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Beale's Cut - Treasure Hunting A Pioneer Passage

By Land ~ Sea Discovery Group Staff

Craack! "Heeh-ya! Get up there!" The freight boss yelled as he cracked his lengthy whip just above the heads of the struggling team of horses. Pulling the loaded 35-ton freight wagons through Fremont's Pass was not an easy chore, but the pass was the only way into Los Angeles from Northern California that made sense.

Seven-foot high wagon wheels kicked up a tremendous amount of dirt and dust causing most people in the immediate area to don wet bandannas so they wouldn't have to breathe the choking air. Most passengers were forced to walk along side the wagons to lighten the load. Some even had to get out and help rotate the wheels through the irregular ruts. As the wagons rolled by me, dust choked my throat and I felt like I had to sneeze. The activity seemed to whirl around me. Men walked by carrying satchels, ladies in bonnets with kids in tow floated by, and the occasional dog stopped to sniff at my trousers. Someone kicked at my foot and.....

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Treasure Hunter Judy Thompson uses her Spectrum in the "ghost passage" known as "Beale's Cut" which is found in the San Fernando Pass. This article was first featured with cover photo in Treasure Facts Magazine. Oct 1996.

It was Judy Thompson, my treasure-hunting partner for this trip, tapping on my foot. I must have dozed off after eating lunch. I shook the cobwebs from my head and the visions of wagons and pioneers went scurrying to the faraway corners of my mind. "Where ya been Jake?" Judy chuckled. "Oh, I was here all right," I said. "But I think I just went back in time about 150 years ago." "Wow, was that a realistic dream or what?" I thought to myself. "What do ya say, should we get back to work?" Judy asked. I jumped up and without another word we went to it.

This was my first trip to this particular "ghost passage" but, it certainly would not be my last. I recruited Judy to go along with me on this trip due to her fifteen years of metal detecting and treasure hunting experience. After telling her of my research on this area I could barely hold her back.

I came upon this particular site just after researching Route 66, the "Mother Road." While daydreaming at my desk I thought to myself, "are the major routes and gateways into and out of the city the same as the ones the pioneers used?" Well, I had to find out for myself and it wasn't long before I read about a major gateway from Southern California to the north known by a couple of different names. One was Fremont's Pass and the other was San Fernando Pass.

It occurred to me that perhaps these routes were still in use with some minor re-alignments to accommodate engineering and the progression of modern vehicles. So, maps in hand I headed out to the area to scout it out and there just a stones throw away from perhaps the worlds busiest freeway, Interstate 5, was a lesser known route that as I snooped around more revealed the original dirt roadway. I went back to my library and pulled every book I could find that mentioned Southern California and slowly the story of the San Fernando Pass came to light.

The pass was first used in August of 1769 by Don Gaspar de Portola who was looking for a route to the north to follow out the orders of King Charles III of Spain, which were to colonize Alta California. Once through the pass he turned west down the Santa Clara River valley to the coast and then north to Monterey Bay. Once the mission was founded at Monterey travelers used this route extensively.

About six years later Father Francisco Garces pushed north from the pass and pioneered the trail north through the Tehachapis Mountains into the interior of California. Later another route was discovered that led from the San Fernando Pass northeast into the Antelope Valley. "This is great, I thought, a major pass out of the city used over 200 years ago just out of site from millions of Californian's and I know just where it is."

I left the Spanish explorers and headed down the time trail to the first discovery of gold. No, not Sutters Mill but in Placerita Canyon just a few miles away. In the year 1842 Francisco Lopez found the golden nuggets clinging to the roots of wild onions and it wasn't long before a rush of prospectors from Sonora, Mexico moved into the region. Soon gold was being shipped from the district to the mint in Philadelphia and it all went through the San Fernando Pass.

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Maj. General John C. Freemont. From Abbot's Civil War.

As time went on the traffic increased through the pass being traveled by miners, merchants and soldiers. General John C. Fremont marched troops through the pass on his way to sign the Cahuenga Capitulation Treaty which ended the war with Mexico. At that time the pass was named Fremont's Pass.

It was a very steep climb for wagons and at the very top was a four-foot step that caused many passengers to have to disembark and help push the wagon over the top. Sometimes wagons were unable to make the grade and rolled down the mountainside.

After the discovery of gold in the north in 1848 and the founding of Fort Tejon in 1854, also in the north, pressure was put on the government to build a better road. A toll road was started and by 1855 it was open for traffic. They say it was still a fearsome ride. Folks still had to get out and push and one description of the pass has the wagons beating the horses to the bottom of the hill.

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This slot called, "Beale's Cut" was dug by pick and shovel in 1859. It was a major pass from Los Angeles to the northern part of the state.

A prominent landowner E. F. Beale, having traveled the pass for personal reasons many times, decided to do something about the dangerous conditions. In 1859 he took fifty men and with simple hand tools he made a cut in the mountain side 50 yards long, 65 feet high, and twenty feet wide. Finally the wagons could pass through with reasonable ease. In 1862 Beale was awarded the franchise for the toll road. Wagons were charged a quarter and passengers were charged ten cents. A team of horse was kept nearby to assist wagons in getting over as the hill which was still quite steep, especially for the 35 ton loaded freight wagons. Thankful teamsters named the area Beale's Cut. Soon the name Fremont's Pass was forgotten and San Fernando Pass was again adopted, but the slot in the sandstone mountain will forever be known as Beale's Cut.

In the years that followed, the San Fernando Pass and namely the Beale's Cut area became Los Angeles's first traffic and air pollution problems. Wagons became backed up waiting to get through the toll road because it was so popular. In the dry months the wagons kicked up so much dirt people could barely see. Sprinkler wagons were brought in to wet the area down. Staging areas were set up for stages and passengers to wait in turn while the wagons went through.

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These slots held the tollbooth roof beams, which spanned "Beale's Cut." You can still make out the pick marks over 140 years old in the sandstone.

The pass was used until the early 1900's and did get to see its first car, a 1902 Autocar. The car had to go up the hill backwards due to its gravity flow of gasoline to the carburetor. On the decent the wheels were chained to keep some semblance of control.

A tunnel replaced the use of the pass in 1910 and that in turn was made obsolete by the building of four lane highways in 1939.

I think you can understand why we were excited to hunt this site. Visions of Spanish explorers, Civil War soldiers, and merchants crossing through the pass dropping coins along the way for us to follow with our Spectrum detector's. All we had to do is walk along and pick them up! Wrong! After five long hours of working the Beale's Cut we had little to show for our troubles. Old nails, a few bullets, and a brass knob from a chest of drawers. There was little if any trash at the site, which was a good sign that it truly had not seen much traffic since the thirties. After some analysis we determined that there was an overburden of sand that may have dropped off the sides of the cut and may have added as much as two feet to the floor of the cut.

After lunch and my little cat nap, Judy worked an area just over the hill and I went above the cut finding an old trail that led from one side of the cut to the other. From my vantage point on top of the mountain I could see the spots that appeared to be the staging areas and the likely spots a wagon might have flipped over spewing its wares across the ground. Then, looking down into the cut from the top was a dizzying site that brought me back down the trail holding on to scrub bushes all the way.

I hate to say that we were skunked that day. For Judy it was a first, for me, well, I'm used to it. It was just one day though, and like Judy told me, "It's here, we just have to find it."

We've planned more trips to the site in the future and I plan to investigate more old roadways since I enjoyed my trip to the "ghost passage" that day.


1. Russ Leadabrand, A Guidebook To The San Gabriel Mountains of California, Ward Ritchie Press, 1963.
2. Andy Griffin, Gypsy Jaunts, 1964.
3. Don J. Baxter, Gateways to California, Pacific Gas and Electric Co., 1968.
4. Allan Nevins, Fremont Pathmarker of the West, D. Appleton-Century Co., 1939

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