Cienega Station of the Butterfield Overland Mail (1858-1861)

In 1947, Roscoe P. Conkling, writing about the Butterfield Overland Mail (1858-1861) deemed Cienega Station lost having been obliterated when the railroad was built in 1880. On July 28, 2012, Matt Greenway, Dennis Sak, Gene Baker and I located the station at 32° 1′ 8″ N 110° 38′ 33″ W. It was the first station east of Tucson on the road between San Pedro Crossing and the aforementioned town.

All that remains is garbage and the faint outline of foundation stones but these elements tell a story and confirm the location. This line of stones is the clearest and also the closest to the railbed. They are not parallel to the railroad but at an angle disappearing under it. This is clear evidence that these foundations predate the building of the railroad in 1880 or 1881. What was in this area before 1880? Nothing except the Butterfield Station. The foundations outline a very large building including a corral 60×60 feet.

Although they are less clear to the eye, the

The foundation goes under the railroad

remaining foundations match the diagram Conkling provided. This is a very large structure unexpected in the desert Southwest where small buildings were the rule.

There is other evidence. There are tin cans that date to the period called hole-in-top cans. The can was soldered together, before the Civil War, by hand having a top with a large, round open hole. Food was inserted through the hole. Then a round top was soldered on. A small vent hole was left at top center to allow steam to escape, least the can explode, while the cap was being soldered on. A dot of solder closed the vent when everything else was complete. Lead solder oxidizes white. So cans showing white where parts come together were soldered with lead. After the Civil War this was done by machine. Rough, uneven solder is a sign of an early can as is a large dot of solder sealing the vent. Early cans were cut open with a knife; the can opener hadn’t been invented. In 1904, the Sanitary Can Co. invented a new process that sealed cans without soldering. We use Sanitary Cans today. The cans shown here were made before 1904 and probably before the Civil War. Who or what would have been along Cienega Creek before the Civil War? The Butterfield Overland Mail station.

Glass was tempered with various metals. 19th century glass often turns lavender when left in the sun. There are many shards of broken glass on the ground that were manufactured before 1890. Glass, after lying on the ground for 100 years or more, becomes covered with a white mineral deposit referred to as fairy dust. It is an indication of great age.

Square nails were used in the 19th century. The profusion of trash indicates a site that was occupied by people who lived here for some time.

The base of a wooden post is buried in the ground near the middle of a 60 foot x 60 foot enclosure, probably the corral. Such a post would have been used to secure horses while they were being harnessed.

There is modern trash here and railroad trash as one might expect. The site, although close to trails, is not easy to approach. It is not somewhere one gets to by accident. Most of the trash comes from a very early era.

In review, the foundation is of a size and layout consistent with the drawing Conkling provided of the station presumably taken from Butterfield records. The terrain is as Conkling describes and there are road cuts east and west where the Butterfield Trail might have run down to Pantano Wash. A corner of the structure is under the railroad clearly indicating that it was here first. The trash is consistent with a pre-Civil War occupancy.

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5 Responses to Cienega Station of the Butterfield Overland Mail (1858-1861)

  1. Gerald T. Ahnert says:

    This was the site of Asa Mckenzie’s ranch and not of the Seneca-Cienega Stage Station site. Asa was the only settler on the immediate route of the Butterfield Trail from the New Mexico border to Tucson. It is listed on page 2 of the 1860 census for Arizona. It is listed under the heading of dwelling 14 and starts from there. It existed during Butterfield’s time therefore contains artifacts of that time. I give an account of this ranch in my new book “The Butterfield Trail and Overland Mail Company in Arizona, 1858-1861, published in April 2011. The account is on page 48 and is from the primary reference from a newspaper article in the Sacramento Daily Union, March 7, 1861.
    The location of the Seneca-Cienega Stage Station in my book, page 47, is from an accurately surveyed General Land Office map Township 16S, Range 17E, surveyed in 1874. There is no doubt a good part of the station is under the railroad tracks. The trail is also accurately surveyed on this map.
    The main Butterfield trail ran up the Cienega Wash. There are numerous references from the time of Butterfield to support this.
    You state that the station layout was taken from Conkling’s layout and was “presumably taken from Butterfield’s records.” It was not. The station that the Conklings’ describe was a later built station on top of the old ruins. I give ample primary references for this in my book. You will note that all the twenty-six Butterfield stations in Arizona were made of adobe, except the Apache Pass Stage Station and Dragoon Springs Stage Station which were fortified and built of stone. There are only two structure’s in Arizona that can be identified as Butterfield’s. They are the ruins at Dragoon Springs and the cistern by the trail on the west side of Butterfield (Pima) Pass.
    The original name of the station, as named by Butterfield, is Seneca Spring Stage Station. G. Bailey, as the inspector for Postmaster-General Brown, on the the first Butterfield stagecoach going east named the stations in his official government report. He states that it is “Seneca Springs” stage station. There are other first-hand newspaper articles of that time also calling it Seneca station. Because the name Seneca is so close in pronunciation to “cienega” and was located on Cienega Wash, the name Cienega usurped the name Seneca. After all, the Spanish language was the primary language of Arizona in Butterfield’s time.
    The name Seneca is one of five Upstate-New York names given to Butterfield’s Arizona Stage Stations. The others were Mohawk, Oneida, Stanwix, and Kinyon’s. These are all familiar names near the administrative headquarters for the trail in Utica, New York. This was also the home of John Butterfield. Many of the employees, and especially the stagecoach drivers were from Upstate-New York.
    In my quest for historical accuracy, the primary references must be found first for the location of any site before it is explored. There are just too many other trails and ruins in Arizona. Like my wife has said otherwise “How do we know we are not looking at Garcia’s outhouse?”
    My book has been noted as the “definitive” book on the Butterfield Trail in Arizona by the Congressional researchers to designate the Butterfield Overland Trail a National Historic Trail. The have gone over the manuscript with me for three years. The information will be presented to Congress in 2014 for them to vote on this important project.
    If anyone is interested in any specific point that I can provide a primary reference for please contact me. The hunt goes on to tell the “true history” of the Butterfield Overland Trail in Arizona.

    • dhocking says:

      Thanks for the corrections. Primary sources are absolutely necessary. I hope we can preserve some of this history.

    • dhocking says:

      I think we’re both in agreement that photos are of the Seneca Station of the Butterfield. The photos seemed to show the building further from the railroad than it is. The tracks pass through part of the building.

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