It seems to have been a lucky break for the oil men who were to bring in those distant oilfields, that the automobile appeared almost at the same time. They were queer looking contraptions, first with one or two cylinders and then with four. They had no bumpers and no windshields. There was a crank between the front wheels to start them with, a horn honked by a rubber bulb, and acetylene gas headlights that flickered dimly and only lit up the immediate ruts in front of them, on the rough mountain roads they were taken over.
In the early nineteen hundreds it may have been the urgent necessity of the oil men to be independent of the railroads that helped the automobile industry in southern California to push forward.
1902. In 1902, young Ralph Hamlin,1 an expert driver of racing cars, had an agency in Los Angeles. He was dickering with an oil man in the San Joaquin Valley to sell him an Autocar. The Autocar Company importantly advertised that "In this car, all controlling levers are assembled at the steering post. Wheel, gear shift, clutch, throttle and spark control are within finger-reach, so that the operator need never take either hand away from the steering post." The best selling point was in the conclusion. "This arrangement ... makes this car easier and simpler than a horse to drive."
The hesitating purchaser of this remarkable invention lived at McKittrick. It was a small, lonely oil town, among a few oil derricks, in the brea beds at the terminus of the Southern Pacific Branch line to the west of Bakersfield. Notwithstanding the fact the car was "simpler to drive than a horse," the oil man decided to close the deal only if Mr. Hamlin would drive the Autocar up for him. He knew too well the rugged mountain ranges that were to be crossed before they reached the level stretches of the San Joaquin Valley.
The road they would have to follow, out of Los Angeles would be the same old emigrant road used by the early pioneers as they drove their herds of cattle, or rocked along in high-wheeled stages, up steep passes and through sandy streambeds in the many canyons. The drivers of those small two or four cylinder autos were pioneers themselves as they made their hard way over the mountains.
The courageous oil man from McKittrick came down by train to take the trip back with Mr. Hamlin in his brand new Autocar. They started in the darkness of two o'clock in the morning to escape the heat. They had crossed the San Fernando Valley when daylight broke, and reached the foot of the grade.
The old Pass was being aroused from its long years of lethargy. Familiar epithets were to be hurled at it once more, not by whip-cracking, shouting stage-drivers and teamsters, but by queer-looking men clothed in dusters, their eyes, under deep-visored caps, covered by huge leather and glass goggles, and their hands, by leather, elbow-cuffed gauntlets.
It proved quite impossible for the chugging, straining small Autocar to make the hard, upward grade towards the deep Cut. The gas tank on those early autos was higher than the carburetor but if a hill was too steep the tank was tipped so low it stopped the flow of gasoline.
No team of horses ever had the trick tried on them that young Hamlin played on the Autocar. To put the gas tank higher than the carburetor he backed that auto up the long, rough, twisting road. If, with a jolt, the plucky engine died, one of the men jumped out and grabbing the emergency shovel they carried along, pushed under the wheels stones or whatever else he could scrape together from the roadbed, to block them.
When the summit was finally reached and the Autocar was turned around, what a roar the exhaust of the motor made as it reverberated between the towering sandstone walls of the old Cut! It was an easy matter then, only hard on the brakes, for the car to slide down the north slope of the grade.
On its way at last, the Autocar took the stiff, emigrant road through San Francisquito Canyon, crossing the rushing stream thirty times or more. Past Elizabeth Lake and the old adobe stage station3 it went, into the Antelope Valley, then through the high, windy Tejon Pass. It went chugging by the adobe ruins of the old Fort, there, under the trees. The old Spanish name, Cañada de las Uvas, had long ago been forgotten. It was down the steep Grapevine Grade the little Autocar turned and twisted. It crossed the bleak San Joaquin Valley on rough roads or no roads at all, down into hidden gulches and up again. It took a long, tough day and a black night interspersed with the howls of coyotes, to reach McKittrick from Los Angeles. "Those were grueling [sic] roads," Mr. Hamlin said.4
1904, July 19. Los Angeles Times.
"Dangerous Road: A serious accident occurred on the steep and dangerous grade of the San Fernando Pass road yesterday, when Mr. Van Dusen of Castaic started to drive down the slope on the Los Angeles side. He had a pair of horses and a heavily loaded wagon filled with oilwell casings, and when about half way down the brake failed to work and horses, wagon, and the iron casing rolled and tumbled into one conglomerate heap at the foot and Mr. Van Dusen only saved his life by taking a flying leap to the roadside. He escaped unhurt but one of his horses for which he had just paid $150 was killed out-right and the other was crippled, and the unfortunate owner is of the opinion that the removal of the main line of travel to one of the neighboring canons would be advisable."
The fact a Mr. Van Dusen from Castaic, had a bad spill on the "San Fernando Pass road" in 1904 made the headlines of the city newspaper could hardly have had anything to do with the new work put on the old grade about that time. It is probable accidents of that sort had occurred most consistently on the treacherous, worn out old road. It was the result of the heroic efforts those small, early autos had made to take the grade. They had bucked its steepness and quick turns, its hub-deep dust or mud, with the constant danger that churning wheels would slide them off the soft shoulders into the deep, rain-worn gullies on either side.
So once more around 1904 men were put to work to lessen the grade by deepening a few feet, the towering sides of the Cut. They put fills in the sharply curving old road. Then they graded it and rolled into its surface, oil from the nearby oilfields. They did the best they could to make it an easier job to drive those shining, brass-trimmed, classy autos over the old turnpike road. It was running true to form, it was still the only road the autos could take from Los Angeles to reach the oilfields on the Kern river, and the new ones coming into the desolate valley to the west of Bakersfield.
The road, even after that, was a tough enough grade to be attempted by very few but seasoned drivers. It was still far beyond the skill of any new purchaser of an auto to make the steep grade. There was a scarcity of agencies in the San Joaquin Valley, the nearest one to the metropolitan district in Los Angeles, being at Fresno. Because of the great distances, the oil industry was becoming more and more dependent on these early autos. In order to capture the trade in the Valley, the Los Angeles dealers many times offered to deliver the car on the other side of the Cut. This served two purposes. If the car couldn't make the old grade, after all, who would want it then?
Coming down from the San Joaquin Valley to Los Angeles by train, the purchaser and the dealer, quite often an experienced racer, would set out together for the hard road over the mountain. When the grueling climb to the summit of the Pass had been as skillfully negotiated as was possible for an expert driver, and the performance of the new auto was well, it got them up the grade, didn't it? Then the deal was closed, friendly satisfaction on both sides.5
The new owner must have departed not without qualms. There remained many miles of rough and steep roads to go over. It shows how tough a pull the old grade still was, if that was the only portion of the Bakersfield road to call for an expert driver.
The item in the Los Angeles Times, in 1904, concerning Mr. Van Dusen's accident on the old road spoke of it as "the San Fernando Pass road." That late, into the beginning of the nineteen hundreds, it formally still bore the name of the old Mission.6 In 1854 it had been transferred by the citizens of the small pueblo from the Cuesta Vieja to the New Pass when the first cut was put through the rock on the high ridge of the hills.
As men struggled to drive those early autos across the mountain and through the growing little town of Newhall just on the north side of the grade, the San Fernando Pass seems to have lost its time honored name it was located more easily, by simply calling it the Newhall Grade.7 And as the Newhall Grade it was a test of the power of any car put on the market. Some couldn't make it. They chugged along fine on the open road but even in the early nineteen hundreds, the Newhall Grade sometimes proved to be the swan song of an enthusiastic dealer, with a possible purchaser sitting beside him.
The old name, San Fernando Pass, that had made history as being one of the worst passes across the country, may have been unconsciously put aside, but the road leading to the high Cut through the towering walls still stood before even the most experienced drivers, an obstacle into the country to the north, to be crossed only by hard driving.
In 1902 there was put on the market, a car called the Holsman.8 It had high, buggy wheels with slender spokes, and the light body of a buggy; in fact it looked like a buggy except there was no horse! The Holsman was a sensible auto in a way, because, looking like a buggy, there was less danger in frightening the country teams that met it on the road. Until 1908 and perhaps longer, it survived the competition of the new designers putting cars on the market who decided a vehicle that looked less like a buggy, was the proper auto body in which to put a motor.
1908. In 1908 the Petroleum Development Company9 of the Santa Fe railroad, owned a Holsman. There had been sound reasoning back of its purchase. Its advertisement read: "Oldest Buggy Makers in America. High Wheels Travel All Roads Because All Roads Are Made To Be Traveled By High Wheels." It was "Winner in Algonquin Hill Climb. First and second places Motor Buggy class Greatest Hill Climbing Event in America." It was "equipped with solid rubber tires ... all ready for the road."8
These were the qualities advertised that seemed to make the Holsman especially adapted to oil men with property in the great, wide stretches of the San Joaquin Valley. The high buggy wheels were good for cutting cross country where there were no roads at all and brittle, gray, sagebrush grew tall and scraggly. They were good for crossing mountain streams when the winter rains loosened large boulders, tumbling them into the creek bed that had to be crossed many times. The Holsman would have no need of side-stepping these.
One of the main values of the high wheels and chassis was in driving it over the wagon roads. Years of travel had left high centers in the much used roads, caused by the deep ruts on either side, worn down by great wagon wheels and the tread of many horse and mule teams.
Then there were the mountains to struggle over. The hard Newhall Grade first, the pull up San Francisquito Canyon and on the home-stretch, the steep Grapevine Grade to the Tejon Pass. The Holsman "Winner in Algonquin Hill Climb Greatest Hill Climbing Event in America," was certainly the car for a California oil man to drive.
In this shiny, new little "Motor Buggy," that year of 1908, young Fred Ripley who had charge, as assistant manager, of the Olinda Midway and Kern River properties of the Petroleum Development Company, and Martin Barber, his superintendent, headed for the oilfields in the Midway Valley.
Mart Barber was an interesting character. He was six feet, six inches tall, a long, rangy man with a wind-blown mustache and a small goatee on his nether lip. In the early days in New Mexico he had been Deputy Sheriff under Pat Garrett who killed Billy the Kid. He was an associate of E.L. Doheny in his first mining ventures in Silver City, New Mexico. In California he was his Superintendent of Development in his Olinda Oil Field, which was later taken over by the Santa Fe. He was then given the position of General Superintendent of the Petroleum Development Company. He was a fine traveling companion because of his keen sense of humor and his kindly, unfailing good nature.
As the high-wheeled "Motor Buggy" sped across the San Fernando Valley it finally came slam up against the Newhall Grade. The two motorists had no qualms for was not their auto the winner of the "Greatest Hill Climbing Event in America?" (What Eastern hill pray?) The old road on the Newhall Grade still twisted and turned its rough, rutted, oiled way, up to the high Cut. Its reputation not one whit tarnished, it awaited the attack on its toughness as a grade to be made by this new-fangled contraption, the Holsman.
It was a hard struggle. Not only the straining, rope-drive pull of the Holsman motor, but the straining push of the two motorists finally got that car over. Fred Ripley would drive for a time. He would "speed up the engine, throw her into gear and let her go as far as she would." When she stopped dead, Mart Barber would swing his long, cramped legs out of the little Motor Buggy and hurriedly pick up a stone to block the slender, high wheels. Then he would stride up front and spin the starting crank. Fred Ripley would speed the engine up again and throw her into gear. Mart Barber would push.
After a strenuous time of this, the two men would change places. Ripley would spin the starting crank, Barber would "speed up the engine and throw her into gear and let her go as far as she would." Ripley would block the wheels and spin the crank and then push. So it was, over and over again, the spirits of the two men kept high by the quick repartee of lanky Mart Barber and his constant chuckles over their predicament. The "Winner of the Algonquin Hill Climb, Motor-buggy Class," had met its match in the old Newhall Grade.
The Petroleum Development Company used the Holsman Motor Buggy for only a year or so when it developed a strong aversion to the dry heat of the San Joaquin Valley. Temperatures of 112 and 118 degrees in the shade proved too much of a strain on the high buggy wheels. The wood shrank and when the slender spokes came loose the Holsman was discarded. For a long time its broken wheels leaned unnoticed against the wall, in the store house on the Kern River field.10
Even if the old Newhall Grade had conquered many automobiles of that day, while its reputation as a tough grade remained unchanged, the new cars coming in were improving. Every pioneer oil man who helped bring in those big wells before 1910 worked his passage over the mountains. The sheer walls of sandstone in the deep Cut threw back a roar of sound from the noisy exhausts of those early, queer-looking autos going through.
They carried over the grade such men as Will Orcutt, and Chester Brown of the Union, Max Whittier of the Associated, Harry Hillman of the Standard and Fred Ripley of the C.C.M.O. Company. There were many others, making a procession of pioneer oil men who left their imprint on the industry even if time has long since, effaced the marks of their tires from the old Newhall Grade.
It must not be inferred that the oil men were the only early motorists going over the tough pass on their way to the San Joaquin Valley. They may have been the majority because what was to be a tremendous business, the development of oil, was in its infancy and the automobile, arriving with it, was a most necessary adjunct to its success.
But one hears a diversity of tales. They are all outstanding because, in those days, ranchers or business men, new purchasers of autos or those who were courageous enough, or just plain foolish enough, to think they could take an auto trip for pleasure, whatever reason took them over the notorious Newhall Grade, they never forgot the experience. It was because no trip ever turned out to be just a run of the mill. It was always the kind "And thereby hangs a tale."
1909. In the fall of 1909 young Gregg Layne of Los Angeles had gone north by train, on a business trip to Fillmore. He met a friend there, August Martz, who offered to drive him home in his classy new Pope-Hartford auto. It was advertised in those early days as "a thoroughly reliable and powerful touring car" and "an exceptional hill climber."11
Evidently the trip south through the level stretches of the Santa Clara [Clarita] Valley held no undue excitement for the two motorists. The "powerful" Pope-Hartford took the north slope of the Newhall Grade in its stride. It roared through the deep Cut. Then was the time for August Martz to slow up his "exceptional hill climber." He had gotten all out of it he could ask. As he gazed down that terrifically steep south slope with its sharp curves, he cared naught but how his brakes would work.
That was young Gregg Layne's worry too. "Coming down the grade," he said, "the turns were so many and the grades so steep, the brakes were of little help. My friend's elbow beat a tattoo against my ribs. About half way down the grade we met an old prospector driving a rude covered wagon pulled by four burros, coming up the pass. While he kept as close to the east side of the road as he could, he had a pack burro that persisted in walking leisurely up on the side we were coming down, and clear over to the side, next to the steep gully that skirted the road.
"We could not turn out for the burro, for we would have wrecked the covered wagon outfit, and we could not stop the car due to the steep pitch of the grade so, we swiped the pack-burro off the road into the gully which was pretty deep at that point, and we couldn't look back to see the result of our inability to do other than we did.
"It was some hundred yards back to the spot of the accident when we were able to stop, and around a curve that prohibited us from seeing the wagon, or the burro. And the grade was too steep to attempt a back track. This is just a personal experience on the old Newhall Grade as we called it in those days."12
1910. There was Sumner Brown too, a young man whose father and grandfather before him were the pioneer spirits in the settling of Kernville. It is a little mountain town that lies far up in the high Sierras on the Kern River near the Big Blue Mine. On his way home from Los Angeles, young Sumner knew the deep wagon-wheel ruts on the old road twisting its way up the steep Newhall Grade. As far back as 1887 when a young boy he rode through the Cut on horseback and looked with awe up its towering sides.
One time, early in 191O, young Brown steered his heavy, open Stevens-Duryea across the San Fernando Valley. It was certainly a nifty auto, resplendent with brass trim. Two brass side lamps burned kerosene. The large brass headlights were lit by acetylene gas from a brass tank on the running board.13 It sped along over the rough roads in the Valley making all of twenty-five miles per hour.
When it reached the foot of the Newhall Grade, young Brown saw a sturdy team of horses standing beside the dusty road. A sign board, crudely printed, advertised they were there to pull any balking auto up the grade. It made no impression on the owner of the Stevens-Duryea, but many a cocky driver felt his bravado desert him as he thought of the tug of his four-cylinder motor, up the deep-rutted old road, before it could chug through the high Cut. Maybe it wouldn't make the grade at all. So he was willing to pay the stiff price and with no chagrin whatever, take advantage of this earliest type of tow-car.14
The team of horses was hitched with a heavy chain onto the front axle. There was no bumper because it would interfere with the starting crank. The driver of the car would sit in the right front seat behind the steering wheel, still looking important even if all he had to do was to steer the thing. The owner of the team would trudge along on the rough road beside his tugging horses, holding the reins and calling out gee and haw as slowly but surely they would pull the auto up the steep grade. Shades of the old stage wagons on the San Fernando Pass!
So, with motorists proudly testing their own various makes of autos on the Grade and boasting, or not boasting, about them among themselves, the dealers jealously stepped in and took a hand to prove the particular cars they handled were the best on the market.
During the early years of the automobile industry dealers throughout the country held what was called an endurance test. It seemed to have been a combination of testing not only the speed but the endurance qualities of the various makes of cars. There could have been no sweeter test of the pulling power of a car than to make it take the Newhall Grade against time.
1909-10. There was a man in Los Angeles by the name of Fenner who had a mine up the north side of Old Baldy. In 1909 and early 1910 there was a good deal of enthusiasm over races to the mine called Baldy races. Mr. Fenner was a distributor for the White Steamer and had great faith in what a Steamer could do.
It was really a powerful car, using kerosene to develop the steam that hurtled it over those rough roads. In 1908 it had made a "clean sweep in California hill-climb" when "it was entered in the hill-climbing carnival held at San Francisco."15 It went "through the 2,650 mile Glidden Tour" in 191016 although many autos were left by the wayside. No wonder dealer Fenner planned those races to his mine on Old Baldy.
Notwithstanding these records, the White Steamer would be put on the spot as it headed towards the tricky Newhall Grade against the other straining cars.
When the heavy-goggled drivers drove their stripped autos to the foot of the grade there could not have been much room if any, to pass each other on the old road. As they racked and bounced and swung far out to take the sti curves, each time-pushed auto must have been on the tail of the one in front with another giving it a close call from the rear.
There were not more than four cars entered in a race and always a danger that any one of them, straining for the high Cut, might be left, shaken and disabled, close to the rocky hillsides of the steep canyon up which the old road went. It must have been a case of one at a time through the high straight walls of the Cut. Then a grinding of brakes and a slide down the north slope of the grade on their way to the Mojave desert.
From there it was a straight speed race of pounding cars to the turn at Lancaster. The plucky driver who reached there first had already won the race because there was no room to pass any car up the tortuous north side of Old Baldy, on the last lap to the mine.17
The beating those new-fangled autos were giving the old road over the mountain was nothing compared to the reciprocal beating, in the shaking and jouncing and loosening of screws and bolts, the old road was dealing out to these early autos. They had a habit, in hard jolting, of losing hub-caps and headlights and extra tires, of breaking springs and even axles. The most serious loss was the loss in time to the busy oilmen. They needed a shorter road through the mountains.
At last, the day had come when it was necessary to side step the old road. It had been over fifty years since the city fathers had chosen the Box Canyon to the west of the Cuesta Vieja for the new San Fernando Pass. Now, the engineers left the old road just about where the toll house had stood on the high bank of the stream bed. They turned straight into the hills only to the west of the Cut and the noise and confusion of blasting told of a tunnel being gouged out of the brush-tangled ridge for a new road.
1910.It was easy to keep track of its progress. As the motorists drove their autos up the old high grade, they could look down on men busy at work on both the San Fernando and Newhall entrance. That year of 1910,18 the tunnel was finished. The motorists from Los Angeles turned their autos into the canyon leading to the old road and deliberately passed it by. They would take a swift look up through the hills to the right, to catch a quick glimpse of the deep Cut outlined against the sky. Ahead of them, they came to the new tunnel, and the noise of their autos broke its silence as they roared through the dusk towards the far circle of light that grew brighter and brighter.
Now, the story of the two old San Fernando Passes is told. They lie in historic country. Captain Gaspar de Portola and his men passed this way. From the high meadows to the east of the deep Cut, these same mountains knew the glance of the old padres sweeping over their distant peaks and down into the canyons.
The Spanish Californians from the Mission towns up the coast, on their way to the little pueblo, crossed the Divide here, on the
Cuesta Vieja. From the same grassy meadows they caught a far glimpse of the San Fernando Valley spreading out below them.
Over this old Cuesta, in 1842, the excited Californian, Don Francisco Lopez, carried from Placerita Canyon the first important gold discovered in California. Some of the nuggets from these first mines were taken over the old pass and sent to the United States Mint at Philadelphia.
That early January of 1847 the "forty or fifty mounted Californians" were waiting for Fremont and his army on this high, green ridge as they watched the restless camp of soldiers below. From the cañada, Lieutenant Bryant looked up and saw them "on the summit of the Pass," outlined against the sky.
These are the high meadows crossed then, by part of Fremont's divided battalion. They were "the artillery, horses, and baggage, with an advance guard and escort" marching over the Divide "by the direct route," the Cuesta Vieja, the first San Fernando Pass.
A short distance to the west of this crossing, on the New Pass, in 1855, Bishop Kip had stood in amazement. ... "The scenery was the wildest I have ever seen since I have crossed the Alps." ... And
over this second San Fernando Pass, in 1876, the crude oil from the first commercial oil fields in California slushed around in huge barrels as it was hauled up the steep grade.
But the needs of a great city have now stepped in. Here, where the pattering feet of Indians with unerring sense of direction wore deep trails over the Divide, from valley to wide valley, the present power lines, and gas and oil pipes have been laid. The hills are scarred with their roads. Even the enormous aqueduct pipes bringing water to the city from the Owens River, back in the high Sierras, push through these mountains that the old carretas with their wooden wheels, struggled over.
The physical contours of the country remain the same. All the days of romance and drama that went into the making of these two San Fernando Passes are gone. The only manifest reminder is the old road through the towering walls of sandstone, and that has served its time.
The long eerie whistle of a distant train echoes up its slopes. When darkness fills the canyons, an air beacon close to its summit like a blazing star guides the San Francisco planes over the rugged mountains. The old road looks down from its high Cut on the glaring headlights of cars that flash along the four-lane boulevard, far below it. People in a hurry, coming from some place going where? The night mists rise along the hills over the old road. It is very still up there where its deep ruts lie.
1. Ralph Hamlin Motors, Inc. Director of Chamber of Commerce, on committee to put Roosevelt Highway up the coast.
2. Floyd Clymer. Historical Motor Scrapbook. No. 2, p. 54.
3. The adobe stage station is still standing. 1948.
4. Through the courtesy of Ralph Hamlin.
5. The preceding, (from 1904) through the courtesy of Frank Verbeck, a distributor and intrepid racer of the early nineteen hundreds.
6. 1846. "The San Fernando Mission ... is at the foot of the pass of its own name." Memoirs of My Life. John Charles Fremont. p. 570.
7. Ralph Hamlin as early as 1902, had heard it spoken of only as the Newhall Grade.
F.C. Ripley going over 1907-10, remembers it by no other name.
Some later-day historians have referred to the Cut as Beale Cut.
8. Floyd Clymer. Historical Motor Scrapbook. No. 1, p. 51.
9. The name at that time, of the Santa Fe oil properties. Later it merged with and became, the Chanselor Canfield Midway Oil Company.
10. Through the courtesy of F.C. Ripley, former Manager of the Chanselor Canfield Midway Oil Company, now retired.
11. Floyd Clymer's Historical Scrapbook, No. 1, p. 23.
12. Through the courtesy of J. Gregg Layne, for many years president of the Historical Society of Southern California. Chairman of the Editorial Board of The Quarterly.
13. Floyd Clymer's Historical Motor Scrapbook, No. 2, p. 63.
14. Through the courtesy of P. Sumner Brown of Kernville and Pasadena.
15. Floyd Clyer, Historical Motor Scrapbook. Steam Edition, p. 75.
16. Ibid., p. 82.
17. Through the courtesy of Mr. Ralph Hamlin.
18. The Los Angeles County Road Department. In 1939 the tunnel was removed to make room for the four-lane boulevard. [Webmaster's note: Work was done in 1938.]