1870s Saw Dynamic Fight Over Which Railroad Would Establish Cajon Pass Track

By Mark Gutglueck
Even as Ontario city officials today have a pipe dream that one day Ontario International Airport will be a worthy rival to Los Angeles International Airport, nearly a century-and-a-half ago, there were principals in San Bernardino County or those who had come to the area from elsewhere who saw the region east of Los Angeles as the potential economic, cultural and governmental center of Southern California, wagering a considerable amount of capital, investing hard work, and putting down stakes in an effort to manifest that vision.
One of those was David Colton, the one-time sheriff of Siskiyou County. Colton deluded himself into believing that the the Big Four – Leland Stanford, Collis Huntington, Charles Crocker and Mark Hopkins – who founded the Central Pacific Railroad Company which built the western portion of the First Transcontinental Railroad, would welcome him into their circle to form the Big Five. After David Colton put up $1 million toward the undertaking, the Big Four were willing to let Colton carry out the lion’s share of the work that needed to be done in Southern California and Arizona to complete the Southern Pacific Railroad, a later transcontinental rail line, the westernmost leg of which was constructed in the 1870s from Los Angeles through the San Bernardino Valley on its way eastward. Colton would never achieve status as a full partner with the Big Four, and the Big Five never came to exist, although there were jokes and witticisms suggesting that there was a “Big Four-and-a-Half,” and that Colton was the half referred to. It was his decision to build the railroad line from Los Angeles on a straight line straight out toward Arizona rather than curving it up into downtown San Bernardino that led to the creation of Colton, the railroad town which later grew into a significant San Bernardino County city. When he was thrown from a young and unruly horse in August 1878, complications during his recovery led to Colton’s death two months later. The City of Colton was named in his honor, and his widow was left to duke it out with the Big Four over the money her husband had invested in the Southern Pacific Railway she felt was hers.
An early chapter in the effort to complete the Southern Pacific Railroad provides an illustration of how transportation was a major consideration in the development of Southern California, how money and political influence played a decisive role in shaping the way that development came about, the degree to which skulduggery determined who eventually assumed political and economic power, and the role the railroad barons played in determining the geographic locales where the development occurred.
John Percival Jones made a fortune in silver mining in Nevada, and served for 30 years as a Republican United States Senator from Nevada. Nevada was not the extent of his interests. After an 1873 visit to Santa Monica, he later arranged to purchase a three-quarters interest in Colonel Robert S. Baker’s seaside ranch there. Thereafter he and Baker laid out the town of Santa Monica, becoming its founders.
In 1874, Jones and fellow Nevada senator, William M. Steward, invested in the Panamint silver mines near Independence in Inyo County. Initially, Jones was a silent partner in the effort to build the first railroad from Los Angeles to Santa Monica. Thereafter, after Jones set sights on building an extension of the line all the way to his mines in Inyo County, the enterprise was dubbed the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, and Jones no longer masked his participation in the undertaking.
By January 1875, this put Jones and those involved with him in the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, into a fierce competition with others to utilize the Cajon Pass as a rail pathway to Los Angeles.
The stakes were high. The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, which became known as the L.A. & I, and the Southern Pacific Railroad were in competition to establish the first rail line to and from Los Angeles and the rest of the country. Whichever entity prevailed would ultimately achieve what was presumably the sole right-of-way through the Cajon Pass, granting it a monopoly on the transport of freight and passengers between Southern California and the mining regions of Central California and Nevada.
Though he had considerable personal wealth, Jones was nevertheless at something of a disadvantage in engaging with the Southern Pacific Railroad, and by extension Stanford, Huntington, Crocker and Hopkins and their comparatively larger wealth.
The Southern Pacific Railroad was already eyeing the Cajon Pass as the most logical route for its trains to make the approach from Nevada and upper California to Los Angeles. Moreover, in 1872, Los Angeles County voters, eager to see the importation of goods from the rest of the country to the region, passed a bond for the provision of more than $600,000 to assist the Southern Pacific with its effort to lay down a railroad line to extend northward and meet the existing transcontinental line in Central California.
Jones recognized he was in a footrace with the Southern Pacific to be the first railway from Los Angeles to the first eastward destination, San Bernardino, on the yet-to-be-constructed railway line. Though Jones was not without wherewithal and some advantages of his own, he was up against some even more powerful adversaries, ones with political pull, resources of their own and, even more importantly, experience in establishing a railroad in virgin territory.
As a senator, he had a command of parliamentary procedure and an understanding of both how a legislative body works and is motivated. He networked with a small cabal of Los Angeles businessman and mine owners in California and beyond that to Nevada who had an interest in not being put into the position of having to accept whatever freight handling rates the Southern Pacific was likely to demand if it had a monopoly on the railroad line into and out of Los Angeles. Together, in March 1874, they obtained the California Legislature’s passage of a bill that gave them a railroad right-of-way from Los Angeles to Independence, through the Cajon Pass. Jones and the L.A & I outmaneuvered, at least temporarily, the Southern Pacific through a set of nifty stratagems.
With the legislative clearance in hand, Jones retained James U. Crawford, a seasoned railroad man, to survey the potential routes the line would take, and thereafter manage its construction. Crawford’s conclusion was that unquestionably the logical route for the railroad was through the Cajon Pass.
In 1850 freighters Phineas Banning and W. T. B. Sanford constructed a wagon road through the Cajon gap, running parallel to and roughly five-and-a-half-miles west of the old Spanish Trail leading down from the Mojave Desert into the San Bernardino Valley. That road had a grade of roughly 30 percent over much of its length, requiring a team of 32 mules to pull a load of 15 wagons. In 1861 the California Legislature authorized John Brown, Henry M. Willis and George L. Tucker to construct a much-improved wagon road in the Cajon Pass, and to charge a toll for its use at rates set by the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors. Brown, Willis and Tucker employed Sydney P. Waite, Horace C. Rolfe and David N. Smith, who headed a work crew of 36 men to both widen and improve the existing road, clearing the pathway that began at what is present-day Devore of boulders, grading the earth, going upward to the area known as Blue Cut, the narrowest span of the lower section of the road, what was referred to at that time as the lower narrows, before continuing up the canyon along the bank of Cajon Creek, then through a substantial ravine now known as Crowder Canyon, or the “upper narrows.” They scraped a road across the floor of the canyon and from that point cleared a wide swath to create the steep plane to the crest of Cajon Summitt.
By 1875 John Brown was yet the proprietor of the toll road, and was charging a single rider on a horse a quarter, a wagon and one span of horses a dollar, a wagon and two spans of horses $1.25, a wagon and three spans of horses $1.50, a wagon and four spans of horses $1.75, loose horses or cattle five cents a head, pack animals a quarter, sheep three cents a head and a horse cart or buggy fifty cents to use the toll road.
Crawford obtained the cooperation of Brown in allowing him to survey a potential route up the pass that would either closely parallel of actually follow that of the existing toll road.
In this way, Crawford outhustled a team of surveyors who were likewise seeking to take measurements in the area on behalf of the Southern Pacific. Crawford made a fastidious accounting of the best possible pathway for the railroad and the different approaches to Cajon Summit.
Ultimately, Crawford reported to those who had hired him, “Cajon Pass is practicable for a railroad which can be cheaply constructed and operated with vast advantage to Los Angeles and her back country.”
Nevertheless, Crawford’s survey and the estimates he made with regard to the cost of further grading and track placement indicated the rail line was to be somewhat more expensive than the investors in the L.A. & I had hoped. Accordingly, Jones signalled that he would be willing to bear the cost this would entail with an even more substantial infusion of funding than that to which he had already committed.
At that point, the Southern Pacific escalated its efforts to outmaneuver at a political level the forces behind the L.A & I.
Huntington, who practically owned former San Jose Mayor and later Congressman Sherman Otis Houghton, a Republican, induced him to sponsor legislation that authorized the Southern Pacific to change the railroad’s earlier intended route to and from Los Angeles into Southern California such that it would go through the Cajon Pass. Prompted by the Los Angeles business community intent on preventing the Southern Pacific from obtaining a stranglehold on the means of transporting goods into and out of Southern California, Democratic Congressman John K. Luttrell introduced a competing bill that would have disallowed the Southern Pacific from establishing its rail route through the Cajon Pass. Thus, the Republican Jones found himself in league with the Democrat Luttrell in the effort to outmaneuver the his fellow Republicans Houghton, Huntington, Stanford, Crocker and Hopkins.
Meanwhile, the L.A. & I Railroad was progressing toward establishing a 16.7-mile section between Los Angeles and the Santa Monica Wharf, an object demonstration to the Southern Pacific Railroad that the L.A. & I was capable and committed to building a functional rail system.
With the battle raging at the legislative level, in early 1875 the Southern Pacific sent its own surveyors to the Cajon Pass to carry out a précis of the potential route. Seeing what the Southern Pacific survey team was up to, Crawford beat them to the punch. Acting quickly, from January 8 until Janaury 12, 1875, he and his team staked out the L.A. & I Railroad’s track right-of-way all the way up the Cajon Pass, including through Blue Cut, the narrowest span of the stretch up the pass, preventing the Southern Pacific from claiming it for itself, thus rendering it impossible for the Southern Pacific to build a line through Cajon.
The industrious Crawford, along with 200 men, immediately set to creating the planned railway line, undertaking to grade the way for the railroad ties and rails, and initiating the burrowing of a tunnel in the West Cajon Valley. The L.A. & I’s investors made what was then state-of-the art steam-powered equipment available to Crawford’s crews to be able to complete the cutting of the route. That route is virtually indistinguishable from the rail lines that today exist through the lower pass. Crawford’s route, however, deviated from the modern route by cutting west near what is now Highway 138, and closely paralleling where the current highway now exists into West Cajon Valley, and then making a hard turn northward toward the ridge atop the crest of West Cajon Summit. Near the peak, Crawford and his men were using a heavy duty drill to to hollow out a tunnel through which the train was to reach the southernmost reach of the Mojave Desert.
The apex of the L.A. & I’s achievement as a railroad came in October 1875, when service on its nearly 17-mile span between what is now downtown Los Angeles and Santa Monica began
Ultimately, however, the Southern Pacific would bring its financial and political power to bear, blocking the L.A. & I from ever completing its line up the Cajon Pass, despite the upstart company having succeeded in completing more than 180 feet of the tunnel into the side of the mountain crest near the Cajon Summit. Work on the railroad east of Los Angeles ceased in mid-1876, and Crawford’s men were pulled out of the Cajon Pass. Due to issues with further financing, Jones and the other investors in the L.A. & I Railroad were forced to sell their enterprise to Southern Pacific in 1877
As was inevitably going to be the case, San Bernardino County remained a backwater to Los Angeles for the remainder of the 19th Century and throughout the 20th Century, while Los Angles grew to become one of the world’s leading megalopolises.

Mr. Gutglueck relied upon multiple sources in composing this article, including his previous writing regarding David Colton, Luther Ingersoll’s Century History of Santa Monica Bay Cities, Luther Ingersoll’s Century Annals of San Bernadino County, Walter Feller’s digital website pertaining to the Mojave Desert, Wikipedia and an article by Mark Landis titled “Railroad wars of the 1800s and the battle for the Cajon Pass” that ran in the San Bernardino Sun datelined March 11, 2019.

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