Unforgettable: The Long and Winding Road to Gold

After gold had been discovered in the Cuyamacas, ranchers accustomed to outback solitude witnessed an eerie parade: would-be miners trudging up an old Indian trail from Santa Ysabel to Julian City. The steep and rocky pathway became “so alive with people,” an observer wrote, “they appeared like files of ants.” By mule or horseback, the trip from San Diego took at least two days; on foot, 60 miles with a loaded backpack, much longer. Pedestrians often had to leap aside as freight wagons came roaring through.

The slow stampede to the “Grabble District” began in earnest on March 1, 1870. Wagons had brought 1200 pounds of gold-rich quartz to San Diego, dumping a ton in the showcase window of Dunham’s store on Fifth Avenue, where armed guards protected the mound around the clock. On March 15, word that someone had discovered seven pounds of the region’s richest quartz incited even more onlookers to trek east. While miners dug or washed gold at a feverish pace, movement through the mountains was the next closest thing to a standstill.

“Transportation was a vital issue in Julian mining days,’ writes Helen Ellsberg. “Supplies and machinery had to be brought in and the gold taken out.” On average, few miners made more than $2 per day — most, far less. Those who built the roads and moved the ore and heavy goods, however, often fared far better.

By April 1870, Julian City had at least 50 tents and makeshift shanties. The clink of pickaxes and sledgehammers, and the steady pock of hammers pounding nails for cabins, stores, and saloons echoed through the mountains. Almost as much as gold, an estimated 1000 miners prayed for contact with the outside world.

It came once a week on “Steamer Day.” Whenever the Orizaba or the Oriflamme, both steamships, docked at San Diego, a Pony Express rider sped the mail to Julian City in just a few hours. As the horse neared town, Count Dworakowsky, of alleged Polish nobility, clanged an iron triangle at his general store.

Work ceased. Mines emptied, as did the town’s many “rum mills,” where the disillusioned drowned sorrows. A grimy horde of handlebar mustaches and eager eyes assembled at the store. The Count would pull a letter from the mail pouch and read the name. If someone shouted “here,” he’d frisbee the letter in the general direction of the voice.

“I made the trip in good time and regularly,” said Chester Gunn, the Pony Express rider, “and the people depended on me.” Gunn charged ten cents for a letter or small package.

Customers paid gladly. “I had to make it in all kinds of weather, wet and sloppy, muddy, slippery trails, and cold winds with sleet and snow.”

By May, Fred Coleman — who discovered the first placer gold — and Indian workers had turned the half-broken pack trail, from Santa Ysabel to Julian City, into barely road enough for a stagecoach. The bigger rigs eventually drove Gunn out of business. He became Julian’s postmaster and planted some of the first apple trees in the area.

A year later, the San Diego Union complained: “Thousands of dollars of the people’s money have been paid out for public improvements, etc., and yet, the most needed, most important of all…have been sadly neglected. We now allude to the wagon road to the mining districts.”

A year later: “The road over the Santa Maria Hill is…the worst place between Julian and San Diego. Repairs…much needed through Poway.”

A year later: “Between San Diego and Julian the road is in terrible condition; road masters, with few exceptions, do not know of their appointment.”

The discovery of gold in Banner, in August 1870, magnified matters. It was one thing to transport machinery up to Julian, and quite another to move it six miles around Gold Hill and 1500 feet down to Banner. Miners called the steep grade “the worst mule trail in the world.”

Workers had hacked a skinny, precarious path from brush and timber — the last place you’d want a head of steam. To keep wagons from tumbling onto the mules, along with rough locks the drivers ran poles between the spokes of the rear wheels. They also dragged a tree behind to act as a brake.

Eighteen-inch, flat-iron “shoes,” nailed onto wheel-bottoms, allowed wagons to skid down the trail. Often two or three human brakes toiled behind, digging their heels into the dirt and tugging on ropes for dear life.

Heavy equipment required the “drop from above” method. To move, say, a boiler or a stamp mill, men fully secured it on a “stone sled.” Then, using thick ropes, they eased the giant bundle straight down the Banner Slide: a several-hundred-foot gouge on the slope. Sleds also dragged pine trees behind for brakes.

“When the object hit a snag,” says Richard Bailey, grandson of Julian’s founder Drue, “someone’d have to slide down and unhook it.”

On June 16, 1871, using Indian labor, Horace Fenton Wilcox completed a serpentine toll road down the Banner Grade. The fees: 25 cents for cart, buggy, or wagon with horse or mule; 50 cents for a two-horse buggy; $1 for a loaded four-horse wagon; 12½ cents for saddle animals; and 1 cent each for hogs, sheep, or goats.

Twenty-mule team wagons went free of charge. “Death Valley never had any monopoly on [those] outfits,” writes Wilcox. “When our roads were improved to make heavy haulin’ possible, they brought twenty-mule teams and wagons in here from Death Valley, and used ’em for haulin’ ore from these mines to San Diego.”

Wilcox fined prospectors on jackasses, trying to sneak through brush by the roadside, 25 cents.

Drury Bailey hated the toll road. He ran a stage line from Banner to Julian and complained that the grade and the prices were too steep. So he built a “miner’s road” to avoid the fees.

Early in 1870, North and Knight ran a twice-weekly stage from San Diego to Julian. The trip, which went from Sorrento to Ramona to Santa Ysabel, cost $5 east and $4 coming back. Depending on conditions, the stage used between four and ten horses and took at least two days, sometimes three.

North and Knight folded in July, during a lull in the mining. Bill Tweed started his own line. He charged $10 “on the upgrade” and $8 on the return, but vowed to make the trip in 12 hours: leave San Diego at 6:00 a.m. and arrive in Julian at 6:00 or 7:00 p.m.

A “Big Wagon,” which held 12 passengers, supplies, and mail made the run (smaller, “mud wagons” carried nine or ten). To celebrate the inaugural trek, speakers orated on a platform outside the schoolhouse, and everyone danced that night. Even though they sang “We Won’t Go Home Until Morning,” writes Muriel Botts, “two minor shooting scrapes” cut festivities short.

By June 1872, Tweed was making three runs a week with six, instead of four, horses. Assuming it was his for the asking, Tweed was shocked when the government awarded Edward R. Stokes the mail contract from San Diego to Julian. Within a month, Stokes was running three stages a week, and a rivalry — some say a “war” — ensued.

It began with an ongoing contest: which stage could make the fastest run? They often left at the same time and raced, says Helen Ellsberg, “axle-to-axle, drivers cursing and whips cracking…although passengers might be bruised and battered, they were never bored.”

“Before you get half a dozen miles,” wrote a rider, “you [realize that] a fly walking on the ceiling is the only fitting parallel.”

Some passengers fired guns out the window.

And what if rival stages approached each other on the same narrow road? Charles Kelly: “One day my grandmother was on [a stage] which had the right of way at this particular place, but the driver up ahead was blocking the road.”

Not a problem: “The driver of my grandmother’s stage began to cut pieces off the opposition’s seat with his six-shooter.” The obstacle moved aside. “Of course,” Kelly adds, “in those days these fellows were good shots. If they wanted to cut a little piece off the seat next to a stage driver, they could.”

Tweed thought nothing of veering off the road and slashing through wilderness to avoid enemy hindrances. Such detours often included perpendicular plunges, which astonished the opposition and earned Tweed a reputation for fearlessness.

One of his co-drivers told Weekly World: “At least a thousand times we committed our soul in pious fear to God, and always came out scatheless. We consequently believe in Tweed.”

Competition cut the running time from 12 to 10 hours to the mountains and 7 to the coast. It also forced prices from $10 to $8 to $6 to, at one point, 50 cents. “I’ll haul them for nothing,” Tweed boasted, “and throw in their meals before I’ll quit.”

There were accidents. Sometimes the lead horses would break away. In May, not far from Julian City, on a stretch more mud bath than road, a stage attempted a tight turn and flipped over. No one was hurt.

And there were deaths. On February 26, 1873, a storm had slowed Tweed’s progress. “Near the summit of Coleman Grade,” he wrote later, “my wagon got mired.” A flash flood turned Coleman Creek into a river. Two of the passengers, Catherine Milne, 28, and Anna Ward, 62, wanted to walk two miles to the nearest house, owned by Sylvester Gilson. They’d be much safer in the coach, Tweed replied, as he tried to dislodge it from the muddy torrent. In complete darkness, the women set out on foot. When Tweed finally reached Gilson’s house, he heard a “wicked screech.”

“For God’s sake,” he shouted to Sylvester, “run down to the creek — those women must be drowning!”

Tweed and Sylvester searched that night. Nothing. The next morning they followed a water-trail of torn clothing stuck to rocks and tangled in branches. Almost a mile downstream from the house, a hundred yards apart, they found the women’s bodies in what was once again a gentle creek.

Before their companies went broke, Tweed and Stokes settled differences. Each agreed to charge $5. In 1875, when Wells Fargo & Co. began a line between San Diego and Julian City, Tweed ceased his operation.

Wells Fargo & Co. shipped most of the gold, either by Pony Express or stage. By September 1870, they’d transported over $20,000. A year later, the mines sent out over $50,000 per month. Probably because they moved so fast, no one robbed the Pony Express, even though you could see bags of gold dust on the saddle as they sped past. James A. Jaspar, editor of the Julian Sentinel, could recall only one stagecoach robbery, an inside job, it turned out, “devoid of thrills.” But everyone remembered the case of the missing strongbox.

Wells Fargo had “treasure boxes,” in which they hauled gold. In 1873, the Golden Chariot Mine loaded one with $10,000 worth on a stage. The driver snuggled the box in the boot under his seat. He had one passenger: an unemployed young man. As they headed to San Diego, the box made the stage too front-heavy, so he and the young man heaved it into the rear boot. The driver made a routine check at Poway: still there. When they reached San Diego, the box was gone.

The driver didn’t report the disappearance. He hired a sulky and inspected both sides of his route, every inch, back to Poway. Darkness added to his desperation.

At sunrise the driver went door to door along the route — anyone see a strongbox? Someone heard tell that Thomas Davies had just found one.

The driver sped to Davies’s home. Sure enough, there was the man and the box. But Davies, who knew most of the Wells Fargo employees, didn’t recognize the driver — some say the sulky might have thrown him off — and refused to hand over the treasure.

Davies loaded the box on his own wagon and drove it to San Diego. According to the Union, he had no idea it was worth $10,000. If he knew, he would have armed himself to the teeth. He gave agent F.S. Lawrence a bill for $10 for “expenses.”

A week later, Wells Fargo paid him the money and gave him a Lange stem-winding watch with a chain of California quartz worth $500. “Please accept it with our best wishes,” read the accompanying note, “that your years may be many and full of honor. The latter they will surely be, as deeds are more than words.” ■

— Jeff Smith


Bailey, Richard, grandson of Drury Bailey, interview.

Botts, Muriel, History of Julian, Julian, 1969.

Fetzer, Leland, A Good Camp: Gold Mines of Julian and the Cuyamacas, San Diego, 2002.

Jaspar, James A., “Trail-Breakers and History Makers,” ms. San Diego History Center.

Lewis, David, Last Known Address, San Diego, 2008.

Sheldon, Gale M., “Julian Gold Mining Days,” Masters Thesis, SDSU, 1959.

Taylor, Dan Forest, “Julian Gold,” ms. San Diego History Center.

Van Wormer, Stephen R., and Susan D. Walter, “Historical Significance Assessment of Old Survey Road 97,” Water Enterprises, March 2010.

Wilcox, Horace Fenton, “Memories of the Gold Stampede in Julian,” Touring Topics, February 1932.

Articles in the San Diego Union and Weekly World.

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