Mountain Passes: Beale’s Cut

As early as 450 A.D. the Tataviam, a Shoshone-speaking tribe of Indians, migrated from northern California into the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys in Southern California. To move north and south between the two valleys, the Tataviam climbed a very steep, very narrow mountain pass in the Santa Susana Mountains.

More than a thousand years later Gaspar de Portola, a Spanish soldier appointed Governor of Las Californias, traveled overland from Mexico to the California coast. Exploring the mountains and valleys, Portola discovered and used the steep, narrow pass in 1769. Despite its small size, this mountain pass was the main entrance to the Los Angeles area and thus played a very important role in California history. Along the way it was called by many different names, including the San Fernando Pass, Fremont Pass, Newhall Pass, and Beale’s Cut.

Approximately eighty years after Gaspar de Portola explored the area, US Army General John C. Fremont marched through the pass on his way to southern California. That was in 1847. As a result Anglo-Californians began to call the thirteen-foot-wide gap Fremont Pass. People on foot and people on horseback were able to climb the 29% incline and walk through the 240-foot-long pass —  but carts, wagons, and stagecoaches couldn’t make it up or down the extremely steep incline.  

Sensing an opportunity, entrepreneur  Henry C. Wiley figured out a way to get wagons through the pass. In 1852 he built a huge windlass. For a fee Wiley helped tie a wagon or stagecoach onto the windlass, which sat at the top of the narrow pass, and then helped lower the suspended vehicle into the valley below. Luckily for travelers this frightening method of getting through the San Fernando Pass lasted less than two years.

In 1854 Phineas Banning, who owned a stagecoach line, organized a team of workers to dig into the top of the San Fernando Pass and lower it by thirty feet. The incline remained at 29%, but at least the highest thirty feet had been removed, so the ascent was shorter. This allowed the first stagecoaches to travel through the pass without having to be lowered by a windlass. People now called the opening the Banning Cut.

Just three years later US General Edward F. Beale marched through the pass with a caravan of 25 government camels. The camels need explaining. Just a few years earlier the US Army had purchased 75 camels from several Mideastern countries. The deserts of the Southwest were tough on horses and mules and humans, and the Army believed that camels could carry heavier loads, need less water, eat sparser food, and fare better than any other pack animal. The camels were shipped to Texas, where they became part of the army’s Camel Corps.

Although the camels performed exceptionally well, the soldiers and prospectors of the area hated the smelly beasts, which they claimed frightened their mules. General Edward F. Beale, however, thought very highly of the camels. In 1857 President Buchanan asked Beale to help create a road from New Mexico to California. This he did, having soldiers build the dirt road known as the Beale Wagon Road, which went through the Freemont Pass (Banning Cut). 

Beale took 25 of the camels with him on his exploratory and road-building route, along with soldiers, horses, and mules. The Army wanted to know how the camels would fare in the deserts of Arizona and California. Beale himself envisioned the camels as future mail carriers, each loaded with 600 pounds of missives. This never happened. Eventually the government gave up on using camels because the soldiers detested the animals. When the Civil War started, the Union Army pulled out of Texas, releasing the camels into the desert. 

Likewise, the camels that Beale escorted to Arizona and California were decommissioned from the Army and put up for sale. Beale bought several, which spent the rest of their lives on his California ranch. The last reported sighting of an Arizona camel was in 1891, but the last surviving camel of the US Army Camel Corps was Topsy, who died in the Los Angeles Zoo in 1936.

Mountain Range: Santa Susana Mountains
Elevation: 1,750 feet
Grade: 29%, then 20%
Location: In the town of Santa Clarita, California, near the Angeles National Forest.

But getting back to that steep, narrow pass that the Tataviam used to enter the Santa Clarita Valley — a few years after Banning had workers lower the pass by 30 feet, General Beale ordered a crew to cut an additional 60 feet down into the pass. This work started in 1861 and took two years of digging. The workers also reinforced and smoothed out the 240 feet length at the top of the pass. From then on Beale’s Cut, as it became known, was ninety feet less high than nature had made it. People going through the pass for the first time were astonished by how steep the ascent and descent were over such a short distance, but Beale had actually lowered the grade of the pass from 29% to 20%. Beale’s Cut served the needs of the Santa Clarita Valley for another fifty years, until the arrival of the automobile. 

In the 1870s the town of Newhall was founded in the area of Beale’s Cut, and people started to call the opening the Newhall Pass. The road through the pass was paved with asphalt in the 1870s. Although the first automobiles began to travel through the pass in 1909, the state of California was already looking to build a better road over a better route. In 1910 the Ridge Route was finished, complete with a tunnel blasted through the mountains so that traffic could avoid the troublesome mountain pass. In no time at all, Beale’s Cut was abandoned by drivers.

But not by Hollywood movie directors, who were always looking for inexpensive locations in which to film. These directors decided that Beale’s Cut looked very “western.” During the 1910s, ‘20s, and ‘30s, Beale’s Cut appeared in silent westerns and even in early “talkies.” Directors used both the top and bottom of the cut for maximum drama. At the bottom they filmed a stagecoach being held up or rushing through, as in the John Wayne film, Stagecoach. At the top, they filmed a horse and rider jumping across the large gap, as in the Tom Mix film Three Jumps Ahead. (Even today there’s still debate over whether this jump shot was faked.)

Eventually Hollywood also abandoned Beale’s Cut, and the steep, narrow gap stood there, surrounded by highways full of cars zipping by. But historians didn’t forget, and in 1992 Beale’s Cut was given historic landmark status. In 1998, during heavy rains from El Nino, a mudslide fell into Beale’s Cut, refilling approximately 30 of the 90 feet. 

In the story of mountain passes, Beale’s Cut is one of the narrowest, but also one of the most interesting.

Beale’s Cut
Nature strews mountains
every whichway, not caring
that people want through.


Barbara Gregorich’s previous blog on mountain passes was Kittening Gap.