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Magic Mountain's spiritual past revealed

Historians prove it was a small mission outpost

Posted: April 20, 2009 11:17 a.m.
Updated: April 20, 2009 12:30 p.m.
 
The early histories of the Santa Clarita and San Fernando Valleys are intertwined in many ways.

The first European presence in the Santa Clarita Valley after the 1769 Portola Expedition consisted of a small outpost of the Mission San Fernando built in 1804 on a bluff overlooking what is now the Magic Mountain amusement park.

It was called the Estancia de San Francisco Xavier. The mission itself was built in 1797 by Father Fermin Lasuen as part of a string of Spanish missions dotting the California coastline.

Authors Ken and Carol Pauley have extensively studied the San Fernando Mission culminating in their book entitled "San Fernando, Rey de España: An Illustrated History".

These acclaimed authors will be giving a talk for the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society on the history of the San Fernando Mission.

The talk will be co-sponsored by College of the Canyons and will take place at the College of the Canyons, Valencia Campus, Mentry Hall, Room 318 at 2:00 pm on Saturday, June 27, 2009.

The campus is located at 26455 Rockwell Canyon Road in Valencia, California.

It was the 17th mission in a chain of missions built along California's "El Camino Real".

The Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana was founded September 8, 1797 on the plains of the Northern San Fernando Valley by Father Fermin Lasuen (who had replaced renowned Father Junipero Serra as Presidente of the California Mission system in 1785).

The location of the mission was chosen as a link on the El Camino Real between Missions San Buenaventura and San Gabriel. San Fernando was the fourth mission founded by Father Lasuen in a three-month period in 1797.

Gaspar de Portola led the first Spanish expedition through California in 1769. Had it been up to him, the mission that was eventually built in San Fernando would have actually been located near Castaic Junction in the Santa Clarita Valley.

He felt that the location where the newly named Santa Clara River met what is now called Castaic Creek would be a suitable location for a mission. Alas, this site was not meant to be; Santa Clarita had to settle for a ranching outpost of the mission built in 1804 not far from Portola's recommended site, the Estancia de San Francisco Xavier.

Of note, some historians in the past referred to this outpost as an asistencia or sub-mission, but there is really no historical evidence that the estancia was ever upgraded to asistencia status.

Of the San Fernando Mission, Dr. Julia Costello wrote: "Mission San Fernando, Rey de España was the southernmost mission in the Santa Bárbara presidio district.

The land was home to Native Americans belonging to the Southern California Takic language group, of whom the Fernandeños, Tataviam, and Vanyume/Tonga (Gabrielanos), along with Chumash along the northwest, were drawn into the mission institution.

The mission's agricultural endeavors benefited from its location in a fertile inland valley with year-round water.

Like Mission San Buenaventura, it was an active participant in the hide and tallow trade, converting cattle herds into trade items for imported commodities. It is unique among the missions for having its convento building (or Father's dwelling) detached from the closed quadrangle surrounding and atached to the church.

Perhaps this separateness was a benefit, for the lordly two-story convento is this mission's lone surviving building from mission days. Occupied by Andrés Pico and his family well into the 1870s, it was maintained and therefore survived while surrounding mission buildings crumbled to ruin.

In 1874 a room in the convento was adapted for a church when this building was deemed unserviceable after its roof collapsed.

The convento later served as ranch headquarters for the Porter Land and Water Company, used for storage of equipment and supplies.

Restoration of the church and convento was effected by a series of determined locals and luminaries who championed the historic site.

In the 1890s the ruins caught the eye of Charles Lummis of the Landmarks Club of Southern California, and by 1897 walls were stabilized and new roofs installed over both the church and the convento, slowing their deterioration.

Restoration efforts surged in 1916, and fund-raisers sustained efforts over the subsequent decades when thousands of adobe bricks were made to repair walls and steel braces and concrete columns were inserted in the church.

Lummis personally oversaw removal of the Moorish Córdoba fountain to a location closer to the convento (a replica was later installed inside the quadrangle).

Ultimate success was attained with the involvement of Father Charles Burns and the backing of Mark R. Harrington, curator of the Southwest Museum: on Sept. 7, 1941, the church was rededicated after being closed for nearly seventy years.

Years of faithful restoration were laid waste in the early morning of Feb. 9, 1971, by the devastating Sylmar earthquake.

Damage to the church was deemed irreparable, and the building was red tagged for demolition; the massive walls were battered down and hauled off the site. The church was replaced with one of reinforced concrete, faithfully following the old design.

The convento, however, was yellow-tagged, or approved for restoration, and great care was taken to preserve as much original fabric of this last mission building as possible.

Art historian Norman Neuerburg dedicated himself to repainting many of the original murals on the restored wall surfaces.

The completed complex had only a short reprieve: on Jan. 17, 1994, the Northridge earthquake inflicted extensive damage to the veteran convento building; the new church, built to withstand earthquakes, rode out the peril without mishap.

This temblor inspired a thorough seismic retrofitting of the convento, enabling it to ride out future earthly upheavals. And the recreation of the historic wall paintings ensures that San Fernando Rey will remain famous for its vibrant interpretation of these rare neophyte decorations."

Ken and Carol Pauley will make a presentation of their book "San Fernando, Rey de España: An Illustrated History" to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society.

They will discuss how the book came about and the Mission's founding, growth, decline, and restoration.

They will show a sampling of the photographs and images published in their book.

Ken's interest in photography led him to researching southwest history and collecting images of Alta California's missions. Some of his collection of vintage photographs were used in "An Illustrated History."

Ken holds baccalaureate degrees in aeronautical engineering and mathematics from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, and an M.S. and Ph.D. in structural mechanics from UCLA.

Carol has a master's degree in classical languages from UCLA. Ken, now retired, and Carol both worked in the aerospace industry.

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