Stage Trail Has Dust of History : Santa Susana Pass: The 1861 road followed a rocky Indian footpath that ran from Chatsworth to Simi Valley. It served as the main overland commercial route to San Francisco.


Commuters stuck in traffic on the Santa Susana Pass section of the Simi Valley Freeway don't realize how lucky they are.

Imagine crossing the steep, rock-studded Santa Susana Mountains in a stagecoach drawn by a team of fast-moving horses.

That's how travelers made their way between the San Fernando Valley and Simi Valley in the late 19th Century, said Patricia Havens, a founding member of the Simi Valley Historical Society.

"How can we complain?" Havens asked. "We've got it so easy."

The first wheeled vehicle ever to cross the pass went through in September, 1861, a year after workers began blasting and carving a stagecoach road out of the mountainside.

More than 100 years later, traces of the road and an improved wagon trail built in 1895 are still visible to the south of the Simi Valley Freeway.

The original road, known as the Old Santa Susana Stage Road, followed a rocky Indian foot trail that ran from Chatsworth to Simi Valley. It served as the main commercial overland route between Los Angeles and San Francisco between 1861 and 1875, with three stages a week leaving Los Angeles.

Although the journey north was about 400 miles and took three days, the most difficult part was crossing the Santa Susanas.

"The trip over the mountains was a real thrill," author and historian Janett Scott Cameron writes in her book "Simi Valley Grows Up." "The drivers wore big sombreros and used blacksnake whips to urge the horses over the very steep, narrow and rocky trail. No doubt the screams of the lady passengers made their job all the more interesting."

The most frightening portion of the road is on the Los Angeles County side of the mountain range, about two miles west of Chatsworth Park.

"It's just nothing but rock, and there's nothing to keep you from falling off the side," Havens said recently as she and a small expedition gazed up at the steep grade. "That's why they call it the Devil's Slide."

Once past the Devil's Slide, on the western side of the pass, the road was almost as treacherous. Stagecoaches would have to drag heavy blocks of wood or have their back wheels tied to the wagon frame to slow their descent.

The stage road continued west across the mountains until it converged with what is now Lilac Lane in Simi Valley.

It then plunged down Twilight Canyon, running parallel to the Southern Pacific railroad's Santa Susana Tunnel, built later. The road finally connected with what is now Los Angeles Avenue.

After crossing the mountains, the stagecoaches would stop at Larry Howard's Stage Station at the foot of the grade on the Ventura County side. There, passengers could get a bite to eat and calm their nerves as a new team of horses was readied for the next leg of the trip.

As dangerous as the crossing was, road conditions were not the only threat to those early commuters.

Holdups along the road were common. The narrow and isolated path made travelers easy prey, and the boulders that lined the mountainside provided excellent cover for bandits and other unsavory characters.

Probably the most famous outlaw to frequent the stage road was Tiburcio Vasquez, who has been described by historians as a Wild West version of Robin Hood.

One tale recounts how Vasquez burst into the home of a widow, demanding food for himself and his men. Before departing, Vasquez learned that the woman was in danger of losing her farm because she could not make her mortgage payment.

According to accounts at the time, Vasquez returned a short time later with the required $800, apparently taken from the person who held the mortgage on the woman's farm.

Vasquez's career came to an abrupt end in 1876 when he was captured by lawmen in the Hollywood Hills area and hanged.

By the turn of the century, the stagecoach era was near its end, but it revived later when some 3,000 Hollywood productions used the unique rock formations of the pass as a backdrop for shoot-'em-up Westerns filmed in the 1940s and '50s.

In 1904, Southern Pacific railroad workers carved the 7,369-foot-long train tunnel--the longest in Southern California--through the base of the Santa Susana Mountains.

The advent of the railroad put an end to stagecoaching over the pass and provided an important trade connection between the rich agricultural lands in Ventura County and the bustling markets of the San Fernando Valley.

Finally, in 1968, the Simi Valley Freeway was completed through the pass, providing easy vehicle access between the valleys.

The six-lane freeway, which was completed in 1983, now accommodates 104,000 vehicle trips a day, or about 36.4 million a year, according to Nick Jones, associate transportation engineer with the state Department of Transportation.

Improvements to the route continue. Last week, a new truck-climbing lane was opened on the westbound side of the freeway, with hopes that it will significantly reduce traffic congestion.

In the age of superhighways and emergency call boxes, it would be easy to forget the days of the stagecoach and Tiburcio Vasquez.

But Havens and others, like Janice Hinkston, who heads the Santa Susana Mountain Park Assn., are not about to let that happen.

Hinkston and the park association have worked for more than 20 years to educate people about the history of the stage road and the surrounding mountainside.

"Somebody's got to do something about saving these beautiful mountains," said Hinkston, who leads hikers up the Los Angeles County side of the stage road every Sunday.

She said her group also operates a visitors center in Chatsworth Park, where the public can view slide shows or purchase books and pamphlets on Santa Susana Pass.

For her part, Havens has taught college history courses on the stage road and is largely responsible for getting the Santa Susana Stage Road recognized as a Ventura County historical landmark. She is also pushing to get the old road placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Both Hinkston and Havens said they eventually would like to see the state buy the land that includes segments of the old road.

"What everybody would love to see is these roads preserved for hiking and equestrian use," Havens said.

"I just really have a respect for the people that went before us," Havens said as she rode along the Simi Valley Freeway one day recently. "I really think we've got to be aware of what it took to bring us where we are today."

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