Research into Haunted History
With the westward expansion of civilization and California's statehood in 1850, there was demand for a reliable mail service to the west coast. John Butterfield founded the Overland Mail Company, with a $600,000 grant from Congress, to provide mail and passenger service from St. Louis, Missouri to San Francisco, California and this service was in operation from 1857 to 1861. Butterfield's contract required that the 2800-mile trip take 25 days or less with many trips requiring only 21 days.
Since the service would run year round, a southerly route was established which resulted in the route traversing the sometimes harsh, southwest desert. Along the route, 150 stations were built to allow for the change of horses and periodically, a home station was built where passengers could disembark and get a "good" meal. Most stops only lasted for about 10 minutes and then they were off again, although they did stop morning, noon and night for meals. The fare for passengers was set at $200 traveling west from Memphis or St. Louis and $100 traveling east from San Francisco.
The trip through the southeastern corner of California was perhaps one of the harshest with summer time temperatures easily reaching 110 to 120 degrees. This required the need for stations to be as close as 10 miles apart, so that the horses and passengers could rest more frequently.
The Vallecito station was built in 1853 by James R. Lassitor and was a welcome relief for the weary traveler. Vallecito was an important stop for Army detachments leaving and entering California. General Kearny's Army of the West stopped here on the road to defeat at San Pasqual. With its good spring near by, the Vallecito stage station was designated a home station, which afforded the guests a place to disembark, although the accommodations were little more than a place to sleep on a dirt floor, they could stay until the next stage arrived since this occurred twice a week. Even though its building is a reconstruction, it is one of the chief landmarks remaining from the great stage line between Missouri and San Francisco.
Legend of the White Lady
It's unknown when and how, the legend of "The White Lady of Vallecito" began. As the story goes, sometime in the late 1850's, a young women "from back east somewhere", arrived at the Vallecito station deathly ill. The station keepers placed her in a back bedroom and did their best to care for the women.
She was on her way to Sacramento to marry a man who had struck it rich in the gold fields, but she never completed her journey. She died at the station, a couple a days later. Mrs. Lassitor is said to have dressed her in a wedding dress that they found in her belongings. She was buried in an unmarked grave a few hundred feet south of the station, where it can still be seen today.
During the time of a full moon, she supposedly rises from her grave at dusk and has been seen pacing in front of the station as if she's waiting for a stage that never comes.
It's said that her name was Eileen O'Conner, but this hasn't been confirmed or denied. The interesting part is that her name is known now, but not when she was buried. Could this legend just be a story that gets told around the campfires of the many campsites that now occupy the Vallecito Stage Station County Park?
One woman who is factually known to have died at Vallecito en route from Texas on the Butterfield stage in 1857 was the aunt of 14 year-old Martha Ward. Ward and her aunt were traveling together to California when the aunt became ill. Her aunt died and was buried at Vallecito, and Ward continued on to Warners Ranch where she met and soon afterwards married Joe Swycaffer.
Ward's aunt is most likely the "Lady in White," as there are no other records of a woman passenger dying at Vallecito. Why wasn't the grave of Martha Ward's aunt marked? She was known at the time of her death since her niece was traveling with her.
The station was abandoned in 1888 and soon fell into disrepair. It was rebuilt in 1934 using materials from the area. There is some speculation that the workmen who were rebuilding the station concocted the whole story. An unmarked grave lies between the two other graves in the nearby Campo Santo cemetery. Could it be that the workman invented "The White Lady" when they were piling rocks on the marked graves and decided to use extra rock to build the unmarked one? Is Miss Ward actually buried there instead and if so, why is it unmarked? Where did the name of Eileen O'Conner come from?
I have never read or heard of an investigation to support the haunting of Vallecito by "The White Lady", so Wes Brooks and I spent some time there one night to see if there could be any evidence recorded.
Since the legend says that she rises from her grave at sunset and is seen pacing in front of the station appearing to be waiting for the stage, this determined when and where, we would conduct our investigation.
We arrived at the station about an hour before sunset, since neither one of us had been there before. This would allow us time to shoot pictures in daylight and get a feel for the layout or the area.
The weather was clear and warm. October is the time most people start to visit the desert since you're treated to warm days and cool nights. Tonight was no exception. The temperature was in the 70's, low humidity and little or no wind. It was also a night of a new moon, so we knew we were in for a view of the Milky Way from horizon to horizon. Obviously, a new moon is a deviation from the legend, but this was decided on to avoid having the campground filled with curious ghost hunters.
I shot several photos of the station and then we walked the short distance to the cemetery. I was surprised at how small it was but it's well maintained on top of a small hill. All the graves are covered in neatly stacked rocks, surrounded by a low picket fence. The two marked graves are, John Hart, b. 1831 d. 1867, who was the station owner and James E. Mason, b. 1859 d. 1931, U.S. Land Patentee and native son. Between these graves lies the purported unmarked grave of Eileen O'Conner.
I setup the video camera about 40 feet from the station and we waited for dusk. The chirping crickets signaled the approach of evening and after the sun disappeared over the mountains, I started recording using the nightshot mode and an extra infrared light source. The time was 7 p.m. PDT.
Wes scanned the area with an IR thermal scanner while I used an EMF meter and all readings were nominal. During this time, we shot some still pictures using ISO 400 film. We continued to scan the area at 5-minute intervals, while we were videotaping. We hoped that if there were any positive readings, we would be able to correlate them with something on the videotape.
With the night sky filled with stars and any remaining sky color gone, we concluded our field investigation and packed up our equipment for the 90-mile drive home.
Results of our Investigation
After developing the film and watching the videotape, there was no anomalous images, readings or indications.
Do these results indicate that this legend is just a story that was invented by day laborers in the 1930's? Not necessarily, because the odds of recording any quantifiable evidence on only one trip or investigation, is remote at best. It's possible that the aunt haunts station and she's the one who waits for the next stage so that she can rejoin her niece.
Either way, what we're left with is a wonderful place to camp for the weekend that is steeped in the history of the Old West and just maybe, the ghost of a lonely lady dressed in white.
©2001 Steve Kompier