A Bit of Rancho Cucamonga History


The Native American cultures of southern California had stabilized some three thousand years ago, thriving until almost eliminated by European invasion. Over twenty linguistic families with close to one hundred thirty-five different languages characterized this culture. By about 1200 A.D. the Kucamongan Native Americans established a village-like clustering around the land mass we know as Red Hill. The Kucamongan people were part of the Gabrielino culture, and anthropologists believe that, at their peak, the Gabrielinos existed as one of the largest concentrations of indigenous peoples on the North American continent.

Eager to expand its empire, Spain set out to explore North America in the eighteenth century. In 1769, Captain Gaspar de Portola led a group of soldiers and Franciscan monks, supervised by Father Junipera Serra, to Baja California in a colonization effort. The Mission System established by Serra supported a loosely-constructed social system of ranchos, primarily cattle producing, ordered by a feudal and kinship way of life.

The nineteenth century brought with it profound change and expansion. By 1833, the amount of control held by Spain diminished and as Mexico won its independence from the Crown, all land in southern and Baja California was opened up for granting from the new governor of Mexico. A dedicated soldier, smuggler and politician, Tubercio Tapia was granted 13,000 acres of land around the area called Cucamonga by governor Juan Bautista Alvarado on March 3, 1839. Using Indian labor, Tapia constructed a well-fortified adobe home on Red Hill and raised great herds of cattle. Unlike many who had gone before him, Tapia began a successful winery, portions of which stand today known to us as the Thomas Winery.

American forces invaded California in 1846, annexed it in 1848, and made it a state in 1850. Unlike the northern portion of our state during that era, southern California, and specifically Los Angeles, was described as a "random collection of adobes rimmed by sandy wastes, wild mustard, and willow trees."

This mid-nineteenth-century mixture of cultures and lives is well represented in the estate developed by Alabama-born John Rains and his wife Maria Merced Williams de Rains. Dona Merced was the great-granddaughter of Francisco Lugo and granddaughter of Antonio Lugo, and daughter of Isaac Williams of the famous Rancho Santa Ana del Chino. The Rains purchased the Rancho de Cucamonga from Tapia's daughter and her husband Leon Victor Prudhomme in 1858. Before his murder in 1862, Rains greatly expanded the vineyards Tapia had planted and imported brick masons from Ohio, via Los Angeles, to construct the family home, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Rancho period came to a close and changing land ownership and debates over water rights determined the American settlement of this region. When combined with transportation, the availability of water shaped the nature of development. The wagon trail over Cajon Pass to the Mission San Gabriel in 1826, the Butterfield Stagecoach line in 1858, the Union Pacific Railroad in 1887, and the Pacific Electric Railway Line in 1913 all brought supplies men, women, hopes and dreams to this area while men like George Day captured the water as it emerged on its path from the San Bernardino Mountains above us.

Cucamonga's history stretches back further than most of the other regional communities. President Abraham Lincoln signed into existence a post office located at the base of Red Hill in 1864 the first in the western portion of San Bernardino County. After John Rains' death and Dona Merced's departure, the Rancho went into foreclosure, and in 1870 it was sold to Isaias Hellman and other San Francisco businessmen who later formed the Cucamonga Company. In 1887, both water and access were provided to the Cucamonga colony, as irrigation tunnels were dug into Cucamonga canyon and the Santa Fe Railroad extended through the area. Although early settlers planted and cultivated citrus, olive, peach, and other crops, vineyards and wine making characterized the Cucamonga community.

Alta Loma was carved from the original Rancho de Cucamonga. The banker, Hellman, formed the Cucamonga Homestead Association, but could not get water to the subdivision, and the town's development was curtailed until Adolph Petsch and four other investors opened up the Hermosa tract in 1881 just outside of the Rancho lands. Spurred on by the competition, Hellman established the Iowa tract in 1882 and brought needed water to the tract via Cucamonga Canyon. Dug by Chinese laborers, some of these water ways are still in use. The two colonies combined to form Ioamosa in 1887 and when in 1913 the Pacific Electric Railway came through, supported by Captain Peter Demens, a Russian nobleman, and other citrus growers looking to improve crop transportation, the town became Alta Loma.

The City's eastern community of Etiwanda has the distinction of being the first town planned by George and William Chaffey who purchased the land in 1881 from Joseph Garcia, a retired Portuguese sea captain. The innovations in city planning, subdividing, promotion, beautification, and most significantly irrigation for which the Chaffeys would become famous, were first tested in the Etiwanda colony. George Chaffey, an experienced engineer, created a mutual water company and pipe system of irrigation that became the standard for water system management in southern California. Not set on just bringing water to the arid chaparral, Chaffey also harnessed hydro-electric power and on December 4, 1882, the first electric light glowed from Etiwanda; and four months earlier the first long distance call in southern California was completed between San Bernardino and Etiwanda. By 1913, the community boasted of paved streets, rock curbs, and streetlights quite a list of accomplishments for a small town.

Men and women from many cultures have shaped Rancho Cucamonga's history. Many Mexican families labored in the vineyards and groves, often living in small, quickly constructed camps, located away from the other centers of settlement. Later, they created a thriving community of their own, known as North Town, in which a dance hall, theater, markets, restaurants, and a church, Our Lady of Mt. Carmel, was founded and bound them together. Much of the heritage and built environment of North Town exists today. Likewise, Italian immigrants like the Nosenzos, Guideras, DiCarlos, and Campanellas established a community out along Foothill Boulevard in southern Etiwanda, consisting of homes, wineries of all sizes, and Sacred Heart church.

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