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Mojave Desert History - Pioneer of the Mojave
Toll Road through the Cajon Pass

Brown's Hardships Due to Floods and Marauders

The toll road was associated with John Brown from the very beginning, the other two men being financial backers. Henry Willis was a lawyer at the time and later a judge, and he became very prominent in the San Bernardino area. George L. Tucker, referred to as "the Major," was a successful investor.

In July of 1861 Tucker received the attention of the press when he bought the American Exchange, a saloon located across from the well-known Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles. "Major Tucker," said the Star, "has been in enterprises in this section heretofore, having been one of the joint purchasers of San Bernardino rancho in 1857, when the Mormons sold out and left that place."

Willis and Tucker lent Brown $213.50 each, a total of $427, to build the road. This must have been in addition to the money they put up for their own shares. The funds were lent at three-percent interest per month, a common figure for the time, and were to be paid back out of the proceeds from the toll collection. Brown was in a position to buy out Willis' interest in the road before the end of 1861, and was able to buy Tucker's share by April of 1863.

In February 1862 the Board released Brown from paying taxes on the toll road, for reasons not entirely clear from the minutes, but presumably having to do with the damage done to the road by the terrible storms that inundated San Bernardino County in the winter of 1861/62. There was some question whether Brown would be able to restore the road at all, due to financial concerns.

The rains had begun in late December of 1861, and by early January much of the area had already experienced heavy flooding. On January 10th, a Holcomb Valley man by the name of J. G. Nichols hiked out of the mountains by way of the desert road, and according to his reports the Mojave River was running very high, and he could see lakes all over the desert where none had been before. In describing the pass, he said, "...there is no road at all, the torrents have swept every thing out of their way."

John Brown, though devastated by the loss of his road, resolved to rebuild it, and as can be seen in this January 12th correspondence to Judge Benjamin Hayes, Brown's biggest obstacle was funding for the project:
    It has been raining three weeks steadily at San Bernardino. My road...is all washed away; all my former work is lost; I have now to make a new road, or lose all that I have expended. Some people advise me to quit road-building, but I am determined to build a road at all hazards. I returned from the road yesterday, and shall go back to-morrow with the men, etc., to build it up again. My greatest trouble is the money to pay. Is Godey or Miguel Ortiz in Los Angeles?
Brown did restore the road, but it took most of his assets. He was forced to sell all of his hay and the larger portion of his cattle.

John Brown might not have been so determined to rebuild his road if he had known of the headaches that were in store for him. One of his problems, at least for the original tollhouse, was marauders. He had built the structure in the upper narrows, and its vulnerable location below a bluff made it an inviting target.

In May of 1862 Indians attacked and wounded the keeper of the tollgate, David Noble Smith. According to an account given by W. F. Holcomb, the attack occurred around sundown, when Smith and a hired man named Larkin Reeder were working outside in the yard in front of the tollhouse (John Brown had left the area to take his family to the safety of the city, because he had seen several signs of Indians in the Cajon area). The Indians slipped up into some cover on the steep bluff overlooking the station and began firing on the two men, which sent both of them running for the tollhouse. Before reaching safety, Smith was seriously, though not mortally, wounded.

A few days later Holcomb passed through the area on his way to the mountains and learned of the attack. He enlisted the aid of three others and tracked the band of Indians up Lytle Creek, over the mountains and out into the desert, eventually giving up the chase at Tehachapi.

Another incident, which made the news, occurred a year later in May of 1863, when the tollhouse was visited by horse thieves. Some "light-fingered gents" entered Brown's pasture at the station and stole two of his fine mules and a saddle horse, plus two additional horses belonging to a man freighting goods to Holcomb Valley. They sent for the sheriff, who tracked the thieves for some distance into the desert, but was unable to catch up with them. The newspaper warned, "If there are any more of the same breed of dogs left behind, expecting to make a similar haul, I would advise them not to be seen lurking in the vicinity of the tollgate," and offered a bet that "Don Juan gets the scalp of the first suspicious individual he catches about his premises."

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