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Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum

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The Lost California Boomtown of Agua Mansa

Agua Mansa was once the largest settlement between New Mexico and the Pacific coast, until an 1862 flood left it a ghost town

The citizens of Agua Mansa had been huddled in the town church all night. It had been raining for 15 days straight, and the river that was their lifeblood, the Santa Ana, had become a raging torrent. On January 23, 1862, those lucky enough to catch a few moments of sleep, on a pew or the hard chapel floor, awoke to an apocalyptic scene. According to San Bernardino chronicler Juan Caballería y Collell:

"When morning dawned it showed a scene of desolation. The village of Agua Mansa was completely washed away, and where flowers bloomed and trees had been planted, a waste of muddy, turbulent water met the gaze."

All that was left of this thriving town, once the largest settlement between New Mexico and the Pacific Coast, was the church, the homestead of the Jensen family, and the cemetery, which stood on a cliff overlooking the chapel. Agua Mansa’s sister city, La Placita, situated on the opposite bank of the Santa Ana, had been equally decimated. In one night, the hard work of the past 20-odd years had been swept away.

It had all started out with such promise. In 1842 and 1843, two groups of settlers, primarily from the trade-route town of Abiquiu, New Mexico, migrated to what is now San Bernardino County. The first group consisted of 37 men, women, and children; over the next two years, 15 more families joined them. They were lured west by Antonio Maria Lugo, owner of the massive Rancho San Bernardino. Rancho owners like Lugo were faced with patrolling thousands of acres of desolate, unoccupied land, and outlaw cowboys and Native American warriors—who were said to attack every "full-moon"—saw them as easy targets, consistently stealing whatever they could: cows, horses, and crops. The citizens of Abiquiu were known as skilled fighters, so Lugo offered them large rancho allotments if they agreed to patrol their area and fight would-be thieves.

Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum

Within two years of settling on Rancho San Bernardino, near the Native American town of La Polintana, Lugo and the settlers had a falling out over who was holding up whose end of the bargain. Seizing the opportunity to use the settlers’ skills and services, Juan Bandini, owner of the neighboring Rancho Jurupa, offered the New Mexicans around 2,000 acres of fertile land on the northern edge of his property. A group of the settlers, led by Lorenzo Trujillo, accepted the "Bandini Donation," and moved to the east side of the easily-crossed Santa Ana River. They named their new town La Placita. A short time later, another group of New Mexican families settled on the west side of the Santa Ana. They named their settlement Agua Mansa, after the "gentle waters" of the river. By 1845, the New Mexicans were busily building their dual communities on the deceivingly peaceful banks of the Santa Ana.

A zanja (irrigation ditch) was dug. Agricultural fields were laid out, and adobe dwellings were constructed. Fruit trees, grain, and vegetables were planted. Livestock roamed the mesa, which is now the town of Riverside. Town meetings were held in the rudimentary town square in La Placita. A simple outdoor brush altar was constructed, and priests from the nearby Mission San Gabriel came occasionally to say Mass. Agua Mansa boasted a built-in main street, since the old trail used by Franciscan missionaries on their travels from Mission San Gabriel to their San Bernardino outpost ran directly through Agua Mansa land. Limestone was quarried from the nearby limestone hill and used to adorn the adobes that the settlers called home.

The community’s undisputed leader was Lorenzo Trujillo, who had led the initial party of settlers in 1843. Trujillo, a Native American born in New Mexico, had been adopted by a Spanish family. Ironically, he became well-known in Abiquiu as what contemporary texts call an "Indian fighter." Abiquiu stood on the Old Spanish Trail, which facilitated the thriving trade in wool blankets and horses between New Mexico and Los Angeles. By the time he built a large adobe on the La Placita side of the community (named La Placita de Trujillos in his honor), Trujillo and his four sons were legendary warriors who were often called upon to protect settlers in the area. According to the writer Susan Straight:

On a day in the 1840s, Lorenzo Trujillo sucked the poison from an arrow wound in the shoulder of the man known as Don Benito Wilson, just after a violent battle with a Native American named Joaquin in a narrow canyon near the Mojave River.  Joaquin and his followers had stolen horses again and again, defiant and successful, and the Trujillos' job was to recover the livestock. Trujillo's son Doroteo had been shot in the back, and another son, Esquipula, shot in the nose and left disfigured for life ... The settlers killed Joaquin and his three followers, then fought the rest of Joaquin's men in the canyon, but eventually had to carry Wilson back to Agua Mansa, the settlement in the Santa Ana River valley protected by the Trujillos.

Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum

Wilson would later become the mayor of Los Angeles. And due to the sometimes ruthless efforts of citizens like the Trujillos, the Agua Mansans, as they came to be known, flourished. By the 1850s, they were able to trade their produce and goods in the markets of downtown Los Angeles, approximately 50 miles away. In 1852, a permanent chapel was built to service both communities. It collapsed in quicksand the very next day. According to Juan Caballería y Collell, the construction of its replacement was an exercise in teamwork:

The people, recognizing the necessity of a more substantial building, were called together in a public meeting to take steps for building a new church. It was a community affair and the settlers of La Placita and Agua Mansa responded to the call. After going up and down the river, the commissioners decided to build the new church at Agua Mansa. As money was not plentiful, all settlers turned out and assisted in the work of building. Some made adobes, others prepared cement, and others hauled timbers and lumber from the mountains ... the finished church was dedicated to San Salvador, but it became better known as the "Little Church of Agua Mansa."

Father Amable Petithomme became the first permanent pastor for the little church. After the construction of the chapel, elders decided it was only logical to start the town cemetery on the high bluff that overlooked it. It would be convenient—after services in the chapel, the body could simply be carried up the bluff for burial.

The first burial took place on May 26, 1854. Among the earliest was that of local legend Isaac Slover. One of the original New Mexican settlers, Slover was a hardcore "mountain man" who had settled at the foot of a hill later named in his honor. Though in his later years he and his wife became famed entertainers, Slover never lost his Wild West edge. In his late seventies, he continued to hunt grizzly bears. He was killed in 1854 during a fight with a bear in the San Bernardino Mountains, a true adventurer to his very last breath.

The Agua Mansans were a decidedly diverse lot. Though most were Spanish speakers born in New Mexico and of Spanish, Native American, and Mexican descent, there were also many outliers who had migrated west and adopted the "Spanish" way of life. One such man was Cornelius Jensen. Jensen was born on the Frisian Island of Sylt, near Denmark. As a sea captain he had travelled the world. During the Gold Rush his crew abandoned him at port in San Francisco. He became a merchant and eventually was lured to Southern California, hearing tales of plentiful land. He settled in Agua Mansa and soon married 16-year-old Mercedes Alvarado, the daughter of a prominent local family. They built a home on the high ground next to the church, and eventually had 12 children. They soon added another structure next door, which served as a general store, post office, voting precinct, stagecoach stop, and all-purpose room for the community.

By the early 1860s, Agua Mansa was diversifying. The townspeople became increasingly involved in the thriving limestone trade. On the nearby limestone hill they dug out simple kilns to burn the limestone so it could be used to make a whitewash that protected local homes from the elements. Limestone was also quarried, supplying marble used on grand buildings in both Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Courtesy of San Bernardino County Museum

But all this progress was wiped out by the great storms of late 1861 and early 1862, which affected a whole swath of the American West. "The rain poured down in torrents," the Stockton Daily Argus reported on New Year's Eve, 1861. "Instead of drops, it came down in lines, almost sufficient to drown a man standing in it with his hat off." Flooding was widespread—it was said that thousands of cattle across the West were lost, and that parts of the Mojave Desert were covered in murky brown water. Local historian Eliza P. Robbins Craft tells of when the storm finally descended upon the Agua Mansans;

The fall of 1861 was sunny and dry and warm until Christmas Day. The year of 1862 was a year to be remembered by the settlers of the San Bernardino Valley. It was the year of the great flood which culminated on the night of January 22, 1862, and wrought great destruction and desolation. It rained continuously for fifteen days and nights. The gentle Santa Ana River became a raging torrent which, washing, swirling, and seething, swept everything from its path. The settlers awoke in alarm. The inhabitants of La Placita rushed to the Cerro de Harpero—the hill west of La Loma district; those of Agua Mansa took refuge in the little church which seemed to offer a place of safety.

Agua Mansa and La Placita were almost totally wiped out, the buildings and livestock swept away. Remarkably, it seems very few people died in the flood. But the devastation was complete, and it was heartbreaking. A local poet named Don Antonio Prieto reflected on the flood in a poem that read in part:

El veinte y dos de Enero

Que desgracia tan atroz

Bajo una grande corriente,

Por la voluntad de dios.

The 22nd of January,

A disgraceful atrocity

Below a great current,

Because of God’s will.

Although the church, cemetery, and Jensen compound survived, and attempts to rebuild were made, Agua Mansa slowly faded away. The flood had introduced a sandy deposit over the soil that made farming difficult. A new La Placita, built on higher ground, flourished for a time and eventually became known to gringos in Riverside as Spanish Town. Jensen and his family left in 1870, moving to a Frisian-style mansion on a large plot of land he had bought from another Agua Mansan. In 1878, the little church of Agua Mansa was closed and left to slowly decay.

Hadley Meares

Agua Mansans moved to nearby communities and continued to be prominent in San Bernardino commerce and politics. The settlement lived on in the most unlikely of places—the graveyard on the high bluff. Those who had first settled the area, and later their descendants, continued to be buried there until 1963. When Cornelius Jensen died, it is said that his pallbearers carried his casket five miles from his new home to the cemetery. Sadly, by the mid-1960s, the desecration and vandalism that had befallen the isolated graveyard caused Los Angeles Times columnist Ed Ainsworth to lament, "who can say what is to be the fate of the graves of Agua Mansa, where the dead trees with their naked arms seem now to be the only mourners in the land of the ‘gentle water?’"

Today, the cemetery is dusty, hot, and surprisingly cheerful. It is now owned by San Bernardino County and includes a replica church, which holds a small museum containing stories of Agua Mansa and a recreation of the original chapel’s bell. Below is Agua Mansa Road. A turn-off of caked mud lies where the church and Jensen’s place once stood. Across the street, a sprawling industrial center now covers the land that was once dotted with adobe homes and fertile fields. I asked the caretaker, who lives at the cemetery, if he’s ever seen any ghosts of Agua Mansans past. "Nope," he says. "And I love it up here. It’s just a great place to live."

Editor: Adrian Glick Kudler

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