Newhall Land's feed pens, circa 1950, at what is now the Magic Mountain parking lot. Photo (color photocopy) courtesy of Ruth Newhall. Click to enlarge.
The Magic Mountain parking lots, where five thousand cars disgorge their
passengers today, held no cars 32 years ago — but accommodated 13,000 to 17,000 steers,
which jostled each other as they fed from troughs heavy with grains and vitamins.
Here were the feed pens of The Newhall Land and Farming Company, where the steers,
which had been living on the wild grasses of the hill ranges, were brought to be fattened
and sold. A few of these steers were born on this ranch, but most were brought from other
ranches and trucked in to be "finished" for market.
The building of Valencia, also on company land, meant the end of the feeding pens and the
beginning of Magic Mountain. It was symbolic of a changing California culture, a culture
born and weaned on cattle.
There was no room for livestock near the carefully planned New Town of Valencia. As one
planner remarked, "You can't expect people to live downwind of 14,000 cattle."
Thus came the near-total demise of the longtime mainstay of California's economy.
This was once cattle country. The padres at the San Fernando Mission
brought in animals originally imported from Spain, beginning in the last decade of the 1700s.
It remained cattle country until the population explosion of the 1950s and 1960s filled the
San Fernando Valley with subdivisions and found people spilling over the hill into what we
now call the Santa Clarita Valley.
On the great ranchos of Southern California, the raising of cattle was the only business. For
years most of the meat was thrown to the dogs or buried. The small fraction of the beef
that was consumed was cut into long strips and dried in the sun to make jerky -- good
exercise for jaw muscles.
The cattle were raised primarily for their hides, known to seamen as "California bank
notes." They were loaded onto ships and sent to New England, where people farmed
in the summer and spent their winters converting the California hides to shoes and boots and saddles.
However, as quickly as it had exploded, the California cattle boom of the 1850s collapsed.
It didn't take long for cattlemen from Texas and the Midwest to move into the area where
all the hungry hordes of gold seekers had landed, east of the San Francisco Bay. They
drove their cattle to the valleys nearest the gold fields and the city, shutting off the
The local cattle business had prospered mightily through 1855, but in the following year the
population growth slowed while the cattle population swelled.
Supply out-paced demand. Cattle prices fell from $75 a head to $16, then down as low as
$3. By 1860 there were ten times as many cattle as people in California. The end of the
profitable cattle business, whether for hides or meat, meant the end of the rancheros and
the takeover of the great ranchos by the Yankees.
The natives who lived in California before the first Europeans arrived in
1769 had no domestic livestock. The hills were inhabited by wild deer, fearsome bears, and
a host of small game that constituted the principal protein source for the Indians.
Yet only thirty years after the first Spaniards brought small-boned black cattle to San Diego,
historians estimate that there were a million cattle on the California ranges.
The cattle influx to California in 1800 more than matched the arrival of gold seekers fifty
years later. The rolling hills of the Coast Range, covered with wild grasses, were ideal for
free-ranging herds. It led to a life more suited to the Spanish temperament than grubbing vegetables.
Indians were taught in the missions how to grow corn and other food crops while the
Spaniards enjoyed life on horseback, riding over their vast acres. The largest land grants in
the area were 48,000 acres — about 75 square miles — and the Rancho San Francisco, which
included much of the Santa Clarita Valley, was one of these. All the owner of a rancho had
to do was bring in cattle and let nature take its course.take its course.
Rancho San Francisco passed through the hands of various creditors until it was purchased
in 1875 by Henry Mayo Newhall. Like the half-dozen other ranchos purchased by Newhall,
who had made a railroad fortune, the Rancho San Francisco continued in its traditional role
as a cattle operation.
As a vice president of Southern Pacific, Newhall had bought the ranch as the rails were
approaching from north to south. From this ranch he would be able to ship his cattle
conveniently to San Francisco, the major port and major market of the West, ten times the
size of the rural town of Los Angeles.
Newhall, his sons, and their sons assumed the Santa Clarita Valley would remain a cattle
ranch. The valley was a giant grazing area, surrounding the hamlet of Newhall and some
scattered farms in Saugus.
The cattle were still visible on the hills when, in 1935, large oil fields were discovered under
the Rancho San Francisco, now renamed the Newhall Ranch. It was a local saying that
"nothing makes a steer fatter than grazing under an oil rig."
Where there had once been more cattle than people in California, in the
mid-20th Century the trend was reversed. Cattle were no longer an unlimited population
left to graze on the hills, and the new city dwellers wanted quality beef.
Feeding pens sprouted on the Newhall Ranch. As many as 30,000 steers a year were
brought in from the ranges to be fattened and turned into prime -- and high-priced -- beef.
Now the cattle dined on a carefully-balanced mixture of grains and vitamin-enriched foods,
mixed in a central mill and dumped into the feeding troughs by mechanical carriers.
But the people kept coming, and the cattle had to move away again -- away from Valencia
and Magic Mountain and other innovations not in tune with a livestock environment.
The cattle themselves changed radically from the small, black, white-horned, nimble animals
that occupied the earlier ranchos. Now they were the heavier breeds: white-faced
Herefords, black Angus, cross-breeding with each other and with the big-boned Brahmas.
They are trucked in to the local hills in October or November when they are six to eight
months old and weigh an average of 400 pounds. These yearlings are now grazing,
bringing their weight up to 650 or 700 pounds, and in May or June they will be shipped to
feedlots in the Midwest for their final fattening before going to market. Then the local
ranges will house only 200 cows and their newborn calves.
Many people would be surprised to know that today there are still cattle nearby.
During much of the year the animals are on the hills just west of Interstate 5. There are
more than 5,000 during this lush early spring season, half of them (belonging to the Tejon
Ranch) just north of Route 126, and half (belonging to Newhall Land) on the south side of
Passersby cannot believe there are several thousand cattle in these hills, because the animals
tend to gather in the canyons away from the road and are rarely visible.
There are some permanent residents, too — or as permanent as cattle ever get. That is a
herd of cows, which once a year, until they are eight or nine years old, produce calves for the ranges.
Newhall Land, on whose land the 5,000 cattle are feeding, has cut its staff down to one cowboy.
The unusually fine growth of range grass this year means the cattle will be left on grass
longer before they are trucked away to be fattened in the distant feed yards. Lush grass
does not necessarily gladden a cattleman's heart, however. It often means that since beef
is abundant, prices decline.
The standards for cattle change, too. Where once growers aimed for huge steers which,
when fattened, weighed up to 1,300 pounds, today the trend is toward small, leaner animals
of 800 pounds, nearly back to the weight of the Spanish steers. Words like "saturated
fat" and "cholesterol" have their impact on the ranges, and the cattle business
is experiencing another revolution.
As the ranges were succeeded by feedlots, and the Rancho by the City of Santa Clarita, so
have the steers been replaced by people.
It is the California story.