Rancho Cucamonga scenes
The Casa de Rancho Cucamonga (drawing)

The Cucamonga Rancho

The name "Cucamonga" may have been derived from a Shoshone word meaning "sandy place." The area, watered from mountain streams, was the site of a Native American settlement. The Mission Gabriel established the Rancho Cucamonga as a site for grazing their cattle. In 1839, the 13,000 acre rancho was granted by the Mexican governor of California to Tiburcio Tapia, a wealthy Los Angeles merchant. Tapia transferred his cattle to Cucamonga and built a fort-like adobe house on Red Hill. The rancho extended easterly from San Antonio Creek to what is now Turner Avenue (Hermosa), and from today's Eighth Street to the mountains.

The Cucamonga Rancho was sold in 1858 to John Rains by Tapia's daughter, Maria Merced Tapia de Prudhomme, and her husband Leon Victor Prudhomme. Rains in 1856 had married Maria Merced Williams, the daughter of of Chino Rancho owner Isaac Williams and granddaughter of Don Antinio Maria Lugo, owner of the San Bernardino Rancho. Maria was thus a wealthy heiress, and Rains invested in three ranchos and the Bella Union Hotel in Los Angeles. He purchased Rancho Cucamonga for $16,500 and constructed a burned brick building on the property at a cost of about $18,000. The Rains House was built in 1860 by Ohio brick masons from bricks made by Joseph Mullaly from the red clay adjacent to the site. Its flat roof was waterproofed by tar from brea pits in Orange County. An open flume carried water from springs through the kitchen, into the patio, and under the house to the orchard, thereby providing cooling for the structure. The original house had an entry hall, a parlor, and three bedrooms in the front, with a patio area flanked by a dining room, a kitchen, a padre's room, and two guest rooms.

John and Maria Merced moved from Chino to the new brick house with their three children in the spring of 1861. By that time, Rains (a former cattle driver) was recognized as a rich and politically influential man, generous and well-liked, who provided abundant hospitality at his strategically-located (see Trails below) Cucamonga home.

Unsolved Murders

On November 12, 1862, John and Maria Merced signed a mortgage for $16,000 on Rancho Cucamonga and the hotel. Five days later, John left his wife and four children in Cucamonga and drove off in a wagon toward Los Angeles. En route, he was lassoed, shot, and dragged into the bushes near San Dimas. His body was discovered eleven days later. He was 33 years old. His murder was never solved, although Robert Carlisle (the husband of Maria Merced's sister) accused Ramón Carrillo of the deed. Carrillo was tried and found innocent.

On March 14, 1864, Carlisle obtained power of attorney from Maria Merced which gave him control of all the property, but resulted in long and bitter legal battles. In May of that year, Ramón Carrillo was shot from ambush. Carrillo had feared death from Carlisle, but again the murder went unsolved. In June, Maria Merced married José Carrillo, a relative of Ramón. In July, 1865, Carlisle died from a gunshot wound from a duel at the Bella Union Hotel. The argument was about Maria Merced's property. Maria Merced and José continued to live in Cucamonga. She had nine children in all: five with Rains, and four with Carrillo. The first school in Cucamonga is said to have been started in her home in 1870.

Isais W. Hellman, a Los Angeles banker, acquired Rancho Cucamonga at a sheriff's sale in 1871 for $49,000. Sometime after 1876, Maria Merced and her family (nearly penniless) moved to Los Angeles. Her daughter, Fannie (born after John Rain's death) married Henry T. Gage in 1880; Gage became governor of California in 1889. Maria Merced died at age 68 in 1907.

The Twentieth Century

Between 1871 and 1918 the Rains House was owned by Isais W. Hellman and associates, and was rented most of the time. It was in disrepair when it was purchased and restored by Edwin Motsinger in 1919. In 1948 it was sold to Mr. and Mrs. William P. Nesbit, in 1960 to Dr. and Mrs. Benjamin C. Stevens, and in 1969 to S.V.Hunsaker, Jr. Left vacant and vandalized, the house was slated for destruction in 1971 when a student march for history brought the attention of the community to its plight. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors purchased the property in October 1971, and the Casa de Rancho Cucamonga Historical Society was formed in 1972. Restoration and preservation are ongoing. An annual Christmas open house brings in hundreds of visitors whose donations help preserve the site.

The Casa de Rancho Cucamonga (Rains House) 8810 Hemlock, Rancho Cucamonga, California. (909) 989-4970. Open Tuesday - Saturday 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Group tours by special appointment. Closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving and Christmas.

California Trails

Rancho Cucamonga is the historical location where California's most famous roads and trails converge:
  • The Mojave Trail was a commercial route established by flourishing tribes of Mojave indians linking the Colorado River to the Pacific Ocean. It was over this trail that the first european and American settlers passed.
  • The Old Spanish Trail was made by the Gabriellino and Serrano indians - the original inhabitants of Los Angeles. Later traveled by American and Spanish explorers like Kit Carson and De Anza, who called the route from Sonora, Mexico, through Cucamonga to Monterey, California, "the land bridge."
  • The "El Camino Real," The King's Highway, was built by the Spanish priests and Gabriellino indians to link the chain of California missions, which were constructed one day's travel apart.
  • The Santa Fe Trail, the famous cattle drive route, was later followed by the Atcheson, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad route, which is still in use today (now BNSF).
  • The Butterfield Stagecoach Route was an important stage line in the 19th century. It was later followed by the tracks of the Southern Pacific Railroad, which still serves the area.
  • U.S. Highway Route 66 was first established in 1926. This famous national highway crosses eight states and has become a cultural icon of the 20th century automobile age immortalized in television, film, music, and prose. It linked the industrial East, through Chicago and St. Louis, to the largely undeveloped West. Route 66 provided the way for the greatest mass migration in U.S. history, which was sparked by the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, World War II, postwar industrial expansion, and tourism for the new leisure class of mobile Americans.

Rancho Cucamonga Incorporation

The small communities of Alta Loma, Cucamonga and Etiwanda, incorporated in 1977 as the City of Rancho Cucamonga... taking the original name of the land on which they stood. Rancho Cucamonga now has a population of more than 180,000.


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Last update: 9 December, 2008

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