Soledad Canyon was a grim and forbidding place in 1860, full of sulfurous pools of foul-smelling water; stark, crumpled hills; and deep, twisting arroyos. Through this land skulked outlaws, renegade Indians, buzzards and grizzly bears.
Even the name — soledad means "loneliness" — would not seem inviting to anyone wanting to settle down and raise a family, yet that is exactly what Thomas and Martha Mitchell did. The Mitchells became the first permanent residents of what today is known as Canyon Country.
Thomas Finley Mitchell was a native of Virginia, born in 1827. Shortly after his birth the family moved to Texas and became embroiled in the 1836 revolution that made the state a sovereign nation for nine years. During the Mexican-American War, Mitchell, though barely twenty years old, earned a brevet rank of colonel. Two years later he resigned his commission to follow the gold scent that emanated from California. After working in the northern mines, Mitchell finally settled near San Gabriel in 1852.
It is said that the colonel and his lady wanted peace and quiet and found it at a place called Sulphur Springs. There they established a cattle ranch and built a small adobe house.
Their solitude did not last very long, for in 1861, a flame-haired Irishman named James O'Reilly started a mining operation up the canyon. The outbreak of the Civil War boosted demands for gold, silver, copper and lead to aid the Union effort. All were to be found in the Soledad, which led to new mines and increased traffic past the Mitchells' doorstep.
A conglomeration of log cabins and wood-frame buildings covered with canvas sprang up and moved about with each new ore strike. Each in this series of mining camps was called "Soledad City," and each provided such basic amenities as faro tables, rye whiskey and ladies of the evening.
The "post office" consisted of a large wooden barrel in which letters were tossed. Anyone going to Los Angeles took the mail along and returned with messages from the outside world. Periodically the miners would sort through the barrel to see if anything was addressed to them.
Postal authorities rejected the name "Soledad City" for a formal post office on the grounds that it would be confused with Mission Soledad in Monterey County, so Jim O'Reilly picked the name "Ravenna" after the local saloon keeper, Manuél Ravenna. Everyone seemed to agree on the name, so on June 12, 1868, the town of Ravenna was born.
Rocks from the mines were crushed by a massive stone wheel called an arrastra. It was a slow, laborious process. Eventually a two-stamp mill, powered by steam, was set up near present-day Acton, close to the claims of James Gleason.
Ravenna was the shipping point from which ore was hauled in tall-sided freighters drawn by oxen or as many as twenty mules down to the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro. The Telegraph Stage line pushed its way out of the canyon, stopping at Ravenna and Soledad City — if that peripatetic village could be found, hopscotching as it did from place to place.
Until 1862 the track over Frémont's Pass was difficult and dangerous, in spite of improvements made by Phineas Banning. The mines of the Soledad would be worthless without a way to get metals to market, and besides, there was a war going on. Something had to be done about that awful road.
Something was done, by a man named Beale.