Pack Mules in the San Gabriel Mountains, 1906-1916

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tuesday’s San Gabriel Valley Tribune had an article on “the last animal-assisted goods delivery system in Southern California,” in the words of writer Steve Scauzillo.  This is the Adams Pack Station located in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Sierra Madre and Arcadia.

Opened in the mid-1930s, the station was owned by Bill and Lila Adams for thirty-five years until 1984.  Current owner Deb Burgess bought the facility, which includes a simple restaurant, store, house, and barn, a dozen years ago and ran it for a few years with her mother, but is now selling the place, listed at $500,000, so she can care for her mother who lives elsewhere in California.

The unique feature of having nine donkeys as pack animals to transport goods to cabin owners and renters in the canyon is what makes the station particularly striking.  Scauzillo noted that each donkey can carry 130 pounds and navigate switchbacks, as well as flat sections of trail, to take material up to four miles from the end of Chantry Flats Road.

RPPC Man On Horseback At Mt Wilson 2012.541.1.1
This image in the Homestead’s holdings and taken by prolific San Gabriel Mountains photographer E.B. Gray shows a man astride a mule at Mount Wilson in August 1906.

Though Burgess is selling the station and appears to have some legitimate offers, operating the pack mule train is still a necessity for those who have places in the canyon and is a condition of sale.  One woman quoted in the article noted that, because they were remodeling a friend’s cabin which is a mile-and-a-half beyond the end of the road, “it would have been hell without the pack animals.

Historian Elizabeth Pomeroy, who owns a cabin in the canyon, is keen on new owners continuing the pack mule operation because “there is no substitute for the animals to carry things . . . up the trail.  Humans can only backpack in so much.”

Having hiked the canyon several times over the years and used the Adams pack station to buy U.S. Forest Service Adventure passes, I’m hoping that the place will sell and be maintained as it has been, but, whether it is financially and operationally realistic and feasible is another question.

RPPC Supplies For Mt Wilson 2012.699.1.1
Another E.B. Gray view of a pack mule train taking supplies up the Mt. Wilson Trail and dating to roughly the same time as the above image.

There was a time during the Great Hiking Era of the 1890s through 1930s when pack mules were extensively used in the San Gabriels, not just for cabin owners and users, but for those traveling to campsites and resorts, because roads for cars and other motorized vehicles either didn’t exist or were extremely primitive.

The Homestead’s collection has a few photographs from before 1930 showing pack mule trains plying trails, including one showing a man astride a mule on Mt. Wilson in summer 1906 and another from roughly the same period showing a nine-mule train taking supplies up to the resort on the Mt. Wilson Trail to the resort.  Both of these images were taken by E.B. Gray, who took many fantastic photos of scenes and locales in the San Gabriels during the Great Hiking Era.

Another fine image is a real photo postcard postmarked in March 1916, and showing a train heading up the trail to Big Santa Anita Canyon to Roberts Camp and Trout Ponds.  Opened by Otto L. Roberts in 1912, the facility started as the trout farm before the resort was added.

This photograph, from a real photo postcard in the Homestead’s collection and postmarked 21 March 1916, shows a pack mule train plying the Sturtevant Trail up the San Gabriel Mountains into Big Santa Anita Canyon and Roberts Camp, which existed from 1912 to 1931.

Eventually Roberts Camp was so large it could accommodate 180 guests and had tent houses, cabins, a store, a dining hall, a post office and a branch of the county library.  Supplies and goods were hauled up the Sturtevant Trail, as depicted in the photo, from Sierra Madre to the resort, but the mule train was available to tourists and hikers, as well.

Like many of the facilities in the San Gabriels, Roberts Camp did well through the 1920s, but in 1931, as the Great Depression worsened, the main camp closed and the site was then ravaged by the major floods that destroyed so much of the area in 1938.  As I’ve seen on my hikes through the area, there are ruins still visible eight decades later and markers show photos and give information on what was there.

So, we’ll see what happens with the Adams Pack Station and whether it will continue its operation of the last of the mule pack trains in the San Gabriel range.

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