The Haunted Colorado Desert

By Jim Bremner


Desert lore, stories and quests for loot and gold have made men greedy. Gun fights, murders, and death from starvation and dehydration have left many dead on the barren desert trails. Their ghosts still walk the mountain ridges, gullies, and deserted locations they once traveled or lived, spirits with unfinished business, who cannot rest. Some guard buried treasures and lost mines, while others battle perpetually until death, forever replaying their last moments of life. Here are some of their stories.

The Woman in White

She was a frail woman, dressed all in white, a look of sadness in her eyes that left you feeling cold and alone. In her wedding gown, she paced the adobe floor of the Vallecito Station (Anza Borrrego Desert) patiently waiting for the next stage, which would take her on to Sacramento. Her fiancé had struck it rich in the gold fields and had sent for her to join him in California.


Vallecito Stage Station

She had arrived at the Vallecito Station sometime in the late 1850's and she had never left. The bride had become deathly ill during her journey and died at Vallecito Station. She was buried in an unmarked grave at Campo Santo, a few hundred yards from the station. It is said that if you camp near the old Vallecito Stage Station, you too will see "The Lady In White" restlessly pace the worn earth where the station once stood, waiting for her stage to come.

It is no wonder that so many ghosts haunt the lonely trails, mountains, and landmarks of the forbidding desert. The desert can be so unforgiving and, at the same time, unbelievably generous. Many travelers, prospectors and adventures have gone into the desert, never to return or be seen again. Others have returned with gold nuggets and treasures so rare and unique that we could only dream of being so lucky ourselves.

The Phantom Stage of Carrizo

The Lady in White is not the only ghost story attached to the Vallecito Stage Station. Not far from Vallecito is Carrizo Wash where the Phantom Stage forges it way through the deep sand, pulled by a team of four mules on moonlit nights. The Phantom Stage is driven by a lone driver hunched over as if asleep. No passengers are seen in the Stage when it passes through Carrizo Wash, hesitating for only a moment, as if planning to stop at the place where the Carrizo Station once stood, but is now only a pile of mud. The Phantom Stage continues on past the old station until out of sight. In the morning one may think twice about actually seeing the Phantom Stage, until he sees the ruts carved from wagon wheels and hoof prints left behind by the ghostly stage that travels by on occasion, as if to keep the trail alive.

There is another story that coincides with the Phantom Stage. In the 1860s, before the stage line closed, a special stage set out from El Paso headed for San Diego with a box of coins. The stage that carried the coins had one driver and a guard. When the stage reached Yuma, Arizona, the guard fell ill and the driver continued on without him. That same stage was held up by robbers somewhere in the area where the route meanders into Carrizo Wash between the Fish and Coyote Mountains. The driver was shot during the robbery and the thieves stashed the coins on the south slope of Fish Mountain. The coins remain there to this day, they say, because there were too many soldiers passing by on the trail. It is said that after the robbery, the dead driver and the stage continued through Carrizo toward Vallecito Station, but the stage disappeared, never to be seen again.

The White Horse Ghost of Vallecito

Vallecito is famous for its ghosts. Its history contains many murders, deaths, robberies, and other wicked tales. One well known story involves a double-murder at Vallecito Station. It all started with a stage hold up that yielded $65,000 worth of loot to four men on horseback, who robbed the eastbound stage before it reached Carrizo Wash en route to Vallecito Station.

As the men fled the scene, the driver of the stage fired one shot, killing one of the four men. When he reached the thief he had shot, he found not one, but two dead bodies. The driver concluded that the leader of the band of thieves, had shot one of his own men so he would not have to divide up the loot.

The bandit leader and one other thief survived the robbery and rode on to rest at Vallecito Station. Shortly before they arrived at the station, they buried their loot in some nearby hills and rode on to the station for a drink and some food. It is said that the two bandits were arguing while having a drink in the station. One of the bandits, the leader, went outside to check on his horse promising to continue the discussion when he returned. He did return to the station, entering through the doorway mounted on his big white horse, and shot his companion.

As the wounded bandit was dying, he drew his gun and fired back at the leader, killing him dead from the back of his brave white mount. The white horse, spooked by the gun fire and death of his master, ran off into the hills. It is said that when someone is in the valley around midnight, near the location where the bandits buried their loot, the ghost of a White Horse will appear from nowhere, galloping through the sand and then disappearing without a trace.

The Ghost Lights of Borrego

Anza-Borrego Desert State Park and the Borrego Springs area of California are notorious for the many legends, ghost stories and unexplained phenomena occurring there over the years. The region of the Sonoran Desert is home to the Vallecito Stage Station, Yaqui Well, in addition to the mysterious "Ghost Lights" of Oriflamme Mountain.

The first account of the "Phantom Lights" of Borrego was reported in 1858 by a Butterfield Stage driver. Since then soldiers, prospectors and explorers have reported seeing similar lights. The sightings have been reported near Oriflamme Mountain, over Borrego Valley and in other nearby areas. The occurrences are always slightly different, but the general description of the sightings is the same.

In 1892, a prospector by the name of Charles Knowles and two other men were camping near Grapevine Canyon at the entrance to the Narrows, where they reported their sighting of "Fire Balls." Knowles described the "lights" as balls of fire that rose up approximately 100 feet in the air and then exploded. Knowles compared the "Fire Balls" to fireworks. He saw three "Fire Balls" rise and cascade upon explosion, before they stopped. About 30 minutes later the "Lights" started again, but this time they were different. The "lights" rose into an arch pattern returning to the ground without exploding. The "Light" would then reverse itself and go back to the place where it started.

Scientists have tried to determine a logical explanation for the "Ghost lights." One scientific explanation suggests that when the wind blows sand against quartz outcroppings, static electricity is created, which could look like bright lights or sparks on a dark night.

Some believe that the lights were signals used by bootleggers during prohibition or US Immigration for smuggling operations related to the Mexican Boarder. The only problem with these two explanations is that the sightings had been going on long before and after the time constricted by the events described above.

Another notion is that the "Fire Balls" indicate the location of buried treasure. There are stories that support this latter theory of buried treasure. One of the stories tells of a young man who found many gold nuggets in a gully within the Oriflammes. Another man by the name of George Benton found a boulder of rock, weighing a ton, that contained gold. He found the boulder in the Oriflammes.

The Eight-Foot Skeleton

If you find yourself out late in the desert night, somewhere between the Superstition Mountains and Seventeen Palms, you may see the apparition of an 8-foot skeleton with a lantern in his chest. A prospector by the name of Charley Arizona first saw the ghost about 4 miles southeast of Borrego.

It was a dark night and Charley had already set up camp and was settling down for the night. Not long after Charley turned in for the night, something disturbed his burros and he went to investigate. Suddenly, he saw a large human skeleton with a lantern light shining through its ribs. The skeleton walked in a crazy fashion, as if looking for something or as if it were lost. Shortly after Charley sighted the skeleton, it disappeared over a small ridge.

About two years later, two prospectors had a similar experience while camping in the Superstition Mountains. They caught sight of a flickering light in the distance and wondered what it was; it quickly disappeared. One of the prospectors thought it looked like a skeleton carrying a lantern, but they figured it was the fire reflecting off a rock.

The two prospectors didn't think much of the incident until a year later, when a traveler came into the Vallecito Station with the tale of a skeleton he saw wandering in the desert carrying a light. It wasn't long before news of the skeleton got around and two adventurers went out into the desert to search for this legendary skeleton ghost.

During their third night in the desert, they encountered the ghastly lit skeleton. One of the men shot at it with a gun, but the skeleton continued on unfazed by the gun fire. The two men followed the skeleton for three miles as it wandered in a strange and intermittent gait, over ridges and through valleys, before they lost track of it.

Many believe that the skeleton is the ghost of a prospector who discovered and worked the Phantom mine, which has been lost for many years. The skeleton is no better off than the rest of us, for he too continues to search for the lost Phantom Mine, wandering the dark desert nights looking for his final resting place.

Ghosts Dancers at Yaqui Well

Not far from the Phantom Mine lies another place where skeletons have been seen. During warm summer nights, when the moon is full, ghosts dance at Yaqui Well. The ghosts are said to be the spirits of three emigrants who were traveling from Yuma to California. In search of a shorter route through the desert, the emigrants arrived at Yaqui Well, exhausted and near death from lack of food and water. One of the three travelers drank from the well as much water as he could hold. He died shortly there after. The other two men also drank from the well, but survived.

While moving their dead companion's body, the other two noticed some rock specimens that fell out of his pocket. The two men were excited to discover the rocks contained gold, but they did not know where their friend had found the samples. The two men became very excited about the gold and the excitement soon turned into a frenzy of greed and distrust. The two men began to struggle until one finally drowned the other in the muddy water of Yaqui Well.

 

An Indian watched these events unfold from a nearby hill. The Indian felt it was safe to talk to the one man who had survived, but the emigrant was still so excited as he described his story to the Indian, he entered a state of frenzy and ran off in to the desert yelling "Gold, Gold."

It is only during the hot summer nights of the full moon that the three emigrants return to Yaqui Well. One rises out of the muddy waters of the Yaqui Well, one emerges from the brush nearby, and the third arrives in a cool breeze out of the wash. The ghosts join hands and circle Yaqui Well in a dance. Soon after the twirling begins, they disappear, leaving only the good waters of the well and a slight chill in the air.

The desert holds many secrets of buried treasures, lost travelers and mysterious sightings. The stories shared with you on these pages are only a small sample of the tales and legends that have been spun for centuries. More are listed below.



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