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Cajon Pass: An Expert History

Written by Mark Muckenfuss, for Route 66 In the News, Press-Enterprise in summer of 2007

CAJON PASS, Calif. - Thousands of hikers pass through this section of the Pacific Crest Trail each year. Probably very few realize they are treading in the footsteps of early pioneers and ancient people.

This narrow cut that shoots off to the east just south of the truck scales on northbound Interstate 15 has been known as Coyote Canyon, East Cajon Canyon and Crowder Canyon. For hundreds, perhaps thousands, of years it was a main American Indian thoroughfare between the desert and the San Bernardino Valley.

On his exploratory expedition for the Mormons in 1849, Jefferson Hunt and his small caravan struggled through the creek bed of the canyon on their way to the coast. And when commerce was established, John Brown blasted the first graded road, his toll road, through here. Remnants of the pavement laid over that original toll road still remain.

John Hockaday Researcing in Cajon PassJohn Hockaday is quick to point out where the wagon road and, later, motor road entered the canyon.

"The road came along that ledge there," says Hockaday, pointing to the south side of the canyon where the concrete support for a long-gone bridge remains. The pavement peeking out from the dirt path, he says, "is some of the original road, a nine-foot wagon road built in '09."

Then he points to pavement of a lighter color, overlaying some of the darker asphalt.

"This is the evolution of the blacktop," he says. "By 1914, they were using a crushed limestone aggregate," which shows up as a medium gray against the black.

It's these kinds of layers that Hockaday peels back on a brief tour of the roads that run through the pass. His deeply lined face and wispy white beard give Hockaday, 74, the appearance of an old prospector. But the only treasures he's pulled from this region are historical nuggets. For decades he has explored the routes that connected the desert and the valley and the people that used them, producing two books on the subject. His most recent is "Trails and Tales of the Cajon Pass" (Buckthorn Publishing, $39.95), a book 15 years in the making.

Although fascinated with the archaeological history of the region, Hockaday has no formal training. He says he's just a former construction worker who loves history and became interested when a neighbor told him the original wagon road into the San Bernardino Valley crossed the property Hockaday lives on at the mouth of Lytle Creek Canyon.

He did some research. After he found out that the wagon road actually followed what had been the Mojave Indian trail into the region, he says, "I just kept going."

He and his late wife, Sandy, dug through collections as far away as UC Berkeley, gathering copies of documents and historical photographs. He gathered material from swap meets, garage sales and donations from friends. He took his own photographs, including a series of aerial views, some of which reveal not only the modern Interstate 15, but also its predecessors from Route 66 to the first wagon road.

At various stops in the canyon, Hockaday looks up and points to spots at the top of canyon walls and hills where he's taken photos in the past. He's hiked to just about every vista in the pass, he says.

Desert historian Cliff Walker says Hockaday is the expert on Cajon Pass.

"I don't know how you could get anybody that knows more about it," says Walker. "He's had it as a passion for 20 years."

Walker says Hockaday's book has added to the local historical record.

"We didn't know some of those things that he has compiled," he says, "He's uncovered some important documents."

Hockaday can even show you the routes when there were no roads. When Jefferson Hunt's expedition came through, it was following Indian footpaths. It had to navigate the rocky creek bed in Crowder Canyon.

"They said this was the toughest section of road anywhere between here and Salt Lake," Hockaday says. "When Jefferson Hunt tried to come through with wagons, they got in trouble and had to disassemble the wagons."

The wagon bodies were dragged through the creek and the wheels were put back on at a site that became known as the Willows, a lush area just on the other side of Interstate 15 from Crowder Canyon.

For the Mormon wagon trains and those that followed, this was the first watering spot after leaving the Mojave River at what is now Oro Grande. Prior to the white settlers, the small oasis was host to American Indians for centuries.

"There's thousands of artifacts here," Hockaday says, noting that the area provided not only water but food and materials the Indians needed for tools and houses. "This was their Home Depot, their Stater Bros. It was all right here."

Now owned by the San Bernardino County Museum, the area is closed off for renovation. An interpretive center is planned for the site.

This was a focal point for just about every pre-Route-66 road coming through the pass, and there were plenty of them.

"Cajon Pass is actually a box canyon with a series of notches," says Hockaday. "I can come up with eight ways to get out of Cajon Pass using some of those notches. The roads evolved by way of least resistance."

As technology developed, however, that was no longer the case.

Standing on the shoulder of the road in a section of old Route 66 known as Blue Cut, Hockaday points to a line of trees on the east side of the road. The trees follow the original bed of Cajon Creek. The early paved wagon road ran between the trees and the steep hillside behind them.

Highway engineers for Route 66 decided that rather than build two bridges to cross the creek in this area - there wasn't enough room to simply widen the existing road -- they would reroute the creek itself.

Half a mile north, Hockaday points out the erosion that has revealed layers of asphalt. The lower layer is the 1916 road, the upper layer the 1931 widening project.

Those who travel through the pass on a regular basis can easily relate to such changes. Cal Trans recently finished a widening project near the intersection of interstates 15 and 215. And a new rail line is soon to be added.

Hockaday says he doesn't like to think about the changes yet to take place and what Cajon Pass might look like in another 100 years.

"I like to go back instead of forward," he says. "Going forward is kind of scary."