Inside LA - The Los Angeles Lowdown

San Fernando Valley: A Fascinating Place

San Fernando Valley
The San Fernando Valley today, from the San Gabriel Mountains

The San Fernando Valley is, in many ways, underrated. Sure, it has some big attractions, such as Universal Studios, but it’s often derided as a suburban sprawl that’s generally way hotter than the rest of Los Angeles and much less interesting. It’s not seen as having either the cultural might of Hollywood, nor the theme park riches of Anaheim, that it can’t boast of the wide beaches of the Westside or of the history of downtown LA. Like many casual assumptions that people can make all too easily, this one’s dead wrong. The Valley has a long list of tourist attractions, historic sites and great food (and cool bars). It may not be on the radar of most visitors, but Angelenos sure know it and the many offerings that it possesses. There are more than enough things to do in the Valley to easily spend a very enjoyable day.

In this article I’ll give you a brief(ish) history of the San Fernando Valley (it’s genuinely fascinating), and then make some recommendations for things to do, historic sites to visit and some places to eat and drink there.

Early History of the San Fernando Valley

Something that often surprises visitors to LA is the sheer size of the city. When we reach the summit of the Hollywood Hills on our Mount Hollywood Hike, guests often marvel at the scale of the city spread below them. Then I get them to turn around and gaze on the Valley, which is about the same size again, and then they truly begin to get an idea of the immensity of the city state that is Los Angeles. The San Fernando Valley alone is 260 square miles, or nearly eight times the size of the island of Manhattan.

The Tongva lived there in harmony with the land for at least a thousand years, until the Spanish arrived in the region at the end of the eighteenth century. The natural environment was obviously quite different to today. Oaks, willows, sycamores and other trees covered the hillsides surrounding the valley and the floodplain of its main river and the creeks feeding into it. Wildlife abounded (the closest comparison today would probably by the Angeles National Forest, to the East).

The Portolà Expedition passed through what’s now LA in late summer of 1769, and although the conquistadors didn’t stop long, they did like the look of the neighborhood.

We saw a very pleasant and spacious valley. We descended to it and stopped close to a watering place, which is a large pool. Near it we found a village of heathen, very friendly and docile. We gave to this plain the name of Santa Catalina de Bononia de Los Encinos.

Father Juan Crespi, August, 1769

Interestingly this was a translation of the Tongva name of the village that Crespi stayed at, Siutangna, which meant “place of the oaks” in their language. Another priest who visited the area during these years gives the sense of a kind of earthly paradise:

(We spotted) a very large drove of antelopes which as soon as they saw us, fled like the wind, looking like a cloud skimming across the earth.

Father Pedro Font, 1775

If you think that Crespi’s description of the Tongva as “friendly and docile” sounds ominous you’d be right. Totally taking advantage of said friendliness, the Spanish Crown rapidly tried to take control of Southern California. Within two years a mission had been established twenty-five miles to the Southeast, at San Gabriel, in the valley that today bears its name.

Ten years later a small settlement was established near the banks of what the Spanish called el Río de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula, downstream from the Valley, near today’s Union Station. Not surprisingly it’s been renamed the Los Angeles River since then.

By 1797 a new mission was being opened in the Northeast of the Valley, to be called Mission San Fernando Rey de España. The name was then also given to the valley within which it was situated.

At the same time an early settler, Juan Francisco Reyes, one of the first mayors of Los Angeles, founded a farming operation in the Valley that later came to be known as Rancho los Encinos (which is where the neighborhood now known as Encino gets its name).

The Mexican Period

For the first part of the nineteenth century the San Fernando Valley was dominated by its mission. Even after Mexico gained its independence, in 1821, the mission flourished, becoming known throughout Alta California for its red wine, pomegranates, figs and olives. Over 50,000 longhorn cattle and 1,500 horses grazed the Mission’s lands, which covered almost the entire floor of the valley.

Sadly, the manual labor for this vast ranching operation was done by the Tongva and Chumash people. On average over a thousand of them worked the Mission’s lands at any one time during this period and it would have been a rough – and often brutal – life. Effectively bound as slaves to the mission, it must have been a peculiar kind of hell, as they were forced to transform what had been an Eden into the eighteenth century model of an intensive agri-business. On the land that their ancestors had lived on for millennia.

The very success of the California missions were what ultimately brought them down. The rancheros, the wealthy landowning class that had been created by the Spanish, grew resentful of the huge lands of the missions, with their free labor and tax-free status. They couldn’t compete. On top of that the Californios, as Californians were then called, chafed under the long-distance, disinterested, rule of Mexico City.

This even led to insurrection in the San Fernando Valley, at the First Battle of the Cahuenga Pass, in 1831. On the Government side Governor Victoria and Jose Pacheco were in charge, and the rebel side was led by a Captain Portilla and Don Jose Maria Avila (another of LA’s early mayors). The two sides, probably totaling less than a hundred combatants in total, faced off at the pass in December of that year.

Neither side seemed to want to be the one to start the fight, until Pacheco galloped towards the enemy, in full fight mode. Unfortunately for him none of his men followed, clearly making him start to wonder if this suicidal charge was such a good idea. He’d stopped and was trotting back to his own lines, probably feeling like a right berk, when Avila decided to respond to his challenge. Neither one could defeat the other as they charged at each other with lances three times, so then Avila decided to do an Indiana Jones, pull his pistol and shoot Pacheco between the eyes!

Not the sporting conduct that one would expect of an officer and a gentleman I’m sure you’ll agree, but the effect of it on Avila was to shock him into some kind of horrified stupor at what he’d done. Whereupon Victoria shot him dead. The next domino to fall was Portillo, who immediately charged Victoria, managing to drive his lance into the Governor’s face, causing him to lose a chunk of his cheek. Victoria was rendered out of action by this wound and the two sides, thankfully, called it a day. Not long afterwards Victoria resigned, and I don’t think anyone can blame him.

In 1834 the Mexican Government declared the missions secularized, and their lands were gradually sold off, their proselytizing functions no longer needed or wanted. Nevertheless tensions between the Californios and the Mexican Government remained, and in 1845 there was another battle at the Cahuenga Pass between the Mexican Governor and rebellious locals, although thankfully this time the only casualties were, famously, one horse and one mule.

Due to the Governor being captured in the fight (and shipped back to Mexico), Don Pio Pico became the new holder of the office. Seeing that war with the U.S. was almost inevitable (mainly because the U.S. was so determined to have California for itself) he quickly sold off the Mission San Fernando to his brother, Don Andres Pico, to raise funds for the fight. He also granted another rancho back to the Tongva who lived in the area.

When war between the U.S. and Mexico did break out in 1846 neither side had much in the way of an army in California. Crucially though, the Americans were ultimately able to muster over a thousand troops, supported by the Navy’s Pacific Squadron of four warships, which wasn’t much, but was more than the Mexicans possessed. Moreover, as previously noted, the Californios weren’t even fully committed to the Mexican cause.

On December 27, 1846, while stopping in Santa Barbara on his march down to Los Angeles, John Frémont, commander of the California Battalion of Volunteers, was visited by the town matriarch Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez. She had asked for ten minutes of his time, but the two ended up talking for two hours, at the end of which the terms of a treaty between the Californios and the U.S. had been sketched out.

De Rodriguez advised him that a generous peace would be to the Americans advantage and could be achieved by the release of prisoners, equal rights for all Californians and respect for existing property rights. If Californios promised not to fight they could remain free, those who could not accept the U.S. takeover would be allowed to return to Mexico at the end of hostilities.

I found that her object was to use her influence to put an end to the war, and to do so upon such just and friendly terms of compromise as would make the peace acceptable and enduring. … She wished me to take into my mind this plan of settlement, to which she would influence her people; meantime, she urged me to hold my hand, so far as possible. … I assured her I would bear her wishes in mind when the occasion came.

 John C. Frémont, 1887

Frémont didn’t have the authorization to make treaties of this nature, but after he informed his superiors, and de Rodriguez had spoken to Andres Pico (commander of the California Lancers), an agreement was reached. On January 13, 1847, the Treaty of Cahuenga was signed on a rancho in the South of the San Fernando Valley, at the mouth of the Cahuenga Pass, by Pico and Frémont.

A replica of the adobe homestead in which the treaty was signed sits just a few feet away from where the original once stood, right opposite the entrance to Universal Studios, on Lankershim Boulevard.

The treaty ended the war in California and the following year Mexico sold the state to the U.S. In 1850 we became the 31st state in the Union, although Pico managed to get a lot of support for his proposal to create two separate states, with both Northern and Southern ones. His proposal had passed the California legislature when the U.S. Civil War began and it was permanently shelved.

San Fernando Valley Enters a New Era

Barely was the dust settled on the Mexican-American War than California was convulsed by yet another huge event in its history, the Gold Rush. This would affect San Francisco and Sacramento much more than Los Angeles, but its effects were felt here too. The massive increase in California’s population and the financial effects of he Gold Rush meant that the price of cattle went from $2 a head to $70 almost overnight.

The rancheros of the San Fernando Valley were able to make vast sums from this trade for several years, before competition from Texas and the Midwest caused prices to tumble. During this time Pico created one of the most celebrated homes in California at the old Mission San Fernando.

Another ranchero, Don Vicente de la Osa, took over the old Rancho Los Encinos, where he opened his homestead as a hostel on the old Butterfield Stagecoach express route. Think of these as the Valley’s Wild West years.

The 1860’s were challenging years for ranching in the Valley (the economy of the U.S. suffering heavily during the Civil War). In addition to the disruption caused by the hostilities, the Great Flood of 1862 saw massive rainstorms badly damage the area’s farms. Not only were thousands of cattle drowned, but many of the fields and orchards were washed away or submerged.

Then, from 1863, a two-year drought forced ranchers to sell their cattle, or slaughter them for their horns and hide. To complete the Biblical destruction, locusts and smallpox then descended upon the land.

Pico had his ranch confiscated by federal decree in 1864, the text of which stated that he “did not own and never did own” it. Thereafter the mission fell into disuse and disrepair, although his family did hang onto a nearby property with an old house until the 1890’s (the Andres Pico Adobe is now a living museum). It is in fact the oldest residence in the San Fernando Valley.

In 1869 Andres’ brother, Pio Pico, sold his rancho, which encompassed the entire southern half of the Valley to Isaac Lankershim and Isaac Newton Van Nuys, names that any Angeleno will recognize (after Lankershim Boulevard and the Van Nuys neighborhood). They purchased the 59,500 acre property for $115,000, while another of the San Fernando Valley’s ranches was bought by David Burbank. It was the end of the Age of the Dons.

Nevertheless, for the time being, farming remained the main industry in the area. One of Lankerhim’s innovations was to try dryland farming techniques from the Midwest to grow wheat. With the opening of the Southern Pacific Railroad line in 1876, the valley’s ranches gained new access to the port in San Pedro and the markets of San Francisco. By 1880 the Lankershim’s Los Angeles Farming and Milling Company was the largest wheat farming empire in the world, shipping their product as far as the U.K.

However, even by the late 1880’s, with Los Angeles fast-growing, there began to be moves to build housing in the San Fernando Valley. In 1887 lots in the new town of Burbank went on sale, followed a couple of years later by Lankershim (now North Hollywood). In addition to housing lots, small farms with already planted fruit and nut trees (mostly peaches, pears, almonds and walnuts, because they were best-suited to the climate) were also on offer.

It’s doubtful that the Valley would be home to many farms today, no matter what happened, but a court case in 1899 summarily ended any possibility of any significant farming there. In that year the Supreme Court adjudicated that all the water of the Valley – both from the Los Angeles River and its tributaries and the groundwater – belonged to the City of Los Angeles. The court ruled that this was simply a codification of the Spanish royal edict that established the pueblo of Los Angeles, and that reserved for it all water from the river. Nevertheless farming in the San Fernando Valley, to all intents and purposes, became unfeasible, since there was now no reliable water source.

The Water Wars

At the turn of the last century, with the population of Los Angeles shooting past 100,000 people and showing no sign of slowing down (by 1910 it would be over 300,000), attention began to turn to finding a new water source for the growing city.

The two leading figures in this next chapter were William Mulholland and Frederick Eaton. They had worked with each other at the Los Angeles Water Company (the forerunner to the Department of Water and Power) in the 1880’s and in 1898 Eaton became mayor and Mulholland was made superintendent of the LAWC. The two of them had a very ambitious vision for the city, but to realize those dreams they needed water. A lot more water.

If you don’t get the water, you won’t need it.

William Mulholland

Eaton had been camping in the High Sierra with his father and knew of the Owens Valley and its beautiful river, accordingly he and Mulholland began to make plans to run the river all the way down to LA, more than two-hundred miles South.

For such an elaborate and expensive plan they would need some powerful, influential and deep-pocketed allies to help and, fortunately (for them), they found such a group. There were huge sums to be made from property development, which was one of the biggest industries in Los Angeles during this era, and some very rich men saw huge potential rewards in this plan.

Around 1900 a group of investors, who called themselves ‘the syndicate’ came together to fulfill Eaton and Mulholland’s plan. Moses Sherman (Sherman Oaks), Leslie Brand (Brand Boulevard in Glendale), Harry Chandler (owner of the Los Angeles Times), H J Whitely (developer behind Hollywoodland and the Hollywood Sign), Henry Huntington (Huntington Gardens) and the Lankershim and Van Nuys families were the key members. All had a part to play.

Eaton would quietly buy up the ranches in the Owens Valley to acquire the water rights there (he also helpfully undermined an irrigation plan which was being developed by the federal government for farmers in the area).

Mulholland would make sure that estimations of the potential local water supply for Los Angeles were drastically underestimated, through his office as head of the LAWC.

Chandler began to run stories in the LA Times that lamented the ‘fact’ that the city was built in a desert and that very soon it would rise up and swallow the city as if it had never existed – unless of course it was somehow able to find more water. This created mass panic and voters quickly approved financing to build an aqueduct. As a side-note that’s one of the main reasons people here still often think we exist in a desert. In actual fact Los Angeles’ climate is mediterranean – hence all the farming that was going on back then.

In 1905, a day after the LAWC approved plans for building an aqueduct from the Owens Valley down to Los Angeles (overseen by board member Sherman) the syndicate quietly purchased the last ranch in the valley that they didn’t already control (they’d purchased an option to buy it back in 1903).

Two years later, construction on what was to become the Los Angeles Aqueduct having already begun in 1907, the syndicate (now named the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company) bought Tract 1000 – the entire Southern half of the Valley (from the Lankershim and Van Nuys families), for $2.5 million. The nearly 200 km2 tract they purchased is the largest property transaction in the city’s history. It was a great deal and would make the syndicate fabulously wealthy.

The Los Angeles Aqueduct opened to great fanfare in November 1913. Mulholland gave a famous, and very brief, speech that seemed to capture the spirit of the occasion.

There is is. Take it!

William Mulholland

He was a man of few words. Nevertheless, within a few years Huntington’s Pacific Electric Streetcar company had opened a line into the San Fernando Valley from downtown, which was crucial to being able to sell homes there.

By the end of the 1910’s the new townships of Van Nuys, Reseda, Canoga Park, West Hills and Winetka had all voted to merge with the city of LA. They didn’t have much choice, since in order to get approval from the federal government to build the aqueduct, by law the water could only be used by the city and not sold to any other entities. These annexations massively increased the size of Los Angeles (which was one of the main intentions of the syndicate).

It’s also worth mentioning that Owens Lake, which completely dried up due to the Owens River being diverted, is now the single largest source of dust pollution in the U.S. and that half the water from the river is now diverted back onto the lake bed to try to mitigate that. Change on this scale has hugely negative impacts on nature, although it is also an incredible piece of engineering. If you drive up the 5 Freeway going North you can easily see the aqueduct to your right, as you reach the top of the Valley.

For many years after it opened ranchers in the Owens Valley periodically attempted to destroy the canals with dynamite (the Water Wars) and the construction of the aqueduct led to lasting bitterness amongst the residents there towards Los Angeles.

From Farms and Homes to Industry

As the 1910’s turned into the 1920’s the new Los Angeles industry, moving pictures, began to encroach on the Valley. Initially film companies would use ranches there mainly to film Westerns, a staple of the industry’s output at the time. However, as time passed, many of them set up full production facilities in the Valley. Hollywood, where most of the studios were based at the time, was only just over the hills.

Hollywood Sign and San Fernando Valley
The Hollywood Sign with the San Fernando Valley in the background, 1923

The first major film company to set up in the San Fernando Valley was Universal Studios, in 1915. Carl Laemmle, the owner, had bought the old Taylor Ranch the previous year, and his new studio complex included a working farm and a zoo. Admission for the tour, which included the opportunity to watch the stars actually filming a scene on set, was five cents.

Following Universal First National, a theatre chain that was moving into film production, built a huge studio lot in Burbank. Later, in 1928, it was taken over by Warner Brothers. Soon Republic (Radford Studios), Columbia (now the Warner Brothers Ranch) and RKO all had film production facilities in the Valley, with dozens of soundstages and street sets. In 1939 Walt Disney moved his company into the studio lot that it still occupies, in Burbank.

The establishment of several automobile and defense industry factories in the Valley hastened its development between the 1940’s and 60’s, during which time its population increased five times. Although it gained a reputation in the 1980’s for being a rather boring suburb of LA, full of friendly but vacuous ‘Valley Girls’, in fact this reputation is hugely overblown and, weirdly, seems mostly to exist in the minds of its residents.

The North side of the Hollywood Hills, overlooking the Valley, has been a popular spot for many movie stars to live since the 1930’s, including Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson.

Our Recommendations

There are plenty of things to do in the San Fernando Valley. The area is accessible via public transport too (using both the LA Metro and Metrolink), so many parts are easy to access, even without a car.

1. VISIT A HOLLYWOOD FILM STUDIO

Both Universal Studios and Warner Brothers Studios have tours of their production facilities. The Warner Brothers tour is more focussed on filmmaking and Universal have a whole theme park, so deciding on which one to visit depends on the kind of experience you want to have (and how much you want to spend). Nevertheless a visit to a Hollywood Studio lot is close to a must-do if you have any kind of interest in film-making.

2. DOWNTOWN BURBANK 

Anchored by a humungous Ikea which must be visible from space, downtown Burbank on San Fernando Boulevard is a fun and eminently walkable neighborhood, with a ton of great bars, micro-breweries, restaurants, sushi-joints and cafes. There’s also a large mall with a Macy’s Department Store.

3. EATING AND DRINKING 

The San Fernando Valley has an enormous number of places to eat and drink across it’s 260 m2, but just to list a few that I know…

Mambo’s Cafe: Cuban food that’s better than the food in Cuba.

Smoke House: opposite the Warner Brothers lot. It’s where George Clooney got the name for his production company. That’s also why it’s so dark in there, so their movie star patrons can have their privacy.

Bob’s Big Boy: a beautifully designed streamline moderne diner-style restaurant. If you want to time-travel back to the Valley’s post-war halcyon days (when Robert Redford went to High School here), then this is the place to go.

Ernie’s Mexican Restaurant: a well established Valley establishment, open since 1952.

Little Toni’s: cuz sometimes you just want pizza (and it’s always best when it’s made by a guy called Toni). Bada bing!

Idle Hour: enjoy the programmatic architecture absurdity of the barrel shaped building, as you sip on your craft beer or cocktail.

Tonga Hut: Los Angeles’ oldest surviving Tiki Bar’s still going strong (since 1958). Aloha!

The Fat Dog: gastropub style right in the heart of the Noho Arts District.

Foreman’s Whisky Tavern (or if it’s too busy, which it often is, Mrs Robinson’s Irish Pub, one block over on Riverside Drive).

Broken Compass: modern Tiki Bar in Burbank.

4. CULTURAL SITES 

There are tons of historic/cultural sites in the San Fernando Valley, many of which are free to visit.

Mission San Fernando: visit the original mission, which gave the valley its name. It’s now a historical site.

Campo de Cahuenga: visit the site of the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga, following which California became part of the U.S.

Andres Pico Adobe: now a free museum, which is open Sundays and Mondays.

Los Encinos State Historic Park: visit the old ranchero of Don Vicente de la Osa, just off the 405 Freeway.

Autry Museum of the American West: a fantastic museum in Griffith Park.

The Nethercutt Museum: see one of the most complete car collections in the world.

5. VISIT THE PARK

Two of the biggest urban parks in the world abut the San Fernando Valley, famous Griffith Park (home of the Hollywood Sign) and Topanga Park (which even a lot of Angeleno’s don’t know, in spite of the fact that it’s more than twice the size of the former).

This map is interactive. To open in Google Maps click the icon in the top right corner.

If you have any feedback on San Fernando Valley: A Fascinating Place please email us or reach out on social media, we’d love to hear from you.

– By Damien Blackshaw (Twitter)

Posted in