The Pass in the Past: A Brief History
THE PASS' steep incline, rising some 700 feet in about 2.5 miles, limited its utility as a passageway for a very long time.
IN 1769, facing the threat of foreign encroachment on their northern colonial borders, the Spanish government decided to establish a presence in Alta (upper) California. Yet few hidalgos, literally translated as “sons of someone” (i.e., people of Spanish descent, devoid of Indian or mestizo “blood”), wished to move north and people the Spanish frontier. And so the first Europeans to cross the summit of the Sepulveda Pass were part of a conscious strategy to transform those already there (i.e., California’s indigenous people) to loyal subjects. Military officer Gaspar de Portola and Franciscan priest Junipero Serra headed an expedition that established a series of presidios and religious missions northward from San Diego to San Francisco. The Spanish colonizers used force and religious conversion in an attempt to turn California’s Indians (whom they called gente sin razon, "people without reason") into gente de razon ("people of reason").
THE SEPULVEDA PASS was named for the Sepulveda family, descendants of an early Los Angeles settler, Francisco Xavier Sepulveda, a soldier in the Spanish army first stationed at the Mission San Gabriel.
BETWEEN 1809 AND 1845, the grandchildren of Francis Xavier Sepulveda would claim five land grants, ranging from present-day coastal Orange County all the way up to the base of the Sepulveda Pass. The Rancho San Vicente y Santa Monica grant included the canyon we now refer to as the Sepulveda Pass.
Click on the icons below to learn more about the Sepulveda Ranchos and the date of the land grants that formed them.
THOUGH CERTAINLY A PASSAGEWAY for Tongva peoples (the First People of the Los Angeles Basin and the Channel Islands), the steep and rugged terrain over the pass would limit its utility as a transit route to local animals and a few other hearty souls willing to make the climb until decades into the twentieth century. Notice the absence of a road in Sepulveda Canyon in the 1920, U.S. Geological Survey Map below.
ONLY IN THE 1920s do we see the first plans for a road through the Sepulveda pass--the Sepulveda Highway or what we call today Sepulveda Boulevard. The highway crested the pass in 1935, but, with its hairpin turns, it was extremely dangerous to drive. By the mid-1950s, some 40,000 cars crossed the pass daily, often resulting in multi-car pile ups and at least 65 deaths during that decade.
THE DANGER AND INADEQUACY of Sepulveda Boulevard necessitated a larger, straighter road to navigate the pass. By the late 1950s, the state proposed to supplement Sepulveda Boulevard with an extension of the San Diego Freeway--a $20,000,000 project aided by the availability of federal funds from the recently approved Interstate Highway System. Construction began in 1960 and was completed in 1962. The project was a massive undertaking, requiring the removal of 18 million cubic yards of earth and the pouring of 90 thousand cubic yards of concrete, held together by 6 million pounds of steel!
THE COMPLETION of the San Diego Freeway through the Sepulveda Pass linked the growing Jewish communities of West Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley. After 1962, the pass would become a kind of bridge between these two communities. Indeed, author David Brodsly has called this portion of the freeway Los Angeles' Brooklyn Bridge. But more than a bridge, the greater accessibility made possible by the road turned the Sepulveda Pass into a new center for Los Angeles Jewish life, a center that continues to influence the practice and thought of today's Jewish Angelenos.
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