Beale's Cut



Title - "A small cut in the San Fernando Pass on the summit". Photo by William H. Fletcher, ca. 1890

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.


In 1854, the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors gave William T.B. Sanford and George Carson a contract to build a new wagon road slightly to the west of the existing Old Road. They enlisted Gabe Allen and his group of 20 men to do the actual work. According to the Southern Californian of December 28, 1854, the depth of the cut was about 30 feet. In December of that year, Phineas Banning drove the first stage over the new San Fernando Pass. His "wild ride" became legendary, although not too successful.

Meanwhile, "General" Edward F. Beale was commissioned as a brigadier general in the California State Militia in 1856. In less than 3 months, he resigned his commission to run for the office of the sheriff of San Francisco County. He liked the title and for the rest of his life he was known as General Beale. This confused many people because he had spent 16 years in the navy.

A windlass was typically needed to get over the pass. In "Reminiscences of a Pioneer" Jacob Kuhrts writes (p. 59):
"In 1857, in company with John Searles, I left San Francisco with a big mule team for Slate Range and Los Angeles."
"...over San Fernando Pass, where it took four yokes of cattle and a windlass to bring my team over the pass into San Fernando Valley, and thence to Los Angeles."
The pass obviously needed improvement for the Butterfield Overland Mail stage. The L.A. Board of Supervisors awarded a contract to Gabe Allen to widen and lower the road over the summit. Allen's improvements were done that year. In 1858, the first Butterfield Overland Mail stage used the pass. On board was only passenger - Waterman L. Ormsby, a 21 year old special correspondent for the New York Herald. The firsthand account of his complete trip from St. Louis to San Francisco became a classic. He writes ("The Butterfield Overland Mail" by W.L. Ormsby, The Huntington Library, San Marino, Ca, 1942):
"The road leads through the New Pass, where it strikes the old road from San Bernardino to the Tejon Pass of the Sierra Nevada mountains. The canyon road is rugged and difficult. About the center of the pass is, I believe, the steepest hill on the whole route. I should judge it to be a full 800 feet from the level of the road, which has to be ascended and descended in the space of a quarter of a mile. Perhaps my idea of the distance is not correct; but certainly it is a very steep hill, and our six horses found great difficulty in drawing our empty wagon up. The road takes some pretty sharp turns in the canyon, and a slight accident might precipitate a wagon load into a very uncomfortable abyss."
From the "Notes of a Trip to Los Angeles" in The Daily Alta California of October 7, 1860, the cut is only 20 feet deep:
"Crossing the San Fernando Pass, where a cut about twenty feet deep and about ten feet wide has been made into the summit of the mountain, we emerged upon the plain of San Fernando..."
The pass still needed improvement. In 1861, a state legislative act gave a franchise to Charles Brinley (or Brindley), Andres Pico, and James Vineyard to, among other things, cut down the pass by at least 50 feet. They would also be able to collect tolls for a period not to exceed 20 years.

In the meantime, the winter of 1861-62 so greatly damaged the pass that wagons could not get through at all. In March, the road was repaired by soldiers under the command of Major Theodore Coult of the Fifth California Volunteer Infantry, who was headquartered at Camp Latham, California, at the time. Wagons carrying ammunition could not get to Fort Yuma, Arizona. (From Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Washington, D.C.,Government Printing Office, 1897, and LA Herald of 3/5/1862.)

In 1862, Beale took over the franchise from Brinley, Pico, and Vineyard. By April of 1863, Beale, probably using Chinese laborers (and certainly not troops from Ft. Tejon) finished the work required by the act. And it was not all done by hand.

Jose Jesus Lopez worked for Beale from 1874 until Beale's death in 1893. He knew Beale well and talked to him often. From "Saga of Rancho El Tejon" (see The Old Road page), Lopez recounts (pp. 195-197):
"Understand, the cut was made by hand labor with pick and shovel and the use of powder. Even after the cut was made, it was a steep grade to climb with teams and loaded wagons. My father used to keep two span of oxen and a driver there to help pull rigs and wagons and the stages over it. Teamsters from the San Joaquin Valley, Tehachapi, and the Cummings Valleys had to have a lift through the cut, even after the telegraph line was built. Teamsters would telegraph my father when they would be at the cut, and he would have double yokes of oxen there to help them make the pull."
However, the L.A. Board of Supervisors were not willing to ratify the franchise without more work (see article below). Beale reluctently agreed and by 1864 the extra work was done and approved by the supervisors.

Beale had lowered the cut by 50 feet according to a Bakersfield Californian magazine article by Bob Jones from the October 6, 1990, issue. Beale began to collect tolls from travelers going through the cut. The toll would remain for 20 years.

After the Newhall railroad tunnel was completed in 1876, traffic through the cut steadily decreased. The road was called the "Newhall grade".

In 1902, car dealer Ralph Hamlin drove the first car (an "Autocar") through the cut accompanied by the new owner. The grade was so steep, gasoline would not flow to the carburetor and he had to climb up in reverse. Both men had to jump out of the car to block the wheels with rocks each time the engine stalled.

In 1904 the cut was again deepened by a few feet and the approaches to the cut were improved for autos.

As more and more autos used the cut, it was clear that some other way to cross the mountain was needed. By 1907, a tunnel bypassing the cut was planned by the county. It was finished in December of 1910.

On May 26th, 1916, the Ebell Club of San Fernando placed a bronze plaque on a stone cairn at the pass. It read simply "Fremont Pass 1847". The plaque is long gone but the stone cairn still exists (see photo below). The Ebell Club is a woman's social club that is still active today.

In the Pasadena Star-News of 8/12/1965 Russ Leadabrand wrote in his "Off the Beaten Path" column: "I have heard that Beale's Cut, that historic narrow slot in the hills there, will go the way of all freeway obstacles and will be bulldozed away." Luckily, that did not occur.

On 5/11/1992, Beale's Cut Stagecoach Pass was listed as California State Historical Landmark Plaque #1006. The description reads:
"Beale's Cut is the only physical and cultural feature of its kind in the entire Los Angeles Basin. At the time of its construction in 1862, the actual creation and maintenance of the Cut was considered a significant technological and physical feat consisting of breaching the former impassable geographic barrier of the San Gabriel and Santa Susana Mountain ranges. General Edward F. Beale is attributed with the construction of a toll road across the mountains. Beale's Cut was also used as a favorite film-making location by pioneer film maker, David Wark Griffith, and others."
No marker and plaque was ever set up near the pass for this honor. In the Pasadena Star-News of 11/21/1957, Russ Leadabrand writes of the pass in his "Outdoors this Week" column - "A stone cairn and bronze plaque mark the spot. The plaque reads: Fremont Pass 1847." This is the old 1916 plaque. In "Rancho San Francisco" (from the Quarterly of the Historical Society of Southern California, June 1957) A.B. Perkins writes "There is today a plaque on Highway 6, calling attention to Fremont Pass, giving an erroneous impression that the deep Beale Cut through the hills was it." Again, only one plaque. Then in the Star-News of 8/12/1965, Russ Leadabrand writes in his "Off the Beaten Path" column: "...there are three plaques marking Beale's Cut." Also, Ralph Conrad writes of the pass in the Valley News of 6/6/1967. He states that "a short distance after leaving Interstate 5 heading north, a turnout contains several historical markers." Apparently, the other two monuments were built between 1957 and 1965.

The final depth of the cut has been reported as being between 50 and 156 feet. Ripley gave no depth in her 4-part San Fernando Pass series in the Southern California Historical Society Quarterly of 1947-48. California Highways and Public Works magazine issue of January, 1938, stated that the depth of the cut was 50-60 feet. H.E. Rensch writes in "Historic Spots in California" (Oxford University Press, 1932) that the depth was "from fifty to sixty feet." Other publications state 80-90 feet. John Bourke ("The Diaries of John Gregory Bourke, Volume One, 1872-1876") claimed it was 156 feet, a record depth. Based on looking at many photos, I think that the depth was in the 65-75 foot range.

More information and photos on Beale's Cut can be found on the Santa Clarita Valley History in Photos website.

Note: Beale's cut is on private property.

Fort Tejon opened in June of 1854. This article from the Los Angeles Herald of November 22, 1854, shows that solders found that work on the road in the pass was progressing.


Phineas Banning of the "wild ride" fame. From "A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and Environs, Biographical, Volume II", Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, Ca, 1915


Edward F. Beale from "A Pioneer in the Path of Empire" by Stephen Bonsal, The Knickerbocker Press, New York, 1912


Soldiers repairing the road after rain damage in 1862. Article of left from the Los Angeles Herald of March 5, 1862. Article of the right from the Los Angeles Star of March 15, 1862.


Los Angeles Star of April 4, 1863. Beale finished the cut work, but the LA County Supervisors were not satisfied and demanded more. They wanted him "to further grade the road from a point ninety feet from the Northeastern extremity of the present cut to a point 15 feet deep at the angle of the Southeastern extremity of the same cut." That's a confusing way to say that they wanted it 15 feet deeper. I wonder if some people thought that the 90 feet from the northeastern extremity meant that the cut was to be 90 feet deep. Also note the recommended toll rates.


1872 (?) photo of north entrance to cut (looking south). The date of this, and the following photo, is questionable. The photo is also shown in the book San Fernando, Rey De Espana: An Illustrated History (by Pauley and Pauley, Arthur H. Clark Co., Spokane, Washington, 2005) as ca. 1884. The owner of that photo is the Lopez Adobe Archives.

Photo used by permission of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society


1872 (?) photo of south entrance to cut (looking north)

Photo used by permission of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society


Beale's Cut toll house, dated post 1863

Photo used by permission of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society


You may have noticed that the two 1872 (?) photos of Beale's Cut show the same man and carriage in both photos. But if you compare the man and carriage in the toll house, they also look the same. Same hat, same dark outfit, same white sleeves. The carriage style looks the same and it is carrying the same type of load. The horse has a white spot on his forehead and you can just see it on the middle photo. The horse has black front ankles and white back ankles. You can also barely see one white back ankle on the middle photo. The three photos were taken on the same day by the same photographer dating the toll house photo to 1872, the year the other two were reportedly taken.


Approximate site of toll house about 1/4 mile south of Beale's cut on Sierra Highway (5/2010). The original road has been lowered and widened making duplication of the old photo impossible.


Title - "San Fernando Gap". Stereoscopic photo by W. N. Tuttle, circa 1870's-1906

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.


Title - "San Fernando Pass at Beale's Cut". Photo by William H. Fletcher, ca. 1890

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.


Title - "San Fernando Pass between San Fernando and Newhall, Cal". Photo by William H. Fletcher, ca. 1890. View towards the northeast with Beale's Cut at Fletcher's back. This is the road from the north exit of the cut with the rock tower in the distance.

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.


Another similar image, date unknown, but newer than the previous photo

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Ana Bégué de Packman Papers (Collection 1491). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.


Today's view is hampered by the grading for the Newhall Refinery and more plant life


This is the same image as the one on the top of this page, but has a wider view. It is dated 1889.

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Ana Bégué de Packman Papers (Collection 1491). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.


Date and person unknown

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Ana Bégué de Packman Papers (Collection 1491). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.


Date and person unknown

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Ana Bégué de Packman Papers (Collection 1491). Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.


Early photo

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Used by permission of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library.


from the Rambler magazine of August 1905


1906


1906


Title: "Fremont Pass" (6-17-1907)
Over the years, this pass has been called Fremont Pass, Newhall Pass, and San Fernando Pass. Photo was taken by J. B. Lippincott, assistant chief engineer of Los Angeles Aqueduct project.

Source: Lippincott Collection, Water Resources Center Archives - University of California, Berkeley
Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Used by permission of the University of California, Berkeley, Regents.


Title: "Newhall Cut, San Fernando" (1907)

Source: Lippincott Collection, Water Resources Center Archives - University of California, Berkeley
Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Used by permission of the University of California, Berkeley, Regents.



Beale's Cut, ca. 1900

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.

Courtesy of History Collections, Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History


Fremont's Pass, Newhall California"

Photo used by permission of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society


Beale's Cut was very popular test for autos (The Motor Way magazine of January 11, 1906) and motorcycles (Motorcycle Illustrated of January 1, 1909)


From the Pacific Rural Press of 3/27/1909


From the Automobile magazine of 4/8/1909


From the Los Angeles Herald of 5/16/1909. Photo by Mrs. J. W. Snider.


From the Los Angeles Herald of 7/4/1909


From the Los Angeles Herald of 6/19/1910. Photo by L. H. Morrison.


From the Technical World Magazine of March 1910. Here, the "railway cut" is more than 150 feet deep.


From "Retracing the Pioneers - From West to East in and Automobile" by Hugo Alois Taussig, 1910.


From the cover of The Oil Age magazine, Vol. IV, No. 5, August 25, 1911.


From the Engineering Record - A Weekly Journal Devoted to Civil Engineering and Contracting, Volume 72, Number 4, July 24, 1915, page 102. There seems to be a woman standing on the left side of the cut in the photo.


ca 1910-1920


From the 1920s


1937 photo from CalTrans


Looking north from across Sierra Highway - 1937

Copyright Note: This image is NOT in the public domain and is protected by the copyright laws of the United States.
Used by permission of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection/Los Angeles Public Library.


Beale's Cut in the 1960's (from "A Guidebook to the San Gabriel Mountains of California" by Russ Leadabrand, Ward Richie Press, 1964)


Story from Desert Magazine, March 1969


North entrance to Beale's Cut in 2007. During the heavy storms of 1997-98, the cut was partially filled in by slides.


South entrance in 2007


2012 - The walls are still in danger of collapsing


The Van Nuys News of May 26, 1916, reported on the dedication of a new memorial at Fremont Pass. (Also see Historic Spots in California by H.E. Rensch, 1932). John C. Fremont did not pass through here but more easternly, probably where the HW 14 is today.


Here is the marker today. It is the northernmost of the three markers there. The original bronze plaque said "Fremont Pass 1847".


The marker on the left is the 1916 Fremont Pass marker.The marker on the right had the Newhall tunnel plaque. The marker in the middle had two plaques - one for the Oak of the Golden Dream and one for the Pioneer Refinery. All the plaques were stolen many years ago. See the Newhall Tunnel webpage for historic photos of the two newer plaques on the right.