History Of Santa Clarita

When looking out across the Santa Clarita Valley’s seemingly endless sea of stucco and tile, it’s easy buy into the notion that this vast, bustling and beautiful area is a new place. Certainly, there’s a level of truth in that assumption, bolstered in large part by any number of present-day marketing pitches for new-home neighborhoods. Indeed, thoughtfully planned neighborhoods dot the valley, divided by meticulously landscaped and maintained byways. But look closely and you’ll find evidence of a rich past – a history that stretches back hundreds of years to when Native Americans cast their shadows on the landscape, when European explorers and early pioneers set foot here.In many ways, the story of the Santa Clarita Valley mirrors those of other towns of the Old West, when Easterners migrated westward to find their fortunes, start new lives or escape old ones. This valley’s heritage is unique, punctuated by a colorful cast of characters all its own.

The Early ‘Newcomers’

Around A.D. 500 the Tataviam ruled the area we now call the Santa Clarita Valley, having pushed the then-native Chumash and Yumans to outlying areas. Meaning “Dwellers of Sunny Slopes,” the Tataviam spoke a derivative language of the Shoshone Indians and were rugged and fierce mountain dwellers whom the Spaniards would later refer to as Serranos. They occupied about two-dozen villages throughout the
Upper Santa Clara, in settlements we now know as downtown Newhall, Castaic Junction, the area west of the Golden State Freeway and Piru Creek.

Although much of their culture and ways of life are forgotten, evidence they were here can still be found. They left their art painted or cut into rocks and caves. They can be found in parts of the present-day Angeles National Forest, Vasquez Rocks Park and Elsmere Canyon. A veritable treasure trove of Tataviam relics now resides in the Peabody Museum at Harvard University, having been discovered in a place called Bower’s Cave in 1884. Piled into the cave was an impressive collection of thatched baskets, clothing, headdresses, jewelry and other artifacts. The collection is one of the most significant discoveries of Native American cultural artifacts in the United States. The last known Tataviam man died in the early 1900s, bringing with him much of the knowledge of his people.

The Explorers Arrive

Don Gaspar de Portola arrived in the Santa Clarita Valley in 1769, having begun his journey northward from the fledgling mission and presidio at San Diego and tasked with claiming the vast region we now know as California for Spain. De Portola and his soldiers first gazed out across the valley atop the Santa Clara Divide Peak near Elsmere Canyon, located southeast of the present-day Antelope Valley Freeway. With them was Father Juan Crespi, who diligently recorded their observations and discoveries for Father Junipero Serra, head of the San Diego mission, as well as future generations.

The Santa Clarita Valley of some 234 years ago was a far different place, indeed. Crespi’s initial observations noted that the valley had abundant grass-covered flat soil, two large springs of water, two creeks and a river, many cottonwood, willow, sycamore, oak and pine trees, as well as numerous varieties of lush plants, grapevines and rose patches. He wrote that he named the area for the lady St. Claire and predicted that in time it would become the site of a large mission. He also noted that the region was populated by a vast number of “heathen folk,” a reference to the Tataviam that resided here. Over the course of several hundred years the Tataviam had evolved into a friendly and peaceful people, so the arrival of de Portola and his soldiers caused no great alarm.

De Portola and his party continued northward toward their ultimate destination, Monterey. Other explorers followed in the ensuing years, making their marks along the way. Among them were Pedro Fages, credited with naming Agua Dulce and Soledad Canyon, and Father Francisco Garces, whose recording of the Indian names “Islay” and “Kashtuk” would eventually evolve and enter the geographic lexicon as Hasley, as in Hasley Canyon and Castaic.

The Missions Flourish

Father Serra died in 1784. Taking his place was Father Fermin Francisco Lasuen, who organized another expedition northward to establish a new church in what he viewed as a large, uncontrolled area between the San Gabriel and San Buenaventura (present-day Ventura) missions, a region populated by numerous “heathens” who had not yet embraced the mission’s ideology and European ways. The expedition began the following year, with Father Vicente de Santa Maria making his way through the western end of the Santa Clarita Valley and south again. It was actually in what we now know as the northern San Fernando Valley that he established the mission in 1797. Named for former Spanish King St. Ferninand, the Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was born. Much of the Santa Clarita Valley – known at the time as Rancho San Francisco – was a rich agricultural area that fell under the auspices of the San Fernando mission.

The mission fathers established an even stronger presence in Rancho San Francisco in the early 1800s, establishing a granary at Chaguayabit (present-day Castaic Junction). Eventually the granary grew to a collection of buildings and was afforded the status of Asistencia de San Francisco.

The Rise of Del Valle

The capital city of Monterey was the first to formally drift from the control of Spain, swearing allegiance to the so-called emperor of Mexico. This act set off a series of events that eventually resulted in the effective dismantling of the mission power structure.

In 1834 Lt. Antonio Seferino del Valle began the process of dismantling the control of the San Fernando Mission and all of its lands. After several years of exploits that saw victory on the battlefield, political intrigue – as well as time behind bars – del Valle resigned his military commission and asked Gov. Alvarado to grant him land on which to retire. Alvarado granted del Valle nearly 49,000 acres in 1839, making him master of the Rancho San Francisco.

A Golden Discovery

The first authenticated discovery of gold in California was actually made in the Santa Clarita Valley, setting off what would later become known as the California Gold Rush. As the story goes, a cattle rancher by the name of Jose Francisco de Gracia Lopez was napping under an oak tree in the area known as Canon de los Encinos (Live Oak Canyon and present-day Placerita Canyon). When he awoke he dug up some wild onions and discovered gold encrusted on their roots. He and two of his ranch hands promptly spent the rest of the afternoon digging along the banks of a nearby stream. Over the next several months, miners dug up thousands of ounces of gold in the area.

Ignacio del Valle assumed the role of Magistrate of the Mines, profiting handsomely from the prospecting of the ever-swelling number of miners. Del Valle is credited with establishing the state’s first mining laws, lending some order to the frenzy for instant riches. The gnarled old tree that sparked the eventual gold rush and the significant westward migration that followed still sits in Placerita Canyon, today known simply as “The Oak of the Golden Dream.” It is now part of the Placerita Canyon Nature Center, located on Placerita Canyon Road, east of the Antelope Valley Freeway.

California Switches Hands

The U.S. had failed several times to convince Mexico to sell or relinquish control of California, so it came as no surprise that war against Mexico was declared in 1846. Many Californians were already dissatisfied with Mexican control, believing that life would be better as part of the United States.

The war ended with the surrender of General Andres Pico on Jan. 13, 1847, in what is known as the Capitulation of Cahuenga. The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo the following year ceded California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas to the U.S. California officially became the country’s 31st state in 1850.

The growth of gold mining and cattle ranching meant more and more people and goods needed to travel between the southern and northern reaches of the new state. One of the obstacles that stood in their way was the extremely rugged mountain pass between the Santa Clarita and San Fernando valleys. (Think about the terrain and the massive cuts in the mountains the next time you drive the I-5 through Newhall Pass.)

Henry Clay Wiley had a profitable solution, partnering with Ignacio del Valle to build a massive wooden windlass that lowered wagons, animals and people down the steep incline. Since the pair literally had them coming and going, they also built a thriving hotel and restaurant known as Wiley Station. Wiley’s windlass and depot were later circumvented by a 30-foot-deep cut through the mountains in the vicinity of present-day Interstate 5.

Wiley Station was renamed Lyon’s Station after twin brothers Sanford and Cyrus Lyon purchased the place in 1855. As a stop on the Butterfield Overland Stage, Lyon’s Station grew considerably over the years, eventually adding a store and postal office.

The glory days of cattle ranching in the valley came to a screeching halt during a three-year drought that began in 1862, significantly whittling away the herds and ending a way of life for many Angelenos.

Soledad Canyon Emerges

Col. Thomas Mitchell arrived in Soledad Canyon in 1860, setting up a cattle ranch that eventually grew to about 1,000 acres. With the outbreak of the Civil War a year later, the Union needed precious metals to help the cause, and many of these were found in Soledad Canyon, whose population soared. Rejecting the locally accepted name of Soledad City, the Postal Service set up a post office there called Ravenna, named for local merchant Manuel Ravenna, in 1868. Although Ravenna became a bustling enclave, neither it nor Soledad City survived the test of time.

Beale’s Cut

One of the valley’s most recognizable landmarks is known as Beale’s Cut, a narrow passage through Fremont Pass that served as the only northernmost route out of Los Angeles for nearly 50 years. Soldiers from Fort Tejon used picks and shovels to cut the 90-foot-deep passage, finally making travel through the Santa Clarita Valley less death defying. The project spearheaded by Gen. Edward Beale opened to the paying public in 1863. Beale was also quite the land baron, owning several ranchos including Rancho Castac, whose name was derived from the Indian word “Kashtuk.” Beale took the naming game one step further, changing the spelling of Castac to Castaic, a name we all recognize today as the community just north of the City of Santa Clarita’s northern boundary.

Pesky Goo or Black Gold?

Petroleum has long seeped from fissures throughout the Santa Clarita Valley. Aside from some medicinal and waterproofing characteristics, the black goo was more of a minor annoyance than anything else – that is, until its potential uses were more thoroughly known and exploited. Soon, Beale, Wiley, Pico (remember the vanquished Mexican general?) and a host of others maneuvered their way to controlling most of the valley’s oil collection.

Beale and his partners then created the Star Oil Co., drilling for oil using the slow and crude spring-pole method. Although they built a small refinery at Lyon’s Station, their inability to produce smoke-free kerosene proved to be the company’s undoing.

Next came formation of the California Star Oil Works in 1876, and it was one of their drillers – Alex Mentry – who is credited with sinking the hole that started the oil bonanza in California. Mentry’s well No. 4 in Pico Canyon spewed the then-formidable 50 barrels of oil a day. Soon, the small enclave known as Pico Springs changed its name to Mentryville.

That well continued to produce oil until it was capped in 1990, and what’s left of Mentryville remains one of the most historic spots in the Santa Clarita Valley. Although some of the buildings have been moved, they’re still original structures that offer a glimpse into the valley’s past. During the deadly and devastating wildfires of 2003, firefighters did a valiant job of making a stand at Mentryville and successfully protecting it from the flames.

The Santa Clarita Valley remains home to the first legitimate refinery in California and the oldest existing refinery in the world. The old Newhall Refinery operated until 1884. It was re-christened as the Pioneer Refinery some decades later, and it sits to this day as a historical landmark off Pine Street, in the vicinity of Wm. S. Hart Park and Heritage Junction.

Lang Station

Historically speaking, Lang Station in Soledad Canyon was not as fortunate as Mentryville, having been bulldozed by Southern Pacific in 1971. Named for John Lang, it was actually a thriving community for about 100 years, featuring, among other things, a hotel and health spa that tapped into some of the area’s sulfurous wells.

In 1872 Lang and neighbor Thomas Mitchell created the Sulphur Springs School District, which is the second-oldest school district in Los Angeles County.

The Outlaw Vasquez

Tiburcio Vasquez wasn’t exactly a model citizen, yet today we have a county park and a high school named after him. Despite being born into privilege, Vasquez somehow went sour, terrorizing stagecoaches and entire towns for some two decades. He was a one-man master of mayhem who, during lulls, holed up in a collection of jagged and dramatic rock formations we now know as Vasquez Rocks County Park.

He was, in fact, popularly known at the time as “the Scourge of California.” After several run-ins with the law and some time spent behind bars, Vasquez honed his criminal ways – especially his ability to evade capture – and recruited other ne’er-do-wells to plunder with him.

The focus of several intense manhunts, he was eventually tracked down and taken into custody. Despite his crimes, the public afforded him celebrity status. Women swooned over him. A play called “The Life of Vasquez” played to a packed house. Photos of him were hot-sellers on the street. Nevertheless, he was extradited to San Jose, convicted of murdering a hotel keeper and hanged in 1875.

Although it’s probably just a legend, rumors circulated widely that somewhere in or near Vasquez Rocks is the vanquished outlaw’s loot.

A Pioneer Named Newhall

Of all of this valley’s historic figures, perhaps the most recognized of all is Henry Mayo Newhall, whose name is attached to a plethora of local landmarks – from a road to a town, a hospital, a company and on and on. Born in Saugus, Mass. – from which another local town would borrow its name – the San Francisco auctioneer and businessman purchased the 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco for $90,000 in 1875. It wasn’t the first piece of property he had bought; for several years he had been buying up a series of old ranchos scattered between Los Angeles and Monterey, accumulating nearly 115,000 acres. He cemented the eventual growth of the early Santa Clarita Valley by selling Southern Pacific a right-of-way to build tracks through the valley, as well as some land on which to build a train station – for which he charged the railroad company the sum of $2.

The result was the establishment of a small town around the train depot – a place called Newhall. The Newhall Land & Farming Co. – known today for its community of Valencia – was born in 1878 when Newhall set aside some 500 acres for agricultural purposes.

The San Fernando Tunnel opened in 1876, providing the first rail link between Los Angeles and northern California. At more than 6,900 feet, it was the fourth-longest tunnel in the world at the time. Hundreds of Chinese laborers chiseled the tunnel by hand, being paid $1 a day for their services. Shortly thereafter, Southern Pacific opened another, shorter railroad tunnel in Soledad Canyon. Hundreds of laborers were laying track both down this canyon and near Bouquet Canyon, meeting up with each other in early September of that year.

A real estate subsidiary of Southern Pacific soon set about dividing the land into lots. First came a general store, then a home for the store’s owner, George Campton, a boardinghouse and a saloon. With water from wells scarce, the depot and town were actually moved about three miles down present-day San Fernando Road to the area around Sixth Street and Railroad Avenue, where water was more plentiful. Henry Mayo Newhall built the two-story Southern Hotel at San Fernando Road and Market Street in 1878. Four years later he died at the age of 56, shortly after a horse-riding accident. Newhall’s widow and five children united to incorporate The Newhall Land & Farming Co. in 1883.

Saugus is Established

The Saugus Train Station and accompanying spur line opened for business in 1887. Its name came from Henry Gregory Newhall, president of Newhall Land and son of Henry Mayo Newhall, who was born in Saugus, Mass. In 1891 President Benjamin Harrison stopped at the Saugus Station as part of his re-election whistle-stop tour. The year also brought a post office to Saugus, although it was actually called the Surrey Post Office until 1915, when it assumed the Saugus name.

Richard and Martin Wood took over the station’s little eatery in 1898 and changed its name to the Saugus Cafe. It was later moved across the street to the spot where it still sits today.

Mulholland’s Legacy

With the construction of the famed Los Angeles Aqueduct in the early 1900s came a significant growth spurt. After all, the aqueduct would finally bring Los Angeles and its environs the Owens Lake water they so desperately needed. Heading the project was William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (DWP).

“There it is. Take it,” were Mulholland’s words when he opened the valve that released a steady stream of water down the concrete cascade between Newhall and Sylmar, depositing it into the nearby Van Norman Reservoir. That cascade still operates today and is a familiar sight to Interstate 5 travelers heading north from the San Fernando Valley.

Mulholland decided that a new reservoir was needed, and he chose San Francisquito Canyon to build a 185-foot-tall concrete dam to contain it. Completed in 1926, the St. Francis Dam began leaking almost immediately, causing concern among those tasked with maintaining the structure. But Mulholland believed the seepage was just a minor problem.

On March 12, 1928, the dam keeper put in an urgent call to Mulholland about the increasing seepage of water. Mulholland inspected the dam that morning, concluded that all was well and left. Several minutes before midnight a huge portion of the dam suddenly crumbled, hurling a deadly and destructive wall of water down the canyon, across the Santa Clara riverbed, and 54 miles west to Ventura and the Pacific Ocean. The disaster, the second-worst in California history, left a path of destruction that claimed the lives of at least 425 people. It also proved to be the undoing of mighty Mulholland’s career with the DWP. In a gesture rarely seen today among politicians and bureaucrats, Mulholland accepted responsibility for the disaster and retired.

Celluloid Dreams

The Santa Clarita Valley has long served as Hollywood’s “back lot.” In the early days of the fledgling motion picture industry, the valley’s panoramic vistas, rugged canyons and authentic western feel made it a natural backdrop.
Mention the name William S. Hart today and most people will recognize it as the name of a high school and a park, but the name stretches back to a man who was once one of Hollywood’s top stars, having made some 100 films during his career. A perfectionist who was classically trained in England, “Two Gun Bill” insisted that the quality and authenticity of his westerns rise above the mediocrity of the flicks of the day.

In 1921 Hart purchased the 254-acre Horsehoe Ranch, where he shot some of his movies and later built a home. He moved into the home high atop the property’s highest hill, “La Loma de Los Vientos,” in 1928. Perhaps fittingly, Hart built the valley’s first movie theater, presenting it to the American Legion in 1940. The American Theater still stands, although it no longer serves as a movie house.

Hart died in 1946, leaving his mansion and its magnificent collection of western and Indian art to Los Angeles County, which operates it to this day as a public park. He also helped establish the valley’s first high school, which opened shortly after he died and bears his name.

Other movie stars of the day could be seen shooting their pictures in the Santa Clarita Valley. Errol Flynn starred in “The Adventures of Robin Hood,” parts of which were shot in Placerita Canyon. Harry Carey, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, William Boyd, Buck Jones, Gary Cooper, John Wayne, Clark Gable, Marlene Dietrich and a cast of many others all set foot in this valley to shoot films.

The most prominent movie studio in the valley was the Monogram Western Town in Placerita Canyon. It was later purchased by Gene Autrey, who renamed it Gene Autrey’s Melody Ranch, where he shot his weekly TV show. In 1962 a brush fire destroyed most of the place. Purchased and restored by the Veluzat family in 1991, Melody Ranch is once again a working movie studio and the principal location for the city’s annual Cowboy Poetry & Music Festival, usually held in late March.

The Valley Comes of Age

The end of World War II was the catalyst for Southern California’s unprecedented growth. Mulholland’s aqueduct had brought water to a parched land, roads and highways allowed people to live farther out from city centers, and land was being subdivided at a frenzied pace.

Housing developments with names such as Rancho Santa Clarita and North Oaks began sprouting from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, paving the way for the growth that would follow. By the mid-1960s grand plans were in the works to transform some 4,000 acres of the vast land holdings of The Newhall Land & Farming Co. into a new, master-planned community.

Valencia was born in 1967. The infrastructure required for a growing population was methodically put into place. Interstate 5 was nearing completion. Old Orchard Shopping Center on Lyons Avenue was open for business, and even a championship golf course – today’s Valencia Country Club – designed by Robert Trent Jones had been built. Life was changing quickly and dramatically in the Santa Clarita Valley.

Los Angeles Baptist College opened its doors in Placerita Canyon in 1960; it is now known as The Master’s College. College of the Canyons was established in 1967, operating out of a bungalow at Hart High School until 153 acres were purchased for its present-day campus at Valencia Boulevard and Rockwell Canyon Road. And, the world-renowned California Institute of the Arts, founded by Walt Disney himself, opened in Valencia in 1971.

Newhall Land opened Magic Mountain, the result of a partnership with Sea World, in 1971. The 200-acre theme park’s impact on the valley was – and continues to be – enormous, bringing thousands of jobs and tourists to the area. Newhall Land sold the park to Six Flags in 1979.

Two other significant local landmarks are Castaic Lake and Pyramid Lake, both part of the State Water Project, the biggest water-delivery system in the world.


Dissatisfaction with Los Angeles County rule stretched back decades, spawning community-incorporation attempts and a failed county-formation effort. It wasn’t until November 3, 1987 that the independence movement took hold when more than 67 percent of voters approved formation of a new city – a 39-square-mile area known as the City of Santa Clarita.

Of the 26 candidates who jockeyed for votes, five were chosen for the new city’s first City Council: Howard P. “Buck” McKeon, who now serves the area as a member of the U.S. Congress; Jo Anne Darcy; Jan Heidt; Carl Boyer and Dennis Koontz. Darcy served on the council the longest, deciding not to run for re-election in 2002. The city brought an unprecedented and welcome level of local control to the valley. Its accomplishments have been numerous, including new parks and trails, a sports complex and aquatics center, local bus and commuter service, and a host of special events that bring citizens together throughout the year.

Earthquakes have always been one of the annoyances of living in Southern California, but Mother Nature shook things up in a big way when the Northridge Earthquake struck early on the morning of Jan. 17, 1994. Damage throughout the valley was extensive, with many homes and buildings destroyed. And, like the Sylmar quake of 1971, the powerful temblor leveled part of the massive concrete highway spans that serve as the connectors between Interstate 5 and the Antelope Valley Freeway.

The end of a long-running chapter in local history came in early 2004, when the billion-dollar sale of The Newhall Land & Farming Co. was completed. The buyer was Florida-based Lennar Corp. and a Lennar-controlled subsidiary. One of the nation’s biggest home builders, Lennar is known locally as the developer of Stevenson Ranch. Although Lennar officials say Newhall Land will retain its name and operate as usual, it’s hard to ignore the sale of a company that has played such a major role in this valley’s history.

Want More Local History?

The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society is a veritable treasure trove of local history. Headquartered in the old Saugus Train Station at Heritage Junction, this organization holds meetings and special events throughout the year for history buffs. Heritage Junction itself is a marvelous repository for historic structures that escaped the wrecking ball and offer a glimpse into the valley’s rich and colorful past. The historical society can be reached at 254 1275.


450 A.D.: Primary residents of present-day California are the Tataviam Indians
1520: Explorer Cortez claims present-day California for Spain
1542: Explorer Cabrillo lands at the mouth of the Rio Santa Clara
1769: The Portola Expedition; Fr. Crespi names Santa Clara; Fr. Serra founds the mission chain
1781: The City of Los Angeles is founded
1797: Mission San Fernando claims Santa Clara
1821: Mexico expels Spain from California
1839: Mexico grants the 50,000-acre Rancho San Francisco to Don Antonio del Valle
1842: Francisco Lopez finds gold in Placerita Canyon, years before the Gold Rush
1847: The pass between Santa Clara and San Fernando is named for John C. Fremont
1848: The California Gold Rush begins
1850: California becomes a state
1854:1864:Fort Tejon is in operation
1858: The Butterfield Overland Stage is in operation
1861: The Soledad gold, silver and copper mine is in operation
1863: Beale’s Cut provides passage through Fremont Pass
1871: John Lang kills a 2,350-pound grizzly bear in Soledad Canyon
1875: Henry Mayo Newhall buys Rancho San Francisco and sells the western section (Camulos) back to the del Valley family; Outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez hangs in San Jose
1876: The Pioneer Oil Refinery, the world’s oldest existing refinery and California’s first commercial refinery, is established in Newhall; Pico Springs is renamed Mentryville; the 6,940-foot San Fernando railroad tunnel is established; Charles Crocker drives a golden spike at Lang Station; Acton and Newhall are established
1887: The Saugus Train Station opens; a spur railroad to Ventura opens; Castaic Junction is established
1890s: The bloody Castaic Range War
1903: The Los Angeles Aqueduct begins
1914-1923: Early filmmaking around Los Angeles and present-day Santa Clarita
1915: The Ridge Route, the primary highway connecting Los Angeles with the north, opens
1924: Saugus Speedway starts as a rodeo arena
1925: Cowboy actor William S. Hart retires from films to build “La Loma de Los Vientos;” Community of Val Verde is founded
1928: St. Francis Dam crumbles, killing 450 people and making it the second-greatest disaster in California
1933: Highway 99 opens
1952: Singing cowboy actor Gene Autrey buys the Rancho Placeritos and changes its name to Melody Ranch
1963: The old Solemint District becomes Canyon Country
1967: The master-planned community of Valencia is founded
1968: The Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5) is completed; The Canyon Country post office opens
1971: Magic Mountain opens; the Santa Clarita Valley is rocked by the Sylmar earthquake
1972: Castaic Lake, part of the California State Water Project (the largest water system in the world), opens
1974: Pyramid Lake opens
1987: The City of Santa Clarita is founded
1994: The Santa Clarita Valley is rocked by the Northridge earthquake