At Our Leisure: Enjoying the Great Outdoors With a Photo at Camp Oak Wilde, Arroyo Seco, 30 May 1926

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Memorial Day, formerly called Decoration Day, is a time for us to reflect and remember those brave members of the nation’s armed services who sacrificed their lives while serving to protect our country. Tomorrow, we will discuss how greater Los Angeles commemorated the federal holiday in 1924.

The weekend has also long been considered the unofficial start of summer and, as we finally emerge from the restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as have schools ending their academic year, this is also the time when many of us will begin to enjoy the great outdoors, whether at our beaches, parks or mountains.

Los Angeles Times, 9 June 1918.

With respect to the latter, today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a real photo postcard of a beautiful scene at Camp Oak Wilde in the Arroyo Seco above Pasadena. This resort in the San Gabriel (often referred to in olden days as the Sierra Madre) Mountains was opened about 1911 by J.R. Phillips and it remained in operation for some three decades.

Camp Oak Wilde had the advantage of being eight miles north of Pasadena in the Arroyo Seco, which had an automobile road that provided readier access to the facility than many of the other resorts in the mountains. During the 1920s, which is in the later stages of what is commonly called The Great Hiking Era, stretching from the 1890s into the 1930s, the camp was particularly busy and grew to accommodate the demand of its patrons.

Times, 1 June 1921.

An early reference to the camp is a description from an advertisement in June 1918 in the Los Angeles Times, which stated that Oak Wilde was “in the heart of the Sierra Madre range, in the upper Arroyo Seco at Dark Canyon” with “oceans of shade, on two streams.” Identified as the “most accessible all-year mountain camp,” the facility could also be reached by a half-hour auto stage ride charging $1.50 round trip with 25 pounds of baggage carried free.

It was added that the camp had a “big new social hall” as well as a store and a refreshment stand. As for lodging, there were “cool, shaded cottages” offered from $7.50 to $10 for two and $2 for each additional person, while “transients,” presumably campers pitching a tent, were charged seventy-five cents to a dollar. By the early twenties, Oak Wilde was open year-round and offered cabins with housekeeping and weekend dances.

Los Angeles Express, 28 July 1923.

While there was a road usable by autos, it was, of course, unpaved, but also subject to flooding and erosion during wet winters. So, in mid-January 1922, the Los Angeles Express reported that “with 35 men and five teams at work on the Arroyo Seco canyon boulevard [an awfully grand term for a rustic dirt road!],” the thoroughfare was expected to be opened in a couple of weeks, even as residents in the area rejected claims that rains rendered the road impassable.

Additionally, “good foot-logs with hand rails at every crossing” of the stream were built “so that tramps dry shod to any point in the arroyo are possible, were said today to be bringing in many hikers. Phillips told the paper that there had been some substantial damage caused by storms “but all was of such a nature that but a short time will be required for repairs.”

Express, 14 June 1924.

Heavy precipitation in the winter of 1925-26 caused another washout of the road, but repairs were made and it was reopened by Memorial Day. The next winter was another very wet one and the procedure was repeated, though Phillips noted that, by the time spring sprung, “the canyon has never been more beautiful.”

By summer 1922, he was advertising his place as the “Camp of Contentment” and also highlighted that there were electric lights, an orchestra on Saturdays and Sundays, and radio entertainment. Rates for “transients” were up to $1.25 to $1.50, while cabins could be had weekly for $10 for a pair of guests with $3 for an additional person and $5 for two more. The twice-daily stage from downtown Pasadena, though, had a reduced fare of $1 round-trip.

Times, 21 June 1925.

In July 1923, the Express ran a short piece on Oak Wilde, calling it “one of the most beautiful spots in the Arroyo Seco” and where “one will find a series of cabins thoroughly equipped for housekeeping and lighted with electricity.” Because it was situated at the confluence of two streams, the Arroyo and one from Dark Canyon, the camp “is one of the most romantic spots of the entire Sierra Madre range.” Again, the rough road was designated a boulevard and it was added that “there are no grades.”

The next year, a new short advertising article for that paper noted that “recreation and real enjoyment await you in this attractive camp” at which “you are free and you feel free and enjoy pastimes to the fullest extent.” The cabins not only had lights and housekeeping, but offered wood-burning stoves, while there were “exceptionally fine cabins recently constructed and equipped throughout with new furnishing and bedding.” The Times reported that the lunchroom in the rock lodge was finished and a counter readied for operation, while “equipment has been purchased to make a large dining-room in the near future.”

Times, 23 May 1926.

In June 1925, in time for the peak summer season, Phillips informed the Times that “a crew of men have been put to work in his resort, tearing out the wall on the east side of the camp’s rock social hall, preparatory to adding a dining-room with a low arch connecting that room with the dance floor.” Groups had been requesting such a space for dinner dances (it was announced that March that “a colored dance orchestra” was employed for weekend dances) and regular guests opined that the addition was well-warranted. The following month, the forty-foot long dining room with a rows of windows on each side wall and capacity of 100 guests was finished, along with “a thoroughly modern kitchen.”

In addition to the food service and weekend entertainment, it was added that “the older cabins in camp are being wrecked and several hotel rooms are being built over the social hall. The grounds where the old cabins now are, will be converted into tennis courts, children’s playgrounds, and other recreation facilities.” The past year, a second telephone line was strung to Oak Wilde, which, naturally, greatly improved the clarity of communication to and from the facility.

This was in line with what other resorts were doing throughout the range and Phillips told the paper that he “has noticed a great deal of interest in the improvements and thinks they will change the entire atmosphere of the resort.” He added that “if even a small percentage of the people who have made inquiries about the camp go there this summer it will be the best summer camp Oak Wilde has ever had.”

The featured photo for this post is postmarked 30 May 1926 and was mailed to Michigan. The sender, “G.P.D.,” wrote that “we’re spending our first weekend in a cabin in the mts. near Pasadena. Back to nature.” The image is presumably of the arroyo running through the landscape of sycamores, oaks, alders nd other trees, while part of the mountain range sin the background.

Two other cards from the same series, with one, postmarked in February 1926, showing a check dam along the watercourse and containing a short message stating “we’ve just come from the falls” and making reference to a previous trip to Fern Lodge, another local mountain resort. The other, which was not used, has a sweeping panoramic view of the range, with a thick carpet of growth. While this was considered aesthetically desirable and forest management policy sought to keep the heavy cover present, it actually showed later to be a problem as it created a massive fuel stock for wildfires.

Whereas advertisements for most of the Twenties promoted a gaggle of “Sierra Madre Mountain Resorts,” especially during the peak summer season, by 1928 such promotion was done so under the heading of “Angeles National Forest Resorts,” including for Oak Wilde. A Times piece from June 1927 headed “At Back Door” proclaimed, “and now, hikers, rejoice, for we find ourselves in the mountains back of Pasadena and Sierra Madre. Familiar as these trails are, they never fail to reduce [?] and delight the incurable hiker.” A highlighted hike started from the camp and went past Switzer-land, Opid’s Camp, Mt. Lowe, Mt. Wilson, Roberts’ Camp and Fern Lodge and back along the west fork of the San Gabriel River.

Two years later, the Eagle Rock Reporter and Sentinel featured the fact that

San Gabriel Mtns. Have Many Beauties” for those heading into the range for summer trips. It waxed poetic with its opening statement of “towering peaks, majestic ridges overshadowing cool, deep valleys with picturesque recreation spots nestling amid groups of giant trees—these are the Alps of America, the huge Sierra Madre Mountains, almost at the front door of Los Angeles and forming and ideal background for the summer vacationist.

Observing that the forest generally had good roads for easy access, the piece concluded by noting “a good country road runs through the Arroyo Seco, known for its beauty, as far as Camp Oak Wilde.” Beyond that, the aforementioned trail took outdoor lovers into the area near the San Gabriel River’s West Fork.

Times, 19 June 1927.

An interesting addition to the offerings at Camp Wilde for summer 1930 were the holding of “a non-sectarian open-air inspirational service” for the Sundays in July. The Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News reported that “the audiences will be seated on the hillside in a natural amphitheater in Dark canyon” while “music will furnished by an orchestra and soloists.” One sermon was delivered on the first of these services by the pastor of the First Universalist Church of Los Angeles.

By this time, the nation was in the early stages of the Great Depression, which burst forth in fall 1929 and considerably worsened with waves of bank failures three years later. The dark economic times naturally had an impact on the resorts and this was compounded enormously by the terrible floods of spring 1938, which did so much damage throughout greater Los Angeles.

Times, 29 May 1928.

In the mountains, the destruction was widespread and significant and generally was the death knell for many resorts already staggering under the economic malaise gripping the region. Phillips faced the ravages of the flooding and then the immediate closure of the Arroyo Seco “boulevard.” While it did reopen for a time, the City of Pasadena invoked its charter to cause a permanent closure in 1941.

That summer, moreover, the United States Forest Service informed owners of eleven cabins and Phillips that they were “to evacuate within 90 days [of 1 August] to clear the way for upstream flood control work.” This meant the removal of all improvements “because cabins in this area would be flooded during winter months from backwater from a debris dam to be built at Brown Canyon.”

Eagle Rock Reporter and Sentinel, 12 July 1929.

It was added that “all cabin owners [including Phillips] have enjoyed leases in the Arroyo Seco for years, subject to cancellation should the property be needed for ‘higher use.” The piece noted “present channel correction work marks the first time the government has been forced to exercise stipulations in the leases” and USFS officials commented that they “hoped the public would stand behind us because the project is for the good of all.”

The piece ended by pointing out that “the upper Arroyo Seco has long been closed to motorists, due to washed-out roads” with only owners of cabins having access. Finally, it said “before closing of the road, Camp Oak Wilde was a popular resort with Sunday outers, hikers, and picnickers,” though nothing was said about the devastation wrought by the floods of three years prior.

Los Angeles Illustrated Daily News, 5 July 1930.

The following year Phillips and others used the City of Pasadena over the closure of the Arroyo Seco road, with the Camp Oak Wilde owner seeking $51,000 in damages and with the argument in the filed briefs stating to the Los Angeles County Superior Court that “the closing of the canyon road was detrimental to their property interests.” This was despite the fact that the Forest Service was invoking the cancellation of the leases for the flood control project.

Yet, while the Superior Court ruled against Phillips and the other plaintiffs and this was upheld by the state Appellate Court, a further review by the state Supreme Court reversed these findings and ordered a new trial. Instead, in October 1946, the Pasadena Independent reported that “echoes of numerous bitter and stormy protest meetings” of the past died away “when city directors made compromise settlement of three claims in the sum of $2,000.”

Pasadena Post, 3 August 1941.

Almost all of that amount was directed to Phillips, though his acceptance of $1,838 was, of course, a pittance compared to what he was seeking. The paper added that “the lower portion of the canyon belongs to the city, but the upper road had been maintained by the county.” After 1938, the city did conduct repairs and its part of the “boulevard” was passable, “but when it was wrecked again by flood waters in 1942, city directors decided it was an economic waste to keep it in repair” and locked the gate across land used by the Pasadena’s water department.

The Independent noted that the Forest Service then followed very shortly afterward with its notice to evacuate and remove improvements for that check dam project, but the paper concluded by stating that “then the [Second World] war came and the project is not yet completed, but the plans are still on file to be carried through.”

Pasadena Independent, 23 October 1946.

These photos are excellent visual documents of one of the many resort camps that dotted the Sierra Madre/San Gabriel range during the first few decades of the 20th century and of which little remains for many of them. These days, with the rapid development of climate change, the biggest threat to the mountains and any remaining infrastructure, such as the Mt. Wilson Observatory and camp sites and the like, are more frequently occurring wildfires.

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