by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When the San Gabriel Mountains became a major location for leisure and recreation activities by the end of the 19th century, when the Great Hiking Era (which lasted through the 1930s) began, access to the trails, camps and resorts there was by either by foot or animal transport.
Not too many years later, however, the growing availability and popularity of the automobile brought about many transformations in the region, including access to the mountains. Many of the narrow trails leading into many of the canyons were in the San Gabriels were widened for auto access, most prominently San Gabriel Canyon above Azusa and Santa Anita Canyon north of Arcadia.
Today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a snapshot photograph of an auto parked on a dirt road in Sawpit Canyon, situated above Monrovia. Dated 29 November 1924, the view shows a man in a dark suit, white shirt, tie and snap-brim cap leaning against a rustic wood railing on a bridge over a creek with the REO vehicle, its driver-side door open, parked beyond.
We know the make of the car, by the way, because the REO letters are stamped on the spare tire cover at the rear of the vehicle. REO, the initials of company founder Ranson E. Olds, earlier creator, in 1897, of Oldsmobile, was launched in Lansing, Michigan in 1907 and remained a successful manufacturer of passenger cars until about the time this photo was taken. Later, it focused on trucks (the popular 1980s rock band, REO Speedwagon, took its name from one of the company’s well-known truck models) and lasted until 1967.
The forest is lush with many trees, bushes and shrubs in the sylvan scene and steep hillsides to the left in the narrow canyon. If it had been twenty years, the gent would likely have had to wear hiking apparel more suitable to the walking or riding required to get that far into the mountains.
Years later, automobile access to many canyon locales in the San Gabriels was prohibited for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was the potential for fire sparked by the vehicles and pollution from the exhaust and noise caused by cars.
According to a 1927 history of Monrovia, it was claimed that much of the lumber and stone used for the construction of the Mission San Gabriel, about eleven miles to the southwest, came from Sawpit Canyon. The name of the canyon is said to be derived from a pit where a sawyer, someone who cut trees using a saw, would stand while another was at the other end of the tool.
By the early 1880s, Sawpit Canyon was being used for picnics, such as one reported on in the six-month old Los Angeles Times on the Fourth of July in 1882. The excursion, however, had to navigate a very primitive road, so that
the trip would be more pleasant, and less dangerous and wearisome . . . [as] huge boulders line the narrow road, and the turns are so sharp and frequent, and the crossing of the shallow stream in many places so difficult that horses and vehicles must necessarily suffer. Going up into the canyon the grade is so steep that, generally, all walk but the drivers, and eventually the horses and wagons have to be left behind.
There was a lengthy description of a hike through the lush canyon to a waterfall, estimated to be 100 feet high, and terminating in a pool of water from which some of the party drank, something, of course, that no one has done, without purification, for many decades! It was also reported that there had been mining activity in the canyon, where a tunnel was found with possible indications of silver.
In 1883, a man named Varnum had a residence in the canyon and advertised it as a health resort, being ” a delightful place for invalids in the winter.” Forty years later, Monrovia officials pondered designating the lower Sawpit Canyon area as a district for tubercular institutions. Much of the San Gabriel Valley, in fact, was being utilized for sanatoria and other institutions catering to invalids and people suffering from tuberculosis and other disorders, including several well-known places, like Pottenger’s, in Monrovia. In 1940, when the Homestead was sold and turned into El Encanto Sanatarium, its owners, Harry and Lois Brown, were Monrovia residents.
A decade later, most of Monrovia’s water supply came from Sawpit, but the bigger issue was the growth of visitors to the “natural park,” as it was called by the Times. In 1905, the paper reported on a movement in Monrovia to protect the canyon from visitors who were ripping out ferns to take home with them! Another problem involved occasional injuries to hikers whose activities included tumbles down steep rock faces and falls from waterfalls into pools.
By the 1910s, what was called Monrovia Canyon Park was being improved with better roads, bridges, swings and a wading pond for children, and other amenities. In the latter part of that decade, F.O. Cass advertised for the sale of 200 acres in the canyon, asking $30,000 (or an unspecified lease) for the tract in “one of the most beautiful green canyons in Southern California” for resort purposes.
By 1925, at the time this photo was taken, a massive voter-approved county flood control program included a reservoir and dam for Sawpit Canyon among a list of many projects estimated to cost $35 million. While the county proved unable to carry out this aggressive agenda and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to complete much of the work, the Sawpit Canyon Dam, mentioned above, was later finished. Water became a paramount issue for Monrovia later that year when the city moved to assert its rights to the precious fluid in the face of proposed housing developments in the canyon.
Today, the route into the canyon is part of Monrovia Canyon Park, operated by the city, and it is generally called Monrovia Canyon Road or Monrovia Canyon Truck Trail, though some hiking books and websites acknowledge a separate Sawpit Canyon Fire Road, which would appear to be the dirt road shown in the photo, which makes more sense given the route actually goes into Sawpit Canyon and not Monrovia Canyon, which is just to the west.
In addition to the canyon, there is the 150-foot high dam, one of many built in the mountains to limit flooding, especially after a particularly devastating series of floods hit the region in 1938, causing enormous damage in the mountains, foothills and along rivers and creeks.
Maple, alder, oak and sycamore trees abound in the canyon, along with other plant life, including ferns, mosses, toyon, yucca, laurel sumac, sagebrush and many more, and seasonal waterfalls can be found (likely quite a few after today’s often heavy rainfall). There is a Boy Scout Camp about a mile in and occasional vehicle access may occur for those affiliated with the camp, but, otherwise, motorized vehicles are prohibited.
At about 3.25 miles in is a spot called Deer Park, where Ben Overturff, for whom the main trail in the park is named, and who was a contractor and deputy sheriff in Monrovia, leased the area from the U.S. Forest Service and built a much-patronized lodge. With the end of the Great Hiking Area during the depression and the 1938 floods, Overturff’s lodge was doomed and it closed during World War II.
The City of Monrovia then took possession of the canyon for its water resources and kept the public out. By the early 1990s, the Trust for Public Land acquired land in the canyon and then sold it to the Forest Service. Public access came soon after and the city park was established.
Driving up Canyon Boulevard, which can most easily be reached from Foothill Boulevard, between Mountain and Myrtle avenues, both of which have exits from the 210 Freeway, leads to the park and its beautiful environment and fine trails, including the one up Sawpit Canyon depicted in the photo.