by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the onset of the “Great Hiking Era,” which characterized, from the late 1890s through the 1930s, a movement of enjoying the American outdoors through camping, fishing, hunting and, of course, hiking, the mountains of greater Los Angeles, including what were still commonly known as the Sierra Madre range and now denoted as the San Gabriels, became popular places for leisure by locals and visitors alike.
One of the more popular areas for the public and one which still is highly visited is Big Santa Anita Canyon located above Arcadia and which includes some of most beautiful scenery in the San Gabriels, including wide canyons views, dense forested areas, waterfalls, and some notable historic sites. Among the latter is Sturtevant Camp, which was one of the earliest resorts in the mountains.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a real photo postcard of the landscape at the camp. The photo was taken by Ernest B. Gray, whose work has been featured here before, and it shows a stone-lined creek wending through what looks mainly to be sycamore trees. At the far left is a portion of rustic wooden steps leading to what was likely a cabin, but the focus is on the beauty of the watercourse and the forest.
A previous post here, highlighting a stock certificate for a toll road planned from the canyon to Antelope Valley through nearby Newcomb Pass, gave some biographical background of Wilbur Sturtevant(1841-1910), a native of Massachusetts and long a resident of Chagrin Falls, Ohio and a Civil War veteran, who was a miner in Colorado when he made his first trip to this area in the early 1880s.
Will Thrall, a noted early historian of the San Gabriels, wrote a biographical sketch of Sturtevant in the Southern California Quarterly in 1951 and noted that “Sturde” led a mule train from Colorado to California and, on reaching Acton, in the Antelope Valley, sought a shortcut through the rugged San Gabriels to get to Los Angeles. Thrall reported that when Sturtevant got to the west form of the San Gabriel River he was met by eighty indigenous people who fed him bear meet and acorn meal bread—though it seems unlikely that there were native people living in those numbers in the mountains at that period.
In any case, the statement was that he went around San Gabriel Peak and what became Mount Lowe to Millard Canyon and into Altadena. There was a second trip from Colorado and, as he passed through the San Gabriels, Sturtevant was said to have come through just west of Mount Wilson and then descended into the San Gabriel Valley through Little Santa Anita Canyon, just west of Big Santa Anita Canyon.
It was then, Thrall wrote, that Sturtevant decided to relocate to this area permanently and engage in providing pack animals and his services as an expert guide for trips into the mountains through the Mt. Wilson Trail and Big Santa Anita Canyon. Sometimes he owned the site from where these trips into the range began, while, at other times, he was employed by someone.
Thrall noted that the Sturtevant Trail in Big Santa Anita Canyon was built in 1886-1887, during the famed Boom of the Eighties that burst forth in greater Los Angeles., by contractors who hoped to tap the timber there for commercial purposes. That boom went bust and, in 1892, the San Gabriel Forest Reserve was established, providing some protections in the range.
At that time, in 1893, the original Sturtevant Camp at the head of Big Santa Anita Canyon, but the area was reached only by a lengthy trail that went up to Mount Wilson and then descended into the canyon, there being no access from what was later established as Arcadia. The camp was rustic, with some tents laid out on the site and virtually no other amenities, aside from some rudimentary meals prepared there.
Three years later, the toll road featured in that previous post on this blog, was established as part of a grand plan to provide better access through the mountains, but a new “Sturde’s Winter Camp” was established along the stream that took the name of Winter Creek and it was reached by a new trail that came in from Sierra Madre. Thrall described the camp, which opened in 1898, in some detail:
The permanent buildings consisted of a dining room and kitchen with a store in the basement facing on the trail, a few small frame buildings, and, added to these for summer use, many tents with wooden floors. The old cabin built of squared logs, which was long used as library and recreation room, was built for a Ranger Station by Louie Newcomb and others in 1903 . . .
Sturtevant Camp was for many years one of the most popular resorts in the San Gabriel Range. It was a beautiful place lying in the lap of the mountains, surrounded by a magnificent forest, a tumbling stream banked by ferns and tiger lilies, and everything one could wish for a beautiful, restful retreat.
Thrall, who somehow thought Sturtevant’s first name was “William,” also left out much of the tragic history of “Sturde” and his camp. Part of this had to with ownership and management of the forest reservation lands by the federal government, especially as he and other “pioneers” of the mountains (of course, the indigenous people were the human “pioneers” of the range) were well-established before the designation of the forest reserve.
In summer 1900, a massive fire broke out in the forest and it caused further concern among federal officials and consternation among those, like Sturtevant, who lived and made their living in the mountains. As a result of the conflict over the camp property, Sturtevant’s second camp was shuttered the following year and he established a new one on Mount Wilson in what has been Martin’s Camp (also, Wilson’s Peak Park), working with a partner to operate it and Strain’s Camp, long established there and its founder being a partner of Sturtevant in the toll road company.
In fall 1903, there was talk of the reopening of the former Sturtevant Camp in Big Santa Anita Canyon, but, if it did resume business, this new phase was very short. In June 1908, the old site did, once again, come to life. There was still Strain’s Camp and the Mount Wilson Hotel on that peak and the reborn Sturtevant was a third resort operated by the same managers.
Early in 1909, however, Gifford Pinchot, a renowned name in American forest management, affirmed his earlier ruling about Sturtevant Camp. Pinchot, who was appointed as head of the Division of Forestry within the Department of Agriculture by President William McKinley in 1898 and who was the first chief of the United States Forestry Service, established under President Theodore Roosevelt, a close friend, did not, however, close the camp.
By then, it had passed out of its namesake’s hands and was owned by the Mount Wilson Hotel Company. Notably, one article in the Redondo Reflex discussing the Pinchot reaffirmation stated that the major fire from 1900 (it said the conflagration occurred the following year) involved those fighting the blaze getting many of their supplies from Sturtevant. It added, though, that these persons “claimed that he was extortionate, and on this ground the government dispossessed him.”
Sturtevant’s supporters, however, “have always claimed that he was reasonable, and that his services to the government were invaluable.” Consequently, a petition was launched to have the camp property returned to him, which happened, “but Forester Pinchot has now sustained his former ruling.” Sturtevant also tried unsuccessfully to get reimbursed by the federal government for the cost of supply those who were fighting the massive 1900 fire.
Meanwhile, the Reflex reported, “Mr. Sturtevant is still at the soldiers’ home at Sawtelle, where he was taken after his recent paralytic stroke and it is doubtful if he could ever derive any benefit from a reversal of the ruling.” The home mentioned was the Pacific Branch of the National Home for Disabled Veteran Soldiers and Sturtevant died there in early September 1910 and was interred at the national cemetery at that site.
Sturtevant Camp continued to operate for years afterwards including a long tenure of ownership from the United Methodist Church for about seventy years after its purchased the facility in 1945 and there is a Camp Sturtevant on the site today, operated by volunteers from the Surtevant Conservancy, spearheaded by Deb Burgess, proprietor of Adams’ Pack Station at the beginning of the Sturtevant Trail .
As for the photo, it has the distinction of not only being taken by Ernest Gray, but the postcard was used by him and sent to a customer, Elmer McInnis of Los Angeles. The message states:
I understand you did not get the pictures made by me. Please discribe [sic] exactly as possible how the pict[ure] was taken, how many men or women etc. Anything you can remember and I will look them up and make good. How many did you pay for?
Gray, who was also featured in the post in the blog, was a prolific photographer of the San Gabriels and the Homestead’s collection includes nearly twenty of his real photo postcards. One wonders if he did “make good” and send McInnis the replacement images?
As for Camp Sturtevant, it can be reached after a four-mile trek on a trail leading through cabins owned by folks who have long-term leases with the United States Forest Service and then up and beyond Sturtenvant Falls, easily one of the most visited attractions in the San Gabriels.
There is a lodge building that retains some of the structure of an 1896 building constructed by Sturtevant and there are cabins that can accommodate from 2 to 40 people, as well as a common dining hall, kitchen, game room with a fireplace and piano and outdoor space for entertainment, presentations and “spiritual services.” Badminton, croquet, horseshoes, ping-pong, shuffleboard and volleyball are also offered, according to the website.
This postcard is one of many artifacts in the Homestead’s holdings pertaining to the many aspects of the San Gabriels from the 1890s through the 1920s, during the majority of the “Great Hiking Era” and is reflective of local leisure as well as tourism involving the growing number of visitors to the region
this is my first time replying but i read your stories every time. i truly enjoyed this one. i might have to take a drive with the kids later this day. thank you and thank you for sharing.
Hi Jay, we’re glad you enjoyed the post and are a regular reader of the blog. Big Santa Anita Canyon is an amazing place and we’re happy to be able to share a little of its history.