by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Yesterday I drove my wife to a three-day program near Wrightwood and, after having lunch in that delightful mountain community on the border of San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties, we headed west out of town.
When I asked her where to make the turn off of State Highway 2, she said Big Pines Highway. Just then, we passed a wooden building and distinctive stone pillar with a stone tablet listing the members of the county Board of Supervisors and a metal marker with a 1925 poem called “In the Pines” by William Bristol. Then, I put 2 and 2 together and realized this was the remnants of the entrance to the Big Pines Recreation Camp, featured in a post on this blog back in January.
Big Pines was a big project of Los Angeles County’s department of Recreation, Parks and Playgrounds, opened partially in spring 1922 and fully in August 1924 on a massive 5,600-acre parcel on which visitors could boat, swim, hike, ski and bobsled, ride horseback, camp or stay in cabins, picnic and engage in many more recreational activities.
The recreation hall, is the structure we passed and the pillar is the remaining element of a dramatic and distinctive arched entrance that welcomed guests to what was billed as “Los Angeles County’s All Year Playground.” A public dining facility, store, a garage for visitors’ cars, a playground, and a winter ice rink were among the many amenities.
The Swartout Valley Lodge offered accommodations on the American or European plans, the former covering lodging and meals on a daily rate, whereas the latter only dealt with the room. It had the dining room and saddle horses for rent. Meanwhile, seventeen organizations, including scouting groups for boys and girls, had permanent camps at Big Pines.
In its early years, the camp could be reached two ways. The eastern route was essentially the one we took, leading up Cajon Pass and then heading west through what was then called Lone Pine Canyon. Today this involves taking Interstate 15 to State Highway 138 and then to State Highway 2 through Wrightwood.
The other way was to go through San Fernando and Saugus, in modern Santa Clarita, through Mint Canyon to Palmdale and then east along the southern fringe of the high desert before climbing the mountains to the camp. Essentially, this is Interstate 5 to State Highway 14 and then State Route 138 before taking a mountain road up. State Highway 2 from La Cañada-Flintridge did not begin construction through the mountains until 1929 and was not completed for nearly thirty years, finally reaching Big Pines in 1956.
By then, the camp, with maintenance costs becoming harder to cover during the Great Depression years, had been transferred to the United States Forest Service about a decade. There are still original elements of the camp in use today, including the recreation hall, some of the campgrounds, hiking trails, fishing spots and others, but nothing like the site that was built in the 1920s.
As I stopped to snap some photos of the remaining entrance pillar and recreation hall, it occurred to me that Big Pines was one of a number of very large public works projects built in greater Los Angeles during the first three decades of the 20th century. It was a time of largely unbridled optimism for a booming area with seemingly all the land, water and other resources the region could need.
The Los Angeles Aqueduct, the Los Angeles City Hall and Civic Center, the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum are just three big projects that come to mind immediately when thinking of this era of massive development and growth and the Big Pines Recreation Camp is part of that context, though it proved to be too big and expensive to keep going when the Great Depression came and swept away a lot of that sense of opportunity that led to it and the other projects mentioned here.
Seeing the recreation hall and pillar as remnants of an era of huge public works projects was an unexpected part of my trip yesterday and a reminder of the strange and unpredictable elements of our region’s history that surround us.