Plenty of towns that dot the California landscape can claim a piece of the state's celebrated history in gold, oil, transportation and filming. Santa Clarita is no exception, but for one thing. In many respects, Santa Clarita is where it all started.
Long before there were stagecoach lines, the Santa Clarita Valley was an important crossroads along ancient Indian trade routes. North met south and east met west at a craggy rock formation named, much later, for bandido Tiburcio Vasquez.
About AD 450, the Shoshone-speaking Tataviam, or "People of the Sunny Slopes," settled into several autonomous tribelets. Little is known about their Chumash predecessors. The Tataviam lived in brush huts, ate native plants and small game, and practiced a supernatural shamanism.
The Spaniards who arrived on horseback one hot August day in 1769 must have seemed supernatural to the Tataviam. Traversing California on a quest for mission sites and military encampments, the Portolá expedition crested the valley's southern edge and named her wild river for St. Clare (Santa Clara). The river was later called the "little" Santa Clara, and the valley accordingly took the name of Santa Clarita.
Spanish soldiers returned in 1804 to establish an estancia, an agricultural outpost of the San Fernando Mission, at Castaic Junction. They conscripted the peaceful Tataviam to work the mission lands.
The arrangement didn't last. Revolution erupted in Mexico. The new government granted the 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco, covering western Santa Clarita and eastern Ventura County, to one Lieutenant Antonio del Valle. Three years later, a Del Valle relative made a sensational discovery.
Schooled in mineralogy in Sonora, Mexico, José Francisco de Gracia Lopez systematically scoured the terrain, believing it hid substantial gold deposits. His theories proved correct. Legend tells us that Lopez, waking from a nap under a gnarled oak tree near Placerita Creek, found gold nuggets clinging to the roots of some wild onions. However accurate the legend, Lopez did make the first documented discovery of California gold on March 9, 1842 six years before James Marshall pulled his famous nugget from John Sutter's Mill.
Word spread. Prospectors from Sonora flooded the valley. The mini-gold rush was still underway when America declared war on Mexico.
The United States honored the former Mexican land grants under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The Del Valles could keep their rancho, and Antonio's son, Ignacio, even served in the state legislature. It was not war, but drought, that brought down the Del Valles' cattle and sheep ranching empire.
The peace made strange bedfellows. In 1863, victorious U.S. General Edward F. Beale's troops cut an enormous, 90-foot-deep swath through Newhall Pass, improving the major north-south transportation linkage. The road project had been started by Beale's old battlefield adversary, Mexican General Andrés Pico.
News of oil in the area piqued Beale's interest, and Pico knew the Santa Clarita Valley as well as anyone. In 1865 the two generals hooked up and acquired many of the valley's plentiful but unproductive oil claims. The venture failed. What was really needed was someone with the technical expertise to drill a functioning oil well.
That man was Charles Alexander Mentry. The French immigrant had drilled 42 successful wells near Titusville, Pennsylvania, and came to California on a hunch. He applied the latest techniques to Pico Canyon, where by the summer of 1876 he was pumping 30 barrels of oil a day from "Pico No. 4." It was the first successful oil well in the West.
The local refinery, erected in 1874 near Sanford Lyon's stagecoach station, was insufficient for all the oil that soon flowed from the nearby canyons. In 1876 the "Pioneer Oil Refinery" was moved to Pine Street and expanded. Another first, it was the only productive refinery in California.
No longer were mule teams needed to transport oil. Chinese laborers just finished digging the 6,940-foot San Fernando Tunnel, then the third-longest in the nation, and that meant only one thing. The railroad was coming.
The previous year, San Francisco entrepreneur and railroad tycoon Henry Mayo Newhall purchased the old Del Valle rancho at a Sheriff's sale. He sold a right-of-way to Southern Pacific for a dollar, and a town site for another dollar.
August 12, 1876 saw the first iron horse lumber through the San Fernando Tunnel into the little town of Newhall. On September 5, Southern Pacific president Charles Crocker hammered a golden spike through the rails at John Lang's homestead in Soledad Canyon. San Francisco and Los Angeles came together in Santa Clarita.
Newhall grew into a railroad flag stop of general stores, saloons and churches. Saugus spanned an enormous territory punctuated with family ranches. The Sulphur Springs school district, formed in 1872 in an area now called Canyon Country, was only the second such district in Los Angeles County.
Santa Clarita's topography lent itself to early filming. Silent screen stars like William S. Hart and Tom Mix used the valley to create the traditions that would define the "Western."
Hart built a palatial residence in Newhall and grieved with the rest of the town when tragedy struck at three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928.
An immense wall of water crashed down San Francisquito Canyon, decimating Saugus ranches and points west as it coursed to the Pacific Ocean. William Mulholland's great St. Francis Dam, designed to hold imported Owens Valley water, had burst. In its wake lay more than 450 dead bodies. It was California's second-worst disaster, after the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
Disaster of a lesser sort struck an ill-fated locomotive as it meandered through Saugus near Hoot Gibson's rodeo arena, a.k.a. the Saugus Speedway. On November 10, 1929, outlaw "Buffalo" Tom Vernon derailed Engine No. 59 and staged one of the last train robberies of the Old West. The engine on its side, Vernon collected the passengers' valuables and vanished. Captured in Oklahoma, he died soon after his 35-year incarceration.
Santa Clarita's Western roots shaped her ultimate transformation into a vibrant community of safe streets, award-winning schools, new technologies and thriving industries. More than simple landmarks of yesteryear, today the Hart mansion, Heritage Junction, Mentryville, Vasquez Rocks and the Placerita Nature Center vividly demonstrate the ways in which the people of Santa Clarita are preserving the past for the benefit of the future.
The writer thanks Ruth Newhall for her editorial assistance.