Leon Worden

Exploiting the Santa Clarita Valley

By Leon Worden
Wednesday, February 27, 2002

avenport Road takes you from Sierra Highway to Agua Dulce proper. I've probably driven it dozens of times without giving a second thought to the gray slag piled up at the halfway point. But those dark mounds are vestiges of a bygone day when survival for most of our pioneering families meant eking out a living from the riches that hid just beneath the valley's surface.
    Santa Clarita was a different place a century ago, even half a century ago, before tract homes softened our climate with their manicured lawns and a hundred thousand store-bought trees. There was no Valencia, no Stevenson Ranch, no Canyon Country. This was the desert. Surrounding the bigger downtowns of Newhall, Saugus and, to the east, Acton, were long-forgotten places with names like Pico, Ratsburg, Honby, Lang and Ravenna. They were mostly mining settlements, peopled by the workers who extracted Mother Nature's bounty in its myriad forms from the nearby hills.
    Santa Clarita's third-graders learn of Francisco Lopez and his discovery of gold in Placerita Canyon— the first documented discovery of the yellow metal in California. Evidence tells us Native Americans were placering gold in Hasley Canyon decades and possibly centuries earlier, just as they exploited the same black gold that made Pico Canyon the birthplace of California's oil industry in 1876.
    Bisecting the valley was an old Indian route, realigned through Beale's Cut to ease passage for the oxen and mule teams that hauled silver from the Mojave Desert mines to the Port of Los Angeles.
    Backbone of the local economy, mining was tough work. Men pulled 12-hour shifts to do by hand what today could be done with computer-guided machinery in a matter of minutes.
    Most of it lacked the glamor of precious metals. The tailings along Davenport are residue from the production of borax, the stuff your grandmother may have used for hand soap. It's used in everything from wood varnish to fiberglass speedboats to your contact lens solution, but when borax was being mined at the head of Tick Canyon it was used chiefly for laundry and in the manufacture of iron, steel and ceramics.
    Sterling Borax Co. started operations locally in 1908, with a processing plant and a “dinky” locomotive that hauled the refined borates down to the railhead at Lang for shipping to “the city.” Around 1921 the vein petered out, and the mining camp below Davenport— complete with a company store and a dozen or so cabins— disappeared from the map.
    Oddly, there's still a local connection. The founder of Pacific Coast Borax bought the Sterling in 1911, and eventually his holdings were folded into U.S. Borax, whose headquarter offices are in Valencia.
    Exploitation of the valley's natural resources marched on. News of the latest oil strike or gold discovery appeared regularly in The Signal through the middle of the 20th Century. Gold placering seems to have continued in Haskell Canyon and elsewhere through the 1930s, and there was Confusion Hill, the aptly named, late-1940s site of a bizarre oil rush in Placerita Canyon where wildcatters jumped each other's claims in pursuit of the valley's richest paydirt.
    It's far from dry. Berry Petroleum Co. injects leftover steam from its Placerita power plant to heat the oil for easier extraction, and there are a couple of million barrels of proven reserves to go.
    A quiet reference to exploitation of a less exotic sort appears in The Signal around 1930, alongside reports of the latest bust-up of a bootleg still. Some entrepreneurs were preparing to remove sand and gravel from the banks of the Santa Clara River up Soledad Canyon. Today, several companies do just that.
    The line between editorializing and news reporting was a bit fuzzier in A.B. “Dad” Thatcher's Signal. Here's a front-page entry from Jan. 2, 1930, in its entirety:
    “Mining is unique among industries in that, instead of employing outside capital upon which to build prosperity, it creates new wealth. It takes ores from the ground where they are useless and changes them into taxes, dividends, wages and the necessities and luxuries of life for hundreds of thousands of people.
    “It is a major factor in the progress of related industries, and every citizen in a metal-producing state, whether farmer, laborer, teacher or grocer, benefits directly from mining operations. Without mining, there would be no industries, no automobiles, telephones, stoves, surgical instruments, motion pictures or any one of millions of services and commodities we now enjoy.
    “In short, mining is a great industry and an essential factor in the building of a civilization. If we, as a nation and as individuals, are to progress to the limit of our possibilities, mining must be encouraged.”
    We did progress— beyond any limits Dad Thatcher could have imagined. We marched off to a second Great War, we went to the moon, we cultivated penicillin, we discovered how the industries we once took for granted could harm the human body. Where miner's cough had been dismissed, now we understand black lung disease.
    Sand and gravel are the stuff Santa Clarita is made of, from city sidewalks to our kitchen drywall. We decry mining on the one hand while on the other we continue to chop down our ridgelines. We hardly bat an eyelash as we exploit our hills, if not so much for the minerals they yield, then to cover them with the products of those materials— the homes we buy, the roads we drive.
    Nearly three-quarters of a century later, do you suppose we're living in the Santa Clarita Valley Dad Thatcher envisioned?
    Leon Worden is The Signal's city editor.

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