There’s one story I particularly NEVER want to revisit. But we’re headed there this Saturday morning, trusty saddlepals. We’re visiting the worst fire in the history of the Santa Clarita Valley.
Not all’s tragedy. We’ll be checking out polecats, varmints, one of the world’s richest women in history, and SCV world Bible-reading records. We’ll also be tracking some heinous local Siberian tiger cub thieves on our trail ride through SCV history.
Come. Let’s mosey…
WAY BACK WHEN & THEN SOME
DEAR SON — Back on Aug. 24, 1853, one of California’s most famous and influential men, Ignacio del Valle, obtained the Rancho San Francisco. His father, Antonio, didn’t leave a will. But he sent a letter to his son, indicating he wanted Iggy to have the ranch — if Iggy met certain conditions. Antonio’s letter was held up as legal in the newly formed state of California. Besides being a major landowner and cattle rancher already, Ignacio was also mayor of Los Angeles.
SHIPSHAPE CANYON? — While the Santa Clarita still belonged to Mexico, Francisco Chari, a former French sailor who jumped ship in Oxnard, was deeded the Rancho del Buque. Thus began the longest typographical error in SCV history. Chari named his huge spread to pay homage to his life at sea. “Buque” means “ship” in French. When California became a state in 1849, American cartographers visited his Santa Clarita homestead and marveled at all the wildflowers. Not speaking Spanish or French, the American mapmakers thought “Buque” meant “Bouquet.” Uh. Nope. With a stroke of the pen, the surveyors called that area, Bouquet Canyon. And so, the error is still with us today. On the bright side, the place is no longer referred to as “Hangman’s Canyon” after a luckless victim of the Great Castaic Range War, one of the biggest in Western history.
RED-LIGHT DISTRICT — On Aug. 26, 1926, the little Newhall Substation No. 6 was founded in Downtown Newhall. Up until the early 1930s, they didn’t have shortwave radios and deputies had to drive by the station to see if there were any calls or emergencies. A red light outside the substation was the signal to stop and come on in. A green light meant everything was quiet. It was usually quiet. Oh. Another ancient police procedure? The deputies carried a hefty cloth sack of nickels for when they were in the field in far-flung places. They’d call in from lonely pay phones to see how life was faring…
AUGUST 27, 1922
PRE-WINDMILL — On this date, Standard Oil announced they would build a major distribution center in Newhall.
“PUT ‘EM UP! YOU’RE 2 CENTS SHORT ON THE LETTER!” — This was considered a pretty good job around town in 1922. The U.S. Postal Service announced they had an opening for a rural postal carrier in the Saugus area. It paid $2,600 a year, plus expenses for the person’s car or truck. Women were not considered for the post unless they were widows of U.S. servicemen or wives of servicemen disabled during combat. As this was still considered the Wild West here, most rural carriers, er — carried.
WHAT ABOUT THE ‘HANG ON A SECOND! I’M JUST CATCHING MY BREATHERS?’ — The Signal editorial on this date was about the two kinds of people in life: “Lifters” and “Leaners.” The Lifters were people who shouldered the burdens of the world. The Leaners were the ones who leaned against a wall and watched the Lifters, all the while offering helpful hints. Eighty years later, The Mighty Signal is still pro-Lifter and against Leaners.
AUGUST 27, 1932
LOS VARMINTS TRES — With great humor, Signal Editor A.B. Thatcher recalled how local W.P. Domm had a run-in with three varmints on the same night. On his way to pick up relatives in Santa Paula, Señor Domm hit a coyote crossing the old road to Ventura. He nearly missed one coming back. When he started to pull into his garage at home, Domm was greeted by a recalcitrant skunk who refused to vacate the premises. Domm started chucking pebbles, which only caused the polecat to turn toward the North Pole and spray all that was behind him. I’ll let “Dad” Thatcher finish the tale: “Finally, Mr. Domm, tiring of the direct attack, called a council of war, and reinforcements were called for. Deputy Sheriff Steve Bell, gathering an arsenal of weapons, hurried to the seat of combat. After a survey of the enemy’s position, he selected a rifle, and opened fire. Unfortunately for the besieged, he was just changing position, and exposed his head, at which Mr. Bell let go a volley. That ended the struggle — but the odor still remained. The causalities were one wash tub permanently injured, and one skunk entirely defunct.”
NOT SO MUCH THE SPEED THAT KILLS. IT’S THE LANDING. — When sheriff’s deputies Story and Pember pieced together the last few seconds of three Los Angeles motorists, they deduced the trio must have had one final, horrific ride. From eyewitness accounts, forensic evidence, and skid marks, they deduced that a speeding car went over the edge of the Ridge Route, a few miles north of the old Owl Garage in Castaic. They estimated the car flew more than 100 feet in the air, then fell about 1,000 feet straight down. The three inside were dead and then some.
I’D KILL TO HAVE THAT ANTIQUE POLO SWEATER — The first-ever official local polo game was played on this date, 90 years back. The Placeritas squad of Hall of Fame cowboy Andy Jauregui and Western movie star Buzz Barton (a Newhall Elementary grad) played the Newhall team of local rodeo impresario “Cowboy” Bob Anderson and Bill Hart in a six-game chukker. Newhall won, 7-6.
AUGUST 27, 1933
THE SILENT ANNIVERSARY — This is one of the most significant dates in SCV history and few folks realize it. This was the day that the tall, menacing, no-monkey-business businessman, Atholl McBean, was elected president of The Newhall Land & Farming Co. Had not McBean been crowned top dog, most of the SCV would have been sold off. In later years, instead of the planned urban community most of us enjoy and curse today, this valley would have probably been developed willy-nilly like the Palmdale or San Fernando Valley areas. Tip of the Stetson to McBean, his vision and strength.
AUGUST 27, 1942
AND NOPE. THEY DIDN’T DELIVER. — The men folk had signed up to fight in World War II so all who were left at the Fox Ranch in Castaic were women. The gals got together with some lady neighbor friends, held a dinner, and painted a new sign for the spread. Over the front gate of the newly named homestead was the greeting, “Welcome to Amazon Ranch.”
AUGUST 27, 1952
KEEP YOUR EYES ON YOUR FRIES — Before the Jan Heidt Metrolink Station rested where it is today on Railroad Avenue, it was the site of the old Newhall Train Depot. You pretty much need a legal pad, a series of maps, and a bunch of pushpins to follow, but here goes. The ORIGINAL Newhall Train Depot was built when Newhall (1876) was actually in Saugus (where the Saugus Café sits today). The original town of Newhall then moved — everything — to around where 6th and Main sits today — in 1878 — including the Newhall Train Depot. Southern Pacific closed the station down in the 1930s and it was used as a potato packing shed and warehouse for years. Every August and September was potato harvesting season. Hundreds of thousands of spuds were sorted, cleaned, sacked, and thrown — not into freight cars — but trucks. The run-down Newhall Station burned to the ground on Jan. 11, 1963. Hoboes camping inside had started a fire — on the wooden floor — to keep warm. Within minutes, it was ashes.
SUPER DUPER WOMAN — Former silent film star, Corinne Griffith, was in town, lecturing the Kiwanians. Besides being known as the most beautiful actress of the Silent Era, Ms. Griffith was also a bestselling author, film producer and businesswoman. She would become one of the wealthiest women in the world and bonus — she was a self-made mogul. Her topic, before the Newhall Kiwanis? Exorbitant taxes. Seventy years later, I’m guessing her speech didn’t take with the SCV’s or America’s voters…
MR. SHOE MIRRORS HIMSELF — Actor, icon and CalArts grad Paul Reubens was born on this very date, in Peekskill, New York. His birth certificate name is Paul Rubenfeld and his dad, Milton, was one of the founding fighter pilots of the Israeli Air Force. You might know Rubenfeld by his stage name — Pee-wee Herman.
AUGUST 27, 1962
WHEN PLACERITA WAS TURNED INTO HELL — The worst fire in the history of Newhall struck 40 years ago this week. The fire burned for a week, destroying over 17,000 acres of woodlands and property. There was more than $2.2 million in property damage. That was a STAGGERING price tag 60 years ago. Fifteen homes, including the estates of Albert SirKegian, Burl Landis and Hollis Mulcahy, were leveled. Also lost in the area were countless barns, sheds, tack rooms and other outer buildings. Gene Autry’s historic Melody Ranch was reduced to ashes and cinders. Elvis Presley happened to be at Melody that day and manned the bucket brigade to save the little wooden house still there today where W.C. Fields’ “My Little Chickadee” was filmed. The flames were whipped to volcanic frenzy by 40 mph winds and triple-digit temperatures. People in Bakersfield reported that they could see the flames over the mountain ranges (This probably wasn’t possible and it could be a misreporting in newspapers; perhaps they meant, “smoke.”)
NEWHALL HELL, PART II — There were actually two epic blazes consuming all in their path. They started within an hour of one another. The first was in Hasley Canyon midday on Tuesday, Aug. 28. An hour later, a blaze started at the Onondarka Ranch equestrian center. It was started quite innocently by spontaneous combustion from a manure pile. Firefighters thought they had it controlled, but unforgiving winds blowing down from the Mojave breathed a terrible life into the small flames.
A giant army of 1,250 federal, state and local firefighters battled the blaze in Placerita Canyon alone, using 250 pieces of equipment, not including borate planes and helicopters. Locals massed in various locations, providing meals, fresh clothes and cool rags to the exhausted firefighters.
Not since Noah had there been such an exodus of animals. A herd of 1,100 cows and calves were rounded up from the Burbank Creamery (where Atlasta Ranch is today in Placerita Canyon, not far from The Master’s College) and driven to safe ground. Most of the dairy was saved, but much of the fence was destroyed by the understandably hysterical bovines and flames did burn a few smaller outbuildings. A huge stack of alfalfa burned day and night like a goblin’s torch.
Besides the loss of the original buildings of Melody Ranch, there was an irreplaceable fortune in Western memorabilia destroyed. As ranch manager Jon Brousseau said, “There won’t be any more Dodge City here.” The ranch had been the world-famous site of hundreds of Westerns. (Later, the Veluzat family would buy the ranch and restore it to its original look.) One teenager was arrested for looting the ranch during the fire.
Saxonia Park (today, home of a Foursquare Church) used to be the center of Newhall and where we held many of our bigger community events, from the Our Lady of Perpetual Help barbecue to the Fourth of July celebrations. Eight guest cabins there were leveled.
Across the valley, in the other fire, the primarily African American community of Val Verde was completely evacuated. Miraculously, most of the village was spared, even though fire surrounded the community on three sides.
Up Oak Springs Canyon, the Richard Alexander family had just finished building their hilltop dream home. It burned to the ground.
AUGUST 27, 1972
WHAT’S THE POLICE CODE FOR STOLEN TIGER? — Thieves broke into an animal compound up Soledad Canyon and stole two Siberian tiger cubs. The tiger kittens were recovered after being spotted by children who were playing in an abandoned barn 2 miles from the compound. The cubs were valued at $3,500 each and belonged to actress Tippi Hedren.
AND NO ONE’S FEELINGS WERE HURT! — Twelve youths from the First Baptist Church in Bouquet Canyon set a world record on this date. They read the entire Bible, out loud, in 74 hours and 40 minutes, beating the old record listed in the Guinness Book of World Records of 90 hours and 20 minutes. Sheriff’s deputies driving by on patrol stopped by the church to see why the lights were on in the middle of the night. It was the first time when they heard the excuse, “We were reading the Bible.”
AUGUST 27, 1982
I AIN’T NAMIN’ NAMES, BUT I KNOW A FEW! — Was it, or wasn’t it a typo in The Signal classifieds? You be the judge: “FREE! Large neutered male. Loves children. Has obedience training.” Several of the girls in typesetting were thinking of calling…
LUCKY GAL — Talk about triple-dipping. Jo Anne Darcy, who would one day become mayor a few times, worked for Supervisor Mike Antonovich as his field deputy. She attended the grand opening of the Granary Square shopping center and won the raffle drawing of $750 cash. If one day I make it to Heaven and I see the ex-mayor, she’s buying the beer…
AUGUST 22, 2022
MAKE SOME GOOD HISTORY, HONEY BUNNY — Someone’s fetching daughter, won’t mention names because she eschews publicity, traveled cross-country to attend her sophomore year at some insufferable, prestigious and ancient art college in upstate New York on this date. Said anonymous daughter will be taking a semester to study in France. (Like, in Europe?) Going to have to program one of our Time Ranger horses to fly across the Atlantic and invent a believable excuse that I was — “…ahem, er — just in the neighborhood…!”
• • •
Always hate like heck to let you dear people go. Thanks for the company. It was light years beyond a hoot. See you back here seven days hence at The Mighty Signal — home of The World’s Largest Time Traveling Hitching Post. B.Y.O.B. (unless it’s buttermilk…) Until then — vayan con Dios, amigos!
John Boston’s brand-new book — “The 25 World’s Most Terribly Inappropriate Dog Breeds” was released earlier this week. Funniest darn book on dogs ever written. Check for status updates at johnbostonbooks.com.