexico, east below the border approximately 50 miles, then north to Araz Junction to rejoin the SP mainline.
In 1915, completion of the Coast to Coast Bridge crossing the Colorado at Yuma and the one lane Plank Road across the dunes enabled vehicular travel on the US side of the border. Originally just two 25″ parallel “tracks” of wood, about a year later, the planks were fastened together in a full 8′ lane as shown in the photos. When the shifting sand drifted over the wood, sections were moved by horse drawn rigs. Turn outs, approximately a quarter of a mile apart, allowed traffic to pull to the side and allow the driver traveling the other direction to pass, sometimes resulting in arguments over right of way.
By 1926, highway construction engineering had advanced to the point that an asphalted concrete road could be built replacing the Plank Road. To see a short stretch of a replica of the original road and the Historical Marker, take exit 156 off Interstate 8, turn west on Grays Wells Road; the site will be on the left side of the road, off a parking lot.
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.
Sluiceway of Laguna Dam, 2017 photo by author
Construction of Laguna Dam, the first dam across the Colorado River, began in July 1905; plagued by contractor and supply problems, plus flooding, it was completed in March 1909. During its planning, core samples had shown the dam site was layer upon layer of silt carried down by the river over the ages, so a conventional dam design could not be used. US Reclamation Service engineers ultimately based the design on a weir dam on the Jumna (Yuamna) River in northern India that was successfully built on silt (USBR, 1902-1923, was the predecessor to the US Bureau of Reclamation).
Laguna Dam from California side, circa 1910 US Bureau of Reclamation photo, National Archives
Located north of Yuma, its principal gate (bottom width 116′) was built on the western (California) side of the river to divert water into a canal that carried water down the western side of the River until it was opposite the town of Yuma, where it was directed into a twelve foot siphon that went under the River to carry irrigation to the Yuma Valley in Arizona. Water was also diverted to Fort Yuma Resesrvation and the Bard Valley in California.
“Ground hags” working in the siphon during construction US Bureau of Reclamation photo, National Archives
Connected by a weir dam across the river bed that raised the water level 10–13 feet, on the eastern side was a smaller gate (bottom width 42′) and canal to carry water to agriculture in Arizona along the Gila River. Both sluicegates were based on bedrock & paved with concrete.
View of the Colorado River at Laguna today; California sluiceway is on the left. The white stretch of concrete across the river bed is the wier dam; the Arizona gateway is not visible to the left of the photo. The man-made “river” to the right is the All American Canal. US Bureau of Reclamation photo, Yuma project.
Sluiceway on the Arizona side, April 4, 1909. US Bureau of Reclamation photo
Sluiceway on the Arizona side, today. photo by the author
According to the Arizona Sun (2/2/2013), while studying Indian dam construction, the US Reclamation Service also learned about an ancient Hindu Goddess, who had the power to control water and was sometimes represented by a four armed swastika, a symbol that had a history of peace in many cultures going back 9,500-10,000 years; it was not until the 1930s when the Nazis adopted the symbol that it came to stand for evil. Near the eastern gate they built a concrete bridge adorned with swastikas (whirling counter-clockwise) and also some were incised on the sluiceway.
Swastika Bridge on the Arizona side photos by the author
In 1948, Imperial Dam replaced Laguna as the means to divert water to the Yuma Valley (as well as to the new All American Canal). Since then Laguna has served as a sluice gate and regulator for Imperial Dam releases through the main river channel to Mexico.
Much of the infomration in this segment is based on US Bureau of Reclamation and National Park Service sites, and articles in Engineering News, (February 27, 1908 & June 10, 1909) by Edwind D. Vincent, USBR Resident Engineer, Yuma Project.
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.