By Mark Gutglueck
In 1856, when Southern California was hit with a severe drought, ranchers in San Gabriel, Pomona and Chino and Cucamonga drove their herds up the Cajon Pass where they could graze in pastures alongside the Mojave River.
In this way, portions of the Mojave became used as rangeland.
Early in 1858 the Mormons in San Bernardino pulled up stakes and began an abrupt but ordered mass exodus back to Utah at the calling of Brigham Young, who believed the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was on the verge of going to war against the United States, then under the sway of the James Buchanan administration. Before making the trek across the vast California and Nevada deserts, many of the Mormons massed to allow their cattle to graze in the particularly verdant meadows located near what is now Sixth and D streets in Victorville, an area that became known as Mormon Crossing.
As the Mormons, or most of them, were leaving California, Aaron G. Lane, who had fought in the Mexican War and who had fared well in the gold fields, set up a ranch on the west bank of Mojave River at the point known as “Last Crossing,” thus becoming the first permanent American settler in Victorville.
Lane’s ranch, which used the Mojave River banks as pasture land, became a way station for all order of travelers through that area.
In 1861, a gold strike in Holcomb Valley near Big Bear Lake brought hundreds of miners and entrepreneurs looking to cater to those miners. Jed Van Dusen was hired by the miners to grade a road from the northwestern ridge along the natural slope toward Victor Valley and across to Cajon Summit and then John Brown graded the road up the Cajon Pass with the understanding that he was authorized to operate it as a toll road.
Northern interests in New England, interested in monopolizing in Union coffers as much gold as possible, shipped mining and refining equipment to the Colombian port city of Christobal on what was then known as the Isthmus of Darien and today known as the Isthmus of Panama. From Christobal the equipment was transported by train to the Pacific port of Balboa and reloaded on Yankee ships bound for port San Pedro in California. There, with the assistance of men from the U.S. Garrison at Los Angeles, the heavy machinery was offloaded onto wagons and with teams of horses, transported, via Brown’s road up the Cajon Pass and Van Dusen’s road up and across the north face of the San Bernardino Mountains, to reach the mine high in the remote San Bernardino Forest.
While the Civil War raged on the middle and eastern side of the continent, more settlers, including some original jack Mormons who had not returned to Utah upon Brigham Young’s 1857 edict, as well as adventurers and prodigals and pilgrims from the war’s destruction and violence, had established homesteads within the Mojave River Basin. But with the encroachment of whites into what had been the Indians’ homeland, violence less disciplined and prolonged but every bit as brutal as that between blue and grey was perpetuated back and forth between the white and red races in the Mojave. Even before the war’s end, military outposts were established in the desert as a hedge against the Indians.
In the 1860s, John Brown and two of his sons made use of the fertile land around the Mojave River as range land for the cattle they were marketing to the Army and in 1867 established what was known as the Verde Ranch in the meadowlands above the Mojave Narrows.
The military presence and the proliferation of mines in the region greatly increased the freighting of goods through the area and first Aaron Lane and then later others began operating way stations in the area, taking advantage of the abundant pasture lands that surrounded the river. In 1874 Heber Huntington purchased and operated with his wife one particularly popular way station near where the Mormons had grazed, now known as Sixth and D streets in Victorville.
As the city of San Bernardino grew to become what was referred to as the granary and storehouse for the mining camps that were proliferating in the region, Victorville became a satellite to San Bernardino, one that was much closer to the desert mines. Victor Valley ranchers experienced boom years in the 1870s, raising hundreds and eventually thousands of head of cattle, which were then dispatched to mining camps in the desert and San Bernardino Mountains and eventually eastward on the Old Spanish Trail to Nevada and Arizona.
In 1870 Max Stroble bought the entire Hesperia townsite for cash.
In 1874, Jed Van Dusen, the blacksmith who had graded the road between the Victor Valley and the San Bernardino Mountains, was given a contract to carry the U.S. Mail from San Bernardino to Prescott, Arizona, ensuring weekly postal delivery to what had become known as the Mojave River Settlement.
In 1876 and 1877 a Forty-niner by the name of Samuel Rogers developed an irrigation system that consisted of a dam and intake ditch just below the Upper Mojave Narrows and conveyed water to what was to become the heart of Victorville where he had an alfalfa and barley farm.
At this time there was also much agitation with the toll road franchise arrangement that had been granted to John Brown, with both desert and San Bernardino residents who had to often traverse the pass calling upon the county board of supervisors to rescind Brown’s franchise. Petitions to this effect were signed but failed to achieve the desired end, and the toll road remained in place for another decade until the California Southern Railroad constructed a separate road up the pass to assist in the delivery of cross-ties and rails and then turned that road over for public use.
By the late 1870s, the population of the Victorville settlement had grown to the point that in 1879 a schoolhouse, which also doubled as a grange, was erected.
In 1880, a prospector named A.J. Spencer found rich silver ore in Oro Grande and within two weeks, after an assay office in San Bernardino pronounced that one of the ingots Spencer had produced was nearly pure silver, the place was flooded with miners who lived in temporary camps among the cottonwoods. Six months later, many of those miners had built homes and the U.S. government established a post office in the town, which at that point boasted a general store, two butcher shops, a boarding house and a hotel.
Mining companies such as the Garabaldi Group, Buckingham & Co., and the Oro Grande Company as well as a number of lone prospectors operated a number of colorfully named mines, such as the Coyote, Oro Grande, Oro Fino, Garfield, Buena Vista, Contention, Sidewinder, Blue Jacket, Chimney Corner, Willis, and Iris. A group of loosely affiliated miners from the South operated a handful of mines at what was called Dixie Camp. Most of the mines were developed by means of shafts and tunnels. Mines were worked at varying depths, including 20, 25, 50, 60 and as far down as 200 feet. Several of the Oro Grande miners partnered to form a company to operate first a water-powered ore-reduction mill, capable of processing both silver and gold, and later a melting furnace to process different ores. The Oro Grande mill soon was drawing ore from mines located all over the desert. In May of 1881 wagoneer [freighter] J. D. Burkhart was hauling, at a rate of “one dollar and a half per ton,” 25 tons of ore per day to the mill.
Shortly after the boom in Oro Grande, miners in Calico hit paydirt and arranged to have the ore they produced refined at the Oro Grande mill.
In 1881, Jacob Nash Victor was 46 years old and at the seeming end of his railroad career, working as a freight agent in Colton California. As a very young man he had worked as a printer, but at the age of 20 went to work for the Mad River Railway, the first railroad in Ohio. During the Civil War, he was put in charge of the military railway under General James B. McPherson. He later served under General Sherman in Georgia in a similar capacity in the closing year of the war. After the surrender at Appomattox, Jacob Victor moved to Kansas City, where he was in charge of the Pacific Dispatch, a fast freight line then with International & Great Northern Railway of Texas in Houston and Galveston. In the 1870s he moved to New York where his health broke down. To recover, Victor, a civil engineer, in 1881 accepted a position in Colton with the California Southern Railroad, a subsidiary of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, initially as a freight agent and then as general manager of operations.
Over the previous two years, San Bernardino County surveyor Frederick T. Perris had been assiduously lobbying Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway officers to construct a line from San Diego northward to San Bernardino to be augmented with the extension of the line up the Cajon Pass and then north to junction with the Atlantic & Pacific-Santa Fe line at Waterman, i.e., present day-Barstow. While Perris was making his entreaties, a dispute had arisen over Southern Pacific Railway’s refusal to permit other railways to cross its tracks. Perris’ efforts paid off, convincing AT&SF officials, who were itching for a route to effectively break the Southern Pacific Railroad’s monopoly on transportation into Southern California, to brave the engineering and grading challenges.
Victor, an expert on trestles and bridges, was chosen to oversee Perris and other engineers brought in to supervise the Chinese coolies who laid the track. As the general manager and chief engineer of the California Southern Railroad, Victor incorporated a “Y” track into the two sets of tracks to allow free standing locomotives to turn around and reattach themselves to assist long and heavy trains up the grade to the Cajon Summit. In 1884 the California Southern Railroad reached San Bernardino, but the same year Nash encountered a devastating, though temporary setback, when roughly 30 miles of track were swept away by floods. By 1885 the track was rebuilt and extended through the Cajon Pass.
Victor designed the bridge across the Mojave. Though the bridge was destroyed in the flood of 1938, the granite abutment to the bridge is still in use and stands as the oldest structure in the Victor Valley. Once the track had reached the Summit, Victor was kept on as the superintendent of desert construction, a $1,750,000 undertaking to connect the rail at the top of Cajon Summit with the A & P Railroad at Barstow.
Following the completion of the railway to its eastern connection a consideration was effected with the Santa Fe Railway under the management of C. W. Smith. Victor retired in 1888 and moved to Chino, where he was elected to the board of supervisors as the representative of the county’s Fourth District. He subsequently served for three years as board chairman.
Victor’s home in Victorville was located at 8th and D streets and was known when it was owned by Mrs. Jennie Mae Richardson in the 1940s as the Hillcrest Lodge. By the late 1880s the area around his home came to be known as Victor.
The advent of the railroad had major effects on the High Desert. It brought a seemingly unending stream of Easterners through the area and intensified an already flourishing mining industry. Moreover, the building of the railroad required granite excavation and limestone excavation. Quarrying for those commodities, as well as marble eventually outgrew silver and gold mining.
Whereas in 1885 there were three houses in what was to become known as the town of Victor, with one of them used as a stage station, within five years the town had grown tenfold.
In the midst of the California land boom of 1888, a former Nevada mining engineer, Robert Widney, diverted water from Deep Creek Canyon and conveyed it a mile-and-an-eighth in a 14-inch hand-riveted pipe which ran for a portion beneath the river, giving the water in it enough forward momentum to expel its contents even after the pipe was angled up onto the Hesperia mesa.
Widney’s Hesperia Land & Water Company, in league with investors from Los Angeles, undertook significant improvements in Hesperia, including the construction of the 36-room, three-story Hesperia Hotel, made of adobe bricks freighted over from Oro Grande and then painted red. By 1890, a general store, post office and a school were completed to complement the hotel but six months later, the land boom went bust.
In 1888, F.O. Wyman set up a lime burning operation in Oro Grande.
By Mark Gutglueck