Museum Director Musings: Seeking Out History and Nature in San Antonio Canyon

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today, my two sons and I took a challenging, but very rewarding, hike in the San Gabriel Mountains in a spot to which I was first introduced a quarter century ago and have returned to several times since.  This is both because of its relative proximity and ease of access to where I live, and its rugged beauty.  The location is San Antonio Canyon, above Claremont and Upland, and most of which is just over the Los Angeles County line in San Bernardino County.

The trip wasn’t arranged because of any thought to its historical interest, but it did occur to me as we were driving up Mount Baldy Road into the area that there were at least two notable aspects of the history of San Antonio Canyon.

Icehouse Canyon from a vantage point just below Icehouse Saddle about 3.5 miles from the trailhead.

The first was highlighted in a recent post here on Los Angeles Mayor Damien Marchessault (which included what appears to be the only-known photo of the man who presided over town govenment for much of the 1860s and who committed suicide in council chambers in 1868)  and which mentioned that he and Victor Beaudry, another French-Canadian resident, established a business securing ice from the San Gabriel Mountains for sale in town.  The location of the source of the ice was deep within Icehouse Canyon, a tributary to the larger San Antonio Canyon.

Besides the use of the area by Marchessault and Beaudry for ice supplying customers in Los Angeles, the broader San Antonio Canyon was also the location of a sawmill built by F.P.F. Temple as one of a broad array of business enterprises he conducted in greater Los Angeles and throughout the state from the early 1850s through the mid-1870s.

A little touch of fall on the Icehouse Canyon Trail.

My knowledge of the sawmill came years ago in a fine article by John W. Robinson, a historian of our region with a specific expertise in our local mountains.  Robinson wrote an article over forty years ago in the long-defunct journal Pomona Valley Historian on “San Antonio Canyon Before 1880” and he cited an 1881 article in the Los Angeles Herald by a man only identified as “J.A.G.” who had a mining camp about four miles up from the mouth of the canyon, probably near today’s Mount Baldy Village.

Locating that Herald piece, it reads, relative to Temple’s activities in the canyon:

There was once a wagon road up the cañon some seven or eight miles above our camp . . . the late F.P.F. Temple, constructed the road and built a sawmill ten or twelve miles from the mouth of the cañon.  There is some pine timber there, but not enough for milling purposes.  The mill was destoyed by fire.  We saw traces of it in our rambles.

Roughly taking the calculations of “J.A.G.” in terms of mileage up the canyon for the Temple sawmill, it was probably in or very near to Manker Canyon and the Manker Flat Campground, which is at the end of Mount Baldy Road very close to the ski lifts.  A guide to the area stated that the mill was built in 1870, which would correspond to when Temple was entering his peak activity in regional business.  In fact, about the same time, he built another sawmill near Mount San Jacinto near present-day Palm Springs and both were intended to supply lumber for a Los Angeles deep in its first growth boom.

Temple Sawmill San Antonio Canyon Herald_Jul_23_1881_
Reference made in a 23 July 1881 article from the Los Angeles Herald to a wagon road and sawmill built by F.P.F. Temple about 1870 deep in San Antonio Canyon, probably near Manker Canyon and the Manker Flat Campground.

When Temple’s financial fortunes withered in the face of the failure of his Temple and Workman bank in early 1876, both sawmills passed out of his hands.  As noted in the article, the San Antonio Canyon facility then burned within the five years between the piece and the failure of the bank.  Whatever traces were visible in 1881 soon passed into oblivion, but the sawmill is one of many endeavors Temple engaged in while developing a burgeoning business portfolio during Los Angeles’ first significant period of growth and development.

As for our own rambles in Icehouse Canyon, we climbed steadily up the slightly more than 3 1/2 mile trail through oaks, manzanita, sycamore and pines to the saddle between Timber Mountain and Bighorn Peak.  After a well-earned rest among the whispering pines, we descended the way we came, completed the 7.2 mile hike with the teenagers easily outpacing the old man, and enjoyed lunch at the Mount Baldy Lodge Restaurant.

It’s just about a perfect day when history and nature are combined into one.

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