At Our Leisure: Horseback Riding in San Gabriel Canyon, March 1916

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There was a time, of course, when equestrian transportation was the main way to get around in greater Los Angeles.  As streetcars came onto the scene from the mid 1870s and automobiles by the dawn of the 20th century, the use of horses increasingly became unnecessary or undesirable for commuting.  There were, though, plenty of people who kept horses as pets and for leisure riding, though that, too, diminished over time.

Today, there are still some equestrian areas in our region.  In fact, one is just a couple of miles west of us down Don Julian Road in the Avocado Heights Equestrian District, a specially designated unincoporated county area.  In the foothills of the San Gabriels in places like Tujunga, there are plenty of horse owners. And, at the confluence of the very busy 5 and 134 freeways is the 75-acre Los Angeles Equestrian Center.

Where I live in Chino Hills, there are still pockets of equestrian properties that are holdovers from a time, from roughly 1900 to 1950 when the eastern San Gabriel Valley and the Chino area were famed for breeding stables by the likes of cereal tycoon W.K. Kellogg, the owners of the Diamond Bar Ranch, and Revel English, whose Sierra Vista Stock Farm in Chino and Chino Hills produced champion saddle horses.

Today’s entry features a trio of snapshots from the Homestead’s collection and taken in March 1916.  They show equestrians in the San Gabriel Canyon area near Duarte, Irwindale, and Azusa and specifically along the San Gabriel River.

Ten Photos Of Party At San Gariel River And Nearby Mountain Trai
This 1916 photo from the Homestead’s collection shows a quartet of equestrians navigating the San Gabriel River at the mouth to the canyon of that name, near the modern cities of Duarte, Azusa and Irwindale.

This remarkable area reaching far back into the wilderness of the Angeles National Forest includes the main river course and the extensive east and west forks.  Before tourism and leisure made a great deal of use of the San Gabriel Canyon area, mining activities, especially along the East Fork and regions to the north of it were (and are, in some cases) actively prospected.

By the early 1900s, many resorts spring up in the canyon, such as Follows Camp, Camp Rincon, Camp Bonita, Coldbrook Camp and Crystal Lake among others.  Hiking trails took day-use visitors and guests at the resorts throughout the steep, granitic mountains and deep, narrow canyons just a short distance from “civilization” and gave them a respite from the busy activity “down below.”

The photographs here came with a group of about twenty snapshots, including several of Rincon, Camp Bonita and Coldbrook Camp, all of which will be highlighted in future posts.  It may be that a group of tourists stayed for a period of time in March and April 1916 and stayed at all three camps, while enjoying equestrian excursions in the canyon.

The first view shows a quartet of riders crossing the river at the canyon’s mouth with the broad expanse in the mountains of the backcountry forming a majestic backdrop.  The second shows what appears to be the same group on the sandy beach along the river. A caption indicated that the quartet was watching “a ford scout” test out the waters before the group made their crossing.  The last image shows a duo trotting along in the waters of the riverbed.

Ten Photos Of Party At San Gariel River And Nearby Mountain Trai
A caption to this snapshot indicated the the horse riders were watching a “ford scout” testing the crossing of the river before they made their way across.

Notably, just two or three months prior to when these images were taken, a major period of flooding inundated the region in the latter part of January.  At Camp Bonita, 23 inches of rain fell in the last two weeks of the month, with ten inches along on the 17th and 18th and another five inches ten days later.  In fact, the deluge and resulting problems from regional flooding spurred the county to take action on a program of flood control measures that was expanded much later, especially after major flooding in 1938.

San Gabriel Canyon, which was without any such measures prior to the taking of these photographs, was the locale of major dam construction and water storage projects from the 1920s onward that are still in place today.

A century after these images were taken, there are at least two significant aspects of the San Gabriels to point out.  First, our region is mired in worst drought in modern history.  We haven’t experienced significant rainfall for several years and such a phenomenon almost seems like a faint memory!  Last year was predicted to be a wet year for the area, but those storms went north.  If the El Niño condition has yielded to a La Niña this year, we could be in for another very dry year.

Ten Photos Of Party At San Gariel River And Nearby Mountain Trai
A pair of riders makes their way up the shallow riverbed.  Just a few months prior, in January 1916, heavy rainfall, including 23 inches at nearby Camp Bonita in two weeks and ten in two days, led to massive flooding in the region.  This spurred action on flood control in the area.

Secondly,  two years ago this past Monday, nearly 350,000 acres of the San Gabriels and a small part of the adjacent San Bernardinos were declared by the president to be a national monument.  The vast expanse covered under the declared status will continue to be under the management of the U.S. Forest Service and, hopefully, greater resources will be provided to care for an area that is within a short distance of some 10 million or so people.  Current access has put a strain on the most accessible portions of the monument area, especially San Gabriel Canyon, where trash, graffiti and other damage are often the result of heavy use.

For more on the monument, click here.

It will certainly be interesting to see what happens in coming years if the drought continues and how the monument designation will affect the forest service’s management of this amazing natural and cultural resource.

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