In 1873 Charles “Tom” Vincent, using an alias, wandered west through the Mojave Desert. He was penniless. He followed the lure of “California Gold” that had drawn so many to California. Tom Vincent settled in the rolling juniper filled hills of the high desert and staked out his claim to mine the gold that he was sure lay beneath his feet. He never found his treasure in the hard volcanic basalt rock, but stories of great ore deposits lead many to follow Vincent in search of their fortune.
A small tent city grew in the small “gap” in the mountains between the wild game rich valley to the east and the descending canyons to the west. The few ore strikes at “Soledad Summit” or “Vincent’s Gap” gave the area a reputation and the small city grew along the dirt trail from the Sierras to the Pacific. The digging continued and Vincent’s Gap became known throughout the state.
Many incentives were provided to businesses and individuals as the Federal Government encouraged the settlement of the “West.” One of the opportunistic beneficiaries was Southern Pacific Railroad which had laid track through Vincent’s Gap. Freight and passenger demand ultimately required the construction of a depot at Vincent. A railroad “Wye” (a Y shaped turnout) was constructed where engine cars pulling the heavy trains up the “grade” could pull off the main line and disconnect as they were no longer needed to coast west down through Ravenna and the Canyons of the Soledad.
The “Vincent Depot” was built at the “Top of the Grade” on an eighty acre piece of land granted to a Joseph Puentener by President McKinley in 1897. The restaurant, Vincent Hill Station and the Top of the Grade Saloon, sits on the Joseph Puentener land grant.
In 1936, Ron and Kate Valenta purchased the Puentener land grant, called Vincent since the 1880’s. The town of Vincent in the 30’s consisted of a small café, ranch house and gas station on the old dirt trail now known as Sierra Highway. Water for the little town was piped from a well at the north end of the property. The well exists and is still active today. It can be seen across the 14 freeway. (Look for the old water tank under the power lines.)
Around 1938 the Valentas hired a broke cowboy from Texas. They didn’t need him but he needed a job so they asked him to clean up the property and gather the rocks. They decided to put the stacks of rocks to use, building four rock cabins. The construction process was slow since the Valentas insisted the cabins be built to Los Angeles County Code, and the building inspector’s visits to Vincent were infrequent and his demeanor, we are told, was uncooperative.
During the extended construction of these rock cabins the California Department of Forestry began encouraging property owners in the Desert to plant trees. They gave unlimited numbers of trees free of charge. The Valentas took advantage and planted several pine trees around their new rock cabins. These little saplings were watered by hand by the Valentas from the old well. These trees can be seen today shading the cabooses behind the restaurant. A black and white picture of the rock cabins, the newly planted trees, and an old locomotive chugging up the grade, hangs in the restaurant today.
In 1941 a new route to Los Angeles was designed and Angeles Forest Highway was built. It connected Pasadena to the Antelope Valley. The original Angeles Forest Highway intersected Sierra Highway at Vincent. The old asphalt road still exists and can be seen across the street as it passes by the office at the south end of the Roping Arena. A ribbon cutting ceremony was held at the intersection of Angeles Forest Highway and Sierra Highway in Vincent. The “Vincent Café” was filled with Dignitaries to commemorate the highways opening.
The Antelope Valley Freeway was next to come along. The grading of the freeway required lowering the grade at Vincent. As a result the rock cabins were destroyed as they would be standing now in the North bound lanes of Highway 14.
The Watt family bought the 1851 Puentener-McKinley land grant in 1984 from the Valentas, old man Vincent, long forgotten, as well as his namesake little town, now in the “Sphere of Influence” of higher powers.
The only structure remaining at Vincent was the shell of the old café. It was boarded up all but one door. A rusty sign on the roof read “ANTIQUES,” inside piled high to the ceiling were “antiques?” As they cleaned and stripped down the old structure they discovered the original, well hidden walls, bathrooms, and kitchen of the old café. They started to consider the possibility of reopening a restaurant in Vincent. The Watt Family opened Vincent Hill Station and the Top of the Grade Saloon in 1985. The restaurant was built on the exact floor plan of the original café. The hand drawn floor plan can be seen hanging on the wall in the Saloon. The entire restaurant occupied only the space where the bar is today. Due to a great reception by the Acton Community, we began designing the expansion consisting of the current dining room, banquet room, underground wine cellar, patio and expanded kitchen.
In 1989, they built the Vincent Hill Arena and held Team Roping events, Team Penning, Junior Rodeo, Barrel Races and Mounted Shooting sponsored by the California Desperados. Buck Brannaman, the Cowboy that inspired the “Horse Whisperer” novel and movie, has held many clinics at the Vincent Hill Arena.
In the years running the arena The Watts have needed to buy, sell, and lease cattle for the various events and created a Vincent Hill Ranch Company Brand to identify their livestock. The actual branding irons can be seen leaning up against the fireplaces in the Restaurant. If you ask your server we might have an extra baseball cap to take home worn by the cowboys at our Ranch with the Vincent Hill Brand on the front.
In the spirit of respect and gratitude The Watts have attempted to revive and renew Vincent’s Gap. Customers can feel the Train Station atmosphere as they preserve the history of Southern Pacific Railroad’s years traveling to the Vincent Depot.
The Watt Family, along with the new owners, welcomes you and hopefully your experience will lead to many more trips to Vincent Hill Station.