by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Tonight, we return to the fifth volume in the eleven-volume set of reports pertaining to surveys to investigate routes for a transcontinental railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. In fall 1853, a crew made its way south from the San Joaquin Valley and Tejon Pass to greater Los Angeles, providing a fascinating early description of the region.
The geological report by William P. Blake was published in 1857 and the portion covering the area included a descent into the San Fernando Valley by the pass of that name on 30 October 1853. Blake wrote “late in the evening we encamped under some trees by the side of the creek that flows from the pass, and is one of the tributaries of the Rio de los Angeles.” The group found that it was camped under fig trees.
Among the plants noted and included in a drawing by Charles Koppel, the expedition’s artist, was the prickly pear. Notably Blake observed that the specimen they saw was some twelve feet high and a ladder was resting against it. Koppel added a figure on the ladder with a basket to gather fruit, but Blake noted “the artist has represented the fruit as it collected by hand; a mode of gathering which seems rather incompatible with its thorny nature.”
Blake added that “the peculiarly moist and balmy air . . . were delightful to us after traveling so long on the mountains and the elevated and arid surface of the Great Basin.” The valley, however, was “without trees or verdure,” a reminder that, before the Los Angeles Aqueduct allowed for mass irrigation, the San Fernando Valley was pretty bleak compared to the San Gabriel Valley, which was well-watered from rivers and creeks emanating from the San Gabriel Mountains. It was also mid-fall, so there had not likely been rain for many months.
A visit was paid to San Fernando Mission, then not quite twenty years removed from secularization, which closed the facility. The structures were describved as “imposing” even its deteriorated condition, but Blake talked about grape raising which provided “a very pleasant red wine” and “herds of cattle were seen on parts of the broad plain.”
The expedition headed southward and crossed the Los Angeles River at the base of hills, these being the extremity of the Santa Monica Mountains and an ascent was made on a roadway that was almost certainly through Cahuenga Pass. At one point, Blake and company stopped to enjoy the vista where “a more favorable point of view showed to us the broad, mirror-like surface of the great ocean.”
It was Halloween as the party reached Los Angeles and one prominent feature included in the report was that “there are several places in the vicinity of the city where bitumen, or mineral pitch, rises from the ground in large quantities.” The expedition passed one of these. A good deal of attention was then paid to viticulture.
Here Blake offered the caveat that he could not offer a full exposition on grape-growing but added that this was “a region which enjoys the advantages of a most genial climate and fertile soil.” While almost any fruit or vegetable seemed likely to grow in the area, “the most important production of the soil, at this time, is the grape, which is raised in immense quantities in the suburbs of the town and at adjoining ranchos.” Again, Blake rejoiced in the surroundings:
it was very delightful, after having been so long in the mountains, far from civilization, and for a part of the time travelling over the arid wastes of the Great Basin, to arrive in this vine-clad valley, and to walk through the gardens and vineyards where the purple fruit hung in luxuriant and tempting clusters.
Vineyards could contain up to 40,000 vines, though Blake was told that Mission San Gabriel had over 100,000, this being at its peak before secularization. He noted that vines were not on supports but were carefully trimmed and limited to about four feet in height, so that the trunks were strong enough to support the grapes. Bunches of the fruit could weigh three pounds or more.
Blake observed that most grapes were shipped to San Francisco in the few years since the city exploded to a major metropolis during the Gold Rush. His group arrived in the midst of the season, so that
the vineyards were traversed in all dirctions by laborers, bearing baskets of the fruit to the packing-sheds, where it was spread out in large piles upon clean white cloths, laid down on the hard ground or upon floors. Boxes of redwood, capable of holding about sixty pounds are used for their reception, and the clusters are carefully laid in with clean saw-dust.
Grapes fetched about 3 and 1/2 cents at the vineyard or at $6 per box, but sold in San Francisco at 18-25 cents a pound. As for wine production, it was stated that “before it became profitable to ship the greater portion of the wine crop to San Francisco, a large quantity of wine was annually manufactured.” The 1850 census recorded 58,000 gallons produced in California, most of it from greater Los Angeles, and this was 10,000 gallons more than produced in Ohio.
Talking with Luis Vignes, a French native and major viticulturist in the city, Blake learned that, though Vignes “has one of the large vineyard in the city . . . since 1850 he has made but little wine.” The group sampled red and white wines from Vignes’ inventory, with the best of the latter selling for $1.00 a bottle and the former at 50 cents. It was noted that “the red wine was not equal to that we purchased at San Fernando.”
Blake noted that “a cask of the best wine, that was purchased at this vineyard and shipped to New York around Cape Horn, was found, on arrival, to have acquired considerable color, being much darker, and not unlike sherry both in color and taste.” A local favorite, aguardiente, a white brandy, was made by Vignes and sold for $2.25 a gallon.
He continued by observing that “the quality of the grapes and wine at Los Angeles was not equal to that on several ranchos and at the Mission, which is on higher ground.” Those vineyards on moister soil had larger, juicier grapes, but the flavor was inferior to those found on drier soils. In some instances, red wine was not possible because the skins lacked the material for the coloration and depth of the product and this was due to the presence of nitre (potassium nitrate) in the soil.
While demurring from offering more than a cursory look, Blake stated “I became convinced, from the few observations that it was possible to make during our stay of two days, that the region is peculiarly well adapted to the growth of the grape and other fruits.” With the climate and soil in mind, he believed that “the State will become celebrated not only for its gold and grain, but for its fruits and wines.” This was certainly prescient.
We’ll continue tomorrow with a third part, covering the Blake expedition’s movement east from Los Angeles, with more interesting information and observations from the report.