Rough Riders : Memories of Getting Around in the Days of the Stagecoach

<i> Richard Crawford is archivist for the San Diego Historical Society. </i>

Our stages were the Concord type, miserable things to ride in. The motion made the passengers seasick, and the dust was terrible. -Katie Leng, stagecoach passenger Stagecoach travel was no picnic in backcountry San Diego of the 1800s, but until the appearance of automobiles on county roads after the turn of the century, travelers had little choice in their mode of travel. Horse-drawn coaches offered reliable service--albeit slow, dusty, bumpy and, occasionally, eventful.

Stagecoaches first appeared in the San Diego region in 1852 with the establishment of erratic service between San Diego and Los Angeles. The route required two full days of travel.

By the 1860s, the Seeley & Wright stage line boasted of regular service to Los Angeles, three times a week, on the “very best Concord Stages.” The stages left Old Town at 5 a.m. and finished the day at San Juan Capistrano by 7 p.m. Arrival in Los Angeles came at 4 p.m. the next day.


Although two-day journeys were the norm, some drivers claimed faster transits. A veteran of the coast route was driver Don Luis Serrano. In 1933, at age 87, Serrano recalled driving the coast route:

“Frank Shaw and I were the drivers for Seeley’s stages.

“We left at 7 a.m., one from here and the other from Los Angeles; the distance was 145 miles. We drove four-horse Concord stages. . . . The trip took 12 hours. The horses were tough mustangs, about half-broken, and as soon as they were hitched, we were off on a run. Shaw and I would meet at San Luis Rey, and always saluted each other with a vigorous crack of our whips. I drove two years without an accident, due no doubt to the efficacy of prayer.”

As San Diego County grew, other stage lines flourished. In 1858, the famed Butterfield Overland Mail route crossed the Southwest from St. Louis to Los Angeles en route to San Francisco. Bypassing the city of San Diego, the route covered much of northern San Diego County. Traveling northwest from Yuma on the way to Los Angeles, the Butterfield stage passed through Vallecito, the San Felipe Valley, Warner Ranch, and Oak Grove. (Today, these restored historic sites are designated as official San Diego County landmarks.)

Several San Diego stage lines served the northern county until about 1912. The well-traveled San Diego-Escondido stage route was recalled by Daisy Abell, the husband of a stage driver, in 1961:

“There were just old dirt roads then (1890s) and it took eight hours to make the trip between San Diego and Escondido. The stages ran every day--one would leave San Diego and one would leave Escondido at 8 o’clock in the morning.”

Poway was the half-way station, commonly called the “Twenty-mile house.”


“The stages had four-horse teams,” remembered Abell, “and were Concord stages with several seats, built like a ship with leather straps for (springs).” Later, flatbed stages would replace some of the Concord wagons.

State lines also ran from San Diego to the booming mining camps of Julian and Banner. The San Diego Cuyamaca Railroad shortened the distance to the mines in 1895. Running twice a day from San Diego, passenger trains dropped off travelers to North County at Foster Station east of El Cajon. The stage would set off from Foster at 10 a.m., arriving first in Ramona where passengers had dinner, then on to Ballena for a change of horses. The stagecoach passed through Santa Ysabel then on to Julian after a 10-hour journey.

Bad roads and harsh weather often made the Julian stage run an exciting experience. The San Diego Union reported a typical incident in February, 1883:

“Frank Frary, who drove the Julian stage in last evening, says that, when he started yesterday morning the wind was blowing a perfect hurricane from the east and northeast. The stage swayed so violently in the gale, that fearful that it would capsize, he and the two passengers piled two or three hundred pounds of rocks into the vehicle as ballast, which they carried until the grade had been passed.”

Katie Leng, the niece of Julian stage operator Joe Foster, recalled that the stages were “miserable things to ride in.” In an interview in 1972 for the San Diego Historical Society, Leng offered the last word on stagecoach travel:

“Let me say that the stage coaches galloping along in the Western movies always upsets me, because it wasn’t that way at all. The horses trotted, with frequent breathers. . . . Also, there was only one man on the box, and I never knew of any of them being armed. They wore any sort of clothing they wanted to; nothing flamboyant. We never had a holdup. The only real tragedy I ever heard of was once, before my time, a driver was leading his team across a usually dry wash and was caught by a flash flood and drowned.”

A restored Concord stagecoach can be seen at the Museum of San Diego History in Balboa Park. The Frary & Foster stagecoach was brought to San Diego in 1886 by Joe Foster and used on the El Cajon to Julian run until 1910.