More 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

In the seventh of the eleven volume series of reports under the heading of “Explorations and Surveys for a Railroad Route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean,” conducted by the Department of War (now the Department of Defense) under the leadership of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis, later president of the Confederate States of America, we looked in a post two days ago at descriptions of greater Los Angeles in the general report of Lieutenant John G. Parke for reconnaissance work for a rail line from San Francisco Bay to Los Angeles.

Now we turn to the “Geological Report” conducted by the expedition’s geologist, Dr. Thomas Antisell, a native of Ireland who ran a newspaper as part of the “Young Ireland” movement during the tragic 1840s, when the so-called “potato famine” ravaged that island. Because of his politics, Antisell migrated to the United States and ran a medical office and chemical laboratory in New York, while also lecturing at medical schools in Massachusetts and Vermont.

Antisell then joined Parke’s expedition and his report, published in 1856, proved to be an important contribution to the understanding of the geology of the American southwest. In the first chapter, titled “Physical Geography,” Antisell noted that his work took place from 22 November 1854 through 5 April 1855 and one of his main observations concerned the term “Coast Range,” which he felt was a misnomer as there was no one chain of mountains, but rather several ranges. A pair of these, which varied from others because of their east-west orientation, were the “Sierras Monica and Susanna,” that is, the Santa Monica and Santa Susana ranges.


Among his general remarks in this section is the observation that “Southern California is remarkably subject to earthquakes. In the counties of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, and San Diego, they are felt several times in the year; within the last six years the ascertained number felt amounted to fifty-nine, or more than nine shocks a year.” Antisell added that, when it came to volcanic activity, there were “still open fissures in the southern chain, whce steam acid vapors, and even flame, yet occasionally escape.”

Two years after the geologist came through the area, a staggering quake of what the later Richter scale would have been above an 8.0 reading erupted along the San Andreas Fault. The 9 January 1857 tremor caused relatively little damage and death in the sparsely populated region, but that quake remains the last “Big One” our region has seen.

In the second chapter, “Geology of the Coast Ranges,” Antisell noted that much of California was, in ancient days, “a deep sea bottom, whose shore was several degrees to the east” that the fact that certain shells were found at Monterey as well as “on the plains of Los Angeles, involving distances 300 miles apart,” meant that the climate “must have been pretty much alike over the whole” of the area he studied. He also noted the slopes of valleys throughout the “Coast Range” and observed that from Salinas south, these uniformly had a northward slope, “even the open plains, such as those of Los Angelos [sic] and San Bernardino, are higher at the southern than at the northern end.”


Chapters then covered specific areas investigated along the “Coast Range” route, so that the eleventh concerned the “Geology of the Sierras Santa Susanna and Monica,” which “occupy the triangular space comprised between the Santa Clara river, with its valley on the north, the ocean on the south, and the plains of Los Angeles and San Fernando to the east, embracing a district 40 miles long from west to east, and 26 miles from north to south.” They were also distinct ranges going east to west with a bit of a northeast trend.

Antisell noted that the altitudes were up to 3,000 feet and that the two were “separated from each other by the Conejo pass, a considerably elevated plain rising from the Santa Clara valley and passing in a line . . . enters to San Fernando valley at its northwest corner.” The geologist spent more time in the Santa Monica range as parallel with road (roughly along what became Ventura Boulevard as well as the much late U.S. 101.) He referred to the “Semee,” or Simi, plain or valley and observed the buttes devoid of soil so that “the absence of trees of any kind upon these hills strikes the observer at once as a phenomenon very remarkable, where a few miles travel could present him with luxuriant growths . . . thus an air of perfect sterility crowns the whole.”

Nearby were the small valleys of the ranches “Encima” or Encino, and Triumpho, or Cahuenga, which “are covered with evergreen oak, loaded with the hanging ramalina [lichen], and growing on rounded knolls well covered with grass. Antisell noted that the material found in the two ranges meant that “there can be but little doubt that these mountains are but repetitions of each other, and both but the continuation of the strate immediately superimposed upon the Santa Inez range of sandstones lying further west.”


In discussing “beds of sandstone grit and fine argillite rock . . . in connect with the bituminous [coal] rock almost wherever examined.” Specifically, Antisell noted that “it is in this range seen at the eastern edge, in the valley of Los Angeles, north of the town, where the asphalt springs exist. It also constitutes the uppermost strata of the hills [Palos Verdes] at the coast near San Pedro.” The geological dip was a bit northward at the latter where “they are soft clay and sandstones,” while “at Los Angeles it is almost vertical . . . the strata are hard, ring to the hammer, and are endered metamorphic by the volcanic protrusions.”

Chapter XII is denoted as “Plains of San Fernando, Los Angeles, and San Bernardino” and the geologist noted that these were “lying at the base of the Cordilleras,” or the Sierra Madre Mountains, later known as the San Gabriels. The trio measured some 180 miles from east to west and “narrowing to 30 miles at the shore of the Pacific, presenting a blunt pyramidal form, the flattened apex being to the ocean.” At its widest north to south, this region was some forty miles, while

this great expanse is broken into by a low range of tertiary hills [such as the Puente and Chino ranges], which run from west to east, at an average distance of 13 miles from the foot hills of the Cordilleras, and thus divide the area into an upper and a lower plain, which are connected by wide passes in the tertiary hills, the present valley beds of the various streams which roll from the base of the mountains to the sea—as the Rio de los Angeles, Rio San Gabriel, and the Rio Santa Anna [sic].

As to these watercourses, Antisell noted “these have worn their way through the low hills and formed those pases during the present [geological] epoch, the whole range of tertiaries having formed one continuous chain previous to the last geological change.” That wearing of the hills by the rivers then led to the creation of “several smaller valleys, which receive distinct names, as the San Fernando valley, the San Bernardino, and the Los Angeles valleys or plains,” though he added that “strictly speaking, they are not valleys, but ancient alluvial plains.” Then there was another low range of tertiary hills between those valleys and the ocean “which separates the slope from the present shore,” these being such hills as the Baldwin, Los Coyotes, and San Joaquin.


Antisell continued that “the base of the Cordilleras along its whole extent presents considerable uniformity of elevation, and the balley at its upper limit has an average level of 1,200 feet,” though at the eastern end the elevation rose “as it approaches the lofty Sierra Bernardino,” presumably Mt. San Gorgonio. As to the broadly defined plains east of Los Angeles, there were those who were at 900 feet above sea level and higher and those that were lower. Among the former were San Fernando “and the plains of Kikal Mungo [Cucamonga] and San Bernardino,” while “in the latter would be the plains of Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Monte.”

“With regard to the soil,” the geologist observed, “it is an uniform mixture of clay and rolled pebbles, forming a light brown loam, with a considerable growth of vegetable mold in its superficial portion.” Those sections toward the coast “is finer and more clayey” but, generally, Antisell identified that “the soil of the whole plain . . . [is] local and defined beds of clay, (modern alluvium,) resting upon a bed of fine conglomerate clay and gravel, (ancient alluvium.)” At the higher elevations in the Inland Empire :sycamores grow abundantly, near water, with oaks, alders, and cottonwoods” and, as elevation increased, more of these were found.

Moreover, he went on, “the upper plains are much better watered than the lower, partly from more rain falling . . . but chiefly because the rivers as they roll down the valley are gradually absorbed by the porous and sandy nature of the soil, which in places is of great depth.” As an example, “a few hundred yards below the town of Los Angeles, the river, in summer time, ceases to flow, it being mostly removed by infiltration into the subsoil, and partly by evaporation from the heat, which, for a few months in the year is very intense.”


With rainfall “which does not exceed 16 inches yearly” and not enough to support a great deal of vegetation, “in the upper valleys at San Fernando and at Kikal Mungo, irrigation by sequias [sequia means drought in Spanish, he evidently meant zanjas or irrigation ditches] is had to recourse to; and without this system the plains of Los Angeles could not produce the excessive crops of grape vines which they do.” That said, Antisell reported that “in the spring and early summer there is abundant water derived from the melting of snows on the Kikal Mungo and San Bernardino ranges, which are occasionally retained on their summits to the middle of summer, and supply the numerous arroyos and creeks that find their way into the San Gabriel or Santa Anna rivers.” He added that spring evening dew couldbe “very heavy and are equivalent to a mild rain fall.”

As to vegetation, the geologist recorded that “a very fine meadow grass grows in protions of the valley, and the wild oat is common over the whole extent.” To the east, “between Monte and the Cajon [Pass], hundreds of acres were occupied with sunflower of unusual height, 10-12 feet, in blossom and often disputing the road by their numbers.” Many other more beautiful plants were observed, as well, especially salvia, “which by their scarlet and red flowers gave to the base of the hills the appearance of a finely dotted carpet.” Also observed were wild mustard and burr clover, this latter “is highly nutritious, and much sought after by the domestic cattle, who devour it with aridity, and upon which they fatten when other leguminous plants and grasses fail from drought.”


Those areas under 1,000 feet elevation “are admirably adapted to the culture of grape and other kinds of fruit which require a warm and constant temperature.” Antisell added,

The vineyards [orchards] of Los Angeles have long been famed for their productivenes in supplying the more northern sections of the State with the grape, the pear, apricot, peach, apple, and fig. During fruit season the steamers from San Pedro go up laden with grapes, peaches, and pears, which are delivered at San Francisco and Sacramento. The apple does not grow to any great perfection, owing to the climate and latitude being too near the intertropical zone, but the pear, the peach, and the fig trees, bear very abundantly.

He continued to observe that “the orange has not of late been extensively cultivated, although it grows remarkably well. At the mission San Gabriel are large orchards of this tree growing in the open air, and ripening their fruit at the close of the month of May.” He went on that “its cultivation can be made as profitable as any other fruit production, owing to its luxuriant growth, and, as already a few small orchards have been planted around the pueblo of Los Angeles, there is little doubt that in a few years this fruit will form a staple article indigenous to the plains.”


For the actual vineyards, Antisell added, “the climate and soil appear both to have united in favoring the growth of the grape in California” so that “it has spread with remarkable rapidity and rendered itself almost a native in its quick growth.” There were a total of 125 vineyards in the county, “each producing seventy thousand pounds of grapes annually, or making anaggregate of above nine millions of pounds.”

Prices ranged from three to twenty cents per pound—in late August 1854, William Workman advertised in a local paper his crop of grapes at three cents per pound—but he added, that “it is estimated that two-thirds of the whole amount shipped would not exceed three and a half cents.” Still, he obsered that “there is much loss from neglect and inattention” as some growers were “not harvesting them sometimes until heavy rains come, when they are rendered worthless.”

As a broad estimate, Antisell wrote that about half of the crop was made into wine and brandy, with a quarter shipped and the remainer reserved “for domestic use, including waste and loss.” About 100,000 gallons of wine and brandy were produced each year and valued at $2 per gallon. For the year 1854, the value of grapes shipped out was pegged at $50,000 and this “was much beyond that of any preceding year.” Among those singled out for attention as viticulturists were Jean Louis Vignes, whose 42-acre vineyard was the largest in the region, and that of Benjamin D. Wilson, whose mention was specifically concerning his introduction of a sparkling wine.


As for Vignes, Antisell recorded that “the vines are planted in rows of hills, the plants being about 6 feet apart each way.” Irrigation was from river water and the ditches “roll in a channel down one side of an allotment with side sluices for allowing small strreams to flow in between the rows and irrigate the ground.” Water was permitted to accumulate for up to a week before being shut off and this was repeated at intervals “during the early growth of the fruit.” The geologist noted that “little attention was bestowed upon the manufacture of the wine, and the article, until within the last few years, was not what either the climate or the variety of vine would warrant.”

Concerning stock raising, the geologist reported that “plants indigenous to these plain[s] support an immense number of stock of a wild, shy and intractable character,” though he added “little attention has been bestowed upon the rearing of cattle, and no cultivation of dairy produce has yet been attempted.” Noting that “these plains are the headquarters for the supply of stock to the northern parts of the State, and since the number of cattle driven over the plains into California has sensibly diminished” as the Gold Rush was nearing its end, “it is to these extensive prairies that the supply of Sacramento and San Francisco is due.”


Quoting from the California Times and Transcript, a San Francisco paper, Antisell included a chart giving the total of beef cattle in California in 1855 as just over 300,000. Of this, about a third, or not quite 102,000 were from Los Angeles County, with the next highest total of 40,000 in Santa Barbara County. Moreover, “the natural increase of 1855 was large; in San Bernardino it was, over and above sales, 21,000.” As to animals expored overland, that number was pgged at 100,000, although “one third of those sent from the east usually perish on the way.”

In the sixteenth chaper on “Bituminous Effusions,” the geologist reported that the “Deposit of Los Angeles valley” was in a location “between one and two miles north of the pueblo in an air-line, but as the low range of the Sierra [Santa] Monica, in which it is found, runs east and west, the road winds round northwards to reach it.” After describing the content of the material at the location, Antisell added “the asphalt is protruded through” a strata “forming distinct wells or springs, which overflow.” Moreover, he observed that “the land where they lie is owned by Captain Dryden, who, at the time of visit, was sinking a pumping apparatus for hoisting up the bitumen.”


William G. Dryden was a friend of William Workman and John Rowland, owners of Rancho La Puente, from their New Mexico residency, when Dryden arranged for them to be named agents of the Republic of Texas in that country’s efforts to claim the Río Grande as its natural western border and which distinction led them to go in 1841 to Los Angeles, where, almost a decade later, Dryden also moved. He became an attorney, representing the two men in their initial land claim for La Puente, and then was, just after this report was written, he became the county judge, which position he held for thirteen years until his death in 1869.

Dryden’s asphalt spring was sold at $1 for gallons and, Antisell recorded, “is in some demand for flooring and roofing” for the town’s adobe houses, though it was added that a recent report stated, without explaining what the data was, that there was about 4,000 tons of asphaltum in Los Angeles and Santa Barbara counties so “it is difficult to say what continuous supply could be derived from this source.”


Notably, nothing was said about the La Brea tar pits, several miles west of town, though the “San Pedro hills” or Palos Verdes peninsula was noted for having an area where “the bitumen leaks out in small quantity.” Antisell also reported that “further east, in the valley of San Gabriel mission, the asphalt again occurs in small quantity on the low hills near the mission,” though whether this was the Montebello or Puente hills is not clear. Brea Canyon leading into what became Orange County also was an area with deposits of the material.

At the end of the report is a table in an appendix showing estimated costs for ten routes running east to west from as far south as close to the 32nd parallel to San Diego and north to near the 47th and 49th parallels at Seattle, with distances ranging from 1,533 to 2,290 miles, the longest actually being to Benicia northeast of San Francisco, though this route was determined to be impractical. The cheapest route was to San Diego at $68 million, while that to Seattle was pegged at near $141 million.


Ultimately, while the recommendation was to build the transcontinental railroad to either San Diego or Los Angeles (San Pedro), this last to cost about $92 million, the increasing sectional tensions between the North and the South in the lead-up to the Civil War made it clear that a southern route was not likely to be selected. When a decision was made in 1862, after the war began and Southern states formed the Confederate States of America with Davis as its president, to build to the Bay Area, the project took the remainder of the decade, finally being finished in 1869 and being one of the landmarks of the century.

Going to these reports and seeing what was said about greater Los Angeles, though, regardless of what eventually transpired with the rail project, is fascinating as it can be very challenging finding information about the region during that era/

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