CityDig: See the San Fernando Valley Before Tract Homes and Mini Malls

Historical Map of the San Fernando Valley, San Fernando Valley Federal Savings and Loan Association, c. 1960. Click image to view larger
Historical Map of the San Fernando Valley, San Fernando Valley Federal Savings and Loan Association, c. 1960. Click image to view larger

This muted but informative map of the San Fernando Valley debunks stereotypes about the region, which is not in fact a flat plain with tract homes, pod malls, chain businesses, and mega-apartment buildings. Far from being merely the product of postwar urban sprawl, the Valley has a dramatic history that stretches out like the boulevards that crisscross it in all directions.

The Tongva Indians lived there for at least 7,000 years alongside the Chumash of Malibu who hunted and gathered in the Santa Monica Mountains. Gaspar de Portola passed this way with fathers Serra and Crespi, and the Mission San Fernando Rey, located in Mission Hills, became 17th in the chain of 21 missions along the California coast. By the early 19th century some 56,000 irascible longhorn cattle wandered the Valley with as much purpose as the teens who followed in the 1960s and ’70s, cruising Ventura Boulevard on Saturday nights.

Much of the history depicted here is over a century old and ignores the huge, post-World War II housing explosion and the odd transformation of wheat fields into strip malls and suburban sameness. There were battles on those plains, such as the Battle of the Cahuenga Pass, in 1831, and the Battle of Providencia, in 1845, when the Mexican governor Manuel Micheltorena was sent packing. We see “Campo de Cahuenga” where the Americans and Californios signed the Treaty of Cahuenga in 1847. That agreement set the stage for the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the Mexican-American War and allowed California to become the 31st state of the Union.

The map also shows off the raw infrastructure that connected Los Angeles to the outside world: the Santa Susana Stage Road, sometimes known as the “Devil’s Slide,” united Simi Valley by overland stage and was hewn from solid rock in 1859. The Fremont Pass (Newhall Pass today) welcomed travelers to Los Angeles from Santa Clarita.

Life in the Valley in the 19th century was for the bold and brave. The stout-hearted set down roots in places like “the Lopez Adobe” and “Lopez Station,” where Geronimo and Catalina Lopez built a domicile in the 1860s. Even before that, in 1842 (a full six years before the rush to Sutter’s Mill), Geronimo’s great uncle Francisco Lopez discovered gold in Placerita Canyon, where some 1,300 pounds of the precious metal was eventually found.

There are other historic landmarks, too. The Pioneer Refinery, created way back in 1877, processed 100 barrels a day and was the first successful oil venture well before Edward L. Doheny dug into the La Brea tar pits in 1892. Bolton Hall, a striking river rock structure built in 1913 in Tujunga, was once the center of the Los Terrenitos Utopian community. The terribly fascinating “San Fernando Pioneer Memorial Cemetery” was created in 1874 as a resting place for non-Catholics. The graveyard’s history has more twists and turns than the highways of Sylmar. And finally, “the Workman Ranch House,” was built in 1841 for one William Workman shortly after he made the trek to California from New Mexico. It is now part of the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry. The pristine six-acre museum site contains the original three-room adobe ranch house as well as La Casa Nueva—a Spanish Colonial Revival mansion—and the 160-year-old El Campo Santo cemetery.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.