All Over the Map From Point A to Point B: A “Map of Location of Los Angeles and Independence Railroad through San Bernardino County from its intersection of Western Boundary Via Cajon Pass,” October-November 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was a breezy and cool day up at the West Cajon Valley in the Cajon Pass area above San Bernardino, Fontana and Rancho Cucamonga as I took part in a fascinating walking tour of surviving grades and cuts and a tunnel site from the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad (LA&I)project of nearly 150 years ago.

As has been noted here on several posts, including as recently as yesterday, the LA&I was formed by Los Angeles capitalists in spring 1874 to construct a narrow-gauge (3 1/2 feet instead of the standard 4’8″ width) railroad line from the Angel City to the Inyo County seat of Independence, near which were a group of silver mining boom towns, including Cerro Gordo, Panamint, Swansea and others.

The recently rebuilt Mormon Rocks monument along westbound Highway 138 a few miles west of Interstate 15.

After the state legislature at the end of March granted the project its charter, carried home by ex-Governor John G., Downey, a meeting was held to incorporate the company with Downey as treasurer and F.P.F. Temple as president. Temple had not long before established the Cerro Gordo Water and Mining Company as central to his investment in that mining community east of Owens Lake in the White Mountains.

Whereas silver ore was transported by mule teams by such Angelenos as Remi Nadeau, the idea, of course, was to transport that material much more rapidly by rail. Additionally, the founders of the line were hoping raise the money locally and provide some measure of pride in stepping out of the long shadow cast by San Francisco and its ample community of capitalists. It also looked to provide much-needed competition with the mighty Southern Pacific Railroad (SP), which dominated the industry in California and held a monopoly in Los Angeles.

As noted in last night’s post featuring the 24 March 1874 edition of the Los Angeles Express, the SP was finishing its line from Los Angeles east to Spadra (now part of Pomona), including through the Rancho La Puente, co-owned by William Workman and where there was a small depot, as part of its line to the Colorado River and Yuma, Arizona. In addition, the SP, forced by Congress in 1871 to build through Los Angeles to get to Yuma, was building a tunnel of nearly 7,000 feet, one of the longest in the world to date, north of Los Angeles to connect with the main line coming down from the Central Valley.

Once the SP realized that the LA&I looked like a serious project, there was a concerted effort to try to get to Cajon Pass and claim it. This was animated largely by LA&I Chief Engineer Joseph U. Crawford’s earnest efforts to get a survey done in that area and determine the most practicable route through it on the way to Inyo County. Yet, when it was understood that there was not enough greater Los Angeles capital, the LA&I was saved when United States Senator from Nevada, John P. Jones agreed to take a majority interest in the company.

The angle of the wheel pointing to where the Mormons crossed the mountains into the West Cajon Valley on their way to establishing their colony at San Bernardino.

Jones not only had substantial investments at the Panamint mines not far from the proposed rail route, but he was also the co-owner of land along the coast west of Los Angeles which became the townsite of Santa Monica. In becoming the new president, with Temple relegated to becoming treasurer, Jones prevailed on the LA&I to build a branch line to Santa Monica first.

Still, claiming Cajon Pass was critical and the SP hastened to get a survey crew there before Crawford and his team could get there. According to Remi Nadeau, scion of the aforementioned teamster and who wrote of the incident in his 1948 book, City-Makers, there was just a difference of an hour between the time that Crawford set his stakes in the pass and when the chastened competitors from the SP arrived. Whether true or not, it was a razor-thin margin in any case.

Active grading and cut-and-fill work took place within the pass and that was the focus of today’s tour. The group, headed by Mark Landis, Camp Cajon Project Manager; Nick Cataldo, president of the San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society, and others with a great deal of knowledge of the area, met at the Mormon Rocks Viewpoint on the north side of State Route 138, a short distance west of Interstate 15 in what is known as the West Cajon Valley. After an orientation and history presented by Mark with a few observations by me, the caravan headed west to the Mormon Rocks Monument.

While it was not directly tied to the LA&I project, the stop was very interesting as we learned about the route through the area in 1851 by Mormon settlers headed to found the town of San Bernardino. During the Mexican-American War several years prior, Mormon leader Brigham Young sent a battalion of LDS men to assist American forces and it was thought to be a good idea for a colony to be established in greater Los Angeles.

The grade and cut just west of Highway 138 looking to the southwest towards the snow-covered San Gabriel Mountains.

Initially, negotiations were undertaken by Isaac Williams, owner of the Rancho Santa Ana del Chino in today’s cities of Chino and Chino Hills, but a sale fell through when Williams changed his mind. The Mormons then turned to his brothers-in-law in the Lugo family, owners of the Rancho San Bernardino, and were able to make a deal for the establishment of the colony on that rancho.

One of the really interesting features of the memorial, which was rebuilt a few years ago during a widening of Route 138 (the original was saved and is on private property to the north in Phelan), was that a wagon wheel placed atop it was oriented so that when one stands behind it and looks to the hills to the north, it actually directs the observer to the exact location where the Mormons came down into the valley.

At left is the boundary line of Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties, with the Rancho Cucamonga next to it. From the rancho, the LA&I route heads northeast towards Cajon Pass.

From there, our group headed further west on Highway 138 and parked on the west side where we were able to walk in a surviving portion of the LA&I grade, including a cut, as it reached its western terminus and made a sharp curve and then an eastward turn. While much of the grade and cut is on property owned by a Korean church for a retreat, the short segment accessible to us from the highway was pretty great to see and reminded me of a similar trip made in Utah some years ago where we got to see original segments of the Old Spanish Trail, which did go through Cajon Pass and was utilized by the Workman family on their migration from New Mexico in late 1841.

At this location, we were also directed to turn and look across the highway and get an idea of how the line was graded and as it headed towards a second cut (not accessible), a third one further east and, out of view beyond that, the site of a tunnel intended to bore through the mountain and onto the high desert plateau in what is now Phelan.

Looking from the first cut northeastward across Highway 138 and towards, to the upper right where the upper cut and tunnel site are situated.

Our caravan then crossed 138 and headed up a couple of private roads where we parked next to a house, whose owners not only provided the space for the vehicles but took part in the walk, as well. We then walked east for perhaps a half-mile or so and turned north into a small canyon where we ascended to the third cut and could very easily make out the grade leading back into the canyon and the tunnel site.

Thanks to the presence of Dan McMaster, a tunnel engineer, we learned about how these were constructed with an initial cut bringing wood framing and then the forming of the tunnel and further delving into the mountain leading to more framing and forming and so on. Mark shared a drill bit used in such work with its primitive use simply being that these were hammered into the rock, turned slightly, and hammered again, and so on. Dynamite was also used for tougher sections in the painstaking work undertaken 150 years ago.

The Cajon Pass area on the survey map with existing roads at right coming up from San Bernardino and the LA&I route at left.

Incidentally, it was pointed out that the work of tunneling today involves the very complex bureaucratic machinery of the modern state, not to mention that very advanced technology involved in drilling, but the bottom line is that it can take many years for such projects to be undertaken. In 1875, there was neither the state control or the technology, so such work could be started quickly, even if the work was slow and difficult.

Needless to say, tunneling was also very dangerous. Cave-ins were common, dynamite accidents could take place, and the dust was an enormous problem as it was inhaled and led to what is often known as “black lung disease.” Small wonder, the lives of miners and those engaged in tunnel work could be much shorter than the average life expectancy of the time, which was quite a bit less than that of today. The later use of water, however, in drill bits and in other aspects of technique did provide significant improvement.

The upper cut is at left behind part of a ridge, while the canyon at the center is where the tunnel was sited.

Because of these conditions, it was standard for such back-breaking labor to be undertaken by the Chinese. Some of them came during the Gold Rush and were forced from the mines by violence and the Foreign Miners’ Tax, while others were more recent arrivals who found their employment options limited. Ironically, when F.P.F. Temple ran for Los Angeles County Treasurer in 1873, a letter of support written by El Monte resident William B. Lee stated that the candidate deserved election because he wouldn’t hire Chinese. Yet, when the LA&I work began, that’s exactly what happened.

While the cuts and grading were clear, what was not was any sign of an actual tunnel. The canyon seemed to be such that the left side of it appears most likely for one, given where the cut and grade led and the fact that there was a small gully to its east. As newspapers reported at the time, up through the end of August 1875, officials from the LA&I stated that boring went in as far as 325 feet into the mountain.

A detail of the pass and rail route as it went up and then turned into West Cajon Valley.

Over 150 years, of course, myriad changes due to such events as severe flooding, not to mention the possibility that the tunnel was dynamited and collapsed, could explain why there is no remnant left. Another possibility, however, is that reports of work were either concocted or greatly magnified. After all, the LA&I wanted more investment and any news of success would serve to help and newspapers like the Express and its contemporaries, the Herald and the Star, were more than interested in boosting the railroad as part of their promotion of the reason.

This isn’t to suggest that no tunnel work was undertaken; in fact, there was a report of a steam drill taken to the site, but, as we well know today, media reports can reflect bias and overstatement. The point is that there is no way to independently corroborate just how far the LA&I got in its tunneling work at Cajon Pass and, while it is possible this project did get 325 feet into the mountain as reported, it is also within conjecture that such reports were exaggerated.

The very clear path of the upper cut and grade looking southwest towards the San Gabriel Mountains.

The report from the LA&I assistant engineer about that depth of work on the tunnel was published in the Star of 25 August 1875. The day before, there was a panic in San Francisco when a bubble in stock speculation concerning silver mines at Virginia City, Nevada burst and panicked depositors at the Bank of California, the Golden State’s largest, flooded the institution leading to its closure and failure.

When the telegraph brought the news south to Los Angeles, the two commercial banks in town, Farmers’ and Merchants’ (operated by Downey and the brilliant managing cashier Isaias W. Hellman) and Temple and Workman, faced a run. In the aftermath, the former, under the calm and steady guiding hand of Hellman who raced home from a European vacation to take control of the situation, came out just fine.

The map showing where the first cut and sharp curve then led to the east and northeast section where the upper cut and tunnel site were located.

Temple and Workman, however, was in dire straits. The Cerro Gordo project, centered on an 11-mile water pipeline brought to the mining burg, was irreparably damaged when the springs supplying the precious fluid in a particularly arid area suddenly dried up in spring 1875. Depositors’ funds were used for Cerro Gordo and for the LA&I, among other development projects throughout the region, but not enough cash was left in reserves for contingencies.

Desperate to save his bank and his good name, Temple was able, through three month of suspension of the institution, to arrange a loan with Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who made a mint by selling his Virginia City mine stock before the bubble burst with his sale providing the impetus for the bust. The deal was “on rather hard terms” as Temple wrote to Workman on 20 November, but the bank did reopen on 6 December with acclaim for the banker and Baldwin at a banquet that evening.

A late 19th century mining drill similar to what would’ve been used at the tunnel by Chinese laborers under very difficult and often dangerous conditions.

Yet, the infusion of almost $350,000 could not stem the flow of closed accounts as depositor confidence plummeted and the bank failed on 13 January 1876, wiping out Temple, who suffered a series of strokes even as he served a two-year term as county treasurer (while simultaneously filing for bankruptcy) and died within several years, and his silent partner Workman, who, at 76 years of age and despondent about the catastrophe, committed suicide in May.

The Santa Monica branch of the LA&I as completed in October 1875, but the dramatically transformed conditions of the panic, which came amid a national depression that began in 1873 and lasted several years, spelled the imminent demise of the railroad. Despite efforts to keep the operation going, it was sold to the SP in 1877. Notably, the route from downtown Los Angeles to Santa Monica is now largely utilized by the Expo light rail line.

The back of the canyon, with the likely tunnel site at the left. On the other side of the ridge is the elevated plain of the high desert where Phelan is today.

The map featured here in details shows the LA&I route as it emerged from the Rancho Cucamonga, the west boundary of which was the line separating San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, and headed up into Cajon Pass with the turn into the West Cajon Valley and the very sharp curve and ascent toward the tunnel site. It is not clear if what we have in the Homestead’s collection is an original, but it is certainly a great document concerning the project, which was a regional railroading milestone.

Thanks to those who organized and led today’s tour, which was a fascinating look at surviving remnants of what was a largely unrealized effort, though the LA&I remains a notable part of the history of railroads in 19th century greater Los Angeles.

2 thoughts

  1. Thanks, Paul. That was definitely a lot of fast work and research. Good photos too. Next time wear long pants to the miountains! Ha ha. Enjoyed meeting you. Marcy Taylor, Mohahve Historical Society.

  2. Thanks, Marcy, for the kind words about the post and the walking tour was really great. Definitely have to be mindful of the yucca out there!

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