Today’s many thousands of commuters race (well, sometimes) up and down the Newhall Pass where Interstate 5 and State Route 14 intersect and almost all of them are probably unaware of one of the simple and primitive ancestors of their commuting routes.
Beale’s Cut was, for decades, the main access point to and from the San Fernando Valley up through “The Grapevine” and the Central Valley. Though long abandoned as a transportation route and hidden from view, the cut, declared a California historic landmark in the early 1990s, sits on private property.
In the mid-1850s as the Gold Rush was beginning to peter out, efforts to improve transportation to and from Los Angeles to the north through what was called San Fernando, or Fremont, Pass included an 1854 contract between the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and William T.B. Sanford and George Carson to build a new road near the existing and difficult to navigate one. Carson, who married into the Dominguez family and is memorialized by the South Bay city named for him, and Sanford evidently built the first version of the cut.
In late 1854, the Southern Californian newspaper, published in Los Angeles, stated that there was a cut in the mountain of thirty-feet depth for the new road. Sanford’s brother-in-law, Phineas Banning, a new arrival in the Los Angeles area and who was building his freighting and transportation business, ran a stagecoach through the cut at that time.
But, travel through the cut required the use of a windlass, a device that employed pullies and ropes to lift animals, wagons and other material through difficult-to-navigate places like the pass. Some sources indicate the windlass was built by Henry C. Wiley, who was the manager of the Mission San Fernando for a few years in the late 1850s and early 1860s, and for whom Wiley Canyon near the pass is named. Harris Newmark, a Los Angeles merchant from 1853 onward, recalled the device in his 1913 memoir, but there is scant evidence about Wiley’s project. Jacob Kuhrts, who penned a short memoir in the 1890s, recalled using the windlass, however, in 1857 when traveling to Los Angeles from San Francisco.
When the famed Butterfield Stage came through in 1858, it appears further work had been done to the cut and published accounts of that first trip by the stage gave some details about the difficulty of the passage, even with whatever work had been done to make travel easier.
Another effort to improve the cut came in 1861 when the California legislature issued a franchise to Andrés Pico, long-time owner of Mission San Fernando and surrounding lands, Assembly member James R. Vineyard (the idea of conflict of interest not being a problem in those days), and Charles H. Brinley to bring the cut down to 50 feet as well as provide for a 20-year franchise to collect tolls.
By the end of the year, however, an unprecedented storm system (the El Niño that we are anticipating this winter) struck California and wreaked havoc throughout the state and at the cut. The 25 January 1862 edition of the Los Angeles Star reported that the road was washed out, as so many were.
In March, the same paper noted that military personnel from Fort Tejon were repairing the road and published a portion of the commanding officer’s report on the project. Mention was made of the cut in the article. It was not, evidently, until late May that the road was fully reopened again.
It was at this time that Edward F. Beale took over the Pico/Vineyard/Brinley franchise and actively initiated work to improve the road and the cut. Beale, a native of Washington, D.C., came to California as a Navy midhsipman with the invading American forces during the Mexican-American War. He traveled several times to and from California and the east and was said to have brought the first proof of gold back east in 1848.
This cabinet card photograph, probably dating to the 1890s, shows Beale’s Cut in what was then known as San Fernando, or Fremont, Pass and is now part of today’s Newhall Pass. The cut survives, though partially filled in, on private property and is a state historic landmark. The photo is from the Lopez Adobe Collection.
After he left the Navy in 1851, Beale stayed in California and became an advocate for a military installation in the Grapevine area, which led to the creation of Fort Tejon a few years later. This proved to be of assistance to Beale’s work as a federal Indian agent, where he established a reservation in the area.
In 1857, Beale was appointed by President Fillmore to conduct a wagon-road survey from New Mexico to the Colorado River at the border of California and what became Arizona and his introduction of camels on that survey gave him his first notoriety. Four years later, Abraham Lincoln appointed Beale the California surveyor-general.
During this period and continuing through the mid-1860s, Beale carefully assembled a massive landholding from several Mexican-era ranchos to develop what became the famed Tejon Ranch, which is largely intact today. With his partner, Robert S. Baker, Beale expanded his real estate empire to include a large portion of Rancho La Puente in the eastern San Gabriel Valley and ocean-front property west of Los Angeles that the two first developed as Truxtun (named for Beale’s father-in-law), but later became Santa Monica.
After Beale assumed the franchise for the toll road, he utilized crews, said to have largely been composed of Chinese workers, to deepen the cut. The 4 April 1863 issue of the Star noted that, while Beale’s efforts to date satisfed the terms of the state charter, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors wanted more improvements. So, a deal was struck between the two parties for further work to the tune of some $17,000.
Still, the county, then mired in a horrible drought following the deluge of 1861-62 and in dire straits economically, pursued even more work at the cut, as reported by the Star at the end of 1863. In return, Beale would receive a greater cut in the revenue from collected tolls.
Finally, the Star‘s edition of 5 March 1864 reported on the completion of the work at the cut and the acceptance of the project by the supervisors–it also listed the toll rates to be collected.
The franchise, however, only proved to be effective for about a decade or so. By the mid-1870s, the coming of the Southern Pacific railroad from the Bay Area to Los Angeles heralded the end of Beale’s Cut as a viable transportation route.
Still, the cut remained in use and photographs from the early 1870s onward, including the one shown here from the Lopez Adobe collection and looking to be from the 1890s, document its appearance in its declining years. In 1902, the first automobile traversed the cut, but it wasn’t long before better roads, designed for the auto age, were being built.
As noted at the beginning of this post, Beale’s Cut is still in existence, though it has been partially filled in by such events as the Northridge earthquake of 1994, and on private property. Its future, even with state historic landmark status, is still uncertain.
As to a Lopez family connection, this is documented through the reminiscences of J.J. Lopez, son of Gerónimo and Catalina, long-time owners of the Lopez Adobe, but whose Lopez Station stop on the road leading to the pass was situated where today’s Van Norman Reservoir is located. Lopez worked at Tejon Ranch for Beale, who died in 1893, and following owners for many years and recalled:
Understand, the cut was made by hand labor with pick and shovel and the use of powder. Even after the cut was made, it was a steep grade to climb with teams and loaded wagons. My father used to keep two span of oxen and a driver there to help pull rigs and wagons and the stages over it . . . teamsters would telegraph my father when they would be at the cut, and he would have double yokes of oxen there to help them make the pull.
Sources primarily include SCVHistory.com, elsmerecanyon.com, the Bureau of Land Management’s Needles field office pamphlet on Beale at: http://www.blm.gov/style/medialib/blm/ca/pdf/pdfs/needles_pdfs/brochures.Par.79254.File.dat/Beale.pdf.