Beale's Cut

Did Tom Mix leap over this cut in the earth?
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Credit: SCVHistory.com Beale's cut in 1872, in the northeastern Santa Susana Mountains in Southern California.

Credit: SCVHistory.com Beale's cut in 1872, in the northeastern Santa Susana Mountains in Southern California.

A quick Internet search of the place will result in images of a man, horseback, leaping across a giant gash in the earth. So great is the chasm that the man and horse appear to be in miniature, and surely must be flying.

Located in Southern California, perhaps some 25 miles north of Santa Monica, the divide in the land, where the Santa Susana and San Gabriel mountains meet, is called Beale’s Cut. As Los Angeles began to develop as a social and economic hub, travelers had one route into the San Fernando Valley from the Santa Clarita Valley and it wasn’t easy. In 1854, Newhall pass was created to make travel viable; an opportunity the Butterfield Overland Stage took advantage of with immediacy. 

In 1863, Edward F. Beale, owner of the famed 270,000-acre Tejon Ranch gained rights to the cut, and it is remembered in his name to this day. Beale deepened the pass to a depth of 90 feet, an easement that assuaged the challenge of the 29 percent grade leading to it. But despite these efforts, when alternative routes became available in 1910, the cut had seen its day as a gateway to the valley. 

Having made an indelible impression on those who traveled the road, it then became a star of the silver screen, making appearances in numerous films, five of which were directed by John Ford, including Stagecoach (1939) with John Wayne. Perhaps the most famous scene in the history of the cut, however, came many years earlier, in 1923, when Three Jumps Ahead, starring Tom Mix, captured that daring feat of a man and horse taking a literal leap of faith. 

To this day, the questions of who rode the horse across, or even if a horse ever made the jump, are highly contested. Some accounts say it was Tom Mix. Others, a stunt rider. Some say the horse could absolutely make the jump. Or, was a bridge built and somehow edited out? Largely agreed upon, however, was that the film was edited to create a disproportionately tiny horse and rider flying over the cut. Though, to be fair, the cut was still 90 feet deep and wide enough to drive a car through—a remarkable stunt no matter the edits. 

Today, Beale’s Cut is sandwiched between the Sierra Highway and the Antelope Valley Freeway near where they intersect with Interstate 5—or, “The 5,” as you will find it to be called locally. No longer boasting a depth of 90 feet due to an earthquake that filled half the chasm in 1998, visitors willing to bushwhack the chaparral will still appreciate its historical significance. 

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