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The deserts of the American southwest have long been the discussion of lost mines and buried treasures. For hundreds of years, man has scoured the desert floor searching for any signs of the countless tales of lost riches. Some have claimed to have found the elusive treasures but only to be lost again, while others grew old or died trying. None the less, the legends live on as they are passed down from generation to generation. Maybe you will be the lucky one...

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Vallecito Gold

Do you believe in ghosts? If you do, searching for treasures in the vicinity of California old Vallecito Stage Station should be right up your alley, for the area boasts of a phantom stage coach, an ethereal white horse and other assorted supernatural spirits.

By Howard M. Duffy

From page 8 of the March 1995 issue of Lost Treasure magazine.
Copyright ©1995, 1999 Lost Treasure, Inc.

Located in San Diego County, the stage station never expected to become the hub of several treasure tales and the habitat of spirits of the netherworld, when stages of the Butterfield Overland Mail began operations on September 15, 1858.

As for the first apparition associated with the Vallecito Station, it was reported to have a phantom stage coach drawn by a four-mule team, en route from Carrizo to Vallecito. An old desert prospector, "Mac" McCloud, alleged he had first seen the phantom stage in the mid-1890s. He said it appeared in the night with the usual clatter of an old stage, then faded away in the dark just as suddenly as it had arrived. McCloud added that it must have been a phantom, for there hadn't been a stage like that through there for 20 years. A stage with a ghostly driver? True? We don't know. Perhaps old Mac had been too long in the torrid desert sun.

On the other hand, there is a legend of a stage being lost in the area during the 1860s. It was said to have come out of El Paso, bound for San Diego. There were no passengers -- just a driver, a guard and a heavy box of coins. On the journey the guard became ill and had to leave the stage at Yuma, with the driver to continue alone.

Philip A. Bailey in his highly interesting book, Golden Mirages, wrote of this coach: "Somewhere around where the road slides into Carrizo Wash, not more than five miles between the Fish and Coyotes, the stage was held up, and the drive was shot. The money-box was taken up into a canyon on the south slope of Fish Mountain and buried, and it's rumored that it was never taken away, because there was too many soldiers moving on the trail." Old-timers have often associated the lost coach with that of McCloud's phantom. Strange things happen in the desert!

Still in the realm of "phantasmagoria," as Edgar Allen Poe might have said, was an incident at Vallecito Wash, involving another stage coach heist. In this episode four mounted men emerged from a clump of bushes and stuck up one of the Butterfield coaches. It carried $65,000 in gold in an iron chest. At the command of the bandit leader, O'Hara, who was mounted on a white horse, the stage driver lowered the strong-box to the ground.

At that, the bandits scooped up the chest, wheeled their mounts and began to dash away. In the excitement of the heist the outlaws overlooked the fact that the driver had a rifle beside his seat. As the bandits fled, the man sighted his rifle to fire one shot, which sent an outlaw toppling from his horse. When the driver went to investigate, he discovered two dead men, not one -- although he had fired but a single shot!

Following this robbery, the two remaining bandits galloped to Vallecito Station. The station keeper later told how O'Hara produced a bottle of whiskey from which the pair of bandits drank freely. Soon a quarrel developed, with O'Hara's companion accusing the leader of having shot the second dead robber so that the loot, safely buried along the trail, would not have to be divided four ways. At this point, O'Hara broke off the argument, saying he had to care for his horse.

A few minutes later, the leader returned on his white horse. As he kicked in the station's door, he fired his pistol to wound the other bandit in the chest. As the wounded man lay dying, he reached for his gun to kill O'Hara with a shot behind the right ear. The result of all this uproar left a robbed stage coach, a buried chest of gold, four dead bandits and a roving white horse.

Old prospectors in the area claim that the ghost of this white horse will appear at midnight at the treasure cache, accompanied by a blast of cold air. So, if these conditions prevail, as you prowl the trail in the middle of the night, hurry for your pick and shovel, for you are standing at "X marks the spot."

Vallecito was not the only stop on the Butterfield line to harbor a ghost. Indeed, the stage station at San Felipe, about 14 miles northwest of Vallecito, also boasts of a ghostly apparition. Thomas Penfield in his book, A Guide to Treasure in California, wrote, "Two prospectors waited here for a stage one night, hardly concealing the fact that they had just struck it rich and had a fortune of gold with them. A lone bandit suddenly entered the little adobe station, seized the gold and left. Recognizing the bandit, the station keeper went to the door and called him by name. There was no answer, and the keeper returned to the station. Minutes later, the bandit reappeared, ordered the station keeper to procure a shovel and start digging his own grave. Waiting hi chance, the station keeper swung at the bandit's head with the shovel, dealing him a fatal blow, but as he was falling the outlaw fired, killing his opponent. Because the prospector's gold could not be found after the killings, it is presumed the bandit took it some distance away and buried it before returning to kill the station keeper."

The historian Bailey said this episode happened on a moonlit night of October in the late 1850s. Local residents have embellished it by adding that -- about midnight of each anniversary of the killings -- one can hear the shouts of the two adversaries, and see the shovel swing for an instant, just before the moon disappears under a cloud. They claim. too, there is a curse on the hidden gold, and it can never be found. Who knows?

Not all treasure caches in the Vallecito area are guarded by ghostly phantoms. Some are just plain lost. Take the case of a band of Mexicans, who once made a stop at the stage station. They were carrying some $80,000 in gold stolen in raids along the California coast. Fearing they might possibly be overtaken by a posse or other bandits, their leader, that same night, buried the loot in a nearby canyon for safekeeping until morning. Nevertheless, their worst fears materialized when the leader was ambushed by a posse and killed. His henchmen scattered to make their respective ways back to Mexico, leaving the gold unfound to this day.

If you wish to venture into the Vallecito Mountains, north of the old stage station, you might be fortunate enough to discover a treasure vault originally found by a prospector called Sonora Joe.

Around 1870, Sonora Joe was prospecting in the Vallecito Mountains, when he encountered a difficult situation. His mule fell into a deep crevasse, breaking its leg. So, the prospector was force to shoot the animal and proceed on foot. The following day he came upon a steep canyon, entering eastward into the desert. As Joe sat on its crest, taking a drink from his canteen, it slipped from his grasp to go bouncing down the rocky cliff.

There was no alternative but to climb down into the canyon, hoping the canteen had not been punctured as it bounced off the sharp rocks. Reaching the canteen at the bottom of the canyon, Joe's worst fears were realized -- it was punctured and empty of water. A lesser man would have been completely discouraged, but Joe, climbing up the canyon's wall, discovered a seepage of water trickling from under a rock ledge. Plugging the hole in the canteen with a piece of material from his shirt, he was able to refill it from his fortunate discovery.

In addition to finding this meager water source, the prospector was amazed to discover a higher interesting outcropping of quartz. As he pried loose several pieces of quartz, the rocks gave way, exposing a dark cavern. Enlarging the entrance, Joe crawled through to find himself in a circular vault. Its walls were rough stones placed there by human hands and a large slab formed a roof.

Carrying a few small samples of quartz, Joe trudged westward to the tiny settlement of Banner, where he worked at odd jobs to accumulate a grubstake, with supplies and a mule the prospector eventually returned to the canyon in the Vallecitos. When his mule was loaded to capacity , Joe once more headed to Banner. On the trail he stopped at Vallecito Station to chat with an old friend and confide the secret of his amazing luck. In fact, he told how the mysterious vault had also contained a strong-box similar to the type carried by coaches. This box had contained smelted slugs of gold and some documents, the latter being discarded by Joe.

After bidding his friend good-bye, Sonora Joe hit the trail for Banner. However -- he never reached his destination! According to the San Diego Tribune of September 2, 1936, "Years later the Indians said some other Indians had killed him for his gold and buried his body. Then fearing discovery had buried the gold and never recovered it."

Since 1934, the Vallecito Stage Station has been restored and the site converted to a county park. There may be restrictions concerning the use of metal detectors within the park, however most of the treasure sites we have mentioned are outside its boundaries.

Yes, Vallecito and its locale are rich in treasure stories. If you do not fear ghosts, spirits and assorted supernatural phenomena, the area is well worth a search. Fortunately, these ghosts have never harmed anyone.

- Howard M. Duffy