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In the beginning was the trail
Tracing the roots of the Cajon Pass along the John Brown Trail
There are people who travel on history and there are those who make travel possible — much like John Brown Sr.
“Brown was commissioned for a measly $2,000 to cut a road up Cajon Pass in 1861,” Hesperia historian Gary “Griz” Drylie said. The trail was also known as Brown’s Toll Road because of a 20-year contract allowing him to charge travelers a toll fee to collect the $2,000 owed to him.
“(John Brown Trail was the) first modern path up the Cajon Pass,” Drylie said. “Back in the 1840s during the Mormon transition, they would bring covered wagons over cliffs because they had no trail. Brown made the first trail.”
“Mules and buggy type plows” were used to clear away rock, brush, stones and dirt, according to Drylie. During the winter of 1861 into 1862, four days and 50 inches of “the worst rain in our history” destroyed Brown’s previous work.
Travel through the Cajon Pass provided a shorter trip for people bringing machinery to the mountains in Big Bear and Holcomb Valley for gold mining, Drylie said.
The trail started in Devore and continued to the top of the Cajon Pass, where the National Old Trails Road “hooked into Brown Trail and kicked over 45 degrees about where Summit Inn is,” Drylie said, with the new trail leading into Hesperia and down Hesperia Road.
At the same time Brown’s trail was being cleared, the railroad was also making its way through the area — bringing with it Hesperia’s founder Robert MaClay Widney.
A businessman, Widney traveled from Los Angeles and followed the movement of the railroad buying land for profit. He, along with brother Joseph Widney and one other, bought Hesperia in 1885, naming it after the “Garden of Hesperia” from Greek mythology.
That year Widney started construction on the Hesperia Hotel, which had three stories upon its completion in 1887 with water, communication and restrooms on each floor.
“Basically, Hesperia was the first place the train hit, first place to stop, refuel, get water, a place to stay and everything else and the last place coming off the hill down the Cajon Pass,” Drylie said. “It’s been the gateway of the High Desert before about any other town.”
Drylie discovered Automobile Club of Southern California maps from 1912, 1913, 1915 and 1923 about six years ago at the archives in Los Angeles which show the shift of travel away from Hesperia.
In 1923, the Hesperia Hotel was no longer on the path as traffic through Hesperia was diverted to Route 66 and through Victorville instead. This was the start of Hesperia’s “dormancy” with the hotel closing in 1926, the same year Route 66 was commissioned officially.
“Route 66 brought East meets West by automobile” he said. “True predecessor to that was National Old Trails Road, the predecessor to that was John Brown Trail with Old Indian Road the predecessor to that.”
Those interested in Hesperia’s history can view several collections in the Harrison Exhibit Center, 16367 Main St. Days and hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. the first Saturday of each month.