Descriptions of Greater Los Angeles in the “Report of Explorations for Railroad Routes from San Francisco Bay to Los Angeles, California,” 1854-1855

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the United States government embarked in the early 1850s on the massive project to develop a transcontinental railroad, the work of exploring routes was undertaken by the Department of War (now the Department of Defense), which was then overseen by the Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.

Crews were sent out under the command of officers in the Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers and they not only made the explorations and surveys of the several proposed routes, but gathered information on the geology, botany, and natural history of the areas traveled with these being important for understanding an area that was largely only recently incorporated into the United States because of the Mexican-American War.


After legislation was passed by Congress in March 1853 and in May and August 1854, instructions were delivered from Davis to those chosen to head the parties doing this work. Eleven volumes of reports were generated in succeeding years and tonight’s multi-part post looks at material from the seventh volume pertaining to descriptions of greater Los Angeles, some of these providing fascinating information from the early American era in a community that would not see a railroad for fifteen years, not be connected to any transcontinental line for two decades, and not be directly linked via such a road for over thirty years.

Lieutenant John G. Parke led the party which was specifically charged to find a route to link the San Francisco Bay area with Los Angeles as part of the larger transcontinental concept and he submitted his report to the Department of War in 1857. He began his general report by noting that, after sailing from New York on 5 October 1854, likely crossing the isthmus at Panama, and then continuing up the west coast of Central America and México, he and his compatriots arrived at San Francisco on the 1st of November.


It took about three weeks get everything organized, including acquiring supplies and transportation, after which the group left for San José at the southern end of the Bay to begin its survey work. The party did so along close to the coast and quickly realized some of the major obstacles involved as it made its way south to the Salinas Valley and along where U.S. 101 passes missions like Soledad and San Miguel, past the Rancho Santa Margarita near modern Paso Robles and Atascadero and to San Luis Obispo.

Throughout there were side trips, but the main course continued along the 101 route to Santa Inez and explorations of Gaviota Pass, though with supplies running low, the party headed into Santa Barbara for replenishing their stores. There was a return to Gaviota and other areas in the Santa Inez Valley including a pack-route path through San Marcos Pass, the other route north from Santa Barbara, to which the group then returned.


From that point, the expedition followed the coast to the Mission San Buenaventura and thought it would go into the mountains, through what became Ojai, to get to the Cuyama area east of Santa Maria, but the ruggedness was too tough a slog. The next route then was the Santa Clara Valley heading east along modern State Route 126 to the Rancho San Francisco where the “camp was located near the road leading from Los Angeles to the Tulare valley,” this latter meaning the great Central or San Joaquin Valley where the busy route to the Gold Rush was just then becoming much less traveled as the rush was receding.

More exploration was undertaken through what we know broadly as the Grapevine and then west to Cuyama to see if a route could be found in those areas, but it was determined to be problematic looking for a decent route through the tough mountain areas and it was noted that these searches took two weeks and there was “during that time, more hardships and difficulties, from ruggedness of country, snow, and rain, than we had before met with.”


The expedition then returned west through the Santa Clara Valley, conducting more side exploration, “until we reached the coast road to Los Angeles, and proceded thence to the rancho Triompho [Triunfo or El Conejo],” where Ventura County and Los Angeles County now meet. From that point, the group “proceeded to Los Angeles, and thus completed the first division of our work entrusted to our charge, occupying the party four months from the 20th November, 1854, (the date of our entering the field.”

It was then about late March and Parke’s entourage continued east where “at the mouth of the Cajon Pass, near the Mormon settlement of San Bernardino, we were joined, on April 3” by another party and then continued into the Mojave and other desert regions toward the Colorado River. Parke, however, found these regions “too hazardous, and in fact an unwarranted risk to attempt to traverse.” So, he returned to Los Angeles and then to the rudimentary harbor of San Pedro, and, having been able “to procure funds and replace broken instruments,” Parke took a ship to San Diego, while the rest of the group went overland, and further work was done in southeast California towards the Colorado.


After discussions of mountain ranges along their route of travel, Parke went into some detail about valleys and when it came to greater Los Angeles, he noted “the San Fernando has an area of eighty-five square miles, bounded on the north by a high ridge or main axis of the Coast Range, on the west by Santa Susana, and separated from the ocean by a low rolling ridge [the Santa Monica Mountains], which extends for thirty miles to Los Angeles, where the stream [the Los Angeles River] which receives all the waters of the plain and surrounding slopes turns to ridge and bears off to the ocean at San Pedro.”

Parke then wrote that “between Los Angeles and the coast, and adjacent to the stream above noted, there is spread out another smooth extent of prairie or meadow country, about ——— [the number was not included] square miles, the Los Angeles plain proper.” Eastward and along the Sierra Madre [San Gabriel] Mountain range “is found the mission of San Gabriel, located upon the floot-slopes of the mountain range, and overlooking another large plain, bearing the name of the mission.”


Interestingly, the lieutenant observed “these are simply local names and are all embodied under the general name of Los Angeles plains, embracing the district lying at the base of the mountains between the missions of San Fernando and San Gabriel, and extending off the short line.” He added that this was not “one unbroken and continuous prairie surface,” but, rather, “is beautifully diversified with smooth knolls and low rolling ridges, with an occasional clump of oaks near the base of the mountains.”

In a section about soil, Parke noted that most of the land along the Coast Range was long under the control of the priests at the missions that stretched from San Diego to Sonoma and he reported that the “princely” facilities, “excited the cupidity of the government of Mexico” which led it to secularize the missions, which, two decades later, “are wrecks, monuments of their pristine splendor, masses of crumbling walls, with here and there occasional evidences of design and good taste in the arrangements of parts and construction” While churches were in good overall shape and “the bells of some are still hanging,” he added that “adobe walls soon melt before the southeasters of the rainy season.”


Parke went on to observe that mission lands were turned into ranchos and that “claims and counter claims are now set up by individuals for this property, and while they are being adjudicated the squatter [original italics] locates and establishes his pre-emption.” Mission buildings might be repurposed so that a church is a barracks and the priests’ quarters stores, stables or a tavern. Orchards laden with all kinds of fruit were the haunt of pigs and cattle and he added

the agricultural capacities of this country are unsurpassed in the world. Its hills and mountain slopes afford rich pasturage. Its valleys and plains yield enormous crops of cereals and vegetables, whilst the fruits of our Atlantic board, together with many of those of more tropical latitudes find here a most genial soil and climate.

The lieutenant added a table from the 1852 state census, the only of its kind in California history following the gross undercount of the 1850 federal enumeration (actually taken early in 1851 because of the admission of the state to the Union in September 1850.) For the counties along the route the expedition took, the number of horses and mules in Los Angeles County was over 13,000 more than those of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, Monterey and Santa Clara combined.


The total of cattle in Los Angeles County was over 115,000, more than double that of either Monterey or Santa Barbara and twice as much as that of the other counties combined. Santa Clara County, however, was far more advanced in agriculture, with some 670,000 bushes of grain on almost 20,000 cultivated acres and Los Angeles County was a distant second, with just over 50,000 bushels on about 5,600 acres. Parke added that Santa Clara had an increase, by 1854, of 29,000 acres and over 1 million bushels, though this was only a tenth of the area of valley land in the county.

Wheat and barley were being raised heavily near San Jose, in Salinas and in the Los Angeles area, while the Mormons at San Bernardino “have been very successful in their farming operations.” In the San Gabriel Valley, Parke reported that “very heavy crops of corn are raised near the mission of San Gabriel, in a district known as El Monte, a low bottom lying along the San Gabriel river.


In a section headed “Adaptation of Country to the Construction of a Railroad,” Parke broke out the detail into nine divisions (two are variations of one section from what is now Los Alamos to Gaviota Pass) including areas from San José to the Pajaro River near modern Watsonville; from there to Salinas; the valley south of Salinas, and so on, with the latter being from Ventura to Los Angeles through Simi Pass.

For this last division, work would be relatively easy to the pass, where “an ascending grade of thirty-two feet per mile, to the level of the San Fernando plain” would then lead “through the sharp summit by a tunnel 600 feet below the crest.” Because the material was sandstone, the 3,960-foot tunnel would “scracely require blasting.” Once through the pass, “to Los Angeles a smooth plain [in the San Fernando Valley] presents itself with no obstacles . . . requiring . . . but little earthword to prepare a road bed.

In summing up, Parke noted that the route was just a shade under 400 miles and, with equipment, the projected cost was under $21 million, though he cautioned “that the above estimates are not based upon as minute and careful a survey as it is customary to make for the purpose of determining the actual cost of a railway, and are therefore to be considered as mere approximations, where a very liberal allowance for each element which enters into them has been made.”


He broke down this total into such elements, including about 60% for manual and animal labor at $2.50 per man for 3,833 laborers working for four years. Matter-of-factly, howver, Parke added that “by the employment of Mexicans, Indians and Coolies [Chinese], in large numbers, this item will be lessened.” For rails, ties, and other aspects of the superstructure, this was calculated at $8,000 per mile for $3.2 million. Bridges and masonry for them would run about $2.7 million, while water stations depots would total $1.2 million, contingencies were aroiund $370,000, and an additional $1.2 million was for first equipment.

In wrapping up this initial part of the report, Parke added an interesting forecast:

It is believed that when a more stable state of things exists in California, a greater mass of population will be found along the route; the immense districts of excellent agricultural and pastural lands through which it passes will be occupied and improved; the avenues to every branch of human industry which the country is capable of maintaining will be thrown open to competition; the prices of manual labor be reduced to a reasonable rate in consequence, and the cost of construction of so important and extensive a work be materially lessened.

After Parke discussed the expedition’s explorations in the area along the 32nd parallel (which would lead to San Diego) along the Gila River in Arizona and southwestern New Mexico and then to the Rio Grande, the next major portion of the document was the “Geological Report” of Dr. Thomas Antisell and which was published in 1856.


The next part of this post on Thursday will examine Antisell’s very interesting review, so please be sure to check back then.

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