A Trip on the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line

By J.J. Lamb

Zooming past Vail on I-10 it’s hard to experience the area’s beauty—let alone its heritage—as anything more than furtive glances in the rearview mirror. But in 1858 when the Butterfield Overland Mail Stage Line established the Cienega Stage Stop near the confluence of Cienega Creek and Davidson Canyon, the 5-miles-per-hour averaged by the stage allowed passengers with a window seat ample opportunity to view the scenery as they jostled and bumped along the dusty ribbon of dirt westward towards Tucson.

In 1880 the Southern Pacific Railroad decided to lay their railroad tracks following the Old Wagon Road used by stagecoaches, wagons and teamsters instead of Lt. Parke’s recommended route. In 1858 Cienega Station was a dot on the map of the 2,812-mile Butterfield route. It was located about 8 miles east of what would become Vail’s Siding in 1880. The Butterfield Stage would have passed through what is in 2020, historic downtown Vail between the railroad tracks, about 4 – 5 miles south of the Rincon Valley.

The Butterfield stagecoach stopped at Cienega Station on Tuesdays and Fridays. When all went as scheduled, the stage arrived in Tucson at 1:30 p.m. Owner John Butterfield admonished his employees to, “always bear in mind that each minute of time is of importance. If each driver on the route loses fifteen minutes, it would make a total loss of time, on the entire route, of twenty-five hours.”

Passengers were allowed up to 40 pounds of baggage. The fare between San Francisco and Missouri was $200.00. That translates to $5,640 by today’s values, a princely sum for a cramped, dusty, bumpy ride at the mercy of the elements. And for all that cash, meals weren’t included. The stage stopped at stations to feed, water, and change the team of horses while passengers stretched their legs and ate a quick meal. Cienega Station was one of these stops. It was probably was the first “permanent” building to be constructed in the area around what would become Vail.

Several early passengers left detailed descriptions of their experiences. “Had I not just come out over the [Butterfield] route, I would be perfectly willing to go back, but I now know what Hell is like. I’ve just had 24 days of it,” remarked New York Herald reporter, Waterman Ormsby in 1858 when asked if he would be taking the Butterfield Overland Stage for his return trip. Ormsby traveled the entire route on the first Butterfield Overland Mail stagecoach on a record-breaking trip of 23 days, 23 ½ hours from Tipton, Missouri to San Francisco.

In 1858, traveler Phocian R. Way wrote, “Stopped at Cienega [station] for breakfast. The water is clear and beautiful … The valley is a delightful looking place and its cool water, green foliage and scrubby trees look like a paradise to the weary traveler over the hot and parched plain.” Raphael Pumpenelly rode the Butterfield to Arizona to investigate mining prospects in the Santa Rita Mountains in 1860 and the comfort of passengers had little improved: “The coach was fitted with three seats, and these were occupied by nine passengers. As the occupants of the front and middle seats faced each other, it was necessary for these six people to interlock their knees; and there being room inside for only ten of the twelve legs, each side of the coach was graced by a foot, now dangling near the wheel, now trying in vain to find a place of support. An unusually heavy mail in the boot, by weighing down the rear, kept those of us who were on the front seat constantly bent forward. The fatigue of uninterrupted traveling by day and night in a crowded coach, and in the most uncomfortable positions, was beginning to tell seriously upon all the passengers, and was producing in me a condition bordering on insanity.”

Abandoned in 1861 with the outbreak of the Civil War and the recall of troops to the east, Cienega Station burned in 1862. It was rebuilt after the war and served as a mail station, stage stop and bar for thirsty travelers under various proprietors until 1888 when the building was destroyed by realigned Southern Pacific Railroad tracks.

Travel is much safer and definitely more comfortable today. And even though only a small sliver of the Old Wagon Road passes through Vail today—it’s called Old Vail Road now, a small stretch of it is visible between the railroad tracks in Vail—it is possible to slow down and enjoy the “paradise” near Vail described by Phocian Way in 1858 by getting a permit to hike in the Cienega Creek Preserve. There, in the dappled light under a canopy of cottonwood trees, it is easy to lose track of time and just enjoy “being.” It’s easy to imagine yourself being a passenger on the Butterfield Stage road venturing into the “wilds” of Arizona Territory. But the modern world can never be fully escaped, and the intermittent train whistle blasts are sure to make short order of daydream and birdsong alike.

Enjoy one of Vail’s special places. Request a free hiking permit at: https://webcms.pima.gov/cms/one.aspx?portalId=169&pageId=26988

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J.J. Lamb