Last updated: December 11, 2022
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Visit the ruins of the Pinery Station and get a sense of the isolation and rugged beauty that travelers experienced here in 1858. The old stone walls stand today as a testament to the spirit of change that early travelers, station keepers, and stage drivers carried as they passed this way over a century and a half ago.
The Pinery Trail
Travel the short 0.75 mile path from the Pine Springs Visitor Center to the ruins of the old Pinery Station, once a favored stop on the original 2,800 mile Butterfield Overland Mail Route. The trail is paved, rated easy, and wheelchair accessible. Pets are allowed on leash.
Preservation of the Ruins
The ruin is fragile; climbing on the walls can destroy this piece of history. It is preserved by the National Park Service as a window to the past, in the relatively unchanged, rugged setting that stage riders and Mescalero Apaches saw more than one hundred years ago. With the help of careful visitors to protect it, this historic location will continue to reflect the spirit of courage and adventure which commanded the senses of long-ago travelers, and still stirs in those who ride this route today.
On the Butterfield Trail
“In the bright moonlight, we could see the Guadalupe Mountains, sixty miles distant on the other side of the river, standing out in bold relief against the clear sky, like the walls of some ancient fortress covered with towers and embattlements.” Waterman L Ormsby, the only through passenger on the first westbound stage of the Butterfield Overland Mail, wrote these words in September of 1858 as he approached the Guadalupe Mountains. Upon arriving at the Pinery Station at Guadalupe Pass he wrote; “it seems as if nature had saved all her ruggedness to pile it up in this form of the Guadalupe Peak.”
The Pinery was one of approximately 200 way stations and relay posts along the 2,800-mile Butterfield Overland Mail route, which made biweekly runs from St. Louis to San Francisco. Prior to the Butterfield, mail to California left the East Coast by boat, traveled around the southern tip of South America, and then all the way back up to California. The Butterfield Overland Mail traveled an average of 120 miles per day, making the cross-country route in a maximum of 25 days. In addition to carrying mail, the Butterfield stage carried passengers who were squeezed into three rows, often times three abreast with their knees interlocked, baggage in their laps, and mailbags under their feet. For the passengers, this could be 25 days of pure torture. It was a long, exhausting journey with all too infrequent stops. Passengers suffered through cramped conditions, rough roads, extreme heat in the summer, intense cold in the winter, and the ever present threat of an Indian attack. At one point in his journey Ormsby wrote, “Our driver’s ambition to make good time overcame his caution and away we went, bouncing over stones at a fearful rate. To feel oneself bouncing now on one hard seat, now against the roof, and now against the side of the wagon was no joke.” Upon arriving in San Francisco, one passenger remarked, “I know what Hell is like. I’ve had twenty-four days of it.”
The Pinery Station, named for nearby forests of pine, had the distinction of being the highest station on the route at 5,534 feet. Nearby Pine Springs supplied all the water needed for horses, drivers, and thirsty travelers. When Ormsby arrived in 1858, the Pinery consisted of little more than a heavy, pine timber corral and a couple of tents. Shortly after Ormsby passed through, a high walled rock enclosure was constructed that protected three limestone walled rooms, a blacksmith shop, and a water tank. The station maintained a change of horses and provided meals of venison pie and baked beans to stage drivers and weary travelers. After the meal, the first weary travelers jolted slowly down the pass on their rough-riding stage. Shortly after sunset, near the base of Guadalupe Pass, the westbound coach from St. Louis pulled alongside the eastbound from San Francisco. The excited passengers and drivers exchanged comments about their history-making encounter. For the brief space of a converstaion, the ends of the continent were connected. But there was mail to deliver; and the stages rolled on as contracted.
The Pinery was one of the most isolated stations on the Butterfield route. It was also one of the most spectacular, being located in the heart of the rugged Guadalupe Mountains. Despite the discomforts Ormsby experienced as he passed through the Guadalupes, he still had the time to marvel at the grandeur of these mountains and to appreciate the beauty of this rugged landscape. Today in our fast paced world of high speed transportation and wireless communications, the Guadalupe Mountains still endure as a wilderness.
Operations at the Pinery Station, 1858
When the conductor, his driver, and their sole passenger made their first call at the Pinery, there was little to see: a stout corral built of pine that had been cut and hauled from the mountains above, and the tents that housed the station keeper and his men. But two months later the station consisted of a high-walled rock enclosure protecting a wagon repair shop, a black smith shop, and the essential replacement teams of fresh horses. Three mud-roofed rooms with limestone walls offered a double fireplace, a warm meal, and a welcome retreat from the dusty trail of the plains below.
Pinery Station was built of local limestone, in a fortress like pattern. High rock walls formed a rectangular enclosure with a single entrance. The three mud-roofed rooms were attached, lean-to fashion, to the inside walls, which afforded safety and protection from Indian raids. These walls, built of limestone slabs and adobe, were 30 inches thick and 11 feet high. The station's water supply came from Pine Spring through an open ditch to a tank inside the station. A stockade of heavy pine posts protected the main entrance on the south. In the southeast corner of the enclosure, a thatched shelter covered the wagon repair shop and smithy. Livestock were kept in the stone-walled corral on the north end.
There was more activity about this station than one might suspect. The station keeper was Henry Ramstein, a surveyor from El Paso. He supervised six to eight men who worked as cooks, blacksmiths, and herders. Four times a week the distant sound of the conductor's horn announced the arrival of the mail coach with up to nine passengers. Express riders dashed through at all hours, road crews stopped off, and tank wagons filled up at Pine Spring, rolling on to fill water tanks along the dry stretches. Freighters and mule pack trains added to the passing traffic.
There were fearful moments, as when an army scout brought word that Indians were sighted in a nearby canyon. All stock was quickly herded inside the station, bars were secured across the entrance gate, and every man stood ready with his Sharp's rifle. At times, soldiers were garrisoned at the Pinery to guard against Indian attacks, which led to stories that this ruin was once a government fort. There was also news of tragic happenings. On one occasion a rider reported that the three men who had built this station were murdered with axes at a mail station in Arizona by three of their helpers. Their construction foreman, St. John, was still living, but had suffered an axe blow that severed his arm. On another occasion an express rider brought news of an Apache attack in Arizona which stopped the mail and left the station keeper and a passing emigrant family massacred.
The Butterfield Mail Coach continued to come through the Pinery for 11 months until August 1859, when this route was abandoned for a new road that passed by way of Forts Stockton and Davis. The new route better served the chain of forts along the southern military road to El Paso, and was better protected against Indian attacks. A total of ten stations were abandoned along the Guadalupe route and 16 were added along the "Fort Trail." But long after its abandonment, the old Pinery Station continued to be a retreat for emigrants, freighters, soldiers, outlaws, renegades, and drovers. It is now a fragile remnant of an early endeavor to span the continent with the first reliable transportation and communication system ever attempted.