Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

22. Breaching the Pass

Two events in 1854 had a tremendous impact on the development of the Santa Clarita Valley.

In July, gold was discovered on the Kern River. Men were taking ten to twenty-five dollars a day out of the ground. One miner wrote to the Los Angeles Star, "There is no doubt of there being plenty of gold here, the only difficulty is that we have no provisions."

The key word — provisions — was not lost on Los Angeles businessmen. They had visions of their town becoming a great supply center, as San Francisco was for the northern mines.

In the mad scramble that followed, the merchants suddenly found that the only road north was controlled by a beardless youth of twenty-four who went around town in shirtsleeves, bright suspenders, clod hopper shoes and pants that were five or six inches too short. Despite his country-yokel appearance, however, Phineas Banning had the largest freight operation in Southern California, with five hundred mules, forty wagons and fifteen stagecoaches. By the time Fort Tejon was established atop Grapevine Pass on August 10, Banning already had an army contract to provide the forwarding business.

In fact, an old Indian freighter named Gabe Allen was bossing one of Banning's crews that was improving the road over Frémont's Pass for the troops at Tejon. The road ran up San Francisquito to Lake Elizabeth, through Pine Canyon where a sawmill was being set up, then around Quail Lake to the cavalry outpost.

In December, 1854, Phineas Banning mounted the box of a towering red and yellow Concord coach to make the first run over the new route, although his foreman, Allen, insisted the trail was not yet ready.

Among the nine passengers who made that epic journey was Major Horace Bell. Bell left this wonderfully graphic description in Reminiscences of a Ranger:

"The horses could not pull the grade with all of the riders, so they were forced to get out and walk to the top. The question among [Banning's] nine wondering passengers who had toiled up the mountain on foot was how the stage could descend....

"He cracks his whip, tightens his lines, whistles to his trembling mustangs, urges them to the brink of the precipice and they are going down! Rackety, clatter, bang! Sometimes the horses ahead of the stage and sometimes the stage ahead of the horses — all, however, going down, down, with a crash.

"Finally the conglomeration of chains, harness, coach, mustangs and Banning were found in an inextricable mass of confusion — contusions, cracks and breaks ... piled in a thicket of chaparral at the foot of the mountain.

"'Didn't I tell you?' said Banning. 'A beautiful descent, far less difficult than I anticipated.'

"However, Banning sent a courier in hot haste, urging Don David Alexander to send fifty men immediately to repair parts of the road which he had, in his descent, knocked out of joint."

Allen and Alexander did a little rerouting and cut a thirty-foot deep cleft through what was now known as Henry C. Wiley's windlass and depot. Wagons rolled generally up the route of present-day Interstate 5 to San Francisquito Canyon, where Moore's adobe station awaited thirsty and hungry travelers. It was later called Hollandsville, when Moore took off to pan for gold farther up the arroyo. The next stop was Elizabeth Lake, then on to Fort Tejon.

In time, Banning was appointed a brigadier general in the California Militia. He erected a magnificent home in Wilmington, named for his Delaware birthplace. He became a natty dresser and insisted on being called "General," although his Fourth Brigade existed only on paper.

Locally, the Sawmill Mountains commemorate his early milling operations.

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