At Our Leisure: Big Pines Recreation Camp, Angeles National Forest, late 1920s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Last week’s rain, after an extraordinarily dry start to the season, brought some snow to our local mountains, in time for highlighting a real photo postcard from the Homestead’s collection showing folks gathered around an outdoor stone cooking area in a snow-filled area at Big Pines Recreation Camp, a Los Angeles County Park deep in the far reaches of the Angeles National Forest.

Big Pines, first conceived about 1920 by a county supervisor and a recreation and parks manager for the county, opened four years later during an era when big public works projects were being carried out throughout the region.  These included the development of the Los Angeles City Hall, Union Station, the Los Angeles Coliseum, and many others.

RPPC Big Pines Recreation Camp 2010.110.1.1
This real photo postcard from the Homestead’s collection shows visitors to the new Big Pines Recreation Camp gathered around an outdoor stone cook stove on a snowy day at the Los Angeles County built and operated facility in the Angeles National Forest.

In the unbridled enthusiasm for these public projects, during a massive boom bringing large numbers of new residents and a diversifying and growing economy, such expenditures were justified as improving the quality of life by providing ample recreational opportunities for denizens of the county.

The park opened in August 1924 and it was reported in the Los Angeles Times that the total acreage acquired was almost 4,000 acres at an expenditure of some $100,000.  F.E. Wadsworth, the facility’s superintendent, gave an interview in which he explained what was involved in the development of the park.

Wadsworth noted that he and Supervisor Robert F. McClelland hiked from Mt. Wilson to Big Bear Lake, an enormous area in the San Gabriel and San Bernardino ranges to find an appropriate spot.  County jail inmates were used for highway construction and about 100 of the stone “fireplaces”, such as that shown in the photo, were built.  Difficulty in obtaining water for the park were met by installing a pumping plant.  Tables and firewood were available at each location of the fireplaces.

The Community House, a large lodge, was complete.  It had two large stone fireplaces at each end and a large dance floor.  A reading room and library and a store were also in the structure.  A 35-acre lake a mile away had facilities for swimming and plans were made for ice skating in the winter on the frozen body of water.  A large barbeque area was also finished and horses were available from an adjoining ranch.  A swimming pool and campsites for such groups as the Boy Scouts were also in the works.

Of interest also was Wadsworth’s statement that

the park also has historic significance. . . as several Indian corn bowls were excavated about four feet below the present ground level when the roads were being built. . . the park was a seasonal camping place [it was claimed] of Indian tribes in their migration between the Tehachapis and the Imperial Valley region . . . [and] was undoubtedly one of their chief hunting grounds.  The corn bowls now are used as decoration in the community house.

Big Pines, however, didn’t develop without some controversy.  In political warfare between the Board of Supervisors and District Attorney Asa Keyes, the latter filed felony criminal charges against the board in 1926.  He did so claiming the five executives engineered the purchase, along with the land for the park, of additional property under the pretense of public use, but which, Keyes averred, was appropriated by the supervisors for their private enjoyment.

Los Angeles Times, 17 August 1924.

In late 1926, however, a superior court ordered the charges dropped, stating that there was simply no evidence of wrongdoing by the board.  Keyes was then arrested, tried and convicted for accepting bribes in the notorious scandal involving the Julian Petroleum Company and sent to state prison for a five-year term.  He was pardoned by James Rolph in summer 1933 and died just over a year later.

While it was contended that the money invested in developing Big Pines and its annual maintenance costs were well within the ability of the county to handle, that view changed by the end of the Depression years.

Los Angeles Times, 8 December 1926.

Starting in 1940, the county began negotiations with the U.S. Forest Service, which has jurisdiction over the Angeles National Forest, to turn over Big Pines to the federal government.  The district attorney, however, ruled that it was not legal to simply hand over the property.

Consequently, a land swap was then discussed, but this also ran into a few problems, including curious issue in 1945 when federal land in Castaic, desired for a county honor camp (jail facility), was determined to potentially have radiation problems from efforts from the atomic weapons program.  This was just a few months after the United States dropped atomic bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan to end World War II.

Los Angeles Times, 18 December 1946.

Finally, however, in late 1946, a deal was reached for the land swap and Big Pines was handed over to the federal government.  Big Pines is still in operation, though not with the amenities instituted and offered by the county during the 1920s and 1930s.  Still, there is a visitor center, campgrounds, picnic areas, hiking trails, opportunities for fishing, and occasional activities including nature hikes, campfire programs and children’s programs.  Here is information on operations at Big Pines today.


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