A few months after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, gold was found on the Arizona side of the Colorado River. The site was at La Paz, just north of the present town of Ehrenberg. The well-known frontiersman Pauline Weaver panned $2 or $3 worth of gold flakes and, returning to Fort Yuma, displayed his find in most of the local saloons. This occurred in January 1862, and marked the beginning of the Colorado River gold rush.
By March of that year, rumors of the discovery had reached the pueblos of Los Angeles and San Bernardino, and both towns became alive with excitement. Rumors ran rampant - nuggets as big as potatoes; a bigger strike than Sutter's Mill; and people walking out with hundreds of dollars worth of gold in their pockets. There were serious concerns in Los Angeles that between the Civil War volunteers and the gold rush, the male population of Los Angeles would be depleted.
The gold rush was on, but getting to the site proved to be a major problem. The only known route to La Paz was along the Colorado River. The quickest route to Fort Yuma was from Los Angeles by stage, through El Monte, Cucamonga, San Bernardino, Redlands, and Beaumont. Here, the route turned south through Lamb Canyon to Warner's Ranch, then across the desert into Mexico (to avoid the giant sand dunes), and finally to Fort Yuma.
An alternate route, equally rough and just as long, headed north from San Bernardino through Cajon Pass, then east to Fort Mojave on the Colorado River by way of the Mojave Road. From there, it was either a tedious trail south, or for the more fortunate, by barge or steamer down the river.
The most comfortable but least desirable route for an anxious miner was to board one of the ships that sailed regularly from San Francisco around the tip of Baja California to the mouth of the Colorado River. From there, it was a long trip by steamer and trail to La Paz.
William Bradshaw was an enterprising man who had learned much about California while serving with John C. Fremont, whose expeditions helped assure American conquest of the territory. Bradshaw's name was well known in Southern California when he made his first trip to the gold fields. Recognizing the need to shorten the route to the boomtown of La Paz, Bradshaw saw an opportunity.He decided to establish a passenger and freight route that would connect San Bernardino to the diggings by the shortest and most direct route possible. This was an ambitious plan because at least half of the direct route would be through uncharted desert washes and mountains.
Realizing that water was the key to any route through the desert, he contacted the only group that might be familiar with water sources. From Chief Cabazon of the Desert Cahuilla Indians, Bradshaw learned the locations of all the springs and water holes along the southern end of the Orocopia and Chuckwalla mountain ranges. Starting at Dos Palmas, which was already a stage stop on a route from San Bernardino to Fort Yuma, and moving east, the following water sources were identified: Canyon Springs, Tabaseco Tanks, Chuckwalla Spring, Mule Spring, and, once in the Palo Verde Valley, the Colorado River.
This route, from Dos Palmas to the Colorado River, later became famous as the Bradshaw Trail. The final road, which covered 180 miles from San Gorgonio Pass to the river, shortened the trip by several days and was soon recognized as the primary route to the gold fields. Water, which made the difference, was abundant compared with other routes through the desert. In only one stretch, the distance between natural watering sources was longer than 35 miles and wells were developed along this stretch.
On August 23, 1862, Marlon Dickerson Fairchild and a friend left Los Angeles on horseback. They were heading for Olivia (Ehrenberg, Arizona) in search of their fortunes. They traveled along existing routes through El Monte, Cucamonga, San Bernardino, San Gorgonio Pass, and Agua Caliente (now Palm Springs) to the "Indian villages." The latter probably refers to the giant complex of villages that were located at the present-day city of Indio, California.
From here, the men rode to Martinez (currently the area identified as the Torres-Martinez Indian Reservation), where several deep wells had been dug. Continuing eastward, the party crossed the north end of the Salton Sink (the Salton Sea wasn't formed until 1905). They noted that "the surface was covered with sea shells" and that " the high water mark of a former sea is clearly visible . . . on the western side of an immense valley, which stretches as far as the eye can reach." The water line to which they referred is at the base of the Santa Rosa Mountains and is as well defined today as it was in 1862. The mark indicates that ancient Lake Cahuilla had attained a height of 43 feet above sea level. Once across the Salton Sink, the travelers reached the East Mesa and some "large, tepid springs, but potable" at Dos Palmas.
Out of Dos Palmas, the trail followed Salt Creek and skirted the base of the Chocolate Mountains. The 10-mile route to the summit climbed 1,800 feet and was traveled entirely through sand. After reaching the summit, the travelers headed east another 15 miles to Tabaseca Tanks, where "there were two springs of very fair water . . ." Traveling onward, the next stop was at Chuckwall (Chuckwalla) Springs, where they again found good water.
By this point, the two men had been on the road for 11 days and still had more than 60 miles to go before they reached the Colorado River. In his notes, Fairchild referred to the route over which they were traveling as the "road" and the "beaten path."
The men didn't camp again for 20 miles, according to their reckoning. This put them in the area of Wiley's Well, which wasn't developed until a later time. From there, the trail crossed the Mule Mountains through a low pass into the Palo Verde Valley. Fairchild doesn't mention the directions of the Bradshaw Trail between their last campsite and the Colorado River, stating merely that they had traveled some 35 miles. At journey's end, "We had reached Bradshaw's Ferry, opposite the town of Olivia . . ." The ferry that took them across the Colorado was "a crude boat capable of carrying small wagons and a limited number of animals." This adventure is the earliest account of the Bradshaw Trail by one who had actually traveled its whole length.
In August 1862, the first large group of miners traveled the new route. There were 150 well-equipped travelers in the party, and they made the entire journey without the loss of a man or animal. Pack trains and freight wagons began using the road almost as soon as it was opened, but it wasn't until the middle of September that the first stage line was inaugurated. The stages operated from Los Angeles to La Paz by the Colorado Stage and Express Line, owned by David Alexander. The first stage was driven by Warren F. Hall, and riding "shotgun" was Henry Wilkinson. Twelve days after it left Los Angeles, the first "coach and six" arrived.
For a few weeks, the stage operated regularly, carrying full loads of miners who were willing to pay the $40 fare. The Concord Coaches were built to accommodate nine passengers inside, and six more could be accommodated on the roof, but more than double that number were sometimes crowded on. One stage is reported to have left San Bernardino with 35 passengers, counting the driver and shotgun.
This passenger stage service lasted only a short time, though freight wagons continued to operate along the trail. In winter 1863, gold fever reached its peak, and in September, John Frink and James Grant of San Bernardino reinitiated passenger service between San Bernardino and La Paz. The cost remained $40, and stations were developed along the route to make travel more enjoyable. The average time from Los Angeles to La Paz was usually between four and five days.
The route was "officially" recognized, and Congress authorized a U.S. Mail contract to James Grant. The mail route ran from Los Angeles through San Bernardino; La Paz; Prescott, Arizona; and on to Santa Fe.
William Bradshaw died in La Paz, Arizona Territory, on December 2, 1864, shortly after his route was acknowledged as the primary route to the gold fields. His death is a mystery, but the following article appeared in the Los Angeles Tri-Weekly News about two weeks after his death: "We learn from Mr. (James) Grant that William Bradshaw - of Bradshaw route notoriety - well known to miners and mountaineers, committed suicide at La Paz on the second by cutting his throat. Bradshaw had been on one of his 'big benders' and was probably under the influence at the time; he was pursued by ghosts. He walked deliberately into a carpenter's shop, took up a drawing knife, and with one stroke nearly severed his head from his shoulders."
The trail was used for passengers, freight, and mail until 1877. Its colorful history is replete with murders, robberies, and Indian attacks. The exact date of the last stage is unknown, but the convenience and speed of rail travel and the depletion of gold from the fields combined to reduce the need for regular use. The trail continued to be an important access for mineral exploration throughout the mountains between Dos Palmas and the Colorado River.
Today, you can drive the stretch of the Bradshaw Trail between Dos Palmas and the Colorado River in a stock vehicle. The entire trip can be completed in one day, but plan at least an overnight trip to give yourself time to explore the many interesting trails that emanate from the main road. Most of it looks as it did back in the 1860s, and you can really get a feel for what it was like back then, when horses and mules powered the wagons instead of gasoline and diesel.
We took the Hummer Club and a few other vehicles on the Bradshaw Trail. Everyone had a great time - not only on the actual trail, but exploring the side roads and canyons that access areas of the beautiful Colorado desert that few get a chance to see.
Start your trip by taking Highway 111 to the community of Desert Beach, California, on the shore of the Salton Sea. Turn east on Parkside Drive (across from Salton Sea State Recreation Area), go about 1.7 miles, then turn left on Desert Aire. In half a mile, stop, air down, and zero your odometer.
Mile 0.0: Turn right on the canal road and parallel the canal, noting the fine desert scenery and the sharp contrast the blue water makes with it. This is the Coachella Canal, bringing water from the Colorado River to the rich Imperial and Coachella Valleys. You're not on the actual Bradshaw Trail yet, but if you look to your right in about 4 miles, you can see Dos Palmas Oasis, an important stop on the trail. The Nature Conservancy purchased the oasis and has closed it to all entry (except for a privileged few). Continue along the canal until . . .
Mile 8.3: Turn left across the canal at Siphon 24. You are now on the actual Bradshaw Trail (SR 301) and will be until you reach Blythe on the Colorado River. You will come to a BLM sign warning that only four-wheel-drive vehicles should continue. The trail, which may require four-wheel-drive at times depending on your backcountry-driving ability, is really quite easy for a stock truck (and is sweet in a prerunner). As you travel up this sandy road, think about the job the horses had of pulling a fully laden wagon or stage up this incline. You'll notice some railroad tracks crossing the road twice. This is the old Kaiser Eagle Mountain Mining railroad.
To your right is the Chocolate Mountains Aerial Gunnery Range. Do not enter the range, as it's used daily by the U.S. Navy. When we were investigating one of the old wells along the trail, the desert stillness was shattered by the sound of two F-14 Tomcats flying over. We remarked at the sharp contrast between the 19th-century well and 21st-century technology.
Speaking of wells, in about 6 miles you'll come to a fenced area to your right marked as Clements Well. This well was not a stop on the Bradshaw Trail. About 1 mile farther, on your right, is the site of the Canyon Springs stage station. There's nothing left there now, and the actual spring is a short hike up the canyon directly north of you. Don't drive up the canyon, as it's closed to all vehicular travel.
Continue east on the Bradshaw Trail, noting the many interesting side canyons and trails heading off to your left (north). If you're going to camp along the trail, take the time to do some exploring. Now, continue east to . . .
Mile 19.4: The Bradshaw Trail (SR 301) forks to the right. Bradshaw swung almost south to Tabaseca Tanks here (now in the gunnery range), and freighters and individual travelers tended to stay with that trail because of the water at Tabaseca. Stagecoaches took the road directly east to Chuckwalla Well. This is the way the modern road goes. Make the right turn, cross the tracks, and head east onto the Chuckwalla Bench, an unspoiled area of the California desert. The land you're traversing is rich in cholla cactus, ocotillo, ironwood trees, and so on. It's also the home of the desert tortoise. If you come upon one of the tortoises (torti?), don't bother it. Just let it take its time until it's out of your way. This is a good time to get out of your vehicle and enjoy the desert up close.
Mile 26.4: A gas line road intersects the Bradshaw Trail. Continue east (straight ahead) about 10.1 miles.
Mile 36.5: A faint road marked with a sign "Road To Nowhere" takes off to the north. This looks like another good one to explore. Continuing on the main road, in 2.7 miles you will come to another road to the north.
Mile 39.2: The road to the north is the Augustine Pass Road, which travels over the Chuckwallas and ultimately reaches I-10. This is a rough road, so if you're not equipped for some four-wheeling, continue on the Bradshaw Trail to . . .
Mile 44.7: To the left is the 0.7 mile road to Chuckwalla Well, a major stop on the Bradshaw Trail. You'll find a well dug in 1863 by Frink and Grant for the watering of people and animals, remains of old corrals, and even a palm tree. The actual spring lies in a small canyon several miles north of the trail, behind a spur of the mountains. The hills are covered with a spectacular growth of cholla cactus, so take care if you want to hike to the spring. During the summer months, the road to Chuckwalla Well is closed because it's the only water source for the animals in the area. Continue on the Bradshaw Trail and travel 3.2 miles to the fork in the road.
Mile 47.9: The left fork is the Graham Pass Road, a good road over the Chuckwallas to I-10. The Bradshaw Trail is the right fork.
Mile 56.4: A faint track leads north into the Little Chuckwalla Mountains. This road ends at a mine, but has many trails issuing from both sides of it. There are some great camping spots along here. Back on the Bradshaw Trail, in 9.9 miles you'll reach . . .
Mile 66.3: Here is the Mule Mountains Long-Term Visitor Area. During the winter months, thousands of "snow birds" bring their RVs and form a small city. A road intersects the trail here. To the left (north) is Wiley's Well, which was developed after the Bradshaw Trail days (the trail used Mule Springs, a few miles to the east, which was obliterated by flooding in the 1920s). There's a BLM campground at Wiley's Well. To the south, the road heads for some fantastic geode beds for you rock hounds. That's another story, so let's continue on the Bradshaw Trail.
Our route climbs east over the Mule Mountains, which have some interesting old mines to explore. In 10.9 miles, we reach . . .
Mile 77.2: Here our trail Ts into Highway 78. Turn left (north) onto 78, and you'll ultimately reach I-10.
The original Bradshaw Trail entered the Palo Verde Valley at today's 18th Avenue. The Willow Springs Stage Station once stood on 18th, 1 mile west of Neighbors Boulevard.
Travel east on I-10, go through Blythe, cross the Colorado River, and exit at the first opportunity in Arizona. This is the Ehrenberg exit. Head north, through the town of Ehrenberg, and in approximately 5.8 miles, you'll come to the site of La Paz on your left. It's hard to imagine the way it must have looked in the 1860s, when La Paz was a clamorous city of thousands of gold seekers. Today, only a few excavated foundations mark the terminus of the Bradshaw Trail.
The Bradshaw Trail is worth exploring. It's easy enough for the beginner, and the history and terrain are fascinating to most everyone. Summer gets very hot (110-plus degrees F), so fall, winter, and spring months are probably a better time to make the trip. Remember to take plenty of water, another vehicle, and let people know when you'll be returning.