Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

The San Fernando (Newhall) Pass.
10. 1858: The Butterfield Overland Mail.
The Quarterly, Historical Society of Southern California, March 1948.

    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.
    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.2 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.3 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."3
    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,4 but through the Canada de las Uvas [now known as the Grapevine] twenty-five miles to the southwest."5 This brought the mail stages past Fort Tejon on their way into the Tulare or San Joaquin Valley.

1858, June 12. Los Angeles Star. "We understand that Mr. M.L. Kinyon will be here about the 20th of this month, empowered to stock the road and make stations from San Bernardino to San Francisco, for the same company (the Overland Mail). It is the desire, we believe, of the State directors of the company, that the stages should pass through our city, provided the only obstacle to that arrangement, and a very serious one it is, is removed — namely the present condition of the San Fernando Hill and San Francisco Pass.6

1858 May 20. "Editor W.A. Wallace of the Los Angeles Star, who took the hair-raising ride with Banning May 20, 1858, when the latter drove to the post, (Fort Tejon) to be present at the opening of the bids for the new freight contract with the fort, described the route vividly. They left Los Angeles at 4 a.m. At the famous descent over San Fernando Hill they had to get out, lock the wheels of the carriage and lead the horses while three men aided in easing the vehicle down the hill.7

1858, June 12. Los Angeles Star. Continued. A special meeting of the Board of Supervisors was held and "took wise action."
    "In reference to the matter of the improving and repair of the road from Los Angeles to Tejon,
    "Ordered; that a sum not exceeding $3,000 be appropriated from the County Treasury to be applied to the repair of the road aforesaid.
    "Provided first, that citizens of this section of the State will agree to make up in cost the amount appropriated by the Board of Supervisors and receive the warrants on the County Treasury at par, in payment of the amount so paid by them.
    "That a survey be made of the repairs to be made on said road by a competent engineer, assisted by a committee composed equally of members of this Board and citizens of this County. An estimate be made and deposited with the clerk of this Board of the kind and amount of work to be done."
    ... Proposals were to be advertised for ten days and awarded to the lowest bidder, it always being understood the county would appropriate a sufficient sum to make the road passable, but not to exceed $3,000.
    "We have much pleasure in being able to state that the required amount was promptly furnished, thus showing the liberality of our citizens. The amount to be expended will be highly beneficial to the traffic of our county and will remove a serious impediment to the transportation of goods, on one of the most public thorough-fares in the county. The gentlemen who subscribed the amount are, Messrs. Banning, Stearns, Griffen,8 Bachman and Company,9 Mellus, O.W. Childs, Andres Pico and Del Valle."

1858, July 3. Los Angeles Star. "Repairs of Tejon Road. The contract for the repairs of this road ordered by the Board of Supervisors has been awarded to Mr. G. Allen of this city for $3,000. ... The repair of this road was greatly needed; indeed we do not know how such an obstacle to the traffic of the country could be allowed to exist so long by any community. We lately passed over this road and were surprised to find so monstrous an evil existing on the great leading thorough-fare of the southern country."

1858, July 12. Los Angeles Daily Evening Bulletin.10
    "Messrs. Hall11 and Stevens of the Overland Mail Route were in town last week. They are occupied in locating stations (Etc.) between this city and Fort Yuma. Our county has contracted for the improvement of the road north of this between Los Angeles and Fort Tejon at what is called the San Fernando Pass. It is a very bad place, the worst there is anywherc along this portion of the route and it will cost several thousand dollars to make it passable for loaded stages."

1858, July 31. Los Angeles Star. "San Fernando Hill. The operations on this road are progressing favorably — the roadway has been widened and the summit cut down,12 but the appropriation voted for the repairs is not sufficient to make a good road. Nothing as yet has been done on the San Francisquito Cañon."
    Gabriel Allen, the contractor, had also worked on the original road over the Hill, four years before, under the contractors Sanford and Carson. He had put the first Cut through the summit. He now, had also presented the Board of Supervisors with two other recommendations for further improving the road, but the fund voted was insufficient to carry out either recommendation."13

1858, Summer. "The new pass14 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."
    From the report of W.L. Ormsby, reporter for the New York Herald, the only through passenger on the first Butterfield overland stage from St. Louis. It was dated October 13, 1858, San Francisco.15
    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 left 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.

1858, August. 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 Jose and the canvas-covered thorough-fare wagon the rest of the distance."16

1858, Late September. Headlines in New York Herald.

"Overland to San Francisco
Progress of the First Mail.
Four-in-hand Across the Continent.
Thirty-five hours ahead to the Texas Border."

Followed by first letter from W.L. Ormsby, headed,
"in an Overland Mail Wagon
Near Red River, Indian Territory, Sept. 20, 1858."17

    In the fifties, the Bella Union Hotel on Main Street, Los Angeles, just south of the Plaza, was the best hotel the pueblo had to offer. It had started a long, low, one-story adobe, but in 1858 a second story was added,18 perhaps in preparation for heavier stage traffic. The bedrooms above, opened out onto a long porch with a railing; the doors from the rooms below, opened onto the sidewalk.19 The encroachment of a few new brick buildings, added class to the dusty or muddy streets of the pueblo.
    The Bella Union Hotel was the starting point for all stages;20 those of the husky young stage driver, Phineas Banning, racing up, hell-bent-for-Sunday from meeting the ships coming in at San Pedro, the stages that rumbled south along the sea to San Diego, or north over the San Fernando Pass to San Francisco. In 1858 the low, two-story adobe, the Bella Union, became the headquarters for the Butterfield Overland Mail.

1858, October 7. With a flourish and a crack of a great whip, a four-horse team came galloping along the dusty streets of Los Angeles, past the old Plaza, and pulled a rumbling stage-wagon to a sudden stop in front of the Bella Union. It hadn't come in from the north, or the south, or was it the rough, powerful figure of young Banning up on the box.21 This unrecognized, strange, stage-wagon had come in from the southeast, one of the line bringing passengers and mail across rough mountain passes and lonely deserts from the far plains of the middle-west. It was the first Butterfield Overland Mail stage going through, only twenty-one days out of St. Louis22 and 2,391 miles away.23
    Superintendent Kinyon, "through whose energy this line from Tucson all the way to San Francisco had been stocked,"24 was there when the stage pulled up before the old adobe hotel. After all the hard work he had put in, getting expert drivers, station set-ups and corrals25 ready, he must have been tense with excitement as he awaited the arrival of the first mail from the east. He had seen other mail from San Francisco go through quite regularly; in fact, the sixth mail stage that had left there three days before, on October 4th, as it pulled away from the Bella Union with its two through passengers, had met this first in-coming stage over at the edge of town.26 They must have passed each other with a shout.
    No doubt a mixed crowd had gathered in sheer amazement around the stage in front of the Bella Union. Perhaps Don Abel Stearns was there. His long, low adobe El Palacio was only a few doors away. There may have been Don David Alexander and the experienced whip, young Banning himself, in the crowd. Francis Mellus may have hurried over from his adobe merchandise store close by, where Spring and Temple streets meet, and O.W. Childs from his tin-shop on nearby Commercial street. All these men had given money to help put in that new San Fernando road and the cut through the rock on top, not quite four years before; and here was the important United States mail from the far east about to be taken over the new San Fernando Pass for the first time.
    The crowd gathered around the stage would not see the brand-new, expensive Concord Coach27 that started out from Lipton, Missouri, with John Butterfield the president as a passenger for Fort Smith, and young John Jr. at the reins. The change had been made at Springfield, Missouri for the heavier mountain work west to San Francisco.28 The mail wagon that rattled up to a stop in a cloud of dust, before the Bella Union, was like a heavily built express wagon set on leather straps instead of springs. Its top was of canvas. It had three seats, made so that the backs would let down and form one bed which would hold from four to ten people, depending on their size.28 These were necessary accommodations for the stage traveled night as well as day.
    The eastern mail wagon stopped in Los Angeles only long enough to change stages at the stables put up for them. In the wait, young Ormsby had a brief talk with Superintendent Kinyon who was also one of the owners of the stage line. The stock, it seemed, was very good from Los Angeles north, and the best time was to be made in that part of the route, sometimes all of twelve miles per hour, including stoppages. Mr. Kinyon had some excellent drivers on that section.29 When the change of stage was made, with a quick pull from the spirited horses, the Overland Mail wagon again rumbled on, heading for the Cahuenga Pass.30

1858, October 9. Los Angeles Star.

"Arrival of the Mail from Memphis."31
Ahead of the Time.
Through in Twenty-one Days
A hundred guns for the Overland Mail.

    "On Thursday at 1 o'clock p.m. the first through stage of the Overland Mail Company arrived here from Memphis in twenty-one days.
    "Mr. Ormsby, a reporter of the New York Herald, was the only passenger. He speaks in the highest terms of the road and all the appointments. He left New York on the 10th and St. Louis on the 16th; he has private dispatches to the 17th ult.[sic]
    "There was no mail for this city. No papers were received by this arrival.
    "No inconvenience was felt from heat during the journey. Passengers easily become accustomed to sleeping in the stages and are subject to no fatigue for want of sleep.
    "The stage from here, was met on the other side of El Paso — all well.
    "The report of the murder of the Americans by the Mexicans at St. John's Station32 is confirmed. Mr. St. John is alive. The company have offered a reward of $500 for the apprehension of each of the murderers.
    "The prescribed time for running is twenty-six days.
    "The joyful and important event of the arrival of the first through stage from Memphis, was hailed with great satisfaction by our citizens and a salute of a hundred guns was fired in honor of the event, during the afternoon."

1858, October 7. Report of W.L. Ormsby, continued.33 "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 saw33,34 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 Bernardino35 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"36 pass it has been called.

1858, October 9. Approaching the Coast Range to the northwest of Fresno, Mr. Ormsby continues:37 "As we entered the Pachico Pass I had made up my mind to lie down in the wagon and take a nap, as night was fast approaching and I felt much fatigued. I heard the driver and agent — remarking on the rough mountain pass which lay on our way; but after the Guadalupe Pass,38 the Boston Mountain of the Ozark Range,39 the Picacho40 and The New Pass,41 I had about concluded that I had seen all the mountain passes worth seeing on the route and that none could be more difficult or dangerous." ...
    The Cuesta Vieja when Powell made his way over it in 1850, had a hill on the north slope he said, "longer and as steep as any in the Guadalupe Pass" over the Rockies. And in 1858, four years after this new road had been put up a canyon to the west of the Cuesta Vieja with a cut through the rock on its summit, there was Ormsby saying about it too, "after the Guadalupe Pass, the Boston Mountain of the Ozark Range, the Picacho40 and the New Pass,"41 he had concluded "none could be more difficult or dangerous."
    To be classed as one of the four most difficult and dangerous passes the stage of the Overland Mail had struggled through in crossing the country, was a doubtful honor for that new San Fernando Pass.

1858, October 10. Mr. Ormsby's report, continued.42 "It was just after sunrise that the city of San Francisco hove in sight over the hills, and never did the night traveller approach a distant light, or the lonely mariner decry a sail with more joy than did I the city of San Francisco on the morning of Sunday, October 10.
    "As we neared the city we met milkmen and pleasure seekers taking their morning rides, looking on with wonderment, as we rattled along at a tearing pace. Soon we struck the pavements and with a whip, crack and bound, shot through the streets to our destination, to the great consternation of everything in the way and the no little surprise of everybody.
    "Swiftly we whirled up one street and down another, until finally we drew up at the stage office in front of the Plaza, our driver giving a shrill blast of his horn and a flourish of triumph for the arrival of the first overland mail in San Francisco ... just twenty-three days, twenty-three hours and a half ... from St. Louis. ... And I had the satisfaction of knowing that the correspondent of the New York Herald had kept his promise, and gone through with the first mail, the sole passenger and the only one who had ever made the trip across the plains in less than fifty days."

1858, October 9. The Washington D.C. newspapers reported:
    "The President has received a telegraphic dispatch from John Butterfield, President of the Overland Mail Company, dated St. Louis, Oct. 9, informing him that the great overland mail arrived there today from San Francisco, in twenty-three days and four hours, and that the stage brought through six passengers.
    The President's reply by telegram:

    "John Butterfield, President, Etc.,
    Sir — Your dispatch has been received. I cordially congratulate you upon the result. It is a glorious triumph for civilization and the Union. Settlements will soon follow the course of the road, and the East and the West will be bound together by a chain of living Americans, which never can be broken.
    James Buchanan"43

    Notwithstanding the short, terrific grade Mr. Ormsby of the New York Herald had found the new San Fernando Pass, it had been much traveled in the four years since it was put up the canyon. It stood, as the Cuesta Vieja before it, the only outlet into the country to the north. Local traffic between the large ranchos had used it; hunters going up into the Lake Elizabeth region and bringing down wagons of jerked deer or antelope meat.44 Traders had gone up it with their supplies; the soldiers from Fort Tejon crossing and re-crossing the tough grade on their patrols.
    All those years too, Alexander and Banning had regularly driven their stages and heavy wagons of freight over the stiff climb, to Fort Tejon, and beyond, into the Kern river mining country high in the Sierras. Nevertheless Don David Alexander after a rough trip, had often declared "that this is only a pack-mule country; that none other than a mad-man would attempt the passage of these mountains with wagons, and if he did any more freighting hitherward, it would be in the only practicable way, by pack-mules."45
    Right up to the time the first stage of the Butterfield Overland Mail took the New Pass, on its way up the coast, for two months, three times a week, the company's stages from San Francisco had labored over the Pass on their way down, then struggled up it on their way back. There must have been many hair-raising adventures; none of them however seem to have survived in print.
    But if Reporter Ormsby's letter published in the New York Herald gave publicity to the precipitousness of the "New Pass," it must have brought good results. The capable superintendent, Mr. Kinyon, seems to have set to work at once to improve the road. In his hurried attempt some success evidently followed, as letters sent back to San Francisco show.

1858, October 21. Two weeks later than Mr. Ormsby's trip.

"Los Angeles, October 21,
4 o'clock p.m.

    Editor of the San Francisco Bulletin: We have just arrived at this place. There are six passengers, including one lady; all in good health and spirits. The road this far has been good. ... This has been the 'stiffest' traveling I ever did; ... The road has been a little better than we were prepared to find it. The passengers have all learned to sleep 'off-hand,' or as they can catch it. Judging from the past, I think we shall have a pleasant enough time through.
    J.P. Mitchell."

1858, November 6. One month later than Mr. Ormsby's trip.

"Los Angeles, Nov. 6, 1858.

    Editor of the San Francisco Bulletin: In order to accommodate the way travel, and facilitate the mail, the Overland Mail Company are running an extra trip per week between this place and your city. ... The road is the finest to make time on, I have ever seen, in dry weather; but the portion between Kern river and the St. Luis Ranch may prove troublesome in wet seasons. ...

    There was no mention in either of the above of the troublesome San Fernando Pass!


1. W.L. Ormsby's report. Overland Mail. Book One, p. 13. Walter Lang.
2. Other contractors, Wm. B. Dinsmore, J.V.P. Gardner, Alex Holland, and Hamilton Spencer. Pp. 9-13. The First Overland Mail. W.L. Ormsby report. W.B. Lang.
3. Ibid. p. 13.
4. Tejon Creek Pass.
5. Report to the Hon. A.V. Brown, Postmaster General from G. Baily, Special Agent. Oct. 18, 1858, Washington, D.C. Overland Mail, Book One, p. 16. Walter Lang.
6. San Francisquito Canyon.
7. Story of El Tejon, Part Two. p. 97. Arthur Woodward.
8. Dr. John S. Griffin, 1856 Superintendent of first public school, owner of San Pasquel Rancho on which Pasadena was built. 1862 sold part of acreage to Benjamin D. Wilson. Sixty Years in So. California, pp. 106, 237, 316.
9. Felix Bachman, pioneer shop-keeper and trader. 1859 with others organized Library Association. Ibid. pp. 61, 66.
10. From the files of Mr. Arthur Woodward.
11. "Mr. Warren Hall ... an experienced stage man. ... Mr. M.L. Kinyon ... received much assistance from him." W.L. Ormsby's report. The Overland Mail. Book One, p. 95. Walter Lang.
12. This was evidently a deepening of the first Cut, or the Second Cut made.
13. Los Angeles Star. July 31, 1858. The same article.
14. "New Pass" in contradistinction to the Cuesta Vieja or old pass.
15. The Overland Mail. Book One. p. 83. Walter Lang.
16. The Overland Mail, Book One. p. 101. Walter Lang.
17. The Overland Mail. First Book. p. 37. Walter Lang.
18. Sixty Years in Southern California. Harris Newmark, pp. 26 and 227.
19. Ibid. Picture of Bella Union 1858. p. 27.
20. The Butterfield Stage Route. Roy M. Fryer. Historical Society of Southern California Publication. March, 1935.
21. Sixty Years in Southern California. Harris Newmark, p. 23.
22. The Overland Mail. Book One. Walter Lang. pp. 32, 54, 95.
23. Ibid. Book Two. p. 64.
24. Ormsby report. The Overland Mail. Walter Lang. Book One. p. 38.
25. The Overland corrals were where the Los Angeles Times building now stands. Overland Mail. Walter Lang. Book Two, p. 65. Location of Times building, First and Spring.
26. Ibid. p. 95.
27. Ormsby's report. The Overland Mail. Book One. p. 38. Walter Lang.
28. Ibid. p. 41.
29. Mr. Ormsby's report. Book One, p. 95. Overland Mail. Walter B. Lang.
30. The Butterfield Stage Route. H.A. Spindt. Historical Society of Southern California, The Quarterly. June 1936, p. 41.
31. The mail route as accepted, "From St. Louis, Mo. and from Memphis, Tenn., converging at Little Rock, Ark." Book One, p. 16. Overland Mail, Walter B. Lang.
32. Dragoon Springs, about seventy-five miles east of Tucson, Arizona. The Mexicans, "then attacked St. John (Mr. Silas St. John of New York) who defended himself with his pistol, though severely wounded and drove them off." The Overland Mail. Book One, p. 54. Walter B. Lang. Mr. Ormsby's report.
33. First Overland Mail. Walter B. Lang, Book One. p. 95.
34. General Don Andres Pico still lived in the old Mission but also had a town house, an adobe facing the Plaza.
35. Over the Cajon Pass, crossing the Mojave desert to the Tejon Creek Pass.
36. William Tallack, passenger on Overland Mail. Ibid. p. 140.
37. Overland Mail. Book One. Walter Lang. p. 99.
38. The Guadalupe Range in New Mexico and Texas.
39. A spur of the Ozark mountains in Arkansas.
40. The Picacho Mountain is some fort miles northwest of Tucson, Arizona. At the time of W.L. Ormsby's report, 1858, it was in New Mexico, Arizona not yet having been formed.
41. The new San Fernando Pass.
42. The Overland Mail. Book One, p. 101. Walter Lang.
43. The Pony Express. Arthur Chapman, p. 71.
44. The Valley of San Fernando. D.A.R.
45. Reminiscences of a Ranger. Major Horace Bell. p. 328.
46. The Overland Mail. Book One. Walter Lang. pp. 79, 80.

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