At Our Leisure: The San Gabriel River in the Mountains, 1910s and 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we move towards summer with most schools out for vacation, larger numbers of people head up to the San Gabriel Mountains to enjoy its trails, forests and the several forks of the San Gabriel River that are within easy reach.  Such ready access can also create problems for the river and forests, however, as trash, graffiti and other residue are often left behind.

One reason for the 2014 designation of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument, encompassing nearly 350,000 acres under the auspices of the United States Forest Service is explained on the USFS website, which states:

The designation will help ensure these lands remain a benefit for all Americans through rock art that provides a glimpse into ancient civilizations, an observatory that brought the world the cosmos, and thousands of miles of streams, hiking trails and other outdoor recreation opportunities.

As this article from the 9 May San Gabriel Valley Tribune discusses, the status of the monument is, along with over 20 others, under review by the federal government.  This highly charged debate about the role of the government in the ownership and management of federal lands includes a Department of the Interior review of monuments created since 1996, including a notice for public comment period through 10 July.

San Gabriel River in canyon

Today’s “At Our Leisure” entry looks at a few historic photographs of the San Gabriel River in the mountains.  Fortunately, we had a good winter of rain and snow in our local mountains, so the levels of water in the river, creeks and waterfalls is much higher than in recent drought years.

Historically, the river and its many tributaries, including San José Creek which runs just south of the Homestead, was of one of the major sources of water for wildlife, plant materials and human uses in the region and its central location in the greater Los Angeles basin made the river a core place of settlement and use by Native Americans for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish in 1769.

When the Portolá Expedition, the first land-based exploration by Europeans of California, came to the river at the end of July that year, the river was identified as a location for a mission as it went through the “Whittier Narrows” between the Puente and Montebello hills.  Though the Mission San Gabriel was established two years later on the west bank of the Rio Hondo, the old channel of the river, the unpredictable nature of the watercourse led to flooding that overran the tule and brush mission and forced the priests to move the mission to its current location by 1775.

Notably, for many years, the river poured down from the mountains through San Gabriel Canyon and then disappeared underground in layers of sediment and rock deposited by the river’s force for millenia.  It then reappeared to the surface a few miles to the south.  As noted above, today’s Rio Hondo is the old course and it was from this that the Spanish and Mexican era ranchos, such as Azusa, San Francisquito, Duarte, La Puente and others in the San Gabriel Valley drew for their needs.

San Gabriel River ca. 1920s

The Workman and Temple families, for example, dredged out earthen irrigation channels off the river for farming and the establishment of grist mills.  The Temples acquired a newly built mill in the 1850s and William Workman built his in the late 1860s.  Current posts about a robbery and wounding of the miller, William Turner and his wife, Rebecca Humphreys, and the lynching of the accused, Jesús Romo, are centered on the mill site near the confluence of the river and San José Creek.

By the early 1850s, as the ranchos were gradually being sold and subdivided, the first settlement along the river was formed by migrants from the American South and El Monte and its farmers used the river for irrigating their fields.  Within about twenty years, a similar community, also largely populated by southerners, developed in the Los Nietos township in modern-day Whittier, Pico Rivera, Downey and other areas.

In 1867-68, heavy winter rains dramatically increased the water flow in the area, which suffered a catastrophic drought a few years prior.  Ex-governor Pío Pico, whose Rancho Paso de Bartolo included much of modern Whittier and Pico Rivera, had just completed an irrigation ditch off the Rio Hondo.  So, the floodwaters that raced down from the mountains used his ditch to link to Coyote Creek, which came from the Puente Hills and what became northern Orange County and emptied into the Pacific Ocean, and create a new river channel.

The San Gabriel has had the same course since then and deposits its material into the ocean where Seal Beach and Long Beach (and Orange and Los Angeles counties) meet.  When that occurred, enterprising residents of Anaheim, founded in 1857, developed a wharf at what was christened Anaheim Landing to compete with the older facilities at San Pedro/Wilmington.  One of the investors in the Anaheim Landing project was William Workman, who likely believed that products from his portion of Rancho La Puente could be transported to the landing and shipped to markets to his benefit.  Ultimately, however, the Anaheim Landing project failed.

San Gabriel River bend ca. 1920s

The San Gabriel River remained a central water supply for farmers and growing towns and cities along its course from Azusa and Duarte in the foothills of the San Gabriels to Whittier and Downey below the narrows and so on.  With the onset of massive flood control and runoff diversion projects in the region, starting from the 1910s onward, the river’s purpose changed.  Dams in the mountains and in narrows, water treatment and diversion facilities, and other elements have transformed the river.

Modern efforts like the Emerald Necklace project of parks, greenways and trails along 17 miles of the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel and the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument are among the major efforts to plan for the future of the river, its tributaries and the source of this vital watercourse for our region.

These photographs from the Homestead collection show how the river looked roughly a century ago and our understanding of the river’s history can help inform what can be done to maintain the watercourse in the future.  This is esepcially important as use and enjoyment, as well as some of the more unfortunate residue left behind, by growing numbers of people continues to be an issue.

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