by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For roughly four decades, during the “Great Hiking Era” of the 1890s to the 1930s, the San Gabriel Mountains were a highly popular place for outdoor activity of many kinds: camping, fishing, resort stays and visits and, especially, hiking. Documenting much of this activity with hundreds of published photographs, usually in the form of real photo postcards was Ernest B. Gray, who was active in the area for most of that period.
Born in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio, near Akron and south of Cleveland, in 1874, Gray was athletic and very interested in gymnastics (he taught the sport in Florida and at YMCA facilities in Pasadena and Azusa), bicycles, and, later, hiking and mountain activities. In 1899, he and his wife Marguerite and a daughter (later there were two more daughters and a son) came west from Maryland and the Grays settled in Pasadena. The following year, Gray was working as a bicycle maker, a profession he kept for a few years.
Soon, however, Gray turned to photography full-time, while living in the San Gabriels and for a brief time in the first years of the 20th century at Idyllwild, where a 1904 forest fire destroyed his possessions, including his photographic material, including negatives and prints.
Most of his active work in photography was spent at Mount Wilson, where his wife worked in the resort restaurant and took care of guest cottages, while Gray took pictures of visitors, the famous observatory, and many of the gorgeous natural features of the area. In 1910, he and his family lived at Roberts Camp nearby (and had the unusual distinction of being enumerated twice in the federal census that year.)
Not surprisingly, Gray’s interest in athletics and the mountains was passed on to his children. His daughters Eva and Edith, at ages 8 and 7, respectively, separately were profiled in newspapers for their prodigious hikes from Mt. Wilson down to Santa Anita Canyon and back in remarkably rapid time. Having hiked from Sierra Madre to the mountain twice, I can attest to the steepness and intensity of these walks.
The Gray family also operated the “Little Gray Inn” along one the popular Sturtevant Trail between Mt. Wilson and Big Santa Anita Canyon for most of the 1920s, catering to clientele enjoying the wilderness, until a fire destroyed the facility in 1928.
But, Gray’s photography was his prevailing interest and avocation and he was occasionally feted for his fine work. In 1904, he won a medal at the World’s Fair in St. Louis for a photo he took from Mt. Wilson titled “Above the Clouds,” but didn’t know about it until two years later. He only learned of the honor when a visitor to the Mt. Wilson resort sought him out to tell him he admired his work and congratulated the photographer.
Just a few weeks later, an unusual story about Gray appeared in the Los Angeles Times concerning the photographer’s photographs of a rattlesnake he snared in a visitor’s tent at Mt. Wilson. A lengthy article detailed his capture of the critter, how he managed to get images of the rattler and, unfortunately, the snake’s demise and the sale of his skin by a couple of young men in the area.
For a few years during World War I, Gray moved with his family to San Diego where he was employed by the U.S. Navy, a major presence still in that city, to take photographs of its training camp at Balboa Park and also for the Army at Camp Kearney. He then returned, in 1920, to the San Gabriels to resume his life and work in the mountains. He did try, at least twice, to sell his business, once because he had plans to be away for a year, but he kept at his photography work.
One notable element of Gray’s life in the San Gabriels was his advocacy against the building of an automobile road into Big Santa Anita Canyon above Sierra Madre and Arcadia. In a letter to the editor of the Times in October 1925, he wrote:
This is one of the few places left within easy walking distance of town car lines and auto roads still maintaining its wild mountain beauty and freedom from the honking horn.
The auto with its wide range can, in a very short time, reach many canyons and mountain resorts with just as scenic surroundings, so there can be no kick on that score. . .
. . . [after detailing the question of fires caused by cars] water is now under a strict sanitary supervision that would be utterly impossible with the auto picnic parties going through.
Let us keep the Big Santa Anita for its beauty, the nature lover and the hikers.
Of course, when the question is about public land, access is a crucial question balancing that with preservation of these spaces. A road was soon built into the canyon from Santa Anita Avenue and this remains one of the busiest areas of the San Gabriels because of that accessibility and the sheer beauty of the canyon, including Sturtevant Falls and a wide array of trails.
As the late John W. Robinson, the preeminent authority on our local mountains and the author of several great hiking guidebooks (my copy of John’s on the San Gabriels was so heavily used that it was shorn of its covers and covered in dirt and stained with water from dozens of hikes in that chain) noted in a 2004 biography of Gray, the photographer traveled the country taking photos and was a pioneer in underwater photography. He even took images as a “wing walker” on a biplane.
As the children grew up, Gray and his wife decided to return to Idyllwild in 1930 a quarter of a century after they’d lived here for a few seasons. They opened a shop that offered his photos, as well as photo equipment and camera, gifts and novelties, souvenirs and other items. Their son was also a co-owner for a period. Gray was profiled in a Palm Springs newspaper in May 1940. Less than two months later, Gray died at age 66 and was buried in San Jacinto in the flatlands below Idyllwild.
The highlighted image, one of more than a dozen in the Homestead’s collection, is a fine photo of Echo Rock, a natural feature projecting over a ledge close to Mount Wilson, and on which a half-dozen persons, perhaps people accompanying Gray on his photo-taking journey (a young girl might be one of his daughters).
It’s typically labeled “E.B. Gray” and this card has a brief message, dated 7 January 1910, from a guest at Mt. Wilson to someone in the Highland Park neighborhood of Los Angeles, “have had a good time, the first thing I looked out upon when I got up this morning was snow over everything.” With this past weekend’s rain, there might be some snow up there now.