First of two parts.
It was advertised as an "antique photo album," and its colorful, Art Nouveau motifs and gilt trimmings certainly would intrigue book and photograph collectors alike. But it was the original owner's handwritten inscription inside the front cover that made it a must-have item for the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.
"Judge John F. Powell, Newhall, California."
It was clear that the album contained only a few photographs, but even one of the unique, hitherto unknown images — like the circa-1890 tintype of Powell's young son Francis — is at least as important to local history as its pedigreed container.
We discussed a price and I trekked out to the desert to meet with Janna Harriss, a collectibles dealer who had purchased the photo album at an estate sale. Harriss was familiar with the historical society's museum at the Saugus Train Station in Newhall and ultimately decided to donate the valuable volume to the museum.
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Northern Los Angeles County was untamed country in the early 1870s — the sort of a place where a notorious outlaw like Tiburcio Vasquez could hide out for years without much hassle. A contemporary directory listed 30 surnames in Soledad Canyon; 20 near the future town of Newhall; and eight in Placerita Canyon. Permanent residents either ran their own family farms or operated the inns and supply stores that catered to the wayfarers.
There were more and more of the latter as the word spread about the gold and oil to be had in the hills. Mix a little booze with a heated faro game and some contested mining claims, and you're asking for trouble.
The Board of Supervisors formed the Soledad Judicial District to bring law to the land — Soledad being the name of the immense township that included all 1,200 square miles of the north county from Los Angeles city limits to the Kern County line. A judge could expect to do a lot of horse-and-buggying to get from one end to the other.
On May 8, 1875, the task fell to John F. Powell, an imposing, 35-year-old Irishman who'd served in both the Army and Navy, and whose fair dealings with local Indians are said to have caught the attention of the county supervisors.
Powell, born Dec. 17, 1839, in Galway, Ireland, was a wee lad of 15 months when his parents brought him to Charleston, Mass. At 19 he took a Navy commission as a lieutenant on the USS Constellation and set sail for Africa to suppress the slave trade.
Historian Jerry Reynolds writes, "In between hunting lions and other big game, Lt. Powell met Dr. David Livingston, who led him to a camp filled with 705 slaves. (Their) liberation was an accomplishment that he took pride in to his dying day."
During the Civil War as an Army officer, Powell led the 5th Massachusetts Infantry into seven battles, then commanded Goat Island in San Francisco Bay until his discharge on Dec. 1, 1869.
Civilian life brought him to Los Angeles County. Reports indicate he homesteaded high up Dry (Seco) Canyon and ran sheep in the Antelope Valley with his brother until he was called upon to mete out justice. Reportedly he had never before set foot in a courtroom.
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Powell evidently moved down canyon in 1878 to Newhall, which had quickly become the area's largest town and center of activity.
A.B. Perkins, the Santa Clarita Valley's chief historian during the mid-20th Century, writes that the local development company — which had paid Henry Newhall $1 for land for a town site — gave Powell a couple of building lots on Main Street (Railroad Avenue today) because it wanted to bring law and order to the territory. Powell's house itself, records suggest, may have been a building he brought down from his sheep ranch.
That's likely, since the entire town of Newhall literally picked up sticks in 1878 and moved 2 1/2 miles south from its original location at today's Magic Mountain Parkway-San Fernando Road intersection.
An 1878 election also brought Newhall the first lawman whose name is recorded (others preceded him). Constable John Howe would haul in the crooks, and those who earned an extended stay behind bars would be sent off to jail in downtown Los Angeles.
Howe's successor as constable, Joseph Leighton, ran one of the many taverns in town — the Derrick Saloon on 8th Street (today still a bar, the Rendezvous). Leighton, according to Reynolds, employed a pair of sisters from New York named Dora and Flora May Lake.
Dora would wed Judge Powell and give him three children: first Florence, then two boys, Francis and Alfred. Soon thereafter, in 1879, Flora May would marry Alex Mentry, the skilled oil driller who brought in California's first commercially successful oil well in Pico Canyon. Flora May gave Alex three sons and a daughter.
Powell was a successful entrepreneur throughout his tenure on the bench. When he arrived in Newhall he set out fruit trees near his home, and developed them into a large and profitable orchard.
A philanthropist with a strong sense of civic duty, he had headed the list of 48 signatories on a petition to form the Newhall School District, and in 1879 he financed the construction of Newhall's first permanent schoolhouse for the princely sum of $3,500 (albeit not too permanent; it burned down in 1890). He also donated money to help build Newhall's First Presbyterian Church in 1891.
By 1900 he had moved his family to a home at 8th and Chestnut Streets. The yellow house was started when Newhall was new and had been expanded. (It was razed in 1960.)
Hunting remained the favorite pastime for this well-rounded jurist, as it had been in Africa. Reynolds writes, "He once bagged a rare white wolf up in Bouquet Canyon, which he had made into a rug that sold for $125. Powell held the record for the largest mountain lion in the state. It was very old with loose teeth and few claws left, but measured 12 feet, 6 inches from nose to end of tail."
Unravel more SCV history mysteries at scvhistory.com on the Internet or stop by the Saugus Train Station in downtown Newhall, Saturdays and Sundays from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.