All Over The Map: An 1853 Transcontinental Railroad Survey through the San Gabriel Valley

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In the early 1850s, a determined effort was made through the Department of War (later the Department of Defense) and its cabinet secretary, Jefferson Davis, to identify and survey potential railroad routes from the Midwest to the Pacific Coast.  Several lines from the extreme south to San Diego on up to the far north at what became Seattle were investigated.

In time, eleven volumes of reports were published, providing a wealth of information about the routes, locations along them, the geography, plant life, and other valuable information about the American West that went far above and beyond the immediate task of finding the best route for a transcontinental railroad.

For information regarding greater Los Angeles, good material is available in the fifth, seventh and eleventh volumes.  These include written descriptions of the region by members of the survey parties, as well as the first published image of Los Angeles and a series of maps.

This detail from an original 1853 transcontinental railroad survey map in the Homestead’s collection shows the route used by crews traversing greater Los Angeles from San Fernando to Chino, including a stay at Rancho La Puente.

One of these from 1853 is highlighted here and a detail of the very large artifact shows an interesting, if somewhat skewed (if you measure the map’s orientation by the compass) view of the region from San Fernando eastward to modern Chino (where the word “Williams” is partially visible at the upper right.

The dark line shows the main route used by surveyors heading from the north and the San Fernando Valley, which mainly consisted of the old mission, founded in 1797, and a few scattered houses on large cattle ranches.  The crew then went into Los Angeles, which, in the early 1850s, was a rough and tumble Gold Rush-era town of a few thousand roiling with ethnic tension and violence.

From there, the party traveled southeast and went around the Montebello Hills and then swung north and east to the San Gabriel River, which ran in today’s Rio Hondo channel, until floods in the winter of 1867-68.  They passed very near the site of the original Mission San Gabriel, founded in the Whittier Narrows in 1771 but moved due to flooding to its current location within a few years.  They also went by the home of F.P.F. Temple and his wife, Antonia Margarita Workman, on the Rancho La Merced, where they’d settle just a couple years prior in 1851.

Then, the route crossed over Puente Creek, which received the waters of Big Dalton Wash and San José Creek.  This latter is now a flood control channel, but was then a year-round stream taking water from the eastern San Gabriel Mountains and is marked by an uneven line alongside the dark straight line of the route.

One of the railroad survey crews described camping at and visiting William Workman and John Rowland, the owners of the massive Rancho La Puente of nearly 49,000 acres where among other things, they tasted what was described as excellent wine, which both Rowland and Workman made from vineyards irrigated by the waters of San José Creek.

Following the creek and what was then known as the Colorado Road, now Valley Boulevard, the party headed east through the San José Valley and skirted the north edge of the Chino Hills before moving southward.  About a day’s travel from La Puente was the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino, granted in 1841 (the year before La Puente) to Antonio María Lugo, one of the most prominent Californios of the Los Angeles region.

Lugo had a son-in-law, Isaac Williams, a native Pennsylvanian who came to Mexican Los Angeles in the 1830s.  Williams was effectively the owner, or at least the proprietor in Lugo’s stead, at Chino, and was widely regarded for the establishment he had at what is now the Boys Republic facility for troubled boys in Chino Hills.

From there, the road headed south and east towards modern Corona, Temecula and on to the Colorado River at today’s Yuma, Arizona.

Even though Davis, based on recommendations from the surveyors and engineers who made the long, difficult journeys on the surveys, suggested either a route to San Diego or one to Los Angeles as the most cost-effective and easiest to build, northern politicians were not about to let a southerner and the man who became president of the Confederate States of America, lead the building of a transcontinental railroad through areas directly tied to the south.  Tensions were rapidly building between northern and southern states that culminated in the Civil War within a few years.

Instead, a northern route, far more costly and difficult, was selected once the war broke out and northerners could decide what path they preferred.  After several years of tough slogging, particularly the western portion through the Sierra Nevada Mountains and sections through the Rocky Mountains, the transcontinental route was finally completed in 1869, linking the United States literally and symbolically, as the wounds of the war were still raw and barely in any kind of healing stage.

Even now, though, few people know about the remarkable contents of the railroad surveys from which this map came.  More on those in future posts here!

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