Stage lines brought the first travelers the area—but the fledgling railroad nudged them out of business. Photo courtesy of the Palm Springs Historical Society

Before white settlers arrived, the Coachella Valley was populated by the Desert Cahuilla Indians—and they would not permanently be joined by outsiders until the railroad arrived in the latter part of the 19th century.

The 1774 Anza expedition went to the south of the Coachella Valley and what would become Palm Springs. By the early 1800s, some Cahuilla Indians had been baptized into Catholicism, and given Spanish names through Mission San Gabriel, according to historical records. The Cahuilla were also noted to have helped the Franciscan padres with irrigation projects and farming in the Redlands and San Bernardino areas starting around 1819. None of those Anglo/Cahuilla encounters, however, happened in the Coachella Valley.

By the mid-1850s, several white men had settled in the San Gorgonio Pass area, but there is no record of any of them living at or around the hot springs at Agua Caliente (later renamed Palm Springs), even though outsiders visited several times.

Some mail riders on horseback stopped at Agua Caliente/Palm Springs for water, but it would be years until stagecoaches also stopped at the springs. The first overland stage in California was the San Antonio and San Diego Mail Line, followed by the Butterfield Overland Mail, which ran from 1857 to 1861. Their routes went south of Palm Springs—but they opened the door to other enterprising stage companies. 

In 1872, the Grant Stage ran from Prescott, Arizona, to San Bernardino—but the biggest impact upon Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley came from the Bradshaw Stage Line, which ran from 1863 to 1877.

Gold had been discovered in La Paz, New Mexico Territory (near present-day Ehrenberg, Ariz.), and people from Los Angeles needed to get there. This prompted an enterprising southern gentleman named William D. (Big Bill) Bradshaw into action. He scouted the Coachella Valley in 1862 and was able to get Cahuilla Chief Cabezon and a Maricopan Indian to show him the best route to the Colorado River. Later that year, Bradshaw wrote the Los Angeles Star and described sites and stops along the new trail, including Agua Caliente (now Palm Springs), Sand Hole (now Palm Desert), Indian Wells (now Indio), Toro, Martin’s House, Lone Palm, Dos Palmas, Chuckwalla Well, and others.

Bradshaw partnered with a man named William Warrington, and they established a ferry across the Colorado River just north of present-day Interstate 10 to complete the route. With the ferry crossing, the Bradshaw Trail was extended from San Bernardino through Beaumont, Banning, Cabazon, Whitewater and the entire Coachella Valley to the gold fields and points east. His route, even though it included expensive ferry fees, became the most popular road from California to Arizona for decades.

The Bradshaw Line carried U.S. mail as well as with travelers, gold-seekers, prospectors and assorted wanderers. It is said that the stage was ambushed on its first return trip going through the San Gorgonio Pass, and the driver and another man were murdered, robbed of $5,000 worth of gold dust.

A map of Bradshaw Trail, by Norton Allen.

The Bradshaw Line not only stopped at Agua Caliente, but had a station built there. Bradshaw hired Jack Summers to operate the Agua Caliente way station; Summers thus became the first white settler in Palm Springs, living in an adobe hut from 1865 until 1877.

According to Chief Francisco Patencio in his 1943 book Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians: “Jack Summers was agent at Palm Springs. He was the first white man to live here. He rented from 10 to 12 acres where The Desert Inn now stands and hired the Indians to raise barley for his horse. … Summers and his wife lived in an adobe station. It was made of sticks and brush plastered with adobe mud. This adobe was bought from the Indians. It came from the Spring.”

That hut of mud from the hot springs that housed Jack Summers remained standing until the 1920s.

The stage lines brought the first travelers to the area—before the railroad nudged them out of business. The railroad brought Palm Springs and the surrounding area to the public’s attention.

In 1875, the Southern Pacific Railroad hired some of the Indians, including future Chief Francisco Patencio, to haul timber and logs, and lay track. The railroad finally opened in 1877, sounding a death knell for the stage lines.

The Bradshaw stage station manned by Summers closed. The train tracks passed to the north of Agua Caliente at a place called Seven Palms, about six miles away. There would be a train stop there, which remains to this day, near Interstate 10 and Indian Canyon Drive.

Railroad construction also gave birth to the city of Indio, as the railroad town sprung to life in 1876 while the Southern Pacific Railroad was building the lines between Yuma and Los Angeles. The engines needed a place to refill their water, and the workers needed local housing and supplies. The first Southern Pacific facilities at what was then called Indian Wells consisted of “one tank and well, one freight and passenger house, and one coal bin.” The town’s name was changed to Indio in 1877.

That same year, the competing Santa Fe Railroad reached Los Angeles— forcing the Southern Pacific into a rate war. The low fares created a land boom for areas served by the railroad, and it wouldn’t be long before the old hot springs once called Agua Caliente would be one of those areas.

The title of “first land speculators in Palm Springs” must go to W.E. Van Slyke and M. Byrne of San Bernardino. They had already bought 320 acres of prime Palm Springs land from the Southern Pacific Railroad and had their eyes on more. In 1880, Van Slyke and Byrne paid Pedro Chino $150 for his 10-acre ranch between the hot springs and the mountains. (That area is now called Chino Canyon, located at the base of the Palm Springs Aerial Tramway.) Fruit trees irrigated by canyon waters surrounded his one-room adobe house. 

It was the valley’s first real estate transaction—and the fact that Pedro Chino didn’t even own the land didn’t deter anyone. The land actually belonged to the railroad, but Chino had lived there for years and figured he had the right.

It wasn’t long before others found their way to the Coachella Valley, most notably John Guthrie McCallum, who in 1884 became the first permanent non-Indian settler in Palm Springs. He began buying up land and held a big auction in 1887. It was a success, as the railroad brought crowds of people; 137 parcels of land were sold on the first day. Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley were getting ready to welcome pioneers who would eventually develop resort living in the desert.

Sources for this article include Coachella Valley’s Golden Years by Ole Nordland, Coachella Valley Water District, 1978; The McCallum Saga by Katherine Ainsworth, Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1973; and Stories and Legends of the Palm Springs Indians by Chief Francisco Patencio, Palm Springs Desert Museum, 1943.

Greg Niemann

Greg Niemann is a Palm Springs-based author with five published books: Baja Fever (Mountain ’N’ Air), Baja Legends (Sunbelt Publications), Palm Springs Legends (Sunbelt), Big Brown: The Untold Story...