Last March 28, as the sun fractured behind iron-gray clouds, six Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet gazed in awe from Sacatone Overlook. Three miles east, on terrain bleak as Sinai, railroad trestles perch 1000 feet above Carrizo Gorge. The wooden structures look out of place: a jagged brown incision across forsaken ground. Seen through binoculars, they become delicate, sculpted webs that appear suspended from above.
One of the seven wonders of San Diego County, the Impossible Railroad spans 11 miles of Carrizo Gorge: 17 tunnels and 14 side-hill trestles — made from pine, spruce, and heart redwood — wind north-south. The trestles visible from Sacatone, over the chasm's deepest stretch, are called the "Seven Sisters." The name doesn't refer to the Pleiades, or the "sister" colleges of New England, but to seven courageous women who journeyed by wagon from San Diego to Tucson in 1870.
Last March the six sisters made the trek. In a light rain they marveled at the wooden latticework and the rugged Jacumba Mountains and desert beyond. Sacatone gave them their first glimpse of the barren expanse their forebears crossed 136 years ago. "They feared they'd die in the wilderness," guide Sister Mary Murphy told her companions, "as had so many others; Sister Maxime Croissat called it 'the abomination of desolation.'"
In 1868, Tucson was a lawless frontier town. It had almost 3000 residents, half of them Catholic, but no school. Bishop Jean Baptiste Salpointe campaigned for a schoolhouse and nuns to teach. He and Bishop John Lamy (the legendary "Apostle of New Mexico" in Willa Cather's Death Comes for the Archbishop) sent urgent letters to Carondelet, Missouri, where the Sisters of St. Joseph had a congregation.The letters were in French, native tongue of the order from LePuy, France. The Mother Superior's replies were polite, but she could spare no teachers.
"Now," Salpointe insisted on June 5, "how many Sisters can you let me have? if it were possible I should like a sufficient number for two houses."
On his return from a trip to France, Salpointe stopped at Carondelet, in south St. Louis. Mother St. John finally agreed, but couldn't send anyone until March 1870, at the earliest.
When he brought no teachers, Salpointe's parishioners became angry. His journey taught him something, though: a direct route from St. Louis to Arizona was too hazardous. For many who fought it, the Civil War didn't end in 1865; Renegades robbed wagon trains and stragglers. And Chiricahua Apaches — led by Cochise, and later Geronimo — were uprising in New Mexico and Arizona.
"As to the route for your Sisters to take," Salpointe wrote in January, "I abstain from saying today."
On May 10,1869, a golden spike joined the transcontinental railroad lines at Promontory, Utah. Travelers no longer took 30-plus days to cross the U.S. They could make it in seven. To avoid Apache territory, Salpointe devised a roundabout plan and promised to raise $800 for expenses.
The trip cut against the grain: women weren't supposed to venture into the wild west in 1870; also, their journey would become increasingly primitive: by rail from St. Louis to San Francisco, then steamer to San Diego, then a two-horse-drawn wagon to Tucson — and often, it turned out, on foot up and down mountains and across alkali wastes.
Though most had never heard of Arizona, Carondelet's nuns welcomed the "Far West Mission." Five of the seven chosen came from Moutiers, the Mont Blanc area of France: mother Emmerentia Bonnefoy, and sisters Euphrasia Suchet, Maxime Croissat, Ambrosia Arnichaud, and Hyacinthe Blanc. Martha Peters was a lay sister from Ireland.
The seventh was born in Hemmingford, Canada, in 1843. Annie Taggert became a university math teacher. She fell in love with John Corrigan, a Catholic. But she was Anglican, and their parents were against a marriage. Undaunted, Annie and John eloped to Independence, Missouri, where they began a family during the Civil War. In 1866, a plague of black diphtheria took the lives of John and their young son and daughter.
As she struggled with the unthinkable, Annie taught math at a Kansas City boarding school and converted to Catholicism. She joined the Carondelet congregation in 1867. When she became a nun, she took the name Monica.
"She was as much at home," writes Sister Marie McMahon, "begging alms in the camps of Arizona and Mexico, or settling gang wars in Kansas City, as in the quiet halls of a convent."
"She was known to stand in saloon doorways on payday," says Leo W. Banks, "ordering thirsty miners home to their families." Sister Monica was 27 when the trek began. Her diary is its record.
On April 20, 1870, seven sisters boarded a train at the Pacific Railroad Depot in St. Louis. "Sad hearts" tinged their sense of adventure. "It is quite probable," wrote Monica, we may never again meet here below."
The transcontinental railroad was just a year old, and their first train had few passengers. Polished seats and polite, well-groomed stewards made it feel brand new. That night they changed trains, and boarded a havoc of emigrants, crying babies, and squawking chickens — reeking of stale cigars and rotting eggs.
The sisters couldn't afford berths. Also, the cars were so full of strangers, they had to keep constant watch on their carpetbags. As a result, they rarely slept. To their surprise, most of the passengers were ministers, of various denominations, headed west to preach. Their quibbles often turned into debates, then heated, theological harangues. Every one "maintained his own opinion," writes Monica, "and proved it from the Bible."
On April 24, two miles west of Sherman, Wyoming, the sisters — crossed their first railroad trestle. Dale Creek bridge loomed 150 feet above the creekbed.Though buttressed by guy-wires and poles joined end-to-end, the gigantic wooden structure swayed in the wind like a drunk. To avoid being blown overboard, locomotives had to creep across at four miles an hour. Passengers who dared to look out the windows saw no land, on either side, and feared they were falling from the sky.
"I was terrified," writes Monica. "The cars pass over frightful chasms; the rails are laid on logs resting on pillars, whose only support are craggy rocks beneath." People held their breath. "It was only when safe on firm ground that conversation was resumed."
They reached San Francisco the evening of April 27, and 1914 miles and 106 hours from Omaha, they were "sadly in need of rest." The cars' constant, side-to-side jostling had made the sisters "completely dizzy."
On Saturday, April 30, they sailed to San Diego on the Orizaba. Henry "Ninety Fathom" Johnston captained the coal-fed side-wheel steamer renowned for its oak and chestnut planking. In 1869, because he admired the view, Johnston was the first to buy land on the scrub and chaparral hill above Old Town. First called "Johnston Heights" in his honor, the area is today's Mission Hills.
On the same Orizaba that would bring Kate Sessions to San Diego in 1884, Mother Ernmerentia, and Sisters Euphrasia and Martha got seasick, The ship docked Tuesday, May 3. The women lodged at a boarding house in Old Town.
San Diego in 1870 was splitting in two. Residents of Old Town began moving south to (Alonzo) Horton's Addition, which formed its Chamber of Commerce on January 1, and would become today's San Diego. New structures dotted wide, dusty streets. Wooden frames rose behind them.
Horton's Hall, a red-brick building on the corner of Sixth and F, was almost completed as the sisters arrived. It opened six days later: a 400-seat theater upstairs; a roller-skating rink on the ground floor. The theater doubled as a church for Catholics and Presbyterians. New Town swelled with prospectors on their way inland. Gold had been discovered near Julian.
The seven sisters were the first nuns in San Diego. During their stay, they met Father Antonio Ubach — whose parish," he said, ranged "from 16th Street to the Colorado River. Impressed by their courage, Ubach told the women to forget Tucson: begin a school in Old Town. Later, he traveled to Carondelet and begged for teachers. But the Reverend Mother said San Diego was too distant. In 1882, four Sisters of St. Joseph came west and founded the Academy Of Our Lady of Peace. And in 1887, Ubach got, his wish: Sisters of Carondelet established St. Anthony's Indian School in Old Town.
The seven sisters remained in San Diego four days, in part to recover from train- and sea-sickness, but also to wait for their escort. It never came. They learned much later that a message from Carondelet to the Bishop, announcing their plans, had been delayed. They had no escort, no idea which route to take through the wild west. What to do?
On Saturday, May 7, 1870, they hired a driver and covered wagon, and set forth for the sun-scorched Arizona Territory wearing heavy black wool habits, a wide white, bib-like guimpe, and black veils. Some had sturdy shoes.
The driver, whom Monica never names, was a thin, educated young man who'd made the trip before: His vehicle was a carriage-type wagon with a canvas, sun-shade canopy, two bench seats behind the driver's, and leather straps for suspension. Every bump and rut — especially in May, after winter rains carved deep rills — jerked riders side-to-side/forward-and-back. The constant spine-jouncing, said a prairie-schooner driver, was "hardly comfortable."
Two horses pulled the wagon. At least one of them wore a cowbell. Its dull, metallic rattle signaled the arrival of a solitary, wooden-wheeled carriage to coyotes, mountain lions, and rattlesnakes.
The vehicle averaged four miles an hour on good trails. Because it only seated six, Sister Ambrosia volunteered to sit with the driver. "It is beyond description," writes Monica, "what she suffered riding 200 miles without protection from the rays of a tropical sun. Yet poor Sister did this."
AB day dawned over the hills to their left, the driver packed provisions and "thumped water barrels fora full sound." Then the wagon headed south on a well-traveled, often tide-washed, dirt road.At 10:00 a.m. they passed the white post that still marks the southwest boundary of the United States (at Border Field State Park). They crossed the Tia Juana River, just a trickle in May, and entered Mexico.
The driver chose the Old San Diego Trail, a 195-mile, former military mail route from San Diego to Tecate, and on to Fort Yuma. For 50 miles, the trail runs south of the border, up the broad Tia Juana River Valley, studded with cottonwoods and autumn oaks; then hooks northeast into the high country.
At noon, they stopped at a stable for lunch. While the others rested, Monica and Maxime inspected flecks, bright as sunshine, on nearby boulders. With the fever of Julian prospectors, they skipped from rock to trock pecking samples, dreaming big — "Just think," Monica shouted with worldly glee, "a sack of gold!" — only to learn "That 'all that glitters...'"
After recrossing the border at the adobe customs house near Rancho Puerta Tecate, they spent their first night outdoors. They camped beneath Tecate Peak (not knowing that, according to Kumeyaay legend, it's' where the world was born). Since there wasn't enough room, Mother Emmerentia and two sisters bunked under the wagon; two others reclined on the seat- benches; Monica and Euphrasia had to sleep sitting up, in a corner. White sage scented the cool night air.
"We had scarcely closed our eyes when wolves began to howl. We feared they would consume our little store of provisions and thus let us perish in the wilderness." The driver calmed them.
Later, Euphrasia woke up screaming. Wolves? No. One of the horses licking her face.
Happy to see the new day, the sisters celebrated by forming a procession ahead of the wagon. Mother Emmerentia led them, holding a Spanish lily like a torch. As they sang hymns and trudged up and down the winding trail, the sisters imagined themselves "in Egypt with Joseph patron saint — leading them.
At noon, they came to a "cool, shady place" in the high desert: the 900-acre settlement of Campo, a general store/cantina, mill, large home, and blacksmith shop owned by Silas and Luman Gaskill. Five years later, these raw-boned, raven-eyed brothers would tight a famous shootout with banditos. The Gaskills ran the most important way-station in the region, providing food, stable-feed, and shelter for stagecoaches and mule-drawn freight wagons that had struggled up steep slopes to the west and east.
As the sisters ate dinner, they noticed "several ranch-men here from the neighboring stations, but no women, There are few women in, this country."
After the meal, the sisters adjourned to the stable to rest. The men followed. The driver — the women's "only protector" — held up a hand: What did they want?
"Be sociable, is all."
"The simplicity and earnestness with which they spoke:' writes Monica, "put indignation out of the question, as it was evident they meant no insult."
Some proposed marriage. Even got on their knees. They gave the sisters two choices: accept their proposals, or "be massacred by Indians" before reaching Tucson.
Having had "amusement enough,' the sisters continued on. Between today's Boulevard and Jacumba, they prepared for their second night in "a very damp place." After tea and' prayers, Emmerentia, Ambrosia, Maxime, and Monica bedded down on a wide, flat rock. The other three took the wagon.
The high-desert night got colder and colder, Anticipating cauldron-like temperatures, the sisters only brought one wool blanket. Martha and Monica had just summer shawls. Even so, "we all kept good spirits,"writes Monica, "being convinced we were doing the Divine Will."
Around three a.m., the "night of the long thermometer" got so cold, frost began to form. The sisters in the wagon didn't have the blanket, went to find kindling. They got a fire started. In the flickering light, Martha spotted "a fine, large stick among the dry leaves." As she pulled it, the leaves fell away Martha let out an "unearthly yell." She had a man by the leg.
The man screamed too, "but only for mischief." It was the driver, slapping his thigh with laughter. To keep warm, he'd burrowed himself in a blanket of foliage.
Even with a fire, the sisters were so "stiff with cold," they decided keep moving. They sang. "Ave Maris Stella" — a hymn to Mary, Star of the Sea — and continued east.
They spent Monday, May 9, negotiating granite-studded hills; often on foot. They stopped at Mountain Springs, 1000 feet below the Jacumba Valley, and halfway down the escarpment to the desert. They expected to stop at Peter Larkin's'
summit station. But the place became "ever-memorable" because, unknown to them, Larkin had recently abandoned the property and moved to Jacumba. Expecting food, shelter, and water, they found an empty house made of rock, a stone corral, and stone-wall windbreak.
That afternoon they "lay down on the road side, being unable to proceed farther. Besides the terrible fatigue we suffered still more from thirst." The wagon's two water barrels; which the driver expected to, refill at Larkin's, were almost dry.
"We were going South," says Monica, describing the scene from Desert View Tower, a mile south of Larkin's station: "Before us lay the American Desert, 40 miles long — 800 feet below the level of the-sea. On the right lies a great salt lake, supposed to have been a part of the ocean. On the left rise ugly mountains of volcanic rock and red sand. I wished Sister Euphrasia to take a sketch of it then, but she said it would not be necessary, as she would never forget its appearance."
If a model were needed for the road to hell, the original trail from Mountain springs to the desert floor would serve. Devil's Canyon Grade, a narrow gauntlet snaking through red-rock outcroppings, plummeted 1000 feet, often with 30-degree slopes. Sparse vegetation along the way included California barrel cactus, brickellbush, and crucifixion thorns.
Frequent earthquakes caused rock- and boulder-slides. The trail was so steep, so strewn with rubble, travelers often had to dismantle their wagons, carry them down, and reassemble them at the bottom.
It was too dangerous for the sisters to ride. Though their aching limbs felt "dislocated," they descended Devil's Canyon on foot. Sun-bleached' bones of horses and cattle cluttered the sides of the trail. "At one place we counted fourteen oxen which had apparently died at the same time. When Mother beheld so many dead animals, she wept, fearing we might share their fate."
The last two miles, steepest of the grade, felt like a vertical pitch. To keep from stumbling, the exhausted sisters joined hands, "two-by-two;' and ran.
They reached the desert floor. Hands on knees and gasping for air, everyone uttered amazed relief. Sister Maxime looked back up the grade, and the mountains behind, and said "the abomination of desolation."
"Almost dead from thirst" and pelted by a sudden sandstorm, the sisters went partway on foot to the next station, Hall's Wells. Gusts threatened to overturn the wagon.
A ranch on the west side of Coyote Wash, just southeast of today's Ocotillo, Hall's Wells had been a Butterfield Overland stage station. It joined the Old San Diego Trail to the north and east mail routes, and remained a crucial stop for wagon trains.
Somehow the sisters made it — and drank what must have been the coldest, wettest, purest ladles of water they would ever know. At last, they could relax. .
As the wind blasted adobe buildings, the women realized they'd left one hell for another. Hall's Wells became "an ugly place."
More than 20 men, just come west across the desert, or soon to make the trek east, quenched parched throats with whisky. The arrival of seven women — never mind their black serge habits and gold crosses suspended from their necks on long chains — made the men rowdy.
Blister-faced, sweat-stained, they spit, cursed, and fought with each other: "some offering to shake hands with us, tohers trying to keep them off."
"I just want to talk," one shouted at the covered wagon, where the driver stood guard and the women huddled and prayed. At nine p.m. Emmerentia, Ambrosia, and Maxime tried to rest. the ranch cook led the other four to a shanty. After picking some "gray backs" from, it, he gave them a blanket. "Ladies seldom pass this way," he told the sisters. "When they do, the men wish to enjoy their society." Beligerent hombres, goaded by liquor and loneliness, wandered in and out of he shanty all night, exposing the sisters to fearful dangers."
"If Reverend Mother knew where we were," "said Emmerentia, "she would not go to bed this night."
Willa Cather: “Those early missionaries threw themselves naked upon the hard heart of a country calculated to try the endurance of giants.”
Sister Mary Murphy, C.S.J.: “We had goosebumps when we discovered the ‘white post that marks the southwest boundary of the United States’; we knew that they passed that way!”
Sister Davida Conlon: “Was it fright or humor that drove them on/Or promises to keep?
- Sister Mary Murphy, C.S.J., "The Trek of the Seven Sisters," Reflections: Spirit and Spirituality, book two (Los Angeles); "Foundation Story: Quest" (unpublished, essay); interview.
- Marianne Gerdes," "The Impossible Railroad," KPBS video; interview.
- Sister Davida Conlon "Looking Back to Remember archives, St. Mary's Hospital, Tucson, Arizona.
- Willa Cather, Death Comes for the Archbishop, New York, 1927.
- Letters of J.B. Salpointe, C.S.J., Generalate Archives, Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St. Louis, Missouri
- Sister Thomas Marie McMahon, C.S.J., "The Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet: Arizona's Pioneer Religous Congregation, 1870-1890," A Heritage of Loving Service (Carondelet Publications)
- Sister Monica Corrigan, Trek of the Seven Sisters, edited with commentary by Sister Albert Cammack (Carondelet Publications)
- Waterman L. Ormsby, The Butterfield Overland Mail, San Marino, 1942.
- Sister Dolorita Marie Dougherty, C.S.J., Sisters Of St. Joseph of Carondelet, St, Louis, 1966
- Leo W. Banks, "The Trek of the Seven Sisters," Arizona Highways, January 2003