Victorian Fair Postlude: A Visit to Greater Los Angeles, November 1853, Part Three

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This post was intended as a two-part entry, but there was so much interesting material that it has expanded to three sections.  The information comes from Volume 5 of an eleven-volume series of reports published under the auspices of the Department of War by the federal government from 1856-1861 and based on five surveys conducted to find a route for a transcontinental railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.

This volume concerns a survey done by members of a topographical engineering corps from the Bay Area down through the San Joaquin Valley and to Los Angeles before moving eastward to the confluence of the Colorado and Gila rivers at present-day Yuma, Arizona.  Led by Lieutenant Robert S. Williamson, the party, which included future Civil War general, Pasadena resident and California governor George Stoneman heading a military escort, headed into greater Los Angeles at the end of October 1853.

Mission San Gabriel 1853
The images shown here, including this rough sketch of Mission San Gabriel, are from Volume 5 of the eleven-volume series of reports for surveys conducted in 1853-54 for a transcontinental railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean. The Homestead collection has volumes 5 and 7 of the set.

The prior two posts covered the origins of the survey and the movement of the group into our region, ending with a two-day visit to Los Angeles with much description of viticulture and wine-making.  Now we pick up the story from the geological report by Lieutenant John G. Parke on 2 November, as the expedition “left Los Angeles on the morning . . . and passed a region of low, rounded hills, surrounded by gently slopes, these being in the area northeast of Los Angeles between today’s Boyle Heights and Lincoln Heights and through where Cal State Los Angeles is.

Parke’s narrative continued

We soon arrived at the Mission of San Gabriel, nine miles distant from Los Angeles,  It is beautifully situated at the base of the mountains, and is surrounded by extensive gardens and vineyards.  The building is high and quadrangular, and appears to be still used for church service; the bells were ringing and we met numerous parties of native Californians on their way there.

As to the vineyard, it was not being maintained and was “going to decay,” with fences damaged “and animals having free range through it.  As noted elsewhere, the prickly pear cactus drew attention.  There was also an extensive footnote (the work generally had few of these) giving much detail about the mission in its heyday, including statistics from 1834 about the enormous numbers of cattle (105,00), horses (20,000), and sheep (40,000) pastured on mission property, as well as grain and wine production.  Some 3,000 Indians were said to be “attached to the establishment” [the natives would likely describe it differently!]  Secularization then took place and a decade later, there were said to be 500 natives, 700 cattle, 500 horses and 3,500 sheep.

Father José María de Zalvidea was credited with much of the expansion of the mission’s development, including introduction of viticulture and wine-making, increasing cattle raising and the trading of soap and tallow, and more development of gardens  and orchards.

Mission San Gabriel description 1853

The next section was headed “Valley of San Gabriel river—Monte” and noted that “after crossing this stream [San Gabriel River–this being the older channel now known as the Rio Hondo because the current river channel was not created until flooding in the winter of 1867-68], the party “passed over a broad plain which was covered with vegetation, and appeared to possess a fertile soil and to be well suited to agriculture.”

Parke went on to observe that “it was already covered by preemption claims [some of this was squatting on existing ranchos, including those owned by William Workman and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple], and the settlers were busily engaged in erecting small adobe houses, the clay for the adobes being obtained on the spot by digging down a few feet.”  Being in the settlement of El Monte, the lieutenant wrote further that “Many American families were already established there, and we passed several fields of corn and vegetables.  The ground is low and moist, and the soil clayey.”  These settlers had only begun arriving two years prior to the arrival of the railroad survey exploration party.

Then, the crew headed further east and Parke went on:

At the Puenta [sic] rancho we tasted some good red wine, like port, manufactured from grapes raised on the place, and beautiful bunches of red and white grapes were obtained at an adjoining house.  Large flocks of sheep were feeding upon the burr of the California clover, and the surface in some places was covered with a dense thicket of the dead stalks of the wild mustard, which grows there to a great height.  Low foot-hills [the San Jose Hills from modern La Puente to Walnut and Pomona] rose to the northward of this place . . .

From the description, it appears that the survey team stopped at the Workman House (incidentally, the 5th was the 12th anniversary of the Workman family’s arrival in the region) to sample the port-like red wine and then acquired (purchased?) grapes at the Rowland House just a short distance to the east.  It is not clear to whom the sheep belonged, but Rowland and Workman did not formally divide Rancho La Puente until fifteen years later.  Wild mustard, an invasive introduced by the Spanish and which flourishes in the spring and summer, were dying off.

Puente area description 1853

As brief as this account of La Puente is, it is one of the earliest by visitors to the ranch, so it has great historical significance and interest.  The survey party also camped near the Workman and Rowland houses, because, on the 3rd, it pressed on eastward, with Parke writing “we stopped at a rancho of a native Californian to purchase barley.”  He wrote of the fig and peach trees, and dried grapes at the storehouse where the grain was stored.

Parke mentioned a brook, probably San Jose Creek (now a flood control channel), but also noted that a thick fog slowed traveling considerably.  Because he mentioned “an outcrop of intrusive rock, forming a low ridge on our right, trending approximately east and west” with “white and yellowish shale . . . not far from the erupted rock,” which sounds like Elephant Hill now just east of the 57 Freeway in Pomona, it sounds like the barley was bought from the Vejar family on their portion of Rancho San José.

Today, the Phillips Mansion historic site occupies that property, European Jewish emigrant Louis Phillips having acquired the Vejar portion of San Jose in the drought years of the 1860s and removing the Vejar adobe to build his French Second Empire mansion in 1875.  I was actually the on-site caretaker at the site for 4 1/2 years in the mid-1990s.

An 1857 parenthetical note added that there was a range of hills “extending nearly northwest and southeast, or from about the point at which the intrusive rock was observed” and this denoted the Chino Hills range.  Then, Parke and his men arrived at a rancho described as “Qui-Quai-Mungo,” better known as “Cucamonga.”  He wrote that “at this place the road from Los Angeles branches, one passing to the Cajon Pass, and the other to the Mormon settlement.”

Cucamonga description

Referring to the town of San Bernardino, Parke observed, “the last had been recently laid out and constructed by the Mormons.”  Sent by Mormon leader Brigham Young, following a contingent of volunteers who came to the region at the end of the Mexican-American War, the settlers originally agreed to buy land on the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino at modern Chino and Chino Hills, but that deal fell through, and the San Bernardino site was acquired instead.

Parke gave some detail about the town, established just two years prior, noting its development under the auspices of the Mormons.  Within a few years, however, fears of a war between the Mormons and federal forces led Young to recall the settlers back to Zion (Utah), though some chose to remain in the region. He did note that quantity and quality of lumber obtained from trees in the San Bernardino Mountains and stated “when the railroad is constructed from the mouth of the Gila to this valley, and beyond it to Los Angeles, a large part of the timber for ties can be obtained from these forests, cheaper than can be procured from Oregon.”

After a few days at San Bernardino, the group left on the 6th for Cajon Pass and Parke noted that the “old Spanish trail from New Mexico” which the Rowland and Workman expedition used, was there and that “this pass and the old Spanish trail is now principally used by the Mormons and other emigrants from the Salt Lake to Southern California.”  Parke mentioned that Paiute Indians also used the pass when stealing horses and cattle from greater Los Angeles ranchos and noted “El Cajon de los Negros” to the west of Cajon, which was part of a rancho owned by William Workman before its land claim was rejected by a federal commission.  The party then headed further east out of the region.



By the time, the surveys were done and the reports published, the growing friction back east between the North and South led to the outbreak of the Civil War.  Not surprisingly, the favored route of the head of the Department of War was a southern one, but with the Seceretary of War being Jefferson Davis, who resigned to take the presidency of the Confederate States of America, matters changed significantly.

Quickly, the Lincoln administration chose a central route to the Bay Area and construction began on two fronts: the Union Pacific from the east and the Central Pacific (controlled by Gold Rush hardware merchants turned railroad tycoons; namely, Collis P. Huntington, Leland Stanford, Charles Crocker, and Mark Hopkins) from the California side.  At Promontory, Utah, in May 1869, the massive project, one of the most notable events in 19th century America, was completed.

A railroad line did finally go through the San Gabriel Valley (and other areas of greater Los Angeles explored by the 1853 survey party) in 1873-74, when the Southern Pacific, a subsidiary of the Central Pacific, built its line through.  A station stop was built at Puente, very close to the Workman House and the second home of John Rowland (who died months before the line’s completion), erected less than two years after the survey crew visit.  The 1853 exploration is an important part of the history of Victorian era greater Los Angeles and this three-part post seemed an appropriate postlude.




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