t was the desperate call from the mother who couldn’t find the number for the St. Francis Dam in the phone book that made me think to write this cheat sheet for parents of local third-grade California history students.
For this is the time of year when elementary school teachers across our fair valley send forth their young charges to traipse through the canyons in pursuit of remnants of things past, many of which surprisingly still exist.
Santa Clarita is fertile ground for a study of California history. We’re full of firsts— the state’s first gold discovery, its first successful oil well and refinery, and with the St. Francis Dam, one of the largest losses of life.
I’ll tackle the inquiries in more or less chronological order.
• Castaic Junction. I presume you’re looking either for Chaguayabit or for the Asistencia de San Francisco Xavier.
A treasure trove of artifacts was discovered in 1884, followed by a large burial site in 1969, but nobody knows precisely where Chaguayabit, our valley’s biggest native American village, was located. It was somewhere at Castaic Junction, which is roughly the junction of Interstate 5 and state Route 126. The village might be under the freeway.
In 1804 the padres from the Mission San Fernando Rey de España established an estancia, or outpost, later upgraded to an asistencia, or sub-mission, on a bluff overlooking Castaic Junction. Exit I-5 northbound at 126 and pull over into the dirt shoulder at the top of the off-ramp. Look at Magic Mountain. Just to the right of the straight line you draw is a hill. It was there.
• Oak of the Golden Dream. Francisco Lopez was herding cattle on his uncle’s property in Placerita Canyon when he took a siesta under an oak tree, dreamed golden dreams and awoke to discover nuggets clinging to the roots of some wild unions that grew beneath some nearby sycamores.
So goes the legend, and whatever its truth, the fact is that Lopez made California’s first documented discovery of gold in Placerita Canyon on March 9, 1842, six years before James Marshall pulled his more famous nugget from John Sutter’s millrace— the documentation being the assayer’s report from the U.S. Mint at Philadelphia.
Exit state Route 14 at Placerita Canyon road and drive east a little over mile. Go through the entrance to the Placerita Canyon Nature Center and park. Follow the trail; the famous oak is about a quarter-mile hike west.
• Beale’s Cut. In 1862 the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors awarded a contract for road improvements to the nation’s former surveyor general for California and Nevada, one Edward Fitzgerald Beale. Using troops from Fort Tejon atop the Grapevine, Beale deepened an existing cut through the mountains later called the Newhall Pass.
From the intersection of San Fernando Road and Sierra Highway, take Sierra south past Eternal Valley Cemetery. Keep driving; you’ll go up a hill, and as you start to come back down the other side, look to your left. You’ll see some old, damaged historic markers. Park there.
Look down and think of the wagons that passed there a century and a half ago. You can’t see Beale’s Cut yet, and I can’t really advise you to hike a quarter-mile to it for two reasons: One, it’s on private property, and two, the trail is so dangerous that you or your third-grader will slip and fall.
If you do it anyway, don’t sue me. I told you not to.
• Mentryville. It’s a ghost town today, but 126 years ago it’s where an experienced driller from Pennsylvania did what no one before him in California had done: He deepened an oil well and brought in a gusher of black gold. It was the first successful oil discovery in the West, and when the original well was finally capped off in 1990, it was the longest-producing oil well in the world.
Mentryville is a state park today, open daylight hours at the very end of Pico Canyon Road. From Interstate 5, take the Lyons Avenue off-ramp and drive about three miles west along Pico (Lyons is called Pico west of the freeway). The road forks when the pavement runs out; keep left. Docents give guided tours in the afternoon every first and third Sunday.
• Pioneer Oil Refinery. With the first successful oil well, it follows that we’d have the first commercially productive oil refinery. Built in 1874 and moved to its current location in 1876, today it’s the oldest existing refinery in the world.
From San Fernando Road in Newhall, take Pine Street west and go the equivalent of a block or two. If you reach the Newhall County Water District headquarters you’ve gone too far.
On your left are some businesses behind chain-link fencing. At one point you’ll see an entrance and a dirt road leading to the hills. What you’re looking for are the round brick structures with the old metal boilers on top. Go along the dirt road (it’s OK; the city has an easement) and park in front of the fence that says no entry.
• St. Francis Dam. Construction started in 1924 on a dam to hold 12.5 billion gallons of imported water for a thirsty and growing Los Angeles. Completed in 1926, the dam would survive just two years.
At three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the entire 12.5 billion gallons came crashing down San Francisquito Canyon, wiping out ranches, homes, cars, bridges and everything else in its angry path. By the time the flood reached the Pacific Ocean at Ventura by dawn’s early light, more than 450 people lay dead.
It was America’s worst civil engineering failure of the 20th Century and California’s second worst disaster, in terms of lives lost, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
From Copper Hill Drive, set the odometer and travel north on San Francisquito about 7.3 miles. Around mile 7.1, you’ll see large concrete boulders to your left. Those are pieces of the dam. At 7.3, look down. The large concrete mound was the base of the dam.
• More info. There are two places for answers to all your SCV history questions. One is the Saugus Train Station, the SCV Historical Society’s headquarters inside William S. Hart Park, where trained docents are available on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 4.
The other is in your own home, where you can visit the local history archives at scvhistory.com.
And sorry, lady, if it’s the St. Francis Dam you want, you won’t find it in the phone book.
Leon Worden is The Signal’s city editor. His commentary appears Wednesdays.