Chap32 Passes


The Charter-Hemphill Story



Chapter 32

Google Earth shot of the San Fernando Valley and the surrounding mountians. Mountain passes and today’s highways that use them are marked.
Fig. 26.47. The Santa Susana and San Gabriel Mountains on the north and west side of the Valley were formidable barriers before the advent of modern highways.

Before the advent of railroad tunnels and modern highways, getting in and out of the San Fernando Valley was quite trecherous and not for the faint of heart, with the one exception being the junction of the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys at the south east corner of the San Fernando Valley. Called The Narrows (a geographer in 1934 called it the Glendale Gap). This is the path used by the Los Angeles River to exit the Valley as it proceeds from the San Fernando Valley through Los Angeles to its mouth in Long Beach. Today Glendale sits at the center of this pass.

In 1769-1770 it was serrendipity that led the Portola Expedition over all four of the major passes of the San Fernando Valley, passes undoubtedly used by the Chumash berore them. Their objective was to establish two Presidios and missions nearby—at San Diego and at Monterrey Bay. They traversed two on their way north (Sepulveda and San Fernando) and another two (Simi, now known as Santa Susana, and Cahuenga) on their return south to San Diego. Leaving San Diego they reached today’s Pacific Palisades, where the cliffs made passage impossible. They retreaded their path for about four or five miles, then turned north at what became known as Sepulveda Pass, used today by I-405 aka the San Diego Freeway.

Traversing the Santa Monica range, they passed into the San Fernando Valley at today’s Encino—oaks—, which it is named for. There, they found a large village of friendly natives, where stayed the rest of the day. There they were camped when native messengers, aware of the their aims, arrived saying they would guide them north through the best pass in the mountains.

Portola wrote, “The 7th [August] we proceeded for three hours crossing a canyon. We halted at the foot of some hills where there was sufficient water and pasture.” Was he refering to the San Fernando Valley as a canyon? Maybe, it’s twelved miles across at those two points, so three hours on horseback to cross the valley seems reasonalbe. Maybe something was lost in the translation.

Fig. 26.48. Artist's rendering of the Portola Expedition

“The 8th we proceeded for six hours over one of the highest and steepest mountains [San Fernando&rbrtack; and halted in a gully where there was much water and pasture” (the Santa Clarita Valley presumably).

Miguel Costanso, Engineer of the expedition wrote, “Part of the way we travelled through a narrow canyon, and part over very high hills of barren soil, the ascent and descent of which were very difficult for the animals. We descended afterwards to a little valley where there was an Indian village.”

The Expedition explored the Monterey Peninsula for a couple of days, but the harbor glowingly described by Vizcaíno could not be found. Eventually they turned around and started back to San Diego. On their return trip they used the San Simi Pass, now called Santa Susana Pass, which enters the Valley at present-day Chatsworth and is also the route followed by the coastal Southern Pacific Railroad. They exited the Valley over the Cahuenga Pass, the route of present-day U.S. 101 Highway, also known as the Hollywood Freeway. 

The San Fernando pass was used again in 1795 in search of the site for the San Fernando Mission.

Fig. 26.49. Wheels and parts of a carreta

A merchant and one of the leading Dons of Santa Barbara, Don Francisco Badillo, had a hacienda and several carretas, or home-made wooden wheeled cart common at that period, these being the only means of conveyance they had with ox-teams driven by Indians. In 1836, the Don’s son Pedro, accompanied by his father, made his first visit to Los Angeles in a train of several carretas. On this journey he “found the Camino Viejo in a fair state of preservation, with the exception of the road over the divide of the San Fernando Range which was dangerous; it was merely a trail, but he went over it safely and arrived at Los Angeles where Don Francisco Badillo purchased his supplies…

“The carretas were well loaded and on his return trip he took the route along the River la Porciuncula, [Los Angeles River] then through the San Fernando Valley past the Mission on to the canyon where their troubles commenced. At the foot of the grade, in some way or other he hitched three pair of ox-teams, and the horsemen with their lariats, one end attached to the rig, the other to the horns of the saddle, at the signal all pulled together and in this way assisted in pulling the carretas up the steep grade.”

In 1840, young Pedro was old enough to manage some of his father’s business and he was put in charge of a train of carretas to journey to Los Angeles for supplies of merchandise. On this trip, at the heavy grade of the divide, one of the carretas and ox-teams went over the precipice and in the fall two ox-teams were killed.

Fig. 26.50. A team hitched to a carreta in 1915 Mexican post card

In 1842, Don Francisco Lopez, brother of Don Pedro Lopez, Mayor-domo of the San Fernando Mission and himself Mayor-domo of Francisco Rancho, in the month of March 1842, discovered Placerito Canyon that led into the foothills of the north slope Santa Susana Mountains.

Lopez, with a companion, was out in search of some stray horses and about mid-day they stopped under some trees and tied their horses out to feed, they resting under the shade; when Lopez with his knife dug up some wild onions and in the dirt discovered gold and searching farther, discovered some more. He brought these to town and showed his friends who at once declared there must placer of gold.

It was therefore, over the steep, dangerous trail of the San Fernando Pass, sometimes called the Cuesta Viejo, or old incline,  the excited Don Francisco urged his wiry mustang, to bring to the pueblo de Los Angeles the first pieces of gold of importance discovered in California.

It was over the Cuesta Viejo also, that gold was carried from these placer mines, to be the first from California sent to the United States Mint at Philadelphia.

Fig. 26.51. John C. Fremont, crossed the San Gabriels through Frémont Pass (later confused with Beale's Cut, which was about a quarter-mile to the west)

John Charles Fremont, wrote in Memoirs of My Life, “We entered the Pass of San Bernardo, [San Fernando] on the morning of the 12th, January, [1847] expecting to find the enemy there in force but the Californians had fallen back before out advances and the Pass was undisputed. In the afternoon we camped at the Mission of San Fernando, the residence of Don Andrés Pico who was at present in chief command of the California troops.”

Harris Newmark wrote in Sixty Years in Southern California: “As early as 1854 the need of better communication between Los Angeles and the outside world was beginning to be felt… A rather broad trail already existed there (the Cuesta Viejo), but such was its grade that many a pioneer, compelled to use a windlass or other contrivance to let down his wagon in safety, will never forget the real perils of the descent. For years it was a familiar experience with stages, on which I sometimes traveled, to attach chains or boards to retardy their downward movement; nor were passengers even then without anxiety until the hill or mountain-side had been passed.

Fig. 26.54. This must be the new San Fernando Pass road, it is inscribed Beale's Cut

“In the summer of that year (1854), *he Supervisors - D. W. Alexander, S. C. Foster, J. Sepulveda, С Aguilar and S. S. Thompson - voted to spend one thousand dollars to open a wagon road over the mountains between the San Fernando Mission and the San Francisco Rancho.

The Southern Californian, Los Angeles, August 7, 1854 reported: “Another place [other than the Cuesta Viejo] was selected by taking another short canyon to the southwest of the old road; here the grade was lower.”

Daily Alta California, San Francisco. August 22, 1854 reported: “A road has been cut through the solid rock, affording a fine wagon track where here-to-fore a pack-mule could barely scramble!”

The venturesome and civic-minded men in the pueblo, young and old, most of them carrying on their business from their small adobe stores, and backing up the opening of the new pass over the San Fernando Mountain. There were also gladly received smaller donations from others in the pueblo as listed, in the general contributions of “sundry persons.”

Fig. 26.55. San Fenando Pass road. A paved road can be seen next to the old road.

Then there was the County itself; Don David Alexander, as chairman of the Board of Supervisors, with S. C. Foster, J. Sepulveda, С Aguilar and S. S. Thompson, that summer, had already voted $1,000 for the County, to further the building of the new wagon road over the San Fernando Mountain.

The January 4th Southern Californian, Los Angeles reported: “The San Fernando Road is highly spoken of as being one of the finest in the whole country.”

If the road over the new San Fernando Pass was not announced ready for use by the newspaper, the Southern Californian, December, and Gabe Allen, the road builder himself, did not pronounce it open until January, but the impetuous young stage-driver Phineas Banning,[1] with the daring of his twenty-four years, had taken his chances on going over sometime in December, before the announcement of its opening.

He was a bridegroom of only a month and a brand new in-law to W. T. B. Sanford, the contractor who had given him job in California. In the mad tumble of his coach and flying mustangs he must have been quite conscious of what he had done. He wrecked a part of Sanford's new road. No wonder he sent back in hot haste for help from his partner Don David Alexander and asked him to send up fifty men to the San Fernando Pass. He was in a hurry to have put back in shape again the parts of his new brother-in-law’s road that in his wild descent he had “knocked out of joint.” But that stage, with young Banning himself on the box, was the “first stage that ever went out of the Valley of the Angels to astonish the aborigines in the mountain fastnesses beyond.”

Fig. 26.56. Beale's cut at the summit of the pass

Remembering back almost thirty years, Major Horace Bell[1] who was twenty-four himself at the time, said that the brush into which the young Banning ended his impetuous descent, twenty years later was cleared away for the tunnel of the Southern Pacific railroad.” The new road to Fort Tejon, as we have seen, in December 1854 then a “trail going over the San Fernando Pass.” It is about a mile to the southeast of the Southern Pacific tunnel. The Cuesta Viejo was still further to the southeast, from the San Fernando Pass.

Fig. 26.57. Beale's Cut is the only physical and cultural feature of its kind in the entire Los Angeles Basin. At the time of its construction in 1863, the actual creation and maintenance of the Cut was considered a significant technological and physical feat consisting of breaching the former impassable geogrphic barrier of the San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountian ranges.

The January 25, 1855 Southern Californian wrote: "The pass over the San Fernando Mountain is now travelled by heavily loaded teams, and through which all the supplies for the Indian Reservation and the Military Post at the Tejon will in future be received.”

Fig. 26.58. Juaquin Murrieta-Did he exist?
Click his image and learn more

From The Early Days of Mý Episcopate, by the Right Rev. Wm. Ingraham  Kip:

Monday, Oct. 8. Captain Gardiner had sent down from Fort Tejon (about a hundred miles distant) in a large heavy wagon, for no other is adapted to the mountain passes through which our road leads. It was drawn by four mules, and had Bell, a Dragoon as driver, who was well acquainted with the country. Bell was well armed, and all the gentlemen with me had their rifles and revolvers…The country through which we pass is infested with California and Mexican outlaws, whose trade is robbery and who will often shoot down a traveler for the sake of a horse on which he is mounted. Our friends in Los Angeles warned us, when we left the vehicle to walk, as we were often obliged to do for miles at a time, not to straggle off, but to keep together.

Leaving Los Angeles at eleven o'clock, "we shortly passed through a chain of hills, and then again over the plains for seventeen miles. Not a living object was seen for hours till, towards evening, the coyotes came out and we saw them loping along as they followed with their long gallop…Night closed before we reached our destination. We drove on, sometimes in darkness, ‘ill the appearance of a single light a long distance ahead, showed that we were approaching habitation.

Fig. 26.59. Toll house for collecting tolls to use pass

After a time we reached enclosures, the first we had seen leaving Los Angeles, and found ourselves at the Mission Fernando. The buildings are the most massive I have seen in this country. Along the whole front runs a corridor which must be three hundred feet in length, supported by heavy square, stone pillars. Some of the apartments are forty feet long, reminding me of old castellated mansions in the south of Europe.

We had letters to Don Andrés Pico, the present owner of the Mission, and as he was absent, presented them to his Major-domo who treated us with all the hospitality in his power. We had Spanish supper, olla porida, frijoles and tortillas with native wine.

It was seven o'clock before we left the Mission and after proceeding a few miles we reached the San Fernando Pass where the road has been cut through a deep defile in the mountains. Here we had to get out and walk for some miles and the scenery was the wildest have ever seen since I have crossed the Alps. How our heavy wagon was to get over was a marvel to us. At one place was a ledge of rocks almost perpendicular about four feet high down which plunged as if it would turn over and crush the mules while we involuntarily held our breath as we looked on.

In the pass, two Indians on horseback met us as we were walking and were loud in their demands for money, till some of the gentlemen allowed their arms to be seen, when their tone was moderated considerably. Had my companions been unarmed, it was evident they would have no scruples about enforcing their wishes. After passing the hills our course lay for twenty-two miles over a level plain.”

Harris Newmark wrote: “We left Los Angeles early one afternoon and made our first stop at Lyon's Station where we put up for the night. One of brothers after whom the place was named, prepared supper.”

This is the first known reference to the stage station which stood at the foot of the north slope of the San Fernando Mountain. It was in a meadow close to the roads coming off the Cuesta Vieja and new San Fernando Pass. The site is considered to be the open near the stream, on which Colonel Fremont and his army had camped nine years before. The stage station was run by Sanford Lyon and brother Cy who raised sheep around in the foothills. Many tired, dusty travelers over the steep grade of the new pass, stopped for the night in the low adobe, or for a hot, man-sized meal cooked by one brothers.

Fig. 26.60. When Camels Roamed the American Southwest—The U.S. Camel Corps (1856-1866)

Congress previously had sanctioned the bringing of a herd of camels into the country on the recommendation of the then Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, and Lt. Beale himself. In the building of the Great Wagon Road, they were to be used as freight carriers on the desert. Their ultimate destination was Fort Tejon, California, over the road Lieutenant Beale had previously surveyed.

In late December, 1857, the weirdest caravan ever seen in the entire country passed by Lyon Station, like a circus parade, and stepped gingerly and awkwardly up the north slope Fernando Pass. There were fourteen hulking camels who strained their long necks and bulging eyes as they ambled through the high Cut. Their small hooves, geared for heavy desert sand, perhaps had become used to rough going from their westward trek over Rocky Mountains. But never such a pass as the San Fernando had these ships of the desert tackled before.”

Fig. 26.61. A U.S. Army camel stands outside the Drum Barracks [2] at Wilmington, California. next to San Pedro. Note that while Arabian camels have only one hump, the artist who touched up this photograph mistakenly added a second hump to the camel's back.

There was “the ledge of rocks almost perpendicular, feet high” down which Bishop Kip's empty wagon had plunged years before; the place, where a short time ago that same year, Jacob Kuhrts had to use “four yokes of cattle and a windlass” his team over the pass. The camels had to scramble up it long loose-jointed legs, heavy packs and all. They must have and pensively chewed their cuds and gazed mournfully steep, twisting slope of the pass, where they knew they their way. They must have had some sharp prodding from boys “Greek George” and “Hi Jolly” (Hadji Ali) to egg then cautiously they would swing their long necks and humped bodies around the sharp curves of the pass down San Fernando Valley.

Fig. 26.62. Freighting strings belonging to Remi Naceau are captured here in Soledad Canyon. The wagons tall and narrow design enabled them to fit through the canyon passes such as Beale's Cut, the only passable road through the San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountain ranges.

There they would be seen quite some way off in the rising dust, ambling swiftly along over the plains, past the old Mission and on into the pueblo. In the Los Angeles Star, January 8, 1858, this item : “General Beale and about fourteen camels stalked into town last Friday week and gave our streets quite an Oriental aspect. It looks oddly enough to see, outside of a menagerie, a herd of huge, ungainly, awkward but docile animals move about in our mist, with people riding them like horses, bringing up weird and far-off associations to the Eastern traveler ... of the burning sands and Sahara.”

After the Cuesta Viejo was abandoned in 1855, the new San Fernando Pass became the only outlet for the growing pueblo of Los Angeles over the mountains to the country in the north, and the only road even for the big city as late as the early 1900s. Its oil men struggled up the grade and through the deep cut in those queer new contraptions called autos, to the oil wells just blowing in, to the west of Bakersfield.

The Butterfield Overland Mail

In the year 1858 plans were being made for a venture that would shake the country with its daring. It was an overland mail service under contract with the government for $600,000 yearly, for semi-weekly service to bridge the wild, uninhabited regions of the western United States. The starting point was to be St. Louis, Missouri, then to the southwest following along the 32nd parallel to Fort Yuma; from there to Los Angeles and up the coast to San Francisco.

Fig. 26.63. John Butterfield, a son of the founder and driver of the first west-bound stage.

This startling project was fathered in New York City by men “of wealth, energy and ability.” The organizer was John Butterfield, a sturdy pioneer of early stage driving through the mountains of New York. During the gold rush in 'forty-nine, he had risen to be head of his own express company, sending freight from New York by sea, then across the Isthmus of Panama and up the Pacific coast. He was prominent enough to be well known by President Buchanan who was also a New Yorker.1

Among the seven men interested in the new overland mail venture, was William G. Fargo of the Wells, Fargo Express Company who had been associated with John Butterfield in his American Express Company. Of interest to the West, there was Marcus L. Kinyon, a man of quite some ability and an experienced stage man also. He was made superintendent of the line between Tucson and San Francisco.

The Butterfield Overland Mail was destined to bring together “the extremes of a nation separated heretofore by time and distance but now to be united by the facilities of rapid communication. To accomplish the latter the service was to be performed with ”good, four horse coaches or spring wagons, suitable for the conveyance of passengers as well as the safety and security of the mails.

Fig. 26.64. The Butterfield Overland Mail

Traveling through great stretches of wild, uninhabited land open to dangerous Indian attacks and holdups, the mail route followed the line of military posts across the country for protection. To do this the mileage in some places exceeded greatly that specified in the contract with the Overland Mail Company… The first of these divergences occurs in California. Crossing the Sierra not at Tejon Pass, but through the Canada de las Uvas [now known as the Grapevine] twenty-five miles to the southwest. This brought the mail stages past Fort Tejon on their way into the Tulare or San Joaquin Valley.

1858, Summer. “The new pass between Los Angeles, California and Fort Tejon, California has been much improved under the Superintendence of Mr. M.L. Kinyon, as have also been other portions of this route. The route of the company will of course be a favorite emigrant route and will therefore be kept in better order than before; in fact each month will add new facilities to the overland mail.”

Fig. 26.65. Waterman L. Ormsby, first through-passenger on the Overland Mail stagecoaches.

From the October 13, 1858 report of W.L. Ormsby, reporter for the New York Herald and the only through passenger on the first Butterfield overland stage from St. Louis:

“San Francisco. No doubt the work the tireless superintendent, Mr. Kinyon and Gabriel Allen for the county, had done on the pass, was to knock out as much as possible the precipitous ledge of rock with its four-foot drop, there on the north slope; the one that had right Bishop Kip breathless three years before as he watched the mules and heavy empty wagon plunge over it. Where Jacob Kuhrts only the year before, coming in from the mines on Slate Range, had had to use ‘four yokes of cattle and a windlass’ to get his team and wagon over. It must have been at that ledge as recently as May of 1858, that Captain Banning and Editor Wallace had chain-locked the wheels of their carriage while three men eased it down.

Evidently the road was so improved by the work done that in August the Butterfield Overland Mail began running stages three times a week from San Francisco, letting them rock and bump their way over the steep grade of the San Fernando Pass as best they could. In October W.L. Ormsby reported in his letter, “The Overland Mail Company through the energy of Mr. Kinyon, have been running a tri-weekly stage between San Francisco and Los Angeles for two months, using the Concord Coach to San José and the canvas-covered thorough-fare wagon the rest of the distance.”

This stagecoach is typical of those which rolled between Southern California communities as the area boomed in the 1860s and 70s.

October 7. 1858, The report of W.L. Ormsby, continued:

Our first change was nine miles from Los Angeles. Fifteen miles further, we changed at the old Spanish Mission of San Fernando, which is marked on Colton's maps. It was built for the Indians and consists of a number of low ranches; the remains indicate that it was once a fine adobe building, with large pillars in front, and a fine belfry and fountain. A niche in the center of the building contains a fine piece of old statuary.

Part of the building is now used as a stable for the company's horses; and the only inhabitants we saw were a few Indian women, washing in a little brook that gurgles by, who giggled in high glee as we passed with our beautiful team of six white horses — two more than our usual allowance, in consideration of a heavy cañon and pass which lay in our route…

The road leads through the new Pass, where it strikes the old road from San Bernardino to the Tejon Pass of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The cañon road is rugged and difficult. About the center of the Pass is, I believe, the steepest hill on the whole route. I should judge it to be full 800 feet from the level of the road, which has to be ascended and descended in the space of a quarter of a mile.

Perhaps my idea of the distance is not correct but certainly it is a very steep hill and our six horses found great difficulty in drawing our empty wagon up. The road takes some pretty sharp turns in the cañon and a slight accident might precipitate a wagon load into a very uncomfortable abyss. At the bottom of the cañon is the smooth, sandy bed of a creek which was now dry.

If Mr. Ormsby was not quite correct in his judgment that the high hill was fully 800 feet from the level of the road and had to be ascended and descended in the space of a quarter of a mile, he was close enough to it for us to form a picture of the road's abrupt rise and the sharp turns in the “short but very stiff pass it has been called.”

”In the afternoon we entered the San Fernando Pass, a short but a very stiff one. Here our vehicle stuck fast in a narrow gorge. The horses could not move it, though aided by ourselves. Happily there was a waggon [sic] just behind us, whose team we borrowed, and, by dint of pulling and pushing all together, we soon got up the ascent.“

An English author, William Tallack, left San Francisco on the Butterfield Overland Mail June 14, 1860, returning to Europe from Australia.

Fig. 26.66. Lopez Station, San Fernando Valley, 1860s

The writer often felt doubtful as to how far he might be able to endure a continuous ride of five hundred and forty hours, with no other intermission than a stoppage of about forty minutes twice a day, and a walk, from time to time, over the more difficult ground, or up and down stiff hills and mountain passes, and with only such repose at night as could be obtained whilst in a sitting posture and closely wedged in by fellow-travelers and tightly filled mailbags…

“This was the only time during the journey that we came to a deadlock, and it was also the only time that we were travelling in company with another vehicle going in the same direction.”

“On emerging from the San Fernando Pass we came to a new aspect of country and vegetation, and to a population retaining more of the Spanish and Mexican element than Northern California, as indicated by conversation and wayside notices in the Spanish language, and by the style of dress and prevalence of adobe houses.”

Lopez adobe.

During the era of General Andrés Pico at the San Fernando Mission, early in the 1860s, Geronimo Lopez and his wife Catalina moved to a tract near the mission and built a large adobe home. Here Lopez maintained a stopping station for the twenty-mule teams of Remi Nadeau, who operated between the Pueblo Los Angles and the Cerro Gordo mines in Inyo County.

By 1860, Lopez station also served the stage line which made two trips weekly to the Valley from Los Angeles by way of the Cahuenga Pass, today the route of the Hollywood Freeway. It also served as the Valley’s first post office, store, and the first English-speaking school. There were also stations serving the Overland lines which crossed the northwest (Chatsworth) and western (Calabasas) ends of the Valley during the later 1850s. The Chatsworth station connected Los Angeles with Santa Barbara via the Santa Susana Pass.Yet while the Lopez Station formed a continuing link with the world outside the Valley, it was not until the railroad came in 1874 that the pace of life quickened.

Enter the Octopus

Fig. 26. Rapid growth intensified as the Southern Pacific in 1876 completed a 6,975-foot tunnel through the hills to the north.

On September 5, 1876, Charles Crocker drove in a golden spike with a silver hammer near today’s Palmdale to celebrate the completion of the Southern Pacific Railroad in California. This monumental day would not have been possible were it not for the completion of the San Fernando Railroad Tunnel by a crew of about 1,000 Chinese workers (and 500 others) in the summer of 1876. After the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad linking California with the eastern half of the United States on May 10, 1869, the "Big Four" entrepreneurs of the Central Pacific Railroad — Crocker, Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkins, and Collis Huntington — set their sights on connecting Northern and Southern California via the Southern Pacific Railroad.They began buying out smaller railroads in California, including the San Francisco and San José Railroad, run by the future founder of Newhall, California, Henry Mayo Newhall.

Fig. 26. Chinese railroad builders

The railroad builders decided on a route stretching from San Francisco south through California's Central Valley, then penetrating the Tehachapi mountains through the Tehachapi Pass (in which they built the famous Tehachapi Loop), then south through the Mojave Desert passing through what are now the town of Mojave and the cities of Lancaster and Palmdale, and then threading through Soledad Canyon into the Santa Clarita Valley. To the south of Santa Clarita, the plan was to build a line from Yuma, Ariz., on the Colorado River through the desert and into the San Gorgonio Pass, (the route of  I-10  between San Bernadino and Palm Springs&41; then passing along the southern edge of the San Gabriel mountains into Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. Another branch line was to be built connecting to Anaheim and San Diego.

Fig. 26. San Fernando tunnel through the San Gabriels for the Southern Pacific's San Joaquin Line

One great challenge remained. There was no way to build the railroad over the San Gabriel Mountains, which formed a formidable barrier between the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys. Hence was hatched a plan to bore a tunnel through the mountains under the San Fernando (or Fremont) Pass, where the mountain range dipped to its lowest point before joining with the Santa Susana Mountains to the west. Prior to this time, the only way to get across these mountains was at Beale's Cut, constructed by Lt. Beale in 1863.

The Big Four had originally planned to bypass Los Angeles altogether. The city had a small railroad built by Phineas Banning in 1869 connecting Los Angeles with the harbor at San Pedro. The citizens of Los Angeles had higher aspirations and desired to connect their 21-mile railroad with the rest of the country. In July 1872, former California Gov. John G. Downey sat down with Stanford and Crocker and worked out a deal to bring the Southern Pacific into Los Angeles. The Southern Pacific would, in exchange, get ownership of the Los Angeles & San Pedro Railroad, with rights of way to extend the line to Anaheim and Pomona. By 1874, that railroad was extended to the new town of San Fernando where it terminated for about three years before the tunnel was completed. A small depot was built and six-horse stages met the daily train to carry passengers through the San Fernando Pass, sometimes called Fremont Pass, and on to the San Juaquin Valley.

Southern Pacific Timetable showing stagecoach line through the San Fernando Pass before the tunnel was completed.
The Santa Susana Pass
The Devil's Slide

As Simi Valley is on the other side of the Santa Susana Mountians from San Fernando, it was originally called the Simi Pass. It was a precarious passage cut throught the rocks of Simi Hills and the Santa Susana Range in 1860. In 1859, the California Legislature appropriated $15,000 (with additional funding provided by Los Angeles and Santa Barbara Counties) towards improving the old wagon road into a new stagecoach road. The precipitous portion of the route down from the summit on the San Fernando Valley side was called the Devil's Slide; horses were usually blindfolded and chains were used to augment brakes on the steep descent. Passengers debarked and walked.

Continuing complaints of dilatory steamship mail service led California to agitate for overland mail delivery. John Butterfield’s Overland Mail began running a twice-weekly, twenty-five-day schedule between San Francisco and the railheads of Menphis and St. Louis. The roundabout route by way of Yuma allowed year-around operation but probably also reflected the postmaster-general’s sectional orientation. The well-managed line operated regularly, often ahead of schedule, and by 1860 the stages were carrying more mail than the steamers did. The coaches required eighty hours to cover the route between San Francisco and Los Angeles, via Pachero Pass, Visalia, and San Fernando Pass, so the average speed was only about five miles per hour.

The Devil's Slide

The outbreak of the American Civil War in 1861 disrupted mail service along the Butterfield Overland Mail's southern stagecoach route from St. Louis, Missouri via El Paso, Fort Yuma and Los Angeles and on to San Francisco via the Tejon Pass, which had begun its run in 1858. To compensate, the government contracted the Butterfield Company to carry mail between Los Angeles and San Francisco via the new wagon road over the Santa Susana Pass. The first overland mail stage run through the pass took place on April 6, 1861. It was an important artery linking the Los Angeles Basin and inland Ventura County, and was part of the main route for travel by stagecoach between Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1861 until the opening of rail traffic between the cities in 1876. The route later passed through a series of owners who offered indifferent service until a competent superintendent took charge in 1868, a year which the coast line began providing daily departures using 272 horses and 23 stages.

The Old Santa Susana Stage Road was a route taken by early travelers between the San Fernando Valley and Simi Valley near Chatsworth, California, via the

At first, staging was by spring wagons drawn by mustangs or mules, but soon experienced stage operators imported better livestock and Concord coaches. The Concord's curved ash body rested on long leather thoroughbraces that divided the 2,500-pound weight of the coach into two parts, reducing the shock of a rough road and making it easier for the team to start the coach. Nine to twelve passengers rode inside, and up to a dozen more on the flat roof. On difficult roads, stage operators substituted thoroughbraced “mudwagons” that were canvas-roofed, lighter and lowerslund than the Concords.

Santa Susana Pass. It was an important artery linking the Los Angeles Basin and inland Ventura County and as such, was part of the main route for travel by stagecoach between Los Angeles and San Francisco from 1861 until the opening of rail traffic between the cities in 1876.

Passengers had mixed opinions about stage-travel. Passengers who found the jarring, shaking ride excruciating nevertheless enjoyed the scenery, found the rapid pace exhilarating, and admired the drivers skill. Some passengers objected to the their fellow passengers’ constant spitting and foul language, and complained of clouds of choking dust. To makde uphill grades easier on the animals, passengers were expected to get out and walk, and the men were expected to push. Accidents were accepted as unavoidable hazards of travel. Top-heavy coaches overturned and tumbled down ravines, and rough roads sometimes threw drivers from their boxes, but despite broken bones, they were often able to regain control of their teams. passengers were advised to stay aboard a runaway coach; when coaches overturned, injuries were often limited to bruises and scratches. In wet weather, deeply rutted, muddy roades, washouts, and rain swollen fords slowed travel or stopped it altogether.

Chatsworth coastline track constructioin, ca. 1900

A new wagon route bypassing the deteriorating Devil's Slide was opened in 1895 to the north . Initially called El Camino Nuevo, it was later named the Chatsworth Grade Road, which continued in use until Santa Susana Pass Road (now Old Santa Susana Pass Road) was built in 1917. This was the first automobile route between the San Fernando and Simi Valleys. It also was the main northbound 'coast road' to Santa Barbara and San Francisco, until the Conejo Grade in Ventura County between Conejo Valley and the Oxnard Plain on "Camino Real Viejo" (now U.S. Route 101), was improved by 1929.

(1900) This is the "Toluca Flyer" at the Lankershim Station in 1900.

In 1895, the Sothern Pacific opened a branch line in a northwest direction across the Valley to Chatsworth. The Chatsworth Limited made on freight stop a day at Toluca, thought the depot bore the name of Lankershim. With the Post Office across the street called Toluca, controversy over the town’s name continued and the local ranchers used to quip, “Ship the merchandise to Lnakershim, but the bill to Toluca.” in 1896, under pressure from Lankershim, the post office at Toluca was renamed “Lankeshim” after his father, although the new name of the town would not be officially recongnized until 1905.

Chatsworth tunnel dig

The Southern Pacific Railroad began construction of three railroad tunnels through the pass in 1900 and opened the route in 1904. The railroad built the Santa Susana Depot in Rancho Simi on Los Angeles Avenue at Tapo Street in 1903. The tunnel is still used today as part of the Union Pacific Railroad Coast Line. Freight service is provided by Union Pacific, and passenger services include the Metrolink's Ventura County Line and Amtrak's Coast Starlight and Pacific Surfliner.

Chatsworth is one of the earliest settlements in San Fernando Valley and has had its own U.P. Post Office since 1890.

Before and after view of one of the three tunnesl. This on is on the Chatsworth side.
The Southern Pacific Railroad opened a 17-mile branch line from Burbank to Chatsworth in 1893. They extended the branch westward in 1904, eventually forming the Coast Line. The 1893-built station was a typical style: a two-story wooden depot with a longer one-story freight house. It was replaced with a similar larger station in 1910, and burned in 1917; the newer station was demolished in 1962.
Southern Pacific Coastal Route train passing through Santa Susana Mountians near Chatsworth
Chatsworth Hotel just north of the train depot, 1890-1958
A view of the Center of Chatsworth, now Topanga Canyon Blvd. looking north. Horse drawn wagons and cars share the street. It was the center of town about 1900. The Graves and Hill Store on the left, was owned by Jess Graves, one-time sheriff of Chatsworth, and Lovell Hill.
Chatsworth Park train tunnel. Park has been dropped from the name.
Chatsworth Tunnel, 1963.
Cahuenga Pass

Paseo de Cahuenga is a low mountain pass through the eastern end of the Santa Monica Mountains and the alleged route of El Camino Real and today’s  U.S. 101 . It was also the site of two battles: the Battle of Cahuenga Pass in 1831 (a fight between local settlers and the Mexican-appointed governor and his men; two deaths), and the Battle of Providencia or Second Battle of Cahuenga Pass in 1845 (between locals over whether to secede from Mexico; one horse and one mule killed). Both were on the San Fernando Valley side near present-day Studio City, and cannonballs are still occasionally found during excavations in the area.

The Cahuenga Pass was used by the Pacific Electric to bring the electric street cars, commonly called the “red cars,” to the valley.

View showing a group of people who have stopped to camp and cook something along their journey through Cahuenga Pass. Other horse-drawn wagons pass them on the road.
View of Cahuenga Tavern in the 1870s, also known as Eight Mile House because Los Angeles was eight miles down the road; it was in a stand of eucalyptus trees inside the canyon
Early travel throught the Cahuenga Pass, which connected Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley, was done on bicycles by some.
Cahuenga Pass on the San Fernando Valley side. (ca. 1890) The road was narrow enough so that if two teams of horses met, the heaviest one won, the lighter had to back down. Lightning would hit the horses during storms and was considered a very dangerous pass to cross.
Tracks are being built through the hills of the Cahuenga Pass as shown on the right side of the picture. On the lower road can be seen supplies coming and going by teams of horses and wagons. (ca. 1911)
In 1911, General Sherman (as he was called) added the extraordinary steetcar line. Built over the Cahuenga Pass, through North Hollywood to the 1911 town site of Van Nuys, and on to the 1912 town site of Owensmouth, now Canoga Park. Along with the steetcar line, Moses Sherman also built the "$500,0000 boulevard" named Sherman Way next to the tracks all of which were key to the development of the Valley. By 1912, 45 minute streetcar service from Van Nuys to downtown and the "no speed limit" paved road (if you could get your "Model A" to do 30 mph) were key selling points.
L.A. Times photo showng sightseers checking out the new Pacific Electric trolley line being built in the Cahuenga Pass between Hollywood and the San Fernando Valley
The original April 9, 1911, Los Angeles Times caption reported:
Electric Line to Van Nuys Through Cahuenga Pass. This picture shows the railroad as now laid to the highest point in the gap between which unites Hollywood with the rich San Fernando Valley. The road will be in operation early in the summer. Express trains connecting the town of Van Nuys iwth Los Angeles will make only one stop, Hollywood.
Cars travel on the road past a sign reading "This is Hollywood." Below and to the left is the rail line, which also goes through Cahuenga Pass. A trolly car is traveling on the tracks
View of Cahuenga Pass looking east towards Hollywood. On the left are railroad tracks, and paralleling them on the right is the road for cars.
View of the broad highway on Cahuenga Pass—the lowest through the Santa Monica Moutains—that connects the Los Angeles Basin to the San Fernando Valley. The hills are truncated where they were excavated for the road bed. A street vendor is setup on the curb and although the utlility poles are standing, the electric cables have not been strung. A roll of cable sits next to a pole, left.
Arial viw of Cahuenga Pass looking northwest. Whitley Heights is at the left. The Hollywood Bowl is located at center left (out of view).
Panoramic aerial view of Hollywood showing the Cahuenga Pass as it heads toward the San Fernando Valley. The major street running from bottom left diagonally up towards the Cahuenga Pass is Highland Avenue.
Panoramic view looking toward the southwest corner of Cahuenga (left) and Highland Ave. (right). Streetcars and automobiles share the road at this busy intersection. A Texaco service station stands on the corner with the Hollywood Roosevelt Plaza Hotel behind it. (Note: this hotel is not related to the famous Roosevelt Hotel on Hollywood Blvd.) In 1937, to relieve traffic congestion at this busy Cahuenga and Highland intersection, a tunnel was bored under Highland Avenue. Note: A large construction boring tractor can be seen at the center of the photo.
Soon to be gone and replaced by buses, a Pacific Electric redcar between the divided highway lanes.
The Caltrans freeway replaces the steetcars.
Rush hour on Cahuenga Pass. Maybe those passes in the old days weren’t so bad after all.

End Notes

[1] Phineas Banning (1830-1885) was a Yankee pioneer known as the “Father of Los Angeles Harbor” for his efforts to build a port for landlocked Los Angeles. He started out in San Pedro in 1851 as a teamster hauling people and goods to Los Angeles. He soon replaced ox cars with stagecoaches and wagons. With contracts to supply government posts in Tejón, Yuma, and Tucson, he off-loaded boats tied up at the San Pedro mud flats. Devoting himself to harbor improvements, Banning began to buy up land in anticipation of developing a deep-water port for Los Angeles. He named Wilmington after his hometown in Delaware. With a state subsidy he constructed a rail-line running from the tidewate to Alameda Street near the Plaza in downtown Los Angeles. This first rail line in Southern California was later incorporated in the Southern Pacific system and was bargaining chip in securing SPs mainline came to Los Angeles. His resisdence, a handsome two-story Georgian structure built in Wilmington in 1864, is now a public museum.

[2]Horace Bell (1830-1918) local color writer, adventurer, and humorist from Indiana who, after a stint in the gold fields, settled in Los Angeles in 1852. After adventuring in South America and serving as a Union army scout in the Civil War, he returned to Los Angeles and became a lawyer and edited the satirical paper Porcupine. He became the city’s first subdivider by buying and selling town lots. His book Rememberances of a Ranger (1881) is the first memorable piece of literature written about Southern California, followed by a posthumous collection, On the Old West Coast. The local histories presented in the books should be taken with a grain of salt, since Bell deliberately distorted real events for literary effect.

Primary Sources

  • Daggett, Stuart. Chapters on the History of the Southern Pacific, The Project Gutenberg EBook, 2015,, Original Pub. The Ronald Press ocmpany, 1922, New York
  • Hodges, Hugh T. “Charles Maclay: California Missionary, San Fernando Valley Pioneer.” Southern California Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 1986, pp. 119–166. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  • Hodges, Hugh T. “Charles Maclay: California Missionary, San Fernando Valley Pioneer.” Southern California Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 2, 1986, pp. 119–166. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  • Hodges, Hugh T. “Charles Maclay: California Missionary, San Fernando Valley Pioneer: PART III.” Southern California Quarterly, vol. 68, no. 4, 1986, pp. 329–363. JSTOR, Accessed 10 Dec. 2020.
  • Roderick, Kevin.The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb. Los Angeles, Los Angeles Times Books, 2001.