Skip to content
Downtown San Bernardino in 1898. (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
Downtown San Bernardino in 1898. (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
Nick Cataldo

San Bernardino is getting ready for a huge party and everyone is invited. Just in case you haven’t heard, the city’s historic Santa Fe Depot will soon host Inland Empire History Day at the Santa Fe.

The extravaganza, which is free, is planned from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday, April 13. It should be great fun as well as an interesting way to learn about the region’s colorful past.

Our story began thousands of years ago. Indigenous tribes inhabiting the area included the Serrano in the mountains, valley and high desert; the Cahuilla in the San Gorgonio Pass and San Jacinto and Santa Rosa Mountains; the Chemehuevi and Mojave along the Colorado River; and the Tongva (Gabrielino).

But when Spanish missionaries from San Gabriel arrived during the early 19th century, life for these Native Americans would never be the same. Research indicates that the padres established a rancho in 1819 between what is today San Bernardino and Redlands. The mission outpost was named “San Bernardino” after Saint Bernardine, a 14th century priest from Sienna, Italy.

All of the missions were ordered closed by decree of California’s Gov. Jose Figueroa in 1834, and the land was granted to prominent Mexican leaders. These grants were also called ranchos. In what is now San Bernardino County, some of these Mexican ranchos have lent their names to locales like Chino, Cucamonga, San Bernardino, and the San Gorgonio Pass.

The Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino was built in 1918 and will be the site of Inland Empire History Day at the Santa Fe on April 13. (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
The Santa Fe Depot in San Bernardino was built in 1918 and will be the site of Inland Empire History Day at the Santa Fe on April 13. (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)

In 1842, Don Antonio Maria Lugo and his sons secured a land grant known as “Rancho San Bernardino.” The family held on to this land for nearly a decade. However, after a multitude of horse-stealing raids from marauders venturing from the Mojave Desert, they were eager to sell.

In 1851 a group of Mormon families — dedicated to expanding President Brigham Young’s religious empire — arrived from Salt Lake, Utah. The pioneers soon purchased the 35,000-acre San Bernardino Rancho for $77,500 from the Lugos.

During spring of 1853, Assemblymember Jefferson Hunt introduced a proposal to divide the eastern portion of Los Angeles County, and on April 26, San Bernardino County was born.

The majority of the new county’s population resided in San Bernardino, which incorporated as a city a year later. Unfortunately, this relatively law abiding Mormon settlement began going through some hard times in 1857 when Brigham Young recalled the colonists back to Utah.

About 60% of the population answered the order and opportunists of all kinds soon filled the vacuum created by many leaving so quickly. San Bernardino developed a reputation as a tough town. Fortunately, this lawless reputation was not destined to remain forever. Thanks to the fortitude of dedicated citizens like Ben Barton, John Brown, Fred Perris, Marcus Katz and Louis Jacobs, San Bernardino County began playing a vital role in Southern California’s development.

In the 1870s, navel in the small town of Riverside, then in San Bernardino County, and before long orchards were dotting the landscape throughout the San Bernardino Valley. Coupling the citrus boom with the arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1875 and the California Southern, later known as the Santa Fe and now BNSF, in 1883, San Bernardino County came to life.

Jefferson Hunt (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
Jefferson Hunt (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)

As the last years of the 19th century waned, the giant railway companies found their way to San Bernardino, changing it from a sleepy town into an enterprising city. The Santa Fe, the Union Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads all converged on the city, making it the hub of their Southern California operations.

Competition between the railroads set off a rate war, which brought thousands of newcomers to California . When the Santa Fe Railway established a transcontinental link in 1886, the already prosperous valley exploded.

Before long San Bernardino County would see the founding of Ontario, Etiwanda, Upland, Fontana, Bloomington, Rialto, Highland, Redlands, Barstow Victorville, and Hesperia.

Several of these new communities were named after railroad men. Barstow was named after William Barstow Strong. He was at one time president of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway. Jacob Nash Victor was the namesake for Victorville. He served as general manager of the California Southern Railway. And David D. Colton was an official with the Southern Pacific Railroad, which played a major role in establishing Colton.

Some like Ontario got started through the efforts of developers with a vision. named their “Model Colony” after their home province, Ontario, Canada in 1882. This was a year after they purchased 560 acres from Capt. Joseph Garcia and an additional 500 acres of land nearby. They named this settlement Etiwanda, after a Canadian Indian chief.

Then there were , who seemingly had a hand in just about every major project. The year of his arrival in San Bernardino in 1851 at age 16, he helped Henry G. Sherwood survey the mile square city and lay out the original grid of streets. In 1883, he was the man most instrumental in getting the California Southern Railway to pass through San Bernardino and eventually into the Mojave Desert.

Colton's Southern Pacific Depot shown in a postcard photo. (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)
Colton’s Southern Pacific Depot shown in a postcard photo. (Photo courtesy of Nick Cataldo)

Today, the name of Fred Perris’ name is memorialized in Perris in Riverside County, as well as both Perris Street and Perris Hill Park in San Bernardino.

Whew! That’s some history.

Plans for Inland Empire History Day at the Santa Fe will include 11 historical societies, which include San Bernardino, Highland, Colton, Big Bear, Victor Valley (“Mohahve”) and Lake Elsinore. Four museums will be participating: Original McDonalds, Norton AFB, Route 66 and the Enterprise Building. The event will also feature historical organizations such as the San Manuel Cultural/Education Deptartment, the Native Sons of the Golden West, the Black Culture Foundation, the Smiley Library/Lincoln Shrine and the Feldheym Library’s “California Room.”

Several local history authors will be there and will be ready to “talk history” as well as have copies of their work for sale. They include Mark Landis, David Allen, Shannon Wray, Steve Lech and me.

The day will also feature interactive pioneer living history demonstrations and gold panning opportunities for families, folk/bluegrass music performed by Riley’s Mountaineers and a food vendor.

For more information about the Inland Empire History Day at the Santa Fe celebration, let me know.

Contact Nick Cataldo at Yankeenut15@gmail.com and read more of his local history articles at Facebook.com/BackRoadsPress.

More in Local ɫ̳