Victorian Fair Themes: Hiking in the San Gabriels in the 1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

OK, so we’re now just a few days removed from the Homestead’s Victorian Fair festival, held from 1 to 5 p.m. both Saturday and Sunday, the 29th and 30th.  We continue our series of “Victorian Fair Themes” posts with this look at some early photographs of people enjoying the San Gabriel (also known as the Sierra Madre) Mountains in the later 1870s.

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The four stereoscopic photographs shown here are from the Homestead’s collection and were taken circa 1878 by Alexander C. Varela, a longtime federal civil servant who briefly left Washington, D.C. to ply the photography trade in Los Angeles and San Jose before returning to government employment.  This and the next two views shows “San Pascual Canyon,” which appears to be today’s Eaton Canyon.  The fourth is labeled “Davies Canyon” and looks to be “Davis Canyon” to the east of Eaton, above the Sierra Madre Villa resort in the far northeastern corner of modern Pasadena.

This predates the so-called “Great Hiking Era,” which took place between the 1890s and the 1930s, and when Americans took to trails in mountains, forests and other scenic locales all over the country.  Yet, a few more intrepid sightseers took to the tall, rocky San Gabriels in earlier years to enjoy deep, shaded canyons, waterfalls and peaks with phenomenal views of the Los Angeles basin in preceding years.

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Some of these scenes were captured in stereoscopic photograps as far back as the 1870s and a few examples are highlighted in this post.  The images were taken by Alexander C. Varela, a longtime civil servant in Washington, D.C. (and brother-in-law of the famed composer and bandleader John Philip Sousa) who worked briefly in Los Angeles at the end of the decade and then went to San Jose for a time.  He left photography, selling his inventory to Isaiah W. Taber of San Francisco, who published Varela’s work under his own name, and returned to the safety of a government position in Washington.

Three of the images are labeled “San Pascual Canyon” in the San Gabriels and this appears to be what was better known as Eaton Canyon, named for Judge Benjamin Eaton, who used water from the wash coming out of the canyon to irrigate at his Fair Oaks Ranch from the mid-1860s onward.

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One view shows a man sitting on a large rock outcropping amid some dense foliage.  The second a bubbling stream running through what look to be sycamore trees, brush and rocks.  The third shows a couple of men on a sun-exposed bank of the wash with plenty of chaparral and rocky outgrowths from the mountains around them.

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The fourth Varela photograph is identified as “Davies Canyon,” which is sometimes spelled “Davis Canyon” and this appears to be a little east of Eaton above where the well-known Sierra Madre Villa resort was located in the northeastern corner of Pasadena.  Among thick stands of towering trees are a couple of gents standing near ground level, one atop a rock, while a third more adventurous dude climbed a tall tree and sits, at the upper left, on a large branch, while his hat is perched on another branch near him.

It is notable that, in the Homestead’s collection, these are among the very few pre-1890 photographs of people in the San Gabriels, while the museum has a few hundred views of folks on trails, at resorts, proudly standing on peaks and, in some cases, with their cars in the mountains.  This is reflective of the immense popularity of hiking and outdoor activies in that “Great Hiking Era” mentioned at the outset of this post.

Look for more of those later photos in other posts on this blog.

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