Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

36. Taming the Territory

Soon after the hanging of Tiburcio Vasquez, and while Cleovaro Chavez was still plundering the countryside, the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors decided to bring law and order to the Santa Clarita.

On May 8, 1875, the Soledad Judicial District was established and the first justice appointed. The task of taming the valley fell to a thirty-five year old Irish immigrant named John F. Powell [correction: see below*], who had already pursued quite an interesting life.

Born in Galway, Ireland on December 17, 1839, Powell was brought to Charleston, Massachusetts by his parents at the age of fifteen months. Commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy in July, 1859, he was assigned to the USS Constellation and shipped out to help suppress the slave trade in Africa.

In between hunting lions and other big game, Lieutenant Powell met Dr. David Livingston, who led him to a camp filled with 705 slaves. The liberation of these poor people was an accomplishment Powell took pride in to his dying day.

Powell left the Navy to become an Army officer during the Civil War and led the 5th Massachusetts Infantry into seven battles. He was later placed in command of Goat Island in San Francisco Bay until his discharge on December 1, 1869. Powell and his brother set up a sheep ranch at Big Rock in the Antelope Valley where his fair dealings and treaties with marauding Indian tribes brought him to the attention of the county supervisors.

For nearly forty years Judge Powell presided over an immense territory that sprawled from the Sierra Pelona to Piru Creek [again, see below]. He became famous for settling most of his cases out of court, and not once was one of his decisions overturned by a higher court.

Judge Powell came to a land that was peopled, for the most part, by outcasts from Los Angeles. The "solid citizens" were a handful of ranchers, miners and oil drillers. The only "communities" were the twenty or so families at Lyon's Station, Mentryville in Pico Canyon, and Soledad City, which moved with each new gold strike.

Within two years the railroad came, bringing depots called Acton, Lang, Honby, Humphrys and Newhall. Towns grew around Acton and Newhall, complete with general stores and those absolutely indispensable establishments — the saloons.

The judge relaxed by going off on hunting trips for days at a time, tracking down deer, pronghorn antelope, coyote or grizzly bear. He once bagged a rare white wolf up in Bouquet Canyon which was made into a rug that sold for $125. Powell also held the record for the largest mountain lion killed in the state. It was very old with loose teeth and few claws left, but it measured twelve feet, six inches from nose to end of tail.

John Powell married Dora Lake and started a new career as a parent. Her sister, Flora May, married Alex Mentry, the superintendent of the CSO fields in Pico Canyon.

The brothers-in-law became fast friends and business partners. In 1896 they staked out a gold claim in Seco Canyon and built a small dam. After they sold out, the dam collapsed — perhaps an omen of things to come three decades later?

Since Newhall was now the largest community in the area, the judge moved his court there in 1878. He also set out fruit trees, and before long he was tending one of the largest orchards in the west. Deeply interested in civic activities, Judge Powell contributed to building the first official Newhall School in 1879 — it cost a staggering $3,500 — and the First Presbyterian Church in 1891.

At age 87, John F. Powell died quietly in his sleep at his Newhall home. It could truly be said that out of a wilderness he had created a garden.

*Editor's Note: Subsequent information indicates the Soledad Judicial District was formed Oct. 15, 1873. Powell wasn't the first judge, but he may have been the second. Also, his judicial career spanned 40 years but it was interrupted. Click here for updated information.

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