It was sometime in the year of 1878 that the first shovel full of dirt was dug for the foundation of the Southern Hotel in the newly laid-out town of Newhall, California. Near Newhall and about 35 miles north from Los Angeles, the Southern Pacific Railroad had but recently completed the long San Francisco Tunnel for its rail line to San Francisco. The locomotive, passenger and freight, had superseded the stage but a short time; while the freight wagon, with twelve to twenty horses pulling it and several trailers, was partly eliminated. Yet the Haskell stage line operated stages between Newhall and Santa Barbara in the 1880s.
Mr. D.W. Field soon had a general store as well as the hotel in operation. There were seasons during the elusive five years when he shipped more wheat from Newhall Rancho than was moved from any other town or center in California. One of the most impressive visions one can imagine was a waving, undulating, mighty field of wheat all headed out, 15,000 acres in extent. Then the general store where every shelf was an inspiration, each article of dazzling beauty and wonder.
It was usual in those days for Mexicans, white men and Indians to purchase goods and pay in gold dust or nuggets taken from a buckskin pouch. Most of this gold looked like crushed grains of yellow wheat. It came from Placerita Canyon, just over the low range of hills and across the railroad tracks from Newhall. Some people maintain that this was the discovery point of gold in California. Today gold panning can still be carried on in Placerita Canyon with real good results.
Placerita Canyon was a paradise in the springtime with manzanita and yucca blossoms on white shafts, and wild cherry, sage and chaparral. There were yellow, white and red poppies, too. Here the miners used picks, shovels and pans before the summer heat dried up the winter streams. Today, we still roam some of the areas, but there were wild areas where you could hunt game.
Henry Mayo Newhall of San Francisco owned this paradise. The Newhall and adjoining San Francisquito Ranchos comprised many thousand of acres in those days. He also had the Suey Rancho and the Todo Santos near Santa Maria, the Pijo Rancho and the Santa Miguelito towards the ocean from Salinas and King City. Each of these made almost a small empire, and the cattle, wheat and products made him a generous profit, except in the dry years.
At Newhall, the Pico Canyon oil field was old and established in 1880 to 1883. A pipeline was run from the oil fields to the Newhall refinery. George Campton conducted another general store in Newhall in 1880. Mike and John Powell ran the largest saloon. It was whispered that they had been slave traders in the south before the Civil War. It was said the people in those days shivered and exulted over that disclosure.
Johnny Gifford was the station agent at the depot, and John Webber the most liked conductor on the train running to Los Angeles. During those years, this big mustached man became a police commissioner in Los Angeles, and quite a power in politics. He was really the ideal of all the Newhall citizens who had their first ride on the train to the city of Los Angeles. This city [Los Angeles], by the way, had then but sixteen thousand inhabitants.
Murder was almost a common thing in the early days. A poke of gold and a smile from a señorita was enough to urge the drawing of a glistening blade, the quick fire of a sixgun or perhaps a cap and ball pistol. Many a wicked glance had been beheld as the gold was weighed on the scales at the Newhall store, or as a señorita flashed her smile at occasional dancers. Often the young rancheros and miners took their girls to San Fernando for these festivities, or the San Fernando people would come to Newhall.
It was about this time too that Tiburcio Vasquez, the highwayman, was gaining his unsavory but romantic reputation in Southern California.
In 1883, Mr. Ben Field went for a visit, by invitation of Mr. Seals, owner of Borax Lake, to the famous deserted stronghold of mining and industry. Proceeding from the Mojave by buckboard, he stopped for one night at the Coyote Hole station and camp. His heart quickened when the many bullet holes in the walls and doors were pointed out to him.
"What made them?" he asked the kindly frontier wife.
"Vasquez," she replied. "He held us up and took all the money we had."
The next day they proceeded to their destination, passing twenty mule teams loaded with borax along the barren desert roads. Borax Lake was a very active mining center. A few miles away were gushing fresh water springs, trout flashed in the pools and fruit trees were growing.
Now, in 1989, in Placerita Canyon, where once the gentle fawn and scurrying rabbits and quail beheld men and women bent over their gold pans at the stream banks, black gold is pumped from the earth, and a park is there.
The lazy and happy "mañana" is no more. Old California is almost forgotten but it is sometimes revived with tale and song. Helen Hunt Jackson penned her "Ramona" and has immortalized the story, bringing championship to the wronged and downtrodden Indians of the Southwest. I can almost see her seated at the window of the old Belleview Terrace Hotel that was torn down some time ago on the site of the present Jonathan Club building at the northwest corner of Figueroa and Sixth streets in Los Angeles. There she wrote those immortal lines which were a romance of the Camulos Rancho.
All of these seems very vital and interesting to me, because in the old Newhall days people were urged to go to the Camulos Rancho about twenty miles northward. Here, at the home of the kindly and hospitable Del Valles, Ramona was born and raised. Here, Alessandro loved her and from here he took her away. It was not so many years since Friar Junipero Serra had trod his road past Camulos to Santa Barbara and beyond. He and his little band of Franciscans would rest for the night at this hacienda. Besides the Señor and the Señora Del Valle was Maria, the beautiful daughter, and Reginaldo, the gallant elder son who later became Senator Del Valle, and still later, one of the head men in the great Los Angeles and Owens Valley aqueduct enterprises.
Ah, yes, we would like to go back again to those dear old California days, marked now on the padres' El Camino Real by signpost and bell and cross. They lend an inspiration to the impetus of building the West in the days of old and the days of gold.
Originally published as "Gold in the Placerita Canyon and the Early Days of Newhall," Gold Prospector magazine (official publication of the Gold Prospectors Association of America), September 1989 · Reprinted by permission.
- Placerita Canyon was the site of the state's first documented gold discovery, on March 9, 1842. [BACK]
- Not likely. Prior to the Civil War, John F. Powell was a Navy lieutenant who liberated slaves in Africa. After the war, in 1875, he became the area's first Justice of the Peace. Mike Powell ran the saloon. [BACK]
- Vasquez was hanged in 1875, but his legend lived on. [BACK]
- Ramona and Alessandro were fictional characters, influenced in part by the Del Valles and Camulos when Jackson stopped there during an 1882 journey. [BACK]
- The Camulos Rancho did not exist in Serra's time. [BACK]