by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This unseasonably warm afternoon, a family (dog included) walk took us on the Powder Canyon Trail in the Puente Hills from the trailhead off Fullerton Road in La Habra Heights down to Schabarum Park, where shade, water and a place to rest among the equestrian center there was welcomed before the return trek. The total distance was about 3 miles and it was an easy one, though the sun could be intense at times.
This was my third time on this trail, which is administered by the Puente Hills Habitat Preservation Authority with funding from fees derived from the now-closed Puente Hills Landfill (planned to become a county park), the previous two being much longer hikes through substantial portions of the Puente Hills on what was partially the Rowland family’s portion of Rancho La Puente. After one of those earlier treks and curious about where Powder Canyon got its moniker, a little searching was done, though it wasn’t easy to find information initially.
One interesting tidbit is that the Powder Canyon route may have been part of an old network of native Indian trails through the hills that connected the San Gabriel Valley with the coastal plains of modern Orange County.
That sounds entirely plausible, though speculation that the Portolá Expedition of 1769, the first European excursion through California, used the canyon to get from a campsite where today’s Fullerton is to the valley that was then christened San Miguel, doesn’t appear to conform with the detailed descriptions of that crossing over the hills through an opening (la abra, later corrupted into “La Habra”) in the field journal of Father Juan Crespí. More about that in the future as we approach the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition coming into the area in late July 2019.
Still, subsequent crossings of the hills from Fullerton into the La Puente area undoubtedly used the Powder Canyon route, especially as the old Anaheim-Puente Road (a bit of which still exists in the City of Industry) came up from Fullerton and wound through the hills before making the descent through the canyon and down to about where Azusa Avenue is situated.
Today’s travelers are directed through a fairly recent rerouting in which Harbor Boulevard was extended straight through the hills, leaving the old road to the west, and then reconnecting with Fullerton Road just south of Pathfinder Road in Rowland Heights.
Over a century ago, however, Powder Canyon acquired its name from a particularly explosive use that was short-lived, but the name stuck. The broader context was an economic boom (!) that took place after the Depression of 1907 died down and, more locally, real estate speculation skyrocketed after Elias J. “Lucky”Baldwin died in 1909.
Baldwin, whose foreclosure on an 1875 loan to the stricken Temple and Workman bank made him owner of some 18,000 acres of William Workman’s share of Rancho La Puente, maintained most of this holding relatively undisturbed for thirty years until his death. With the population of Los Angeles County burgeoning and suburban development expanding further out from the city in all directions, the Baldwin estate sold off most of its La Puente-area soon after probate closed.
Among the results, as covered in this blog in the past, were the creation of the community of North Whittier Heights, renamed Hacienda Heights in 1960, and the building of Turnbull Canyon Road, another old route through the Puente Hills between the San Gabriel Valley and the coastal plains. Development to the east in the hills was further down the road, though Edwin G. Hart, who established North Whittier Heights, followed that with La Habra Heights not long afterward.
As for Powder Canyon, the big change there came with the creation of a new explosive powder, to compete with dynamite and other explosives, called Satanite. In 1908, the Union Powder Company, began testing a product invented by J.G. Hulme of Los Angeles in connection with Professor G.E. Bailey, a chemist, that it claimed would use less powder, produce less smoke and create explosions more evenly from the blasting point.
The firm invited those involved in the mining, quarry and other industries to witness a demonstration at Nichols Canyon in the Santa Monica Mountains above Hollywood. Held on 25 November, and witnessed by Los Angeles Mayor Arthur C. Harper, who was soon recalled from office for personal indiscretions, the tests were adjudged a success, but with reservations from locals concerned about the ruining of property values and the endangerment of lives, even though the safety of the powder was praised by experts in attendance.
The intention was to establish a factory at that location, given its proximity to downtown Los Angeles, though, just a year before the establishment of the local film industry, Hollywood was a rural farming area. In fact, spurred on by the protests by locals, the county board of supervisors passed, within days of the test, an ordinance specifically to ensure that the Satanite factory was kept a certain distance from houses, roadways and other points.
The county ordinance seemed to allow United Powder to build in Nichols Canyon, but the firm, renamed Satanite Powder Company, decided the following March to buy a ranch of nearly 1,800 acres in Ventura County, just over the Los Angeles County line near modern Chatsworth. Plans for a $150,000 factory, large enough to employ 200 workers, and situated near the Southern Pacific Railroad line and tunnel, were announced.
A year later, in spring 1910, plans had changed yet again. A Los Angeles Herald article appeared about a Satanite test conducted at Newhall Pass, between the San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys, where an expansion of the old road was being done.
As with the Hollywood test, this was proclaimed a success and it was expected that Satanite would be used on the road project. The article ended with a note that another demonstration was to be held that day at Spadra, a community established in the 1860s along the Southern Pacific Railroad line in modern Pomona and that
The Satanite company has recently completed a factory for the manufacturing of the new powder at Rowland.
Rowland was a townsite situated on the line of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake (shortened commonly to “the Salt Lake line”) Railroad that runs south of the older Southern Pacific through the La Puente Valley east to Pomona and beyond and which was completed several years before.
In September 1910, in a short article about the likelihood of “the march of progress” through the Puente area, the Covina Argus reported
One of the latest rumors is to the effect that the “Satanite” Powder Company is to put 70 men at work in the vicinity of the town, up in the hills . . .
Later that month, the Los Angeles Herald reported on another Satanite test in the hills above Hollywood, with members of the American Mining Congress, Institute of Mining Engineers, and a chemist from the federal Bureau of Mines. After another purported fine showing by the powder, the paper stated:
The company has established a factory at Rowland, about eighteen miles from Los Angeles by the Santa Fe [actually it was the Salt Lake railroad line until the Union Pacific acquired it in 1921], and machinery will be installed by January 1 that will manufacture from ten to fifteen tons of the powder daily to meet the large demand.
Difficulties in getting Satanite out on the market were made clear, as the Argus had a lengthy article about the plant’s operations in November 1913, five years after the first tests. Despite referring to the product as “a giant powder that will go into the market in competition with dynamite and other explosives,” the paper reported that the company
has definitely begun the work of manufacturing at the new plant in the hills south of the village of Rowland. Five wooden buildings have been erected in a level spot surrounded by hills. Two of these buildings have just been completed, and a dance and entertainment was held there last Friday afternoon in one of the new buildings. The population of Puente, Walnut, Rowland and Spadra was liberally drawn upon to make up a merry crowd at the affair.
Acknowledging the challenges that the company had, despite its five years of operations at the Powder Canyon site, the Argus added that stock in the firm was being sold and that manufacturing of three tons per day (note that above the claim was more than three to five times that amount) would begin immediately.
After discussing more of the reasons why Satanite was considered a better product than other, the article concluded that “the company’s plant is situated over a mile from the railroad or from the village, as is demanded by the law of the county regulating the manufacture of powder.”
The same day’s issue of the Los Angeles Times included, in its briefing about developments in the Puente area, that
The Satanite Explosive Corporation of Rowland this week received a carload of chemicals [chlorate]. In addition to the old buildings, two new packing-houses and a six-room bungalow have been built. All the buildings have modern fire protection. The company is also preparing plans for two powder magazines. The superintendent states that the running capacity of the plant will be about three tons of powder per day.
As is often the case with new companies trying to get a fledgling product using new technology on the market, it looks like the Satanite firm exhausted its resources without being able to secure a foothold in the explosives industry, which was going through a major revolution due to advances made in Germany during the period, just as the First World War was dawning.
It was perhaps telling that a stock broker in Pasadena, who declared bankruptcy the following year, listed as his stock holdings shares in Satanite, which disappeared from the historical record.
Still, the name stuck, though hikers, mountain bikers, trail runners, horse riders and others who ply the beautiful trail up through the southern reaches of Schabarum Park, where the above descriptions might indicate that the plant was about where the equestrian facilities are, up to the Fullerton Road trailhead, have had no idea of where the name “Powder Canyon” is derived.