by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the most popular hikes in the San Gabriel Mountain range is the Sturtevant Falls Trail in Big Santa Anita Canyon above Sierra Madre. The 3.3 mile trek from the end of Chantry Flats Road is mostly along a wide road following Santa Anita Wash deep into the canyon and ending at a gorgeous payoff, the 60-foot high Sturtevant Falls, which ought to have decent flow this time of year and given our early rain and snow fall this winter.
Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection is an interesting and little-known element of the history of that area: a plan about 125 years ago to build a toll road from Sierra Madre through the mountains, which were then also known by that name, to the Antelope Valley. It will come as a shock to no one that the company that sought to build the road was the “Sierra Madre and Antelope Valley Toll Road Company,” which was incorporated were filed and then recorded on this date in 1896.
It does not appear that the project got very far, though it seems certain that at least a portion of the Sturtevant Trail was the route for the proposed road. The Los Angeles Herald of 15 January 1896 reported on the filing of the articles of incorporation of the company, noting that $15,000 of stock was to be issued through 3,000 shares at five dollars par value. An extremely modest amount of stock, all of $175, was subscribed by the seven directors, who ponied up $25 each for their five shares.
These individuals, however, comprised some of the best-known names in the history of this part of the San Gabriels. Nathaniel C. Carter, the founder of the town of Sierra Madre, and his son Arthur (who, with his sister, was the childhood proprietor of a little newspaper called the Willow Dale Press featured on this blog and whose Carter’s Camp also has been highlighted here) were among them.
So, too, was Wilbur Sturtevant, the namesake of the trail and falls. Lewis T. Newcomb, whose name is commemorated in the pass at the back of the canyon and through which it is presumed the toll road would have run, was another director. Newcomb, born in Keating, Pennsylvania in 1860 to a Congregationalist minister (one census merely stated “Minister of the Gospel” and his wife), lived in New York, Missouri, and Kansas before coming to California.
A longtime resident of Sierra Madre, he was widely known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries for building many of the trails in the San Gabriels back-country, including to his namesake pass. He had a cabin at Chilao Creek, north from Big Santa Anita Canyon and Newcomb Pass, and was an early ranger at what known as the San Gabriel Forest Reserve.
About 1900, he built one of the country’s first ranger stations on the West Fork of the San Gabriel River and that structure was later moved to the Chilao Visitor Center. Today, there are ruins of cabins and sites associated with Newcomb and his family, including a cousin who established the Newcomb’s Ranch, said to have been the only private property situated along Angeles Crest Highway (State Route 2), and which is still in operation, though not owned by the Newcomb family.
The roadhouse’s website states that Newcomb, whose first cabin was a quarter mile to the northeast, became friends with Sturtevant and that “a plan was hatched between the two to create a toll trail and charge users 25 cents.” Though the site added that “Louie spent years developing a trail from Sturdes Camp in the Upper Santa Anita Canyon leading into Chilao high country and beyond,” the project, likely the one assumed by the Sierra Madre and Antelope Valley Toll Road Company, “never really worked, as there was no way to patrol and collect fees from the many miles of trail.”
It was after this that Newcomb became a forest ranger and did this for a baker’s dozen of years “building many cabins and trails still used today.” The site also noted that he “settled down, got married and bought a home in Sierra Madre.” While he was married to Grace Crandall and the couple had a daughter, Grace Chillia [a rendering perhaps based on “Chilao”?], Newcomb lived apart from his wife and daughter, though there was never a divorce, and remained in the foothill town until his death in July 1954 at age 94 (his newer tombstone at the Sierra Madre Pioneer Cemetery, however, erroneously lists his birth year as 1851).
As for Wilbur M. Sturtevant, he was born in Massachusetts in 1841 and moved as a child to Chagrin Falls, a great name for a town, southeast of Cleveland. He worked as a clerk in his father’s store and then served in the Union Army during the Civil War in an Ohio volunteer regiment, attaining the rank of lieutenant (some sources suggest he was a colonel, but this is inaccurate). A few years after the conclusion of that tragic conflict, Sturtevant married Mary Jane Davis and the two had three daughters, Emma (who died as a child), Myrta, and Myra, while living in Saline, Kansas, where he farmed. Later they moved back to the Cleveland area where he grew up.
A strange situation then arose. Sturtevant, suffering from financial failure during the depression years of the mid-1870s and in poor health, migrated west to recover and wound up in Colorado with family members and worked in mining. His wife stopped hearing from him and then hired a detective to find Sturtevant, to no avail. Mary Jane assumed he was dead, moved to Oberlin, Ohio, and worked as a dressmaker to put her daughters through school, including Oberlin College, after which both prepared to become teachers.
Twenty years later, in spring 1896 just after the toll road company was launched, a friend of Mary Jane happened to be on vacation in greater Los Angeles and hired a guide for some mountain excursions and it was none other than Wilbur. He stated that, in 1881, he was on his way to the post office to mail money home to his wife and daughters when he was waylaid and robbed. He added that he wrote letters home with no response and missives sent to him never arrived to him. A newspaper account concluded “it now appears the whole correspondence was interrupted,” though the story from Sturtevant sounds hard to believe!
Sturtevant became widely known as a miner, mountain guide, trail builder, creator of the camp bearing his name and, of course, namesake of the beautiful falls mentioned above. After a major forest fire broke out in 1900, Sturtevant used his burros and supplies in the effort to combat the blaze, but his attempts at financial restitution from the federal government were unsuccessful and it was reported this disappointment is said to have destroyed his hopes and his health failed him” Sturtevant had a series of strokes while living at the National Soldiers Home in Sawtelle, where he died in 1910, with his last resting place being the Los Angeles National Cemetery at the home. His widow died just three weeks later.
A fascinating little side note is that Myra Sturtevant, who was married to William P. Nye, became a journalist of note, editing the women’s page of the Los Angeles Times for a decade and also the “Society of Cinemaland” section, as well as a regular columnist. She was a contributor to Hollywood Life magazine and had articles published in many magazines. A resident of Rowland Avenue in Covina, her son Carroll worked for the Times as a reporter, as well as a radio editor became a leading man in silent films after his debut in 1925. Later, he was a character actor, including playing Scarlett O’Hara’s second husband in Gone With the Wind, which was one of his last roles. After his film career ended, he worked in radio as a newscaster and in publicity.
Ashbel G. Strain, whose resort camp was highlighted on this blog two years ago, also was a founder. All were residents of Sierra Madre, as was Harvey S. Gaines, whose stay in Sierra Madre was brief and apparently unmemorable. Gaines later worked in the lumber industry in Redlands and in Placentia. The last of the seven directors was John L. Hartwell of Pasadena, who owned land in the foothills of the San Gabriels between the Arroyo Seco and Millard Canyon.
The only other found news item on the project was from about two weeks after the toll road company was incorporated. The Times of 1 February reported that the firm “has three miles of the new trail up the Big Santa Anita Cañon to the fishing grounds at the west fork of the San Gabriel Cañon already completed.” In 1892, the Pasadena Bait Club was created and this may be what the reference to “fishing grounds” concerns.
It was added that “quite a force of men are now at work, and more will be put on” so that “the trail will be continued through a charming portion of the mountains to Antelope Valley, making a saving of over sixty miles in reaching that point, and also opening up some rich valleys.” Though it is not known how much further work was done and what the route was, it appears the idea was to go up to Newcomb’s place at Chilao and, from there, perhaps northwest to the current route of County Road N3 which leads into Palmdale.
The Newcomb’s Ranch website indicates that the road was made passable, but not practical in collecting tolls and keeping an eye on the route. In any case, this stock certificate is an interesting and rare artifact from an early, if modest and unsuccessful, entrepreneurial effort by mountain notables whose names are memorialized in the San Gabriels today.