El Camino Del Diablo
by Charles Spratley
“The emigrants gave a terrible account of the crossing of the Great Desert, lying west of the Colorado River. They described this region as scorching and sterile – a country of burning salt plains and shifting hills of sand, whose only signs of human visitation are the bones of animals and men scattered along the trails that cross it.”
-Bayard Taylor, pioneer traveler 1849
After the tragedy of the Donner Party in 1846, travelers became wary of traveling through the Sierra Nevada Mountains into California and began looking for an alternate southern route. They discovered a long, desolate passage that stretched from Ft. Yuma to San Diego. But although it was free of snow, it proved to be even more deadly. It was called El Camino del Diablo (the Devil’s Highway) and travel along it was referred to as the Journey of Death. From this route came many stories, legends, and folklore including gunfights over buried treasure, lost mines that held untold riches, and murdering bandits. These tales of desperate men on the verge of starvation, dehydration and exposure to the elements almost always ended in death. And from those deaths came visits from the Other Side—spirits who wander the desert to this day. Traveling across the barren sands, the most precious commodity was water. Cold water springs were rare throughout the Anza Borrego Desert. But one such respite, Yaqui Well, acquired a more sinister reputation.
In the early 1850s, three emigrants were making their way from Yuma to a new life out West. After some time without water, they came across the natural spring. Without thinking about the nature of the water or the state of their dehydration, the men pounced on the well. One man drank his full and reportedly told his companions, “Shoot me while I am happy, for I never expect to feel so good again”. His companions didn’t need to for shortly thereafter, the man fell down in incredible pain. Cramps caused his body to seize painfully. It was either the water itself or the speed in which the man drank. Either way, he died a horrible death. Searching the body, his fellow companions found some gold nuggets in his pockets. Greed lit up their eyes as they circled each other around the well, looking for an opening. When one of the men stumbled, the other jumped on him and smothered him in the mud surrounding the water. An Indian watched the murder unfold from a nearby hill. The sole survivor ran off screaming into the desert, supposedly to look for the source of the gold, and was never seen again. The hot summer nights bring these three men together in death. Many travelers and outdoor enthusiasts tell of seeing three men dancing in the moonlight near the now-dry Yaqui Well. Seems they have finally found their water and their fate.
In 1857, the Butterfield Mail Company established a stagecoach route that ran from St. Louis to San Francisco, passing through the Anza-Borrego Desert. Stage stations were often the scenes of robberies, murder and other treachery. Two particular stagecoach stops are reputed to be haunted—the Carrizo Station with its phantom stagecoach and the infamous Vallecito Station. The Carrizo Station story goes back many years, when the stages traveled regularly through the desert up until the Civil War. A coach carrying a strongbox of gold coin was traveling from El Paso to San Diego. In Yuma, the guard became ill and could not continue. Unable to secure a replacement, the driver carried on alone. Right before it arrived at the Carrizo Station, the coach was robbed and the driver fatally shot. The horses continued on with the dead man slumped over, still holding the reins. Campers staying near the ruins of the old station have reported seeing a stagecoach arrive in the middle of the night and continue on its journey, leaving actual wheel marks in the sand. The phantom stagecoach is a sort of modern-day Flying Dutchman, sailing on a sea of sand. The Vallecito Station is even more notorious, boasting several spirits including a white horse that rides through the area, as well as that of a lady in a white dress. The horse is supposedly the favored mount of a bandit that was shot by one of his partners shortly after they had buried their loot from a stagecoach robbery. The bandit’s loyal steed still searches for its lost rider.
The Lady in White is a famous local story of the desert. In the 1850s, riding in a stagecoach bound for Sacramento, a young frail woman braved the long desert trek. She was taken ill sometime after leaving Yuma and finally perished in the small adobe that served as the Vallecito stage station. When her belongings were searched, they found a long white gown with hand-sewn lace and pearls—her wedding gown. She was placed in the gown and laid to rest in the small cemetery near the station. Many Park Rangers as well as campers in the area report seeing her apparition wandering the grounds, looking for her lost love.
The last story is one of my favorites and very well known to the residents of Anza-Borrego. The Ghost Lights of Borrego were first spotted in the late 1850s by stagecoach drivers and have continued steadily over the years. The lights have been seen dancing close to the desert floor, in the caves of the badlands as well as Goat Canyon, home of the famous trestle bridge. They are described flickering or burning fireballs of various colors that arch through the sky. Some of the earlier accounts describe lights that would rise into the air and explode, similar to fireworks. Witnesses I have spoken to claim that they make no noise as they travel across the desert sky and some believe they mark the location of hidden treasures. Some unfortunate explorers have blindly followed the lights and fallen into ravines or caves. There is even an unverified story of a fatality attributed to these spectral globes. A train making its way through Goat Canyon in 1977 derailed when the engineer saw some lights on the tracks and mistook them for an oncoming train. The buckling train cars tumbled down the canyon, where they remain today. The most prevalent place to view these ghost lights is near Oriflamme Mountain, not far from the town of Borrego Springs.
On the lighter side of the odd and unexplained, stories circulated in the 1960s of an “Abominable Sandman of Borrego”, a Bigfoot-like creature. Alleged casts were made of the creature’s tracks left in the sand in 1964. As these and other stories indicate, you need not spend the night in a spooky Victorian house or wander through a Gothic-looking cemetery for ghostly happenings. Our local desert offers bone-chilling tales that will keep you huddled in your tent or around the campfire until the rising of the sun. Don’t look too long into the dark evening of Anza-Borrego…for there is something undoubtedly looking back.