At Our Leisure: Winter Scene at the Mt. Wilson Hotel, ca. 1910s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This winter, we’ve experienced a phenomenon not seen around here for several years: a goodly amount of rainfall in greater Los Angeles, with some 6 inches of precipitation in the basin to date.

This also means a better snowpack in our local mountains than we’ve seen for a long while and the views of the San Gabriels topped with snow makes for one of the more picturesque images our region provides.

Naturally, this is the time for skiiers, snowboarders and those wanting to gallivant (now, there’s a word we don’t see much these days!) about in the show to head up to the mountains for some winter fun.

The accompanying photograph from the Homestead’s collection shows the Mt. Wilson Hotel covered with abundant snow sometime in the later 1910s.  During the so-called “Great Hiking Era” from the 1890s to the 1930s, the San Gabriels featured a significant numbers of camps and resorts, including the one atop Mt. Wilson.

The mountain was named for Benjamin D. Wilson (1811-1878), a native of Tennessee who came to Los Angeles in late 1841 with the expedition identified with John Rowland and William Workman.  Though he was said to have been interested in taking a ship to China after arriving in California, Wilson stayed in the area.

RPPC 22 Mt Wilson Hotel Winter Los Angeles Cal 2010.366.1.1
A real photo postcard from the Homestead’s collection and dating to about the late 1910s showing the Mt. Wilson Hotel covered in deep layers of snow on a sunny winter’s day.  The hotel operated for several decades and the structure was torn down in 1966.

He owned part of the Rancho Jurupa and married María Yorba of the prominent Californio family that settled much of modern Orange County.  He was among Americans captured at the Battle of Chino during the Mexican-American War and, after the conquest of California by the United States, got involved in local politics.  He was the second mayor of Los Angeles, a county supervisor and a state senator.

After his first wife died, Wilson married Magaret Hereford and, soon after, acquired land from a native Gabrieleño Indian, Victoria Reid, that Wilson called Lake Vineyard, in what is now San Marino.  Later, wanting access to wood from cedar and pine trees in the nearby mountains, he rebuilt an old Indian trail up to Mt. Wilson, though the venture was short-lived.

In 1889, about a decade after Wilson’s death, a telescope for use by a partnership between Harvard University and the University of Southern California was carted up Wilson’s trail to the top of the mountain and was a precursor to the famed Mt. Wilson Observatory, established in 1904 on land leased by the owners of the Mt. Wilson Hotel.

As for that hotel, the Mt. Wilson Toll Road Company built the first structure in 1905.  It lasted only eight years before it was consumed by fire.  That same year, 1913, a new hotel, depicted in the photo, opened and it remained in use for several decades.  The building was razed in 1966 to make way for a “Skyline Park” that operated until the mid-1970s.

While the hotel has been gone for a half-century, the observatory is still doing its important work and the mountain is home to antennas that service many of our local television stations.  Finally, lovers of the outdoors can hike to the top of Mt. Wilson from several trailheads and enjoy the atmosphere on one of the best-known peaks in the San Gabriel range.

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