One of the many stage stops between Santa Fe and Los Angeles in the 1800s was at Vallecitos, or Little Valley. The native people of the valley called it “Hawi”— the place where tules (bulrushes) grow. Through the heart of Hawi runs present-day County Road S2. The S2 follows the old Butterfield stage coach road, which was a route for high speed mail delivery by wagon, averaging only 22 days for a letter to leave Missouri and arrive in California! Long before the stage route came into being the valley was crisscrossed by myriad Indian trails.
A visit to Vallecitos County Park on any balmy summer evening under a full moon will bring the openness of the sky right down to the valley floor. Moon shadows are faint and eerie here. They are the lightest possible grey, indistinguishable perhaps from what are said to be ghosts in southern Anza-Borrego Desert.
One night in the late-1850s, the stage pulled up to the adobe station house, where travelers on their way to Buena Vista– now called Los Angeles–could rest. One woman was very ill when she arrived on this night and was given the most comfortable bed to aid in her recuperation. Sadly, she died before morning. She was buried in a white wedding dress she carried with her, at a gravesite that may be visited today near the station house which still stands. On moonlit nights, some say she reappears in her dress in an anxious, pensive state, as if looking for the stage to take her to her waiting fiance in the gold camps of Northern California.
The station house is host to many events, at one time Vallecitos Days, a yearly gathering of historians and reenactors that commemorated the importance of Vallecitos to emigrants arriving in California. Unfortunately, the event has not been held in recent years.
Vallecitos County Park is a popular place for campers, equestrian clubs, hikers, and RVers. It also attracts astronomy clubs, meteor watchers, and astrophotographers because of its dark skies on moonless nights…
(This page has been updated to March, 2020.)
A scene from Ken Kramer’s About San Diego “Halloween Show” provides a plausible reenactment of what is known of the last day of the Lady in White of Vallecitos. Click on the You Tube link below if you’d like to view it. The screen is not bright—but after all, this is a story about some rather dark hours. The full episode of Kramer’s special Halloween show can be seen at this link at pbs.org. The full show reenacts a number of other scary local ghost stories you might want to tell around some future camp fire in our local spooky desert.
The Lady in White of Vallecitos is a tragic story, certainly, but for westward travelers more common than you might think. The era of the 1850s was known for the cholera epidemic, taking many lives as emigrants headed west along the trails. The epidemic was not very well understood at the time and death could come quickly; and when it came swift burials were the norm. A more complete story of the real woman, Eileen O’Connor—if indeed her name—may emerge someday to let her spirit rest and in all likelihood help us come to know her as a brave soul who took on the challenges of her time.
Gallery below is from Vallecitos Days 2011. Photos by Barbara Swanson.