This ability we share to travel through time has its advantages. I know many of you are much harried through these holidays. But I’ve got a few thousand horses tethered and we could slip out for a trail ride through local history and be back before anybody noticed. We could be gone A MONTH and no one would notice due to the beauty of slipping through the dimensions unnoticed.
We have a terribly interesting trek ahead, saddlepals. There’s a pair of local blizzards. (You know. Those things with snow?) We’ve got some historic eye surgery. (How’s that for an obscure category?) There’s local war spies, cowboys fighting Jehovah’s Witnesses, bare naked ladies, and one of our favorite local pastimes — the self-inflicted gunshot wound.
Shall we take a long moment to mosey to a stressless time of no friction?
WAY BACK WHEN & THEN SOME
ON THE BRIGHT SIDE, NO CAROLERS — Prior to around 1800, nobody was celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah in the valley. Can you believe it?
STILL REMEMBERING MITCH — One of our most famous pioneers, Col. Thomas Mitchell, was born on Christmas Eve day in either Virginia or Tennessee. He became Canyon Country’s first white settler, homesteading a big tract of Lost Canyon land in 1860. Dr. Alan Pollack pens a compelling story on the SCV Historical Society’s website (https://scvhistory.com/scvhistory/pollack1113tfmitchell.htm) about how the peaceful school founder and community leader may have been involved in a blood feud murder. Odd timing? Mitchell died Dec. 24, 1907. He’s buried in the Mitchell Cemetery.
HOPE HE GOT CHRISTMAS OFF — The infamous Gen. Edward F. Beale had just completed his initial cut of the pass that would later bear his name. On Dec. 23, 1863, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors extended his contract so he could lower the nosebleed grade of Newhall Pass to a tolerable 20% grade.
THE SCOURGE OF CALIFORNIA — Our own womanizing bandito, Tiburcio Vasquez, and his gang of ruffians took over the entire town of Kingston, raping, looting and pillaging. They made off with $2,500 in cash and jewels and literally tied up much of the townsfolk. That was the day after Christmas, 1873.
AN EARLY GREEN DEAL — On Dec. 20, 1892, President Benjamin Harrison, aka “Little Ben,” established something called the San Gabriel Timberland Reserve. It would later be renamed the Angeles National Forest. It was America’s second forest reserve and California’s first. Harrison would be one of the few U.S. presidents to visit the Santa Clarita. While he stopped at the original Saugus train depot, he didn’t get off, much to the dismay of the few citizens and the impromptu brass band waiting for him.
GOVERNMENT INEPTITUDE. IT’S NOTHING NEW — Back on Dec. 22, 1902, L.A. County bought property to build the Newhall Jail. At the turn of the 20th century, there wasn’t much in the entire valley, let alone “Downtown” Newhall. Newhall train station manager John Gifford had a home on present-day Market Street and was shocked to get a letter that they’d be building this new jail essentially right next door to him. Scratching his head in that there was nothing but coyotes and vacant land making up Newhall, Giff wondered how he got so lucky. He bought some land behind where the present-day Newhall Library is and traded the county. He even drew up plans and an estimate. L.A. waited a good decade, and, of course, the project cost 10 times more and was built so shabbily, the first prisoners found it eezy-peezy to escape.
TUNNEL VISION — It was a heck of an engineering project. The Newhall Auto Tunnel had its grand opening on Dec. 21, 1910. For 28 years, it was the main entrance to the Santa Clarita Valley and a source of epic traffic jams. The first paved road was concocted of a dubious recipe. During our hot summers, the road’s first version would buckle and form serpentine humps when cars or trucks applied their brakes. The asphalt would harden at night and motorists would be treated to jaw-breaking rides on the bumpy road.
THE GOVERNOR. MY DAUGHTER. — Here’s a strange coincidence. Former California governor and Acton millionaire mine owner Henry Gage was born in Geneva, New York, on Christmas Day, 1852. My daughter, Indiana, attends Hobart & William Smith College in Geneva. She is currently being snowed upon.
DECEMBER 18, 1921
AN EARLY TIM WHYTE DRIVE SAFELY OP-ED? Two Los Angeles County “motor-cycle” officers set up a speed trap on Market Street at present-day San Fernando Road. They nabbed 18 speed demons. Anyone going over 24 mph was nabbed. You wonder, without radar guns, how they figured 24-plus. A Mighty Signal editorial posed: “Who wants to be hit by a machine flying that fast?” Not me. The Signal also editorialized that if we were to incorporate into our own city, we could reap a pretty fat income as a speed trap. The 18 lead-foots coughed up a total of $300 for their need for speed and all of it went to the county.
SURVIVED THE RANGE WAR BUT NOT THE SCAFFOLDING — Frank Chormicle was one of the participants in the turn-of-the-century Castaic Range War, which claimed the lives of between 22 and 40 people. But the son of land baron Bill Chormicle didn’t survive mining. He died when a scaffolding at a local claim gave way. He was 48.
PRE-HOME DEPOT — A huge gypsum mine up Mint Canyon was just about ready to open. Owners estimated there was 35 million cubic feet to pull from the earth. Gypsum (or, hydrated calcium sulfate or sulfate of lime as we like to call it in the scientist business) was used primarily for agriculture as a soil enricher or for something farmers used to call “land plastering.” A special shipping station in Honby (where Home Depot on Soledad is today) was built and the gypsum was hauled in 100-pound sacks onto trains. You had to be one tough brute to put in a 10-hour day loading those puppies.
THAT’S US. THE GOOD KIND. — Here’s an old Signal ad that says it all: “Printing of all Kinds. Not the cheap kind but the good kind done here.”
DECEMBER 18, 1931
FOOT OF SNOW? NEWHALL? SAME SENTENCE? — Yup. On this date, the Arctic Express dumped a huge load of the cold, wet stuff on the Santa Clarita Valley. Motorists were stranded, branches snapped and the fire places were red hot. William S. Hart measured 14 inches at his ranch downtown. It was just like a midwestern blizzard. The few schools in town were closed — much to the delight of the students. We had had a big snow storm in town in 1929, and a smaller one in 1930, which left 4 inches on the ground. But that one was a little bit smaller than the blizzard of ’31.
MONEY AIN’T FOR NOTHIN’ AND THE CHICKS FOR FREE — On this date, local professional musician Jack Burnette took over the French Village and held a grand reopening with a big ballroom dance. Admission was 75 cents for men and ladies were free. Well. Let’s just clarify — while ladies are never free, they didn’t have to pay to get in.
DECEMBER 18, 1941
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON — On this date, famed retired silent film legend William S. Hart returned from having successful eye surgery. He gets to his Newhall mansion only to realize the town was under strict blackouts due to the start of World War II. An interesting coincidence — Hart’s operation was called an iridectomy. Hart had burned his eyes under the fiercely hot studio lamps while filming a movie. The iridectomy was a procedure invented by New York doctor C.R. Agnew in the 1870s. The first patient to be undergo an iridectomy? Nicholas Hart, Bill’s dad. Story goes that Nicholas was chiseling some rock when a small particle of steel chipped off and went into his eye. After three unsuccessful operations and now being blind in one eye, Nicholas went to Dr. Agnew, who tried the pioneering surgical technique. It restored Bill’s dad’s eyesight. Back to Bill — he returned home to a jubilant staff and his Harlequin Great Danes, Prince and Hal. When asked about his eyesight, the film legend laughed and said: “I can see to shoot the head off a rattler at 10 paces now. When I left, I couldn’t see the whole snake.”
SPEAKING OF BLACKOUTS — The first week of the war, local homes and businesses practiced turning out the lights. There were several giant sirens around the valley. The drill went that everyone had just three minutes to kill all lights. Everyone passed with flying colors. (We think. It was dark.).
FBI JR. SYNDROME — With World War II not two weeks old, the local Sheriff’s Department’s Capt. Marty asked the folks of the Little Santa Clara River Valley to settle down and have some common sense. There had been a rash of “FBI Junior Syndrome” as Marty called it. Seems folks were calling to snitch on their neighbors for all manner of suspicious activities. One woman called to turn in her neighbor. Seems she felt the gal was hanging her laundry out to dry in some sort of code for the Axis bombers.
MORE ON THE WAR — An empty storefront next to Tom Frew’s blacksmith shop was commandeered by the Newhall Women’s Ambulance Defense Corps. A group of local ladies worked to keep the place open as a social gathering place for soldiers where they could relax, drink coffee, eat doughnuts, or just look at the Christmas tree.
COWBOYS 1, JEHOVAH’S WITNESSES, 0 — One of the famed stories of early World War II here involves the Jehovah’s Witnesses. A group from the church in the San Fernando Valley drove up to Newhall to protest America’s involvement in the war. Cowboy Ervin McCoy grew angry at their protest on Spruce Street (Main Street today) and tore up their Watch Tower magazines and protest placards. An argument ensued in front of the Safeway between Jehovah’s Witness Don Zumwald and McCoy in which McCoy reportedly punched Zumwald in the nose and gave him, in cowboy fashion, “Ten minutes to get the heck out of town.” Zumwald pressed charges in the Newhall Court. Despite protests from Zumwald, local Judge Kennedy refused to hear the case.
CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP — “The Gay Vagabond” was the featured movie at the new American Theatre. And yes. Gay had an entirely different meaning in 1941 than in 2021. I almost hate to tell you what the second half of the double bill was: “Pirates on Horseback.” It gets worse. Earlier in the week, the lead movie at the American was “Saddle Mount Round-up,” featuring — heavens —The Range Busters. Hm. Sounds like a cheap pair of jeans…
DECEMBER 18, 1951
HOLIDAY FRIGHT — Little Sherry Lynn Carr gave her mother quite a scare right before Christmas. The 22-month-old infant swallowed 45 aspirins. Fortunately, a rush to the hospital and an unpleasant pumping of the stomach saved the toddler.
HERE WE GO AGAIN, ANOTHER SELF-INFLICTED GUNSHOT WOUND — On this date, Bob Titus, 46, who, at that age, should have known better, shot himself while practicing his quick draw. Unlike other imaginary pistol fighters, Bob didn’t shoot himself in the knee, leg or foot with his speed draw. He was out practicing in Indian Canyon (off upper Soledad). He shot off his left ring finger. Please. Without picking up a firearm, someone explain how you can shoot yourself in the hand with a revolver?
DECEMBER 18, 1961
MIGHTY NON-HART HIGH INDIANS — On this date, two dozen locals with Native American heritage met in the Hart cafeteria to form the San Fernando Mission Indians Association. The group formed as a political caucus and to see if they would be eligible for compensation for having their Santa Clarita Valley lands taken from them in the 19th century. At the first meeting, Charles Cooke was named president and his brother, Alvin, was named vice president. In 1961, there were around 250 locals who qualified for Native American status.
BRRR — On this date, Newhall Hardware’s Don Guglielmino bought Newhall Ice.
DECEMBER 18, 1971
DON’T SCRATCH. IT JUST MAKES IT WORSE. — Here’s a little trivia for you residents of Pinetree. Around this time, the subdivision was being built. You know what they called the place before? Tick Canyon.
OH SURE. THAT STOPPED OVER-DEVELOPMENT — On this date, the Board of Supervisors voted 3-0 to kill the controversial Granada project. If built, it would have put a huge home and condo project in Bouquet and Vasquez Canyons. Locals produced a petition with nearly 1,200 signatures opposing the development.
ONE OF THEM HAS COOTIES. DUKE IT OUT IN THE COMMENTS SECTION TO FOREVER SETTLE THE ARGUMENT — Here’s a little bit of discrimination for you. On this date, the Wm. S. Hart High school board voted to make girls’ P.E. a pass-fail course. Boys would still be graded, however.
DECEMBER 18, 1981
HISTORICAL. HYSTERICAL. WHATEVER IT TAKES — Several hundred folks snuggled together for the dedication of the new headquarters of the SCV Historical Society. The old Saugus Train Depot had been moved a year earlier to Heritage Junction.
ONE AMAZING FELLOW — Bob Wieland was the motivational speaker at Canyon High on this date. An all-star athlete in four sports, he had been signed by the Philadelphia Phillies when another major organization took over his contract. Wieland was drafted into the Army, sent to Vietnam, and lost both his legs stepping on a landmine. He came back to the states and became one of the strongest men in the world in powerlifting. He also walked across America — on his hands.
NAKED AMBITION — On this date, SCV Chamber of Commerce second Vice President Bob Scott resigned. He did it most memorably, sending a postcard from Hawaii of a nude bathing beauty. Bob noted he was too busy to keep up with his duties. Uh-huh…
That familiar light up yonder is either our exit or the Official SCV Time Portal Christmas tree. We seem to be back to the here and now, dear saddlepals and neighbors. See you back at The Mighty Signal’s hitching post with another exciting Time Ranger adventure on Christmas Day 2021. Until then — ¡Feliz dia de Accion de Gracias y vayan con Dios, amigos!”