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Last is hardest

Wagons pull safely over Cajon Pass

CAJON PASS, CALIF. — As the Heritage Trails Association Wagon Train neared the end of its strenuous 600-mile trek from mountainous Utah across Nevada and California deserts en route to San Bernardino, Calif., to commemorate the 1851 California Mormon wagon train, trekkers found the hardest part comes last.

Dusty trail through Sperry Wash presents scene reminiscent of past century.
Dusty trail through Sperry Wash presents scene reminiscent of past century. Photo: Photo by Marilyn Mills

Teams labored while pulling wagons up the very steep, five-mile, one-lane trail of Cajon Pass. Some horseback riders led the teams while other riders pulled ropes tied to the wagons. People walked behind to block the wheels. "They yelled them up," said Marilyn Mills, president of Heritage Trails Association and a local historian. "They whooped and hollered; it was very noisy. There is so much strength in those horses. This was the most difficult day, and that was the steepest hill."

Jacob Top, an outrider, said the descent was also difficult with the tired horses. Riders were sent down in pairs, "so we didn't have anybody fall and take the whole crowd down — you know how that happens."

Some wagon wheels were chain locked, and "we had outriders in front of the wagons to make sure they didn't go out of control. There are a lot of cliffs up there. It was pretty dangerous. If we had lost control of a wagon, we'd have lost the wagon and the team."

Now accompanied by some 75 trekkers, the six wagons in the train and trekkers made it over the pass safely. They celebrated as they camped that afternoon at Mormon Rock, a formation of cliffs and local landmark where the original California wagon train is believed to have turned away from the Cajon road to make its way toward what would be San Bernardino.

School children are excited to sit on wagon during stop.
School children are excited to sit on wagon during stop. Photo: Photo by Marilyn Mills

As the wagon train rolled toward its final goal, trekkers felt bittersweet about the completion of the journey, said Sister Mills. The end of the trail will mean rest, but it will also mean the end of the close association that the wagon train community has had.

"Those who have come every step of the way are very, very tired," she said. "It is a long journey and they miss their families. But the new people who are coming on, who are all clean and energized, are bringing a renewed enthusiasm and energy."

The last Sunday on the trail was spent in Barstow where a community campfire program was held with historical presentations given, mingled with serious cowboy poetry by wagon master Paul Bliss.

The wagon train has had many of the experiences of a pioneer wagon train, said Sister Mills.

"The train traveled through the spectacular scenery and good trails of Utah and entered the desolate sandy deserts of Nevada and California," she said. "Walking, riding a horse or navigating a wagon on rocky or sandy trails has been arduous. Sometimes the trails have led up steep, long grades over passes. The change in temperatures between Utah and Nevada were drastic. High heat and winds have been constant on the deserts. Campsites with water have been few and far between.

"Participants tended to agree with some historians that the Mormon Trail between Salt Lake City and Los Angeles was the most difficult wagon road in American history."

The difficulty of the trail accentuates the accomplishments of the 1851 wagon train that the present group commemorates. The early group sometimes went for days without water.

As wagon train passes though farm land, trekkers get brief respite from the arduous desert travel that covered much of the trail.
As wagon train passes though farm land, trekkers get brief respite from the arduous desert travel that covered much of the trail. Photo: Photo by Marilyn Mills

"Lack of water also meant lack of forage for the animals," said Sister Mills. "The camp often rested. Apostle Parley P. Pratt, who traveled with that train, wrote while resting near present-day Barstow that 'This is the worst time I ever saw.' Even though this group was only 14 miles from the Mojave River, they could only travel minutes at a time before slumping to the earth in exhaustion."

By contrast, the present group carries supplies with them, and are provided food by the generous wards and stakes along the way. A 5,000-gallon water tank on a truck accompanies the group.

As the wagons arrived in more populated areas from the desert reaches between Las Vegas, Nev., and Barstow, Calif., media attention began to increase. Reporters and photographers from television and newspapers from Los Angeles, Calif., joined the train to record the arrival.

One of the aspects of history that Sister Mills emphasizes and hopes to recreate is the sense of community among a multi-ethnic population that developed among the first colonists. Included were African-Americans who were part of the wagon train, Jewish merchants who arrived a short time later, Spanish rancho families, Native Americans from the Cahuilla and Serrano groups, and Polynesian and Australian converts who emigrated from the Pacific areas and helped settle San Bernardino.

Representatives of these groups were expected to accompany the wagon train as it entered Glen Helen Regional Park. Three days of festivities and ceremonies are planned for the participants and communities after the scheduled arrival at 4 p.m. on Thursday, Oct. 25.

The original colonists, under the leadership of Apostles Amasa Lyman and Charles C. Rich, waited three months for a land purchase before beginning to settle.

During the colony's initial development, "colony residents worked almost as one family, they were so united," wrote Mary Ann Phelps Rich, wife of Apostle Charles C. Rich.

Wagon master Paul Bliss brought wagons from Utah to California.
Wagon master Paul Bliss brought wagons from Utah to California. Photo: Photo by Marilyn MillsPhotos by Marilyn Mills

Over the next few years, Mormon colonists made significant contributions to California. A logging road was constructed that led to lumber being milled by colonists and sold to build homes in Los Angeles. Elected to the state legislature, colonist Jefferson Hunt successfully presented petitions to divide San Bernardino from Los Angeles County and develop a road from San Pedro Harbor on the coast to El Cajon Pass. According to the Heritage Trails historical sources, agricultural yields of the colony one year exceeded those of Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and San Diego combined. Flour was marketed to all of Southern California from the colony's wheat fields and grist mills. Children weekly churned 200 pounds of butter to sell.

An Australian convert, Fred T. Perris, was a surveyor who developed a route for the Santa Fe Railroad that traveled from San Francisco to Los Angeles. This route became well-traveled and in 1877 a fare war developed that dropped passage from St. Louis, Mo., to Los Angeles from $150 to $10, leading to a gold-rush type of immigration to Los Angeles.

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