Santa Clarita is unique not only because of its history, but also for its preservation of that history. While some cities around the country have bulldozed or replaced a number of their monuments or historical landmarks, Santa Clarita has made an effort to save them for posterity, going so far as to create organizations around their historical significance.
From being the site to one of the worst American civil engineering disasters in history to the place where gold reportedly was first discovered in California, there appears to be a bounty of educational opportunities for families to learn about on their weekends.
“I like to call the Santa Clarita Valley the birthplace of California history. Everything happened here,” said Leon Worden of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. “We had the state’s first documented gold discovery, the nation’s first productive oil production west of Pennsylvania, some of the earliest Hollywood filming, America’s deadliest civil engineering failure of the 20th Century … and when Los Angeles joined the rest of the nation by rail, the tracks came together in Canyon Country.”
And the biggest kicker: Many of these sites are free to visit.
Oak of the Golden Dream
Although many in historical circles give credit to James W. Marshall kicking off the state’s famed California Gold Rush in January 1848, the state of California officially recognizes The Oak of the Golden Dream in Placerita Canyon as the official place where gold was first discovered in the state.
The story goes that Francisco Lopez, a caballero and cattle rancher in his day, took a nap underneath “The Oak of the Golden Dream” on March 9, 1842.
“Upon awakening, he recalled a promise to his wife that he would gather some wild onions,” according to SCV History. “Walking to the nearby bank, he pulled one and curiously gazed at some yellow particles clinging to the roots. Hopefully and hastily he dug into the soil and found it thickly filled with gold.”
Now, every weekend, families are out by the staff and volunteers at the Placerita Canyon Nature Center to not only get a glimpse of what natural history they have for kids and families to gaze upon, but the human history they care for as well, including the Oak of the Golden Dream.
“It’s the history of the first discovery of gold in California,” said Ranger Frank Hoffman, the recreation services supervisor at Placerita Canyon Nature Center. “Certainly for many, many years, people have understood that John Marshall at Sutter’s Home might have been first, but that’s not true.”
“Bear in mind we were Mexican territory at that time, and it was recognized as a discovery, but everyone else and their history books thought of it the other way around,” Hoffman added.
Hoffman suggested that families looking to see the Oak of the Golden Dream can take the free nature walk from 11 a.m. to noon every Saturday at the center. According to officials, it’s described as a “short, easy nature walk for the whole family,” the path is stroller-friendly and led by staff or volunteers.
“(Placerita Canyon is) significant in that the state recognizes our discovery here first, and recognized it with historical marker No. 168.,” Hoffman said. “Certainly, I would recommend people come out and visit and if you came out to visit you could see our signage and learn what we’re trying to teach people.”
Tucked away in the hills of Pico Canyon sits the remnants of California’s first and longest running financially viable oil well, Mentryville.
After first being opened in 1876 by Charles Alexander Mentry, the well remained open until 1990. During that time, a town grew up, and then shrank down around it, with its largest population reaching as many as 100 families, according to SCV Historical Society.
However, it now sits as a ghost town, with buildings and architecture of the former community now a California State Historical Landmark.
Located at the end of Pico Canyon Road off Interstate 5 at the Lyons Avenue exit, Mentryville is now an 851-acre state park. The park has been managed since 1995 by the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy, according to officials.
Free to all who visit, with a $5 fee for parking, people can still view a number of the structures in the park that remain from the old town, including Charles Mentry’s 13-room mansion, a one-room schoolhouse and a period barn.
Still in the shape that it once had when a legend walked its halls, the home of William S. Hart remains a free and open park for families to visit.
Hart was the first cowboy movie star during the silent film era, and he made almost 70 movies from 1914-25, according to Al Ewing, a recreation services leader with Hart Park. As a thanks to the people who catapulted him to stardom, he donated his 265-acre ranch for the public to enjoy.
“William S. Hart had in his will that all of his property for the reason that he wanted to preserve not just his legacy for all time … but that there was a need for kids to come to the sanctuary of a park and see animals,” Ewing said.
Hart’s home, christened by Hart himself as “La Loma de Los Vientos,” or “Hill of the Winds” is now a museum filled with his personal effects and movie props, along with other artifacts and paintings of the time. It also features a variety of animals for guests to view, including a small herd of American Bison that were gifted to Hart Park from Walt Disney in 1962.
Free guided tours are offered year-round, and the museum, animals and entering the park are no cost and are family friendly, according to officials.
For more information about Hart Park events, visit hartmuseum.org.
St. Francis Dam
The site of one of the largest American engineering failures in the 20th century, the St. Francis Dam, located in San Francis Dam is now a pile of ruin, but still has tours and plaques erected that acknowledge those who lost their lives three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928.
According to officials with the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, a wall of water initially 18 feet high raced through San Francisquito Canyon, and then down onto the town of Piru Fillmore and Santa Paula before eventually reaching the Pacific Ocean between Oxnard and Ventura.
“The flood caused immense property damage and left at least 450 and possibly up to 600 people dead,” according to an editorial published by the Historical Society.
In order to view site, one can find the St. Francis Dam located approximately 7.2 miles north of today’s intersection of Copper Hill Road and San Francisquito Canyon Road in Saugus.
Yearly tours are also offered and guided by the Santa Valley Historical Society. Information about an upcoming tour, visit scvhs.org.
Vasquez Rocks is home to a rich tapestry of both natural and human history. So much so that Hollywood has never truly been able to resist the urge to showcase it in a variety of movies.
Featured in HBO’s “Westworld,” “Star Trek: Voyager” and “Gunsmoke,” along with a number of other famous titles, the large rock formation Vasquez Rocks has been known for was formed Millions of years before Vasquez, the rocks were thrust up from the ocean floor by earthquakes and volcanic forces, according to SCV History.
Used by travelers alike for decades as a famous landmark for north-south and east-west trading routes, a young cattle rustler by the name of Tiburcio Vasquez started using the rocks as a hideout sometime in 1871.
By the age of 20 years old, Vasquez was rustling cattle and robbing freight wagons,” according to an SCV History article. “It is reported that Vasquez would occasionally ride into Newhall and steal horses while holed up at Vasquez Rocks.”
Now a county park known as the Vasquez Rock Natural Area and Nature Center, located at 10700 W. Escondido Canyon Road, the park is open from sunrise to sunset. The park hosts a number of popular hiking, picnicking, equestrian and historical guided touring opportunities. The number programs vary on cost, with some being free.
For more information about the various programs at Vasquez Rocks, visit its website at https://parks.lacounty.gov.