I. THE BEGINNING
Lang lies in a hollow of the once-desolate Soledad Canyon in a spot Don Benito Wilson described as "fit only for the production of horned toads and scorpions." It was here that a momentous incident occurred on September 5, 1876, which would echo around the world and forever end the land isolation of Los Angeles. It would be the first big step in making this "Queen of the Cow Counties" the metropolis she was to become. For it was here on this windswept dusty spot at the south end of the Mojave Desert that Charles Crocker, president of the Southern Pacific Railroad of California, with a silver hammer, drove the gold spike that finally joined the rails linking Los Angeles and San Francisco. This would end years of stagecoach travel either along the coast when tides permitted or across the rot dusty desert with the ever-present threat of banditos, heat and thirst.
As far back as 1853 Lt. R.S. Williamson, of the United States Geological Survey had come down San Francisquito Canyon and over the steep, brush-covered mountain leading into the San Fernando Valley. His orders from Washington were "to command an expedition and surveying party to ascertain the most practical and economical route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean."
That more than twenty years would elapse before a railroad linking the north and south became a reality may be due to such factors as the Civil War, bank failure both in the east and here and the end of a boom era. Hope was reborn when the Southern Pacific finally began laying its rails south. They eventually reached Lathrop and then Bakersfield (or Baker's field to give it an early name) which became the terminus from the north.
From time beyond time the only means of egress to the north or south inland was by the way of treacherous Cuesta Vieja, or Old Grade, the forerunner of the later Fremont's Pass; later still the Pass would be known as Beale's Cut, the Santa Clara Divide and the Big Cut.
The original old Pass was no doubt used by the Indians from prehistoric times right down to the mission period. The padres of San Fernando Mission tried, without much success, to improve the trail so that carretas could get over it as well as making it easier for the stock and lessening the chances of their falling off the trail to their death. Even Fremont and his men had difficulty in getting over the Pass with their equipment. Memories of the San Marcos Pass must have passed through his mind.
The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors finally decided that something had to be done about the bottleneck hindering traffic into the pueblo and in 1854 awarded a contract to construct a new road across the San Fernando mountains a little southwest of the old Cuesta. The new road with its long narrow cut was opened the next year but still proved to be very steep. It was over this road that Edward Fitzgerald Beale brought his camel corps on their way to Fort Tejon in 1857. It was also on this road that the famous story of Phineas Banning driving his stagecoach down the steep grade while his passengers walked it, had the misfortune of the stage turning over and over until it reached the bottom and Banning got out unhurt. The Butterfield stages came this way until they ended service in 1861.
After the 1862 floods a toll service was put into effect and a franchise was granted by the Legislature to Andres Pico, C.H. Brinley and a man named Vineyard, to make the Pass usable for increased traffic. But the trio did not exercise their franchise and it was given to Beale who was no longer Surveyor General of California and Nevada. His franchise was finally approved in 1864. Banning's stage wagons continued over the route accompanied by a contingent of soldiers each trip. A small adobe house was located at the foot of the grade in which the tollkeeper lived.
By the time Remi Nadeau and his Cerro Gordo wagons were bringing wealth into Los Angeles in the 1870s the Cuesta was much traveled. Gold, silver, lead and copper mines were scattered around the Soledad country and one of them, the "Escondido," was owned in part by Andres and Romulo Pico. Mines along the Kern River county as well as other parts of the Mojave made for extra travel.
With the coming of the railroad the beginning of the end had come for Beale's Cut. Previous to September 1876 stagecoaches from both Los Angeles and the coast had left off passengers at the summit of the San Fernando mountains near Lang's Station. They were picked up on the other side of the mountain to continue the train trip north or south. The poor old fifteen-foot wide Beale's Cut proved too narrow for "horseless carriages" by 1910 and since the freeways have come into our lives, the old cut remains almost forgotten.
From an engineering standpoint the biggest difficulty with the San Fernando tunnel project was the boring and financial problems. Upon completion the cost exceeded two and one half million dollars and took a year and a half to bore through the mighty mountain. If Chinese help had not been available the tunnel might never have been completed. Located some 27 miles from Los Angeles between Weldon Canyon and the Santa Clarita watershed, the cut, when completed, was nearly 7000 feet long (6940 feet exactly). Candles to light the excavation as it continued were supplied from Newmark and Co. in Los Angeles. Fifteen hundred men labored at the bore with frequent cave-ins, sweat, blood and the loss of life. Digging commenced on March 22, 1875.
The sandstone composition of the mountain was saturated with water and oil and the muck was like working with very soft mud pies. The challenge of this almost impossible task was met by the young superintendent, Frank Frates, native to the Azores, who had started his railroad career with the Central Pacific. Hard work was no stranger to this earnest young man. His Chinese crew had had previous experience with the Tehachapi tunnels, most of them having been at Caliente when it was railhead for the Southern Pacific.
According to figures given by Remi Nadeau, Frates' excavation was 22 feet high, 16½ feet wide at the bottom and over 18 feet at the shoulders, an angular arch being formed overhead. The Chinese worked as teams of two, one man holding the wedge in place against the rock while his partner swung the heavy sledge. The upper half of the tunnel was dug in advance of the bottom half for a distance of about 20 feet. Temporary timbers were placed as soon as the excavations were made; permanent timbers of Oregon cedar would be placed later. The lower half of the tunnel was dug by another crew of workers, the dirt being carried away by two-horse cars running on laid track. Day and night the work went on in 8-hour shifts, the Chinese being paid $1.00 per day and the white carpenters and mechanics receiving $2.60 a day for a 12-hour shift. A city of tents was located near the south end of the tunnel mouth for the workers.
The site of the northern end of the tunnel just south of the present town of Newhall, had to be abandoned due to the oil-soaked rock causing cave-ins. Frates chose higher ground.
After the northern mouth of the tunnel was opened in June 1875, steam pumps helped to keep the tunnel from flooding with water.
Frates' previous experience with the Central Pacific stood him well with his many problems including incline shafts, sand in the water holding up the pumps' work and delaying further tunneling until the pumps could be overhauled. All this rather belied the remark made by Leland Stanford that it was "too damned dry in southern California for any such catastrophe." Cave-ins still occurred.
For a time the southern terminus of the railroad was at the new little town of San Fernando. The first train from Los Angeles reached San Fernando on April 20, 1874, shortly after the town had been founded by Charles Maclay, a former state senator from Santa Clara County and an ex-Methodist missionary. Excursion trains ran daily from the city, the passengers being given lunch at the Mission before going on to bid for lots.
Eulogio F. de Celis and his brothers, Jose Manuel and Pastor, had deeded a parcel of land to the railroad on August 9, 1873 (in consideration of $1.00), on the express condition that the site "be used only for a depot and other railroad purposes, construction of a building for proper operation of the railroad." At a later period, Maclay and his partners, George and Benjamin Porter, also deeded three blocks of land to the railroad lying between the railroad and Porter Avenue (now San Fernando Road). It was hoped that this plot would be used for a park adjoining the depot but the horses hitched to the new trees there made such luscious meals of the bark that the idea was abandoned.
Charles Maclay filed a map in September 1874 showing the proposed site of the railroad depot, the Cerro Gordo Freighting Company headquarters to the north of the depot and a hotel to be constructed by a Captain Kittridge. The railroad property then as now, lay between Maclay and Kalisher streets.
Persons who became identified with San Fernando included Ross Ames, the first stationmaster who married a sister-in-law of Captain Kittridge. There was also A. B. Moffitt, co-partner with Maclay in a store. At that period the post office was located at the railroad station, Kittridge bringing the mail down from the northern terminus of the railroad and Moffitt distributing it in the "event of the day," as history tells us. Persons from the valley patiently waited to have their names called out and receive their letters. Moffitt was also the coroner and the story goes that only he knew for certainty how many Chinese workers were killed in tunnel mishaps during construction.
Captain Kittridge moved the post office to The Tunnel as it was now officially known, in 1875 when a veritable city of tents and portable houses arose at the south mouth of the tunnel. Many railroad wives came up to make homes for their husbands in makeshift houses and even planted flower gardens while they lived there.
Remi Nadeau was also a familiar figure around San Fernando where his huge freighting wagons were now headquartered after removal from Los Angeles. When the north part of the railroad construction reached Mojave, he moved his headquarters to that high desert spot.
As to the final opening of the tunnel, history has left us two dates. The first version is that Chinese diggers came face to face on July 14, 1876, when the opening to the north and south was only a half inch out of line. Another version is that Frates finished boring the tunnel in August 1876, when he personally removed the final cart of earth. Water is said to have gushed from the tunnel from one end to the other and after a year and a half, the San Fernando Mountain was drained. Timbering was completed the same month and not long after that, the tracklayers finally laid the rails from the mountain's summit to the northern entrance. From nearby Lyon's Station, the news was flashed to Los Angeles that the rails were in the tunnel. The first train passed through the San Fernando Tunnel on August 12, 1876.
The tracklayers from Tehachapi were steadily laying around 2½ miles of rail per day. As they reached Mojave, they laid track east of Willow Springs and past Lancaster Station. By this time it is estimated that 4,000 workers were furiously pushing ahead from desolate Soledad Canyon south and the San Fernando Tunnel north, trying desperately to meet and close the remaining gap between them.
Charles Crocker, president of the Southern Pacific watched progress from Lang's Hotel and on the morning of September 4, he was able to send a message to the Southern Pacific in San Francisco and to ex-Governor John G. Downey in Los Angeles, that all was ready to lay the golden spike on the following day.
Completion of the tunnel made it one of the longest railroad tunnels then in the United States, exceeded only by tunnels in Virginia and Massachusetts and one in Switzerland. Sutro's famous tunnel into the Comstock Lode was not a railroad tunnel such as the others mentioned.