Whether you’re simply visiting the Santa Clarita Valley for a day or two, or you and your family have made it home for the last few decades, one stark thing that stands out about the community is the pride and preservation it takes for certain aspects of its history.
Even a lot of longtime residents aren’t aware the SCV has been a part of California’s “Gold Rush” history, the sheer historic volume of Western films that were shot here and the outlaw legends from the real-life Wild West stories that took place here, some of which have legends that continue today in names and landmarks.
From Oak of the Golden Dream to Mentryville to Vasquez Rocks, there are monuments and preserved areas within the incorporated and unincorporated areas that are still taught to this day due to the impact they’ve had — not only at the time, but also throughout history.
“When you think about it, it’s our history that sets us apart from other places in suburban Los Angeles,” said Leon Worden, vice president Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. “There aren’t many other places that can say they had the first discovery of gold in California, the first oil operations, one of the deadliest disasters in California history, some of the earliest filmings.
“But we got it,” said Worden.
According to Worden, as well as other notable SCV historians, these are some of the few historical sites Santa Clarita has to offer, and should be somewhere near the top of any family-friendly historical tour.
Oak of the Golden Dream
The Oak of the Golden Dream, located in the Placerita Canyon Park, is the location of California’s original gold discovery in 1842.
“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.”
The story goes, according to SCVHistory.com — a site curated by local history experts, including Worden and a handful of others — that the cattle-rancher Francisco Lopez discovered the gold after deciding to take a quick rest underneath the tree’s branches.
“After sleeping beneath these boughs, (Lopez) noted bright particles on wild onions he had pulled and found them to be gold,” reads SCV History’s website.
As of July 1, the Placerita Canyon Park hours are 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Wednesday through Sunday. The park is closed Monday and Tuesday.
The Nature Center main building is closed until further notice, but for more information about these hours, the park office can be called at (661) 259-7721.
The park is located at 19152 Placerita Canyon Road, Newhall.
St. Francis Dam
Located approximately 10 miles north of the city of Santa Clarita, in the San Francisquito Canyon, is the site of America’s worst civil-engineering disaster in the 20th century: the St. Francis Dam collapse.
“It’s phenomenal,” said Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, executive director of the Community Hiking Club and a member of the historical society’s board of directors, during a tour for the 91st anniversary of the tragedy. “A lot of people that live in Santa Clarita have no clue that the dam was even there or that the second biggest disaster in California happened here and so many people died. Everybody’s going to know. Not only will it be great for Santa Clarita, it’s going to put us on the map. People across the country are going to know about it.”
A bill to federally recognize the disaster was approved last year, which meant a lot to groups that have been pushing for the memorial.
“When the St. Francis Dam broke in March 1928, and unleashed 13 billion — with a “B” — gallons of water down the canyon, it hit Santa Clara River, turned west and didn’t stop until it reached the ocean and killed nearly 450 people,” said Worden.
The initial wall of water was 180 feet high and raced at high speeds throughout the community, laying waste to anything in its path, such as churches, barns and homes.
At the time there were three schools within the Santa Clarita Valley. Two of the schools — Bee School and San Francisquito school house — were completely destroyed. The school structure that survived was the Saugus schoolhouse.
The schools were not in session at the time, given that the collapse happened at night, but the Bee School District lost 13 of its 15 pupils; San Francisquito lost 8 of 13; and still farther south, the Saugus School District lost 10 of 18, according to SCV History.
Little is left of the dam, except for some few rocks and concrete slabs. However, the site can be visited by typing St. Francis Dam Disaster Site into Google Maps.
The pinpoint on the map that says “St. Francis Dam Disaster Site” is the location of the dam itself.
The site can be accessed by driving on San Francisquito Canyon Road, and driving about a mile past Strator Lane.
Vasquez Rocks hardly needs any introduction as anyone who has watched a Hollywood movie or TV show in the last fifty years will tell you.
Vasquez Rocks is located in Agua Dulce. It was famously named after the bandit Tiburcio Vasquez, or “The Scourge of California, who used the rock formation as a hideout.
“(The exploits of Vasquez) reached a peak in 1873 when Vasquez and his men raided the town of Tres Pinos, killing three, then ransacked the town of Kingston, tying up its residents,” reads SCV History’s website. “With an $8,000 price on his head, Vasquez was captured May 14, 1874 at the ranch of a friend, the prominent Southland freighter ‘Greek’ George Allen (today Allen’s ranch is the Hollywood Bowl).”
He was hanged five days later, with his last word being “Pronto.”
“You can still go out to Vasquez Rocks and search for Vasquez’ lost treasure, but don’t bring a shovel or you’ll get in trouble,” said Worden. “But it’s a really cool place and of course you’ll recognize it from film and television.”
“From everything from the “Star Trek” original series, to “Star Trek 4,” all the way to the Flintstones and a lot of things in between,” Worden added. “It goes way back also to the 1920s and 30s in film.”
Vasquez Rocks is located at 10700 Escondido Canyon Road, Agua Dulce.
Still open to the public for hiking, Mentryville is the famous former location for Pico No. 4, and it was the first commercially successful oil well in the western United States. 114 years later, the state’s first oil well and the longest-running oil well in the history of the world, would be finally capped.
However, although the well is not pumping any longer, some of the structures that kept the town around it running still are.
Built around the oil well for the families working on Pico No. 4 was a small community. Families lived in redwood cabins, most of which sat far enough apart for their owners to run a few horses and cows. Children tended chickens and calves. Older teens hunted deer and rabbit. Mountain lions, which hunted deer and other livestock, were trapped and sold at market or poisoned, according to SCV History.
In addition to the domiciles and livestock, there was a machine shop, blacksmith and the apparatus needed to operate the drill. Additionally, there were Saturday night dances, a swimming hole, gas-lit tennis courts and croquet fields, horseshoe-tossing and dice tables.
“You can go out there and look around and see Alex Mentry’s mansion and the Felton school house and all the brush has been cleared nicely at the direction of the (Santa Monica Mountains) Conservancy, ‘’ said Worden.
Other smaller structures are still around, including an old barn.
“It’s a step back in time to the first authentic oil town in California,” said Worden.
For all the historical locations, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a tour guide to give you information about the sites, unlike during normal times. However, visiting them is important to understanding their history in a holistic way, Worden said.
“It brings it all together to be able to see the physical place,” said Worden. “It helps bring the story to life when you can have the manifestation of the story, you can see it and you can experience it.”
Mentryville is located at 27201 Pico Canyon Road, No. 1804, Stevenson Ranch.