Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

26. Twilight of the Dons

The flood of 1856 killed at least ten thousand head of cattle in Los Angeles County. Rancheros were forced to take out mortgages on their vast estates. An interest rate of four percent per month was considered reasonable. However, before the rains finally came, some of the dons had to sell their holdings at ruinous prices.

The next year brought bountiful precipitation; tall, luscious, green grass on the ranges; and the birth of many calves. The crisis passed, so the Californios carried on in their old ways with expensive clothing, roundups and rodeos.

Then, at 8:13 in the morning of January 9, 1857, the San Andreas Fault snapped. Centered at Fort Tejon, the earthquake sent shock waves through Southern California. It was probably as powerful as the quake felt in San Francisco forty-nine years later — 8.3 on the Richter scale.

Throughout the previous night, beginning at 1:30 a.m., there had been tremblings and an unusual occurrence of four foreshocks, during which the ground opened up in places and hills seemed to explode in massive clouds of dust.

The main shock tossed the Fort Tejon barracks around like children's toys. On the adjoining Rancho La Liebre, Edward F. Beale had placed a round sheep corral directly across from the unknown rift zone. On the morning of the disaster it had shifted into an "S" shape, to the amazement of the owner and the terror of the woolies, which ran for days.

The old Asistencia at Castaic Junction, where Don Antonio del Valle's widow, children and new husband, José Salazár, still lived, was severely damaged. Curved roof tiles fell through wooden beams to the floor. Adobe walls separated and bricks smashed furniture as they fell, sending the panicked family outside for safety.

When at last the earth settled, José Salazár surveyed the damage and decided to move the family into the sturdy little milk house below the crest of the hill.

This was supposed to be a temporary move until the "Hacienda" (the old Asistencia) could be repaired. But Rancho San Francisco was already mortgaged to the hilt, so no money was available for restoration.

Finally the principal creditor, William Wolfskill, had to foreclose. Wolfskill worked out a generous plan with Don Ygnacio del Valle under which all debts owed by the Salazárs were paid off, while Ygnacio was deeded five-elevenths of the rancho — the Camulos section.

By 1861 the Salazárs were out of the picture and Don Ygnacio was free of the burden of their debts. He had already sold Rancho Tejon to General Beale to satisfy the creditors of his in-laws.

The final, crushing blow came to the California rancheros just as the Monitor and Merrimac were engaged in the first sea battle between ironclad warships in the Civil War.

A three-year drought began in 1862, drying up streams and springs and causing the grass to wilt under an incessant sun. Cattle fell by the thousands, filling the air with the stench of death as their rotting carcasses littered the countryside.

The loss statewide was estimated at forty-one percent, but in Los Angeles, the "queen of the cow counties," grim statistics chronicled a staggering decline. By the time Lee met Grant at Appomattox in 1865, the Los Angeles herds had thinned from seventy thousand head to fewer than twenty thousand bony beasts — a loss of more than seventy-one percent.

It was the death knell for the California dons. Prime beef was back to two dollars a head, where it had stood in the hide-and-tallow days. "California banknotes" started a way of life and ended it. The drama had come full circle.

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