Funny how the colorful past has a way of coloring our present with its own color. I have walked and hiked and driven the steep dirt road going up the southwest side of Palomar Mountain for years, Nate Harrison Grade. The road is very rough and gets worse with washouts and boulders in the road after the winter rains. I love old dirt roads no matter where they lead. Each one extends it's own invitation and sometimes interesting curiosities.
This particular dirt road winds and rises from the floor of Pauma Valley, with its orange groves and sage, up to the red manzanitas and on up through the oaks and then higher to some Pinion and other pines and Cedars on the crest near 6000 feet. It's not hard to tell that the road is little more than a widened foot trail. That makes sense, because someone had to walk it first before any road existed dirt or otherwise. The habitat of each elevation zone offers sanctuary to a different set of birds, spring and fall, so I have always sought to see the different birds.
Mt. Palomar has always been a sacred place to the ancient Indians. Not only was it food and water source in the summer, but also a cool respite when the valley temperatures soared in to the hundreds.
Having gotten acquainted with a couple of ranchers and old-timers, over the years, I had heard that the dirt road was named after the first white man to inhabit the mountain, Nate Harrison. It was said that, "for years he had a simple rustic cabin, of stone and timber, up on the mountain". The story was, "he had an orchard, a few chickens and farmed some, living off the fat of the land, he was able to survive on very little".
Being curious about the localized history of the southwest led me to wonder; just who was this Nate Harrison guy anyway? Being raised in eastern San Diego county and roaming many of its remote and rugged mountains, there always seemed to be a similar story about each remote mountain. I have walked and probed the ruins of many one-room shacks, out in the middle of nowhere, and each always evoked a special curiosity about what strange soul would ever dwell there. Who could live like a hermit, so isolated? Why were they here in this God-forsaken place anyway? How did they get by? How did they get certain building materials up here? Who were they and where did they come from? This sort of curiosity led me to want to know more about Nate Harrison.
As I began to snoop around for information, my interest grew. I learned that this fellow came about 1850 after the Civil War, and that he had an orchard and a garden and a kindly word for any prospector, trapper or desert rat that passed his cabin.
The record shows that a little later, Joseph Smith started a ranch on the east side of the mountain in the year 1859. He was prosperous enough up until 1867 when he picked up a traveler on foot, while traveling in his wagon. In those days anyone afoot was suspect but Joseph was the kind-hearted sort. After a persuasive story, Joseph Smith made his hitchhiker, foreman of his ranch.
Caught ransacking the house two weeks later, he killed his boss with his own rifle. The neighbors caught the murderer and took him to the store at Warner's, where they found the sheriff. While the sheriff was wettin' his tonsils, the rest of the folks went out back and hanged the murderer from the nearest cottonwood tree. "I know'd they was doin' it all along", the sheriff said. In honor of the dead rancher, the mountain was christened, "Smith Mountain".
In the 1870's other ranchers and settlers moved up on the mountain. Nellie McQueen recognized that it was along haul to Warners' store to pick up the mail, so she applied to Washington, D.C., for a post office. Now it was said of Nellie that she was, "tough as rawhide, wiry and good looking". Nellie wrote Washington, D.C. and asked to become the postmistress, requesting that they call it, "Fern Glen" post office. Like Washington always gets things screwed up, they sent it back as "Nellie", so Nellie, California was the name for years. After her father died in 1882, Nellie moved down to Hemet, but 50 years later, people were still sending letters to Nellie, California.
But back to our story about Nate Harrison— the first man to settle the mountain in company with the Indians. He lived here some time before the Nellie Post Office came in to existence. If a visitor stopped by his shack long enough to visit, they would have learned that Nate spoke of himself as the as "the first white man on the mountain". What Nate simply meant is, that he was the first non-Indian to inhabit the mountain. Nate was a black man. So the first white man on the mountain was black, not white. In those racially revolting days, he was subjected to the same offensive moniker as all his fellow blacks. Even Nate's dirt road and fresh water spring came to be known by the same N-word slur for Negro—N-word Nate Road and N-word Nate Springs.
Nate Harrison was a runaway slave after the Civil War. He was a peaceful man who settled on the mountain that, at one point, came to be called Smith Mountain. To his relief, he learned years later that he was free! It's not likely, but if he could read, he received his mail at the Nellie Post Office in Fern Glen, Palomar Mountain, California. He died in 1920 at the age of 101 and the trail, turned dirt road on which he lived, was eventually re-named in his honor, and correctly so this time. Nathan Harrison Grade is neither white nor black. It's on the map and it's still a wonderful dirt road today. Funny how the colorful past has a way of coloring our present with it's own color.
© Ed Keenan
San Diego Historical Society
Journal of San Diego History
Skeleton's Closet—a look at San Diego history, 1967