by Paul R. Spitzzeri
During what is generally known as the Great Hiking Era, lasting from the late 19th century through the Great Depression period of the 1930s, the San Gabriel Mountains was one of our region’s main outdoor playgrounds with hiking trails, camps and resorts growing in numbers and sophistication as time went on. In the early years, visitors made their way into the range by foot, horse and mule, but, by the end of that era, automobiles, growing exponentially in number as greater Los Angeles rapidly became the car capital of the world, had greater access through roads that were increasingly better built.
The centerpiece of car-based transport through the range was the building of Angeles Crest Highway, State Route 2, on which work began in 1929 with sections gradually opened over ensuing years and the whole 66-mile highway was completed in 1956. Five years later, San Gabriel Canyon Road, State Route 39, was completed from Azusa to Highway 2, though the last several miles of the route have been closed for years because of landslide damage.
In the early 1920s, however, Los Angeles County officials had big plans for a major park at the northeast edge of the San Gabriels at an elevation of about 6000 feet in what was known as Swarthout Valley, settled by Mormons sent to southern California by Brigham Young in the early 1850s. The automotive section of the 23 July 1922 edition of the Los Angeles Times reported that “Swartout [sic] Valley, located on the southeastern [northeastern, actually] slope of the San Gabriel Mountains, and about five miles (as the crow flies) northeast of Mt. San Antonio (Baldy,) should possess a new lure for motorists now that a 500-acre tract in the scenic spot has been purchased by Los Angeles county for a summer camp.”
The site was considered largely inaccessible because of poor roads, but it was added that “road building now in progress by the county, will link Swartout Valley with Little Rock, via Shoemaker’s Canyon and ranch.” Scouts were sent out via the two routes, with one about 125 miles from Los Angeles through Santa Clarita and the Antelope Valley and taking some six hours to reach the site, while the other, some 100 miles long, moved through the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire and up Cajon Pass and took an hour less. The Shoemaker Canyon cutoff, however, was projected to save 25 miles or about an hour, on the first route.
Known as Big Pines, the acquired tract had an existing campground with “an excellent supply of pre ice-cold mountain spring water with some tables and benches and a number of stone fireplaces. Toilet arrangements have also been provided.” Even in the depth of the summer, evenings could be crisp and evening fires and blankets were necessary. The paper added, “be sure you have plenty of grub, for clambering about the mountain sides in that altitude makes you ravenously hungry.” One of the excursion party remarked,
It is the scenic mountain play grounds, such as this one, that only emphasize the importance of the automobile. Without it, they would practically be inaccessible, because of distance and lack of transportation.
In its 2 August 1922 automotive section, the Los Angeles Express also devoted space for large photographs of the mountain scenery in the area, including one shot of an auto stopped at a view point between pine trees, and it was added that “a road crew and a county chain gang are building a three-mile stretch of road from Swartout valley to link up with Shoemaker’s canyon and ranch to the north, that will cut the distance by way of Palmdale to about 100 miles.”
Now known as Big Pines Highway (County Road N4–we don’t see much of these any longer, but there are actually still signs on Colima Road, just south of the Homestead identifying it as Route N8, with the route also encompassing Azusa Avenue from Colima north to Interstate 10), this road was built in the mid-1920s. Aside from the aforementioned chain gang, an “honor camp” labor force was utilized for much of this work, comprised of county prisoners, often those convicted of drug offenses, who were considered low-risk offenders.
The 8 November 1925 edition of the Times had a lengthy article titled “Honor System Parley Called,” as the county Grand Jury called for “every means which can be mustered . . . to reclaim the criminal mind, to rehabilitate offenders of the law, where reclamation is possible, and to extend with vastly enlarged facilities the honor system of handling county prisoners.” Camps, set up three years prior, by Sheriff William I. Traeger were being inspected and investigated so that such matters as separating hardened criminals from whose who could be redeemed, could be worked out.
Among the questions being asked were:
Shall a standard be established from which to determine what offenders against the law shall be granted the privilege of taking their punishment in the sun of Southland mountains rather than behind bars; that is, offenders against certain classes of laws?
Shall a restriction camp be established to which only “hopheads” or drug addicts shall be sent?
What methods shall be used in handling the prisoners who are placed on their honor and allowed to work on county roads during the term of their sentence?
A tour led by the Grand Jury’s foreman visited the honor camps “as well as the large Los Angeles county recreation camp at Big Pines,” and while it was warm in Los Angeles, “that evening in Swartout Canyon at Camp No. 3, the party encountered a snowstorm, more than three inches of snow falling within a few hours.
Sheriff Traeger and Foreman Taylor explained to reporters that the goal of the camps was to provide “some halfway measure” by which, instead of punishment, “the minor offender . . . may be rehabilitated.” The camps were also considered economical, as the daily cost of keeping a prisoner in the county jail was $1.05 per day, but in the camps, “the honor men are paid 50 cents a day,” unlike the civilian laborers paid $4 a day (and charged $1 for board) who might only stay for a few days or a few weeks. The overall savings was averred to have been some $2 per day per prisoner. By minor offender, this generally meant those who were convicted of burglary, low-level assaults or were drug users, but not robbers, those committing heavier forms of violence or who sold drugs.
But, working in the camps, the prisoner “gains in health and in his outlook upon life, for he then lives in comparative, though restricted, freedom in the hills of California and is aiding to build roads in out-of-the-way places.” One concern, however, was that the “hopheads,” or addicts, caused agitation when mixed with other prisoners, so “plans are being contemplated for the establishment of a special honor camp, where only drug addicts will be sent.” The idea was to have them “placed under the care of a specialist in that line and would be allowed no visitors,” the hope being that this environment would more easily allow addicts to kick their habit, because, when they were institutionalized, “it has been almost impossible to eliminate the use of drugs.”
Because guards at the camps were unarmed, the “honor” portion meant that prisoners had to be relied upon to not try to escape and any problem, it was reported, was due “to mismanagement by guards or to discontent by drug addicts or agitators.” In the first year of the system, 18% of prisoners escaped, but the second year it was down to 10%, with 1925 expected to be in single digits. It was stated that most escapees were those “sentenced for failure to provide for a wife or child, or drug addicts.”
Shoemaker Canyon got its name from a ranch owner, Abram Howard Shoemaker (1854-1937), who was born in Ohio and came out to California as a young man. A railroad worker at Mojave in Kern County and then a farmer in San Joaquin County near Stockton, Shoemaker acquired his ranch near Valyermo and appears to have operated it for at least twenty years. One of his specialties was the cultivation of apples and he frequently exhibited them at Chamber of Commerce events and at other venues. By 1910, he’d moved into Los Angeles, living on Vermont Avenue near Venice Boulevard, and later in Boyle Heights and, finally, the View Park neighborhood near Inglewood, where he died in 1937.
As access improved to the remote regions of the San Gabriels, such as Shoemaker Canyon and what was known as Big Pines Recreational Park, visitors made their way there for recreation. Tonight’s featured artifacts from the museum’s collection includes eleven snapshots taken at Shoemaker Canyon on 30 March 1924, these being among nearly fifty photos taken in such other locales as Los Angeles, Pasadena, San Dimas by Thomas Ward between 1920 and 1928.
The excursion was a Sunday double date, with the gents sporting ties and one man wore a coat, to boot (there were boots, as well), while the women wore long sleeve tops and one layered with a coat, too. Images show them along trails in a landscape that is transitional from the high desert environment of the Antelope Valley to the forests of the San Gabriels. In a few images snow covers the mountain sides, which is notable as the season of 1923-24 was the driest of the era, with under seven inches, though most of it did fall in the later part when the photos were taken. Another photo shows one of the women posed with a mule, though whether it was at a facility in the canyon or not is not known.
These snapshots, on the surface, show us a pair of couples out for a healthful excursion in our local mountains, but they are also an opportunity, with some context, to talk about the growth of opportunities for leisure in the “great outdoors,” the ability for easier access because of the exponential use of the automobile, the expansion of county parks and, lastly, the building of mountains roads using convict labor from the county’s recently established “honor camp” system.
This is another reminder of how historic artifacts can help provide a multi-layered interpretation of our regional history and it’s always important and exciting whenever we can share with the public examples like this.