In Spanish, the word cajon means "box" - and surely the steep sides of the formidable mountain pass made the name seem appropriate to the early travelers. Indian, explorer, prospector and pioneer - all braved the rigors of "El Cajon" to arrive in San Bernardino Valley.
Several trails through the pass were used by pack trains before improved routes were made. The principal trail was the Santa Fe (or Old Spanish) Trail. According to Dr. Gerald A. Smith, it probably went up the Mojave River fork to Cedar Springs, through Sawpit Canyon to Monument Peak, and down Cable Canyon to the Cajon Wash.
The first wheeled vehicle went through the Pass in 1848, when a group of honorably discharged soldiers from the Mormon battalion returned to Salt Lake with a single wagon.
In 1849, Captain Jefferson Hunt led a wagon train of gold seekers through Cajon Pass on the Old Spanish Trail in the easternmost reach of El Cajon. The severe difficulty of getting the wagon train through has been recounted by Sheldon Stoddard and Sidney P. Waite, who were in Hunt's 1849 party. The wagons had to be taken apart, the wheels rolled through by hand; the cargo packed through by mule, and the wagon bodies dragged down Coyote Canyon on poles. It is probable that this was the same route and procedure used by the Mormons in 1851.1
In 1850, a Los Angeles freighting company improved a wagon trail through Cajon Pass to the west, known as the "Sanford Route." It was severely steep at one point where the trail crossed a high, narrow ridge, barely wide enough for a wagon to pass over. From 1855 to 1861, nearly all wagon trains used the Sanford Route.
Cajon Pass - Cozy Dell Toll House - 1880
In 1861, John Brown and two associates formed a company and constructed a toll road through Crowder Canyon. One gate (shown above) was located at the lower, and one at the east end of the Upper Narrows. In 1881 the franchise expired and the road became a free route. It was succeeded by a road approximately on a line with the present State Highway.
Through the ingenuity and persistence of Fred Perris, a surveying engineer, the Santa Fe Railroad was persuaded to build a railroad through the Pass. In 1885 this Santa Fe line was completed and has been in operation ever since.
1 Beattie, op. cit., p. 278.