At Our Leisure: Strain’s Camp, Mount Wilson, 1904-1907

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The summer months, when the weather can be hot (and, today, humid) in the valleys and plains of our region, are a popular time for people to take to the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains for hiking, camping and other activities in a cooler climb that in the “flat lands.”

Today’s installment of “At Our Leisure” highlights a couple of photographs from one of the more popular camps in the San Gabriel Mountains: Strain’s Camp.  In the “Boom the 1880s” that swept through greater Los Angeles just after the arrival of the first transcontinental railroad line, built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in 1885, activity in the San Gabriels heated up including around Mount Wilson.

Named for Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to the region with William Workman and John Rowland in 1841 and who, in 1864, built a road up to the summit that bore his name, the mountain became the location of several tourist camps just as the boom was coming to an end by the close of the decade.

Ashbel Greene Strain registered to vote at Sierra Madre in August 1890 after living in Long Beach and working as a realtor prior to that.  Strain’s homestead north of the Mount Wilson summit included his cabin and then a camp, later taken over by the Pasadena and Mount Wilson Toll Road Company.

One of those was built by Ashbel Greene Strain, born in Pennsylvania in 1857 and who appears to have been among the tens of thousands of new arrivals during the boom.  Strain lived in Long Beach and worked in real estate before he homesteaded an area in a tree-shaded glen north of the Mt. Wilson summit.  He quickly got into what has been called the “Mount Wilson War” in a dispute with camp entrepreneur Peter Steil, a Pasadena restaurant owner who later sold his camp to Clarence Martin, over boundaries to claims there.

Strain, who evidently built a cabin on his land in 1889, soon opened his camp to tourists, who accessed the site from the Mt. Wilson Toll Road, which came up from Sierra Madre (this being the Little Santa Anita Canyon Trail that can be hiked from the same location today where the toll road house still stands) and it was a big success.  The timing was excellent not just because of the increasing population of greater Los Angeles, but, because the so-called “Great Hiking Era” was on, in which Americans took to the outdoors with great enthusiasm.

Strains Camp Herald 19Aug02
Los Angeles Herald article from 19 August 1902 covered the “reincarnation” of Strain’s Camp because of the discovery of a springs with abundant water.  That source supplied the Mount Wilson Hotel and Observatory, as well.

In 1896, Strain joined other investors from Sierra Madre, including Arthur N. Carter, a forest ranger in the mountains in the 1900 census, and Wilbur Sturtevant, whose name is all over Santa Anita Canyon with a camp, falls, and trail named for him, among others, in forming the Sierra Madre and Antelope Valley Toll Road Company.  The idea was to build a toll road, likely through Santa Anita Canyon and over the valley where Lancaster and Palmdale are now.

However, Strain soon moved to Los Angeles and was enumerated there in the 1900 census living in downtown and working in real estate.  He died in 1908 at the age of 57, but the camp that bore his name lived on.

This is because a large spring was discovered on the camp site, which was closed for several years prior to that and then purchased by the Pasadena and Mount Wilson Toll Road Company, and wells brought in the water that was used for the hotel and observatory built at Mt. Wilson, including its observatory.  Strain’s Camp was reopened in 1902, as reported in the article from the Los Angeles Herald shown here.

Strains Camp Mt Wilson 2011.323.1.1
A panoramic view of a portion of Strain’s Camp, created about 1890 and reopened after the discovery of a large spring on the site a decade or so later.  Both photos here are from the Homestead’s collection.

The first photo featured here can be dated to about 1904 based on the painted “May 1904” on the side of the wood building at the far right, though it could be later.  In the shade of trees at the front of the structure is a group of people near pack mules, which looks to indicate folks checking in or out of their accommodations at the camp.  More people are in the shade further down slope in the distance, while behind some of the trees are portions of other camp buildings. The presence of two American flags hanging from wires might show that the photo was taken around the 4th of July.

The second image is dated 25 July 1907 and is a distinctive blue-tinted cyanotype, so named because of the color “cyan.”  It shows seven women and three men gathered around a picnic table near a striped canvas tent, popular in the era.  One of the women is dressed as an Indian and a 2013 article in the Pasadena Star-News by the late Sid Gally noted that, in 1909, and “Indian Day” event was held at Strain’s Camp.  Obviously, the event was held at least two years prior to that.  Such activities, of course, would not even be considered today!  Note that the other women were long-sleeved blouses with puffed sleeves and long skirts, while the gents sport ties–this was standard fashion fare for mountain excursions at the time.

Campers At Strains Camp Cyanotype 2012.262.1.1
Dated 25 July 1907, this cyanotype photograph, so named because of the cyan color in the processing, shows ten campers at Strain’s Camp.  There was an “Indian Day” event held at the facility, which explains the woman at the center.

Before the summer’s out, we’ll feature at least a couple more “At Our Leisure” posts dealing with the main activities of the season (then and now), these being beach and mountain related, so check back for those.

Leave a Reply