Elsmere Canyon, like the rest of the coast range, was created a million years ago through a series of stupendous earthquakes that literally lifted the rugged mountains out of a warm shallow sea. Indeed, numerous marine fossils can still be found there, including some that are known from nowhere else.
Still an active rift zone, the Whitney Fault slices up the east escarpment of its junction with the Santa Clara Fault, while to the north, under present Sierra Highway, lies the Placerita Fault. It is dotted with asphaltum seepages, artesian wells, and even a couple of cascading waterfalls. These, along with stands of oaks and an abundance of animals, were a powerful attraction to the first settlers, the Native Americans.
No one knows when humans began exploring the canyon, for there has never been a full scale archaeological investigation of it. Certainly mammoth hunters were in the Santa Clara River Valley more than 12,000 years ago. About 450 A.D., a group of Shoshones migrated down from the high plains pushing aside the previous occupants to settle the San Gabriel Mountains, Antelope, and Santa Clara valleys. Those who came to be know as Tataviam (residents of the Sunny Slopes) set up some 25 semi-permanent village sites scattered from Crown Valley to Piru Creek. One of these Rancherias was near the mouth of Elsmere, called Santa Rosa by Fr. Crespi in 1769. An 1849 Mexican grant map, however, refers to it as Tochonanga, while the Van Valkenbert map of Old Indian Villages pegs it as Nuhubit.
The Tataviam made exquisite arrowheads, used for hunting small game, nearly microscopic beads, and intricate baskets. They painted and etched strange symbols upon stone, some of which may be astronomical notations. Their summer homes were constructed of sycamore poles thatched with grass resembling an upside down basket, while in winter they moved into domed adobe structures partly underground. The staple of their diet was acorns supplemented by a variety of plants and animals. Oil was valued for medicinal purposes while water sources were considered sacred. They were also great traders, items from as far away as Arizona and Catalina Island having been found locally. One of their trails, Grapevine, wound from present day Newhall to Sylmar by way of Elsmere. Captain Gaspar de Portola, Governor of All the Californias, led an expedition north from San Diego seeking the Bay of Monterey. On August 8, 1769, they followed the Indian trail over the mountains and into a draw which Fr. Juan Crespi recorded as Arroyo de Santa Clara. A couple of days later, while camped at modern Castaic Junction, Fr. Crespi named the river and the whole valley for St. Clare.
Other Spaniards followed the Grapevine-Elsmere trail, including Fr. Garces in 1776 and Fr. Vicente de Santa Maria in 1795. With the founding of the Mission San Fernando two years later, traffic increased over the mountains, especially with the founding of Rancho San Francisco and the establishment of a submission in the Santa Clara Valley in 1804. Generally called The High Road by the Spanish, its major feature was a spine, a rock that nearly closed off the canyon, Puerta, meaning door. By placing a few branches across La Puerta, Franciscan padres kept half wild cattle from roaming over the mountain tops.
After California became part of the Mexican Republic, mission lands were cut up and given to leading citizens, including Lt. Antonio de Valle, who was granted the Rancho San Francisco in the Santa Clara River Valley on January 22, 1839. The southern boundary ran through the hills until it reaches The Door (La Puerta) and bar which is in the high road from San Fernando to San Francisco. Also, a plat of Rancho San Francisco filed June 7, 1880, plainly shows the road up Elsmere past a false Puerta and Oak Tree Puerta.
During the Mexican-American War, Col. John C. Fremont camped at the junction of Whitney and Elsmere with his Buckskin Battalion on January 10, 1847. Dividing his command in half, Fremont crossed The Pass of San Bernardo guided by a local, Juan Cordova, to accept the surrender of California three days later. For years afterward The High Road up Elsmere was know as Fremont Pass. Fremont Peak on the south slope looms over his march down Grapevine Canyon to Sylmar.
John Woodhouse Audubon led a map-making and scientific party over the pass in November 1849 commenting the hills are of a friable whitish clay and sandstone. Four years later, Lt. Richard S. Williamson with the Pacific Railroad surveys actually dragged his wagons up Elsmere and lowered them down the far side with ropes and pulleys. A Los Angeles businessman, Henry Clay Wiley installed a windlass atop the Santa Clara Divide and a tavern-hotel-stable at the location of Eternal Valley Cemetery. Within a year (1854), Wiley sold out to Sanford and Cyrus Lyon just as Phineas Banning got the supply business to Ft. Tejon and the Kern River gold miners. Banning made a few adjustments to the old road, carving a small cut through the Santa Clara Divide then running eastward before plunging down Elsmere to Lyon Station. By the way, Ft. Tejon was connected to the other southwestern posts by a U.S. Army Camel Corps led by Lt. Edward F. Beale. Frequently Beale led his camels down to Los Angeles by way of Fremont Pass, making a colorful spectacle as they paraded through the dusty streets.
On October 21, 1858, the Butterfield Overland State rolled into Los Angeles, then headed north to follow the new Banning route over the mountains to Lyon Station, Butterfield set a speed record of just 21 days from St. Louis to San Francisco.
The transcontinental camels and coaches came to an end with the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861. Soledad Canyon gold and silver, Pico oil, San Francisco, and Rancho Tejon cattle were needed for the war effort, Elsmere becoming more and more of a hindrance to transportation than any sort of help. So, in 1863, E. F. Beale made a 90-foot-deep slash through the mountains a half mile to the west, bypassing the old road. Beale’s cut would be the new road until 1910 when the Newhall tunnel was carved along Sierra Highway.
After the railroad was completed in 1876, a number of Orientals squatted in Elsmere, working the Placenta gold fields. For a time, it was marked China Gulch on maps.
Acting as agent for the Governor of Kansas, Henry C. Needham arrived in 1887 to set up the St. John Tract, a dry colony. Needham was a well known leader of the Prohibition Party who came within seconds of becoming nominated for president in 1920. The Needham Ranch extended from Lyon Station down into Elsmere.
A fellow Kansan, Don L. Clampett, obtained a lease from Needham and brought in an oil well, Elsmere No. 1 in 1889. A company that would become Chevron, USA moved in the following year sinking 22 wells with only moderate success. Most of them filled with water or the sandy soil caved in.
After the turn of the century, a Black resort community started in the canyon, quickly fading away. The Los Angeles Aqueduct came in 1910, Tunnel Station being established to construct a siphon under Elsmere up to the famed Cascades tumbling down to the Van Norman Reservoir.
Elsmere, with its rich cavalcade of history, should be preserved as a National Historic Trail.