Leon Worden

What Can be Done with Beale's Cut?

By Leon Worden
Friday, May 5, 2000

uess what? It turns out cement may be historically correct.
    Get those visions of Marlee Lauffer out of your head.
    Beale's Cut is the 90-foot-deep, hand-carved gash through the Newhall Pass that was part of the main road between the Pueblo of Los Angeles and Central California. At least it was 90 feet deep, from 1863 until late in 1997, when the torrential El Niño rains partially caved in its vertical dirt sides.
    What to do about it? That question has nagged local historians and public officials for two years.
    Do nothing, and eventually this State Historic Landmark washes away. That would be a shame, not only because the Cut memorializes Santa Clarita's integral role in early transportation, but because hordes of local school kids go there— or, they did until the winter of 1997-98— for a hands-on learning experience in their California history studies.
    How, then, to preserve it? Cut it back to its 1863 depth of 90 feet, restoring its vertical dirt sides? That might not be too smart. Next time it rains heavily, a little kid could be standing under it. Or, more likely, its structural weakness would go unnoticed and, with sun out and a student group underfoot, a big chunk of dirt and rock comes crashing down.
    So, what are the alternatives? Cut it at something less than straight up and down? Say, at a 45-degree angle? That's one alternative, but not an appealing one.
    Leave it at 90 degrees, but cement it over so it's structurally sound? No, that would wipe out its historical authenticity.
    Or would it?
    The Cut was started in 1854, and deepened in 1858 to about 30 feet. In 1861-62, El Niño took its toll, as it would more than a century later— washing out San Fernando Road (as the route through Newhall Pass was called) and wiping out the Cut. Quoth the Los Angeles Star newspaper of Jan. 25, 1862:
    “On Saturday last, torrents of water were precipitated on the earth.... The road from Tejon, we hear, has been washed away. The San Fernando Mountain cannot be crossed.... The plain has been cut up into gulches, and arroyos, and streams are rushing down every declivity.... Another week has passed without a mail, making five consecutive weeks during which we had no communication with the outer world except by steamer express.”
    The old newspaper articles contain some long-forgotten details about the road and the Cut as they existed before Edward Fitzgerald Beale, surveyor general of California and Nevada, took over the road improvement project later that same year.
    Those details might hold an answer to our current restoration questions.
    This entry in the March 15, 1862, Star quotes a pre-Beale Army officer:
    “On (Feb.) 17th, having completed the road behind us, I sent the whole force to the hill. On Tuesday the 18th I finished up on the south and crossed to the north side of the summit [the SCV side] where the heaviest work lay.
    “Here I found the rains had washed the road entirely away to the wall of cement on the right hand side, forming a gulch from 12 to 15 feet in depth. It was necessary to cut away this wall in order to get a solid rock bed and to brace it well on the outside. The heavy timbers which had strengthened the former road lay in the bottom of the gulch. These the men dragged up by main strength and placed again in position.
    “By staying these timbers with braces equally as heavy, upon a solid footing, and cutting off 10 feet of the cement wall, I think we have a better road bed than before....”
    Historian Vernette Ripley, in a 1948 recapitulation of the century-old newspaper articles, writes:
    “It is interesting to try to visualize that old road; the cement wall of stone masonry, held together by mortar.... It had been put in to support the right-hand side of the road as it went turning sharply down the canyon from the cut through the rock on the always dangerous north slope.”
    The earliest known photograph of the road and the Newhall side of Beale's Cut, from a decade later in 1872, doesn't show any cement or wooden supports.
    But the contemporary newspaper accounts, from 1862, before Beale deepened the Cut to 90 feet, do.
    Cement. Mortar. Wooden supports. No kidding. What is new is old again.
    Leon Worden is The Signal's business editor.

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