On the Trail & ‘Round the Campfire

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Tales of The Vallecito—bandits, gold & apparitions

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Nothing fires the imagination of a desert enthusiast like bandits, gold and ghost towns. Here in the American southwest, the strange and colorful history associated with the Vallecito Stage Station is one of those southwest desert places that stir the imagination. Numerous murders, robberies and other wicked tales are part of the interesting history of the "little valley." Also woven into this history are some legendary ghosts stories. All these tales fire the imagination of treasure hunters and campfire storytellers alike.

The "Vallecito" is located on the west side of the forbidding Colorado Desert. The Spanish word means "Little Valley." It dates back to the time when the Spaniards were exploring these vast desert badlands west of Yuma, AZ toward the distant purple mountains. The "Little Valley", with its natural spring and grasslands, was a welcome relief to travelers that somehow made it across the desolate and formidable desert, which they called "The Journey of Death." The road through the valley was the only wagon road into southern California from the east. During California gold rush days, thousands of prospectors passed through the Vallecito, pausing to refresh themselves and their exhausted animals in this rare desert oasis.
The original Vallecito stage station was built of adobe bricks (actually primitive, unbaked, adobe blocks) and has since crumbled. A restoration replica of the original was constructed in 1934. The little cemetery, known to as "Campo Santo" (Holy Ground), lies about 100 ft. east of the station. Interestingly, only three people were ever buried there.
Located in the Anza Borrego Desert, the Stage Station was built in 1852. It was first used as a stage stop for a transcontinental mail route. Then, by 1857, a mail route linking San Antonio, Texas with San Diego, California began. Mules first brought the mail through the treacherous Colorado Desert and through the Carrizo Corridor. It became known as the "Jackass Mail."

History has it that the stage route followed the trace first blazed in 1774 by Francisco Garces, of the Mission San Xavier de Bac near Tucson. He was in search of a route that would connect with the California Missions. In 1775, Juan Bautista de Anza followed this same route. The men of General Stephen W. Kearney en-route to San Diego to retake Alta California from Mexico, made the trail into a wagon road. (See the story: "The Indian Who Became Mayor") It became the Southern Emigrant Trail, later called The Butterfield Overland Stage Route and it stretched from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco. The deadliest section of the trail was west of the Colorado River, through the desert areas of Southern California. Here in San Diego County, County Highway S2 generally follows the same path.

Then, from 1858 to 1861, the Butterfield Stage Line carried passengers from St. Louis, MO to San Diego, or on north to San Francisco. Passengers would rest here, and sleep overnight. For more than one hundred fifty years, what is now, the historic landmark has had its share of outlaws and shootouts and, it has always been reported to be a haunted place.

Of the many colorful bandit stories about the Vallecito stage station, one is well reported on. That is the one about the stage driver who was held up a few miles south of the Vallecitos
station. Five men on horseback got into a running gun battle with the driver and passengers on the stage, as it was racing hell-bent for the station! Just when it looked like the stage might reach the safety of the Vallecito Station, one of the animals of the team was shot and the stage, with its team of horses, came to a tumbling halt.

Using the coach for cover, the stage driver and his armed passengers held off the bandits, forcing them to retreat. After the intense gunfire, the bandits rode off into the night toward Vallecito station. Soldiers who had been stationed at Vallecito heard the shooting. They came riding up just as the driver was cutting the dead animal out of the harness. After a brief discussion of what had happened, the soldiers rode off in pursuit of the outlaws. The stage driver headed toward Vallecito, certain that the bandits would be caught and brought in.

The next morning, to everyone's amazement, there were no prisoners! When asked about this, they were told; "Look at it this way, Vallecito ain't got no accommodations for prisoners— outside of the graveyard— that is."

Though the bandits had escaped with the $60,000.00 in gold coins, it wasn't long before they were caught. All but one was killed in the gunfight, but the stolen gold coins were never retrieved. It is thought that the bandits hid the treasure before the shoot-out. The site of lost treasure has to be less than fifteen minutes ride by horseback from the Vallecito station. Old newspaper reports indicate that the bandit who actually buried the loot was later killed in another holdup, and his wife spent years trying to find her dead husband's bonanza, but she failed.

So, somewhere out in the Borrego Desert not far from the old site of the Vallecito station, the loot from the stagecoach robbery is still hidden. For years, treasure hunters have searched for the bonanza of gold coins buried somewhere along the old Butterfield Stage route— it's got to be somewhere between the ruins of the station at Carrizo and the restored station at Vallecito.

In addition to this stolen cache, it is said there are also others buried near and around the Vallecito Station. Tales of numerous lost gold mines are also reported on in the area as well, including the Lost Bell Mine, The Lost Bill Williams Mine, and the Lost Squaw Mine. Another well-known tale has it that a Mexican bandito is thought to have buried his stolen loot, of about $80,000 in gold coins, somewhere close to the Vallecito station.

Add to this, there is a nearby area known as treasure canyon, which is a part of the larger Porter Canyon, located just to the west of the Vallecito station and northeast of Descanso. This is where two kettles of gold coins were buried. So, in and around the Vallecitos, there is plenty of gold coin to be searched for. A virtual bonanza is waiting to be found by some fortunate treasure hunter.

Besides the tales of bandits, murder and gold in the Vallecito, there is the strange tale of "The White Horse Ghost of Vallecito." It involves a double-murder at the Vallecito Station. It all started with a stage hold up that yielded $65,000 worth of loot to four men on horseback. They robbed the eastbound stage just before it reached Carrizo Wash en-route to Vallecito Station.

With guns pointed at the stage, the driver gave up the strong box containing some $65,000 and the bandits immediately fled. However, as they were fleeing, the stage driver fired one shot, hitting one of the bandits. Once the rest of the robbers left the scene, he carefully approached the man he had shot and was surprised to find not one, but two dead bandits. The driver figured that the gang leader had probably shot one of his own men in order to keep a greater portion of the heist.

The two remaining bandits rode off towards Vallecito Station, stopping somewhere in between to bury their stolen loot. When they arrived at the stage station, they went in for food and drink and while there began to argue. According to the tale, at a certain point, the bandit leader excused himself and stepped outside for a moment to check on his horse. He said he would be back and finish the discussion. Sure enough, a few moments later he did return—with great surprise! Mounted on his big white stallion he came charging through the doorway and shot his companion!

Though dying, the wounded bandit returned fire and his aim was deadly. The leader fell dead from his horse. Spooked by the commotion and blasts of the guns, the white horse dashed through the doorway and quickly galloped into the nearby hills, fading into the distance.

He was never seen again. Except, it seems that from that day on, there were stories of "The Ghost of The White Horse" that roamed the hills near where the bandits buried their loot. According to many witnesses, a ghost of the white horse still roams the hills to this day. The outline of his pale presence is usually seen around midnight. He just appears out of nowhere and gallops straight away through the desert sand, directly over the site of the buried treasure, fading into the distance and disappearing without a trace. It is difficult to get a fix on just exactly where he crosses over the buried treasure, but for sure it is still there for a treasure hunter to find. All he has to do is just follow the white stallion.

There are numerous other strange stories of Vallecito apparitions. Here are some that have been witnessed and reported on so often that, because of the validity of repetition, they have passed the test of lies and lore to the status of belief and legend.

In the Carrizo Wash area there is supposedly this phantom stagecoach that has been spied many times over the last century. The ghostly stage is pulled by four mules and lumbers along the old Butterfield Stage Road carrying no passengers, but it is driven by a shadowy figure.

According to the legend, the stage was traveling from El Paso, Texas to San Diego, CA with a box of gold coins in the 1860's. In addition to the driver, the stage also carried a guard ridin' shot gun. However, when the stage reached Yuma, Arizona, the guard fell ill and the driver continued on without him. Somewhere in the area of Carrizo Wash, between the Fish and Coyote Mountains, the stage was held up by bandits. They killed the stage driver and fled with the box of gold. Strangely, after the robbery— on their own— the mules began pulling the stage with its dead driver on toward Vallecito Station. They disappeared in the distance and were never seen again.

Since then, a phantom stage is reported to continue its journey on moonlit nights, hesitating briefly at the site of the old Carrizo Station before continuing on its way and out of site. Here's the kicker that adds an unusual veracity to each sighting. The next morning, at various intervals in the sand, hoofs tracks and wagon wheel tracks can be seen!

But maybe, the most famous of all the strange sightings, of the Vallecito, is the one called the "White Lady" of Vallecito. She arrived on the Butterfield Stage, sometime in the late 1850's. Crossing the badlands across the dangerous "Journey of Death", she had become deathly ill and had to be carried into the station. She came from somewhere back east and was on her way to Sacramento, where her fiancé had struck it rich in the Sierra gold fields. Her name was Eileen O'Conner. She was young and frail and was taken inside the station and cared for the next two days. Despite every effort to save her, she died. Found in her trunk was her white wedding dress, which she was dressed in and buried in an unmarked grave. Her, along with two others are the only ones buried in the small cemetery (Campo Santo) near the old stage station.

But, she had other ideas. Evidently, she was not ready to be buried and left forgotten at the Vallecitos Station graveyard. Why? Because almost from the beginning, people have reported that the "White Lady" was seen pacing restlessly in and around the old station site, waiting for the stage to take her to Sacramento. Even to this day she anxiously waits for the stage to take her to her lover. Ask any park ranger or caretaker at the site if they have ever seen the "White Lady?"

Another strange, but well-known, happening of the "Little Valley" are the unusual balls of light seen on Oriflamme Mountain, just north of the Vallecito Station. On dark nights, many witnesses have reported seeing mysterious "ghost lights" that bob over the slopes of Oriflamme Mountain. The first recorded account of the ghostly lights were reported in 1858 by a Butterfield Stage driver. After that first reported sighting, more reports came in from soldiers, prospectors and explorers traveling in the area. Not only were they seen near Oriflamme Mountain, but also over Borrego Valley and in other nearby areas. In the 1880's, travelers said the "burning balls" were so bright that the lit up the night sky like fireworks over the Vallecito Mountains.

Now it is true, searching for lost gold and apparitions are two different things—not necessarily related—but they are inseparable when talking of the Vallecito; the "Little Valley." One does not have to subscribe to a belief in ghosts to recognize their place in desert history. For instance, talk to an old desert rat about all the lost gold coins in the Vallecito and the next thing, he or she is talking to you about the "White Horse Ghost." Talk to a story-tellin' prospector about the "White Lady" of the Vallecito and soon he'll be tellin' you about the "Lost Squaw or Lost Bell Mine" and the ghostly balls of light in the Oriflamme Mountains.

Yes, it is true. Nothing fires the imagination of a southwest desert enthusiast like bandits, gold and apparitions. So it is, with the strange and colorful history associated with the Vallecito Stage and the "Little Valley." It certainly has its share of fascinating tales and sagas worth repeating to the next generation of desert rats who enjoy hearing campfire stories.

Ed Keenan

Compiled from "The Journal of San Diego History" and numerous other sources.

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  • Guest
    Juan Amaya Wednesday, 25 June 2014


    Thanks! I love your stories.

  • Guest
    Larry Wednesday, 21 November 2018


    I am going to bring my metal detector and see what I can find???? Treasure Canyon sounds interesting too.

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