John and Sarah Gifford's home at the north end of Pine Street, completed in 1884. Is that Sarah in the doorway?
John Gifford. From artwork in SCV Historical Society collection. Click to enlarge.
John Timothy Gifford (Feb. 14, 1847 - Oct. 15, 1922) was Newhall's first railroad agent and telegraph operator. Born in Cincinnati, Ohio, to Pennsylvanian parents, he's first known to us in 1871 when he was a line rider for the Western Union, covering the territory from Los Angeles to Lake Elizabeth (Scorza & Wright 1876-1926:32). In 1875 he was placed in charge of the north-side crew that dug the Southern Pacific Railroad's 6,940-foot San Fernando train tunnel through Railroad Canyon.
While Gifford's crew tunneled south, another crew tunneled north. They met in the middle July 15, 1876, and Gifford, evidently an experienced telegrapher from his Western Union days, tapped out the news from Lyon's Station: "Daylight shines through the San Fernando Tunnel" (Reynolds 1992:50). When the first locomotive came though a month later, on Aug. 12, 1876, the red-haired, hazel-eyed telegrapher — who stood just 5'1¼" tall — waxed poetic: "The iron horse poke its head through the San Fernando Tunnel this evening at six o'clock and neighed long and loud his hearty greeting to the citizens of the Santa Clara Valley" (ibid:52).
By this time, Gifford had taken the English-born Sarah Beckwith (b. Oct. 16, 1853) as his bride. According to Maggi Perkins (2010:64), the couple married in 1875 in San Diego. The 1880 Census shows they had two children: a girl, Mabel, age 4 (later Mabel C. Taylor), and a 1-year-old son, Edwin E. Born Dec. 3, 1878, "Eddie" succumbed to scarlet fever one day shy of his seventh birthday, on Dec. 2, 1885.
The Southern Pacific Newhall Depot opened for business Sept. 6, 1876, the day after Charles Crocker drove the golden spike at Lang Station to open the line. The Newhall depot was "a small, box-like structure painted yellow with brown trim" (Reynolds 1992:55) at today's Bouquet Canyon Road and Magic Mountain Parkway, roughly where Saugus would be established 12 years later. The Giffords' home was a boxcar parked on a siding (ibid). Mabel, born Nov. 3, 1875, was the first child to live in Newhall (Scorza & Wright, op.cit.).
It turned out to be a bad place for a town when the drought hit and the wells ran dry. In January-February 1878 the townsfolk picked up sticks and replanted them at today's downtown Newhall, not far from a place known to have so much water, oil workers were pumping it to Mentryville six miles away. A bigger train station was set up at the northeast corner of Market Street and Railroad Avenue — by sheer coincidence the exact location where there Jan Heidt Newhall Metrolink Station would come later — and a substantially similar building was erected across Market Street as a shipping warehouse.
The Giffords spent $125 on two lots (Reynolds, op.cit.) and moved into a new, board-and-batten home due east of the depot, across the tracks, on April 16, 1884 (Scorza & Wright, op.cit.). The 1929 feature film, "Code of the West," gives a good sense of the proximity of the depot to the house; watch Philip Scorza's encapsulation of the Newhall sites in the film here or the entire film here. The house sat at the northern end of Pine Street. It survived into the 1960s (Maggi Perkins 2010:65); then it was turned into a parking lot for Anawalt Lumber Co. Today (2014) the Newhall Community Center's parking lot occupies the site.
John Gifford retired as the SPRR's Newhall telegraph operator in 1912. (He was simultaneously the local telegrapher for Wells, Fargo & Co., which operated out of the depot, and for the Telegraph Stage Co.). He drew a monthly pension from SPRR; in September 1919, as an example, he wsa paid $27.30. Following his death in 1922, Sarah remained active in civic affairs and was a leading lady of the community. On Dec. 6, 1944, she christened the S.S. Newhall Hills, a 16,000-ton Navy oil tanker (Scorza & Wright, op.cit.)
Sarah died three months later, on March 6, 1945. Both Giffords are buried below an upright family headstone in the Garden of Pioneers at Eternal Valley Cemetery — almost the exact spot where John Gifford had used the telegraph 46 years earlier to announce the completion of the train tunnel. John and Sarah's daughter Mabel joined her parents in the family plot upon her death, May 27, 1962; Mabel's husband, Louis B. Taylor (Jan. 2, 1873 - Sept. 12, 1951), was already there.
1. The 1880 Federal Census says John Gifford was born in Ohio. He registered to vote in Los Angeles County on April 28, 1888, and on June 2, 1896, and at other times, and consistently indicated a birthplace of Ohio. The 1910 Census says New York. The 1920 Census says Cincinnati. We pick Ohio here simply because it far outweighs New York.
2. Sarah's maiden name sometimes appears as Reckward or Rickward.
3. See obituary.
4. At least in 1882, according to a Los Angeles County Directory for that year.