by Paul R. Spitzzeri
We are now in the summer season and, with the pandemic restrictions largely eased, there are undoubtedly plenty of hikers taking to the trails in the San Gabriel Mountains. In many cases, they will pass by the ruins and sites of old resort camps that dotted the range, especially during the Great Hiking Era, which lasted from the 1890s through the 1930s.
One of these, situated in the shady recesses of Little Santa Anita Canyon above today’s Sierra Madre, was Orchard Camp, which, however, had more history going back even further, though we should always acknowledge that the indigenous people were users of the forest for millenia before the arrival of Europeans.
In 1864, a native trail was widened and graded to get to Mount Wilson and this work was done by the peak’s namesake, Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to California over two decades prior with the Rowland and Workman Expedition. Wilson, whose Lake Vineyard property was in modern San Marino, engaged in this project so that he could log such trees as sugar pine and incense cedar.
A three-room cabin, as well as a stable, blacksmith’s shop and chicken coop, was built about halfway, or some three-and-a-half miles, along the seven-mile one-way route and occupied by John Richardson, and it was said that Wilson and his crew found the remnants of a pair of log cabins at the site. While Wilson soon gave up on the idea of logging the area, Canadian native George Islip (for whom Mt. Islip at the back of San Gabriel Canyon is named) acquired what was called Halfway House and planted a fruit orchard there, giving the future camp its moniker.
Islip left the location sometime in the 1880s and, while some sources indicate that James B. McNally opened Orchard Camp around 1890, the earliest newspaper references are from fifteen years after that. In summer 1905, the Pasadena News reported that,
Orchard Camp is the latest aspirant for public favor up in the mountain side being located at the half-way stage on the route to Mt. Wilson. It is being promoted by P.J. McNally, the realty dealer, and managed by his son . . . Arrangements are now being made that guests can stop for a time at Orchard Camp and at Martin’s Camp, spending a portion of the time at each place as a diversion. At Orchard Camp there is the oldest house in Southern California, being it is believed over forty years old . . . Mr. McNally, Jr., was down from the camp yesterday purchasing a number of burros to take visitors up the trail.
Why it was suggested that the Halfway House cabin was the oldest in the region is more than puzzling as there were still many houses in the area much older. In any case, it was Patrick J. McNally, a native of Canada and a realtor who settled in Pasadena in 1902, who took on the venture, while his son James, an electrical contractor, who operated the camp under the auspices of the Orchard Camp Resort Company. Included at the camp were furnished tent and “a good dining room,” with the facility promoted as having a fine stream running through it and that it was “the most accessible mountain camp to Los Angeles.”
The Los Angeles Times of 29 July 1906 reported that “this is the first season for this resort. It nestles in cañon in a beautifully-shaded spot half way up the famous old Wilson Peak trail. It has what is reputed to be the oldest apple orchard in this part.” The next year, however, an effort to convert the former Mount Wilson Toll Road into an automobile road to the peak and its observatory was scotched by McNally, who owned part of the land the road traversed and who was worried that its use by the public would lead to the bypassing of Orchard Camp.
In any case, within just a couple of years, in fall 1909, McNally sold half of his interest and turned over management of the facility to Jacob M. Beard, former proprietor of the Mount Wilson Hotel. The deal, reported to involve a consideration of $6,000, involved 640 acres at the camp site and another 120 acres at what was called “the quarter-way house” further down the mountain.
Beard soon followed up with the promised improvements, including a pavilion measuring 30 feet by 40 feet and even had a piano hauled up by pack mule for the entertainment of guests. Moreover, the Times of 14 May 1910, reported, “many apple and cherry trees laden with fruit will be at the disposal of guests.” Lastly, new tent cottages were built and a drainage system was installed.
A year later, the paper reported on the “Canyons Draw” by stating “the canyons are now commencing to loom up with many picnic parties and sojourners who seek solitude and rest.” One such place was Orchard Camp which “is opening its doors for more than the Sunday and holiday crowds.” It was added that the facility was “the first real stopping place for the weary trail traveler” and that it offered “the shade of a beautiful orchard with all the modern conveniences.” The camp, it was concluded, was where “one may find rest, pleasure, and bountiful refreshment close to the trickling mountain streams that abound in this region.”
By 1914, Beard decided to take over Sturtevant Camp at the back of Little Santa Anita Canyon and Foster W. Huston became the operator of Orchard Camp. In its New Year’s Day edition of 1916, the Times noted
At Orchard Camp there is a well-equipped winter and summer resort nestling among the trees and shrubbery, with tent houses and spacious cabins; also a store where one can replenish his larder.
That summer, the Los Angeles Express published the thirteenth of a series on “Interesting Vacations, Journeys and Week-End Trips” focusing on the camp. It referred to a hermit living at the site in 1863, where he planted an apple orchard, though, of course, this was inaccurate in that such an enterprise came a bit later and was by Islip, though whether he could be a called a hermit is another matter.
The Express denoted Orchard Camp as “the beauty spot of Little Santa Anita Canyon” as well as “one of the most charming” in what was still commonly called the Sierra Madre Mountains. It added that its easy access was a great advantage as a visitor from Los Angeles could get to the bottom of the mountain within forty-five minutes by streetcar and then the trip up was an hour or two. Moreover, significant improvements were recently made to the old trail, then just a bit beyond a half-century old in its modern form.
It was added that tents were placed next to the stream, with some grouped and others placed in isolated “among the beautiful arboreal growths.” These included bedding, tables, stoves, cooking utensils and dishes, while there were hot and cold baths with water fed from springs on the property. There was also a camp store for provisions and supplies, while entertainment was found in the form of a croquet court, quoits, hammocks, swings and dancing in the pavilion. Naturally, an abundance of trails to a wide swath of the range were easily at hand, while a guided night-time hike to Mt. Harvard allowed for “the beautiful sight of viewing the lights of forty-one different cities in the distance.”
By summer 1918, Huston left and was replaced by Michael Angelo de Temple, a native of France and formerly a plumber in Los Angeles. A “Vacation Resorts Of Southern California” listing in the Times two years later noted that there was a tennis court at the facility, as well, while groceries, baked goods and meat were obtainable at the camp store.
That summer, the Pasadena Post found it newsworthy that Charles Thoman of Los Angeles was arrested and tried in the city’s Justice Court because “he was accused of disturbing the peace by his language [that is, profanity] and actions, in the presence of women.” For this crime, Thoman was fined $25, but his six-month jail sentence was suspended.
After about three years, de Temple was out as proprietor and B.F. Porter, Jr. became the manager with Clara L. Smith designated a chaperone, though what her responsibilities entailed was not specified. For the summer 1921 season, the Times observed, the facility was “undergoing complete renovation,” with one of these possibly being “twenty-four hour lunch counter service.”
A civil engineer from San Francisco, Porter soon married a Sierra Madre resident, Isobel Langton, and a wedding notice added, “Mr. Porter will devote his time in making Orchard Camp one of the attractive mountain resorts in this region.” That summer, it was was reported that Porter arranged with the Los Angeles Polytechnic Evening High School Club, which counted 100 members, “for the building of a two-story structure in the camp to accommodate their hiking parties and social gatherings.” Moreover, an actor, Lilia McAllison, was said to be considering building a private cabin at the camp.
In early 1922, a fire destroyed portions of “living quarters” at the camp, though the pavilion and dance hall were spared, in an evening conflagration which was put out after a couple of hours thanks to the assistance of more than fifty guests. Smith, incidentally, was identified as the manager and owner, so it may be that Porter had already withdrew from involvement. Operations continued, even as the phone was knocked out of service, and an orchestra entertained patrons on weekends.
Tonight’s featured objects from the Homestead’s holdings are a trio of snapshots of a pair of young women posed at what looks to be the camp lodge, built of vertical boards with thick casement windows and a wooden arbor in the front. Rough rock walls form the foundation and line the stairs and walkway leading to the structure. The women were certainly dressed for hiking with one of them sporting high lace-up boots. The duo are not identified, though on one of the images, it is typed “Orchard Camp Mt. Wilson Trial”—for some people, taking long jaunts through the mountains could, indeed, be a “trial!”
The camp continued to operate through the Roaring Twenties and into the Great Depression. Presumably, the economic malaise affected the finances of the enterprise, but, while the terrible floods of 1938 ravaged the region and put many resorts in the San Gabriels out of business, Orchard Camp actually survived. The old 1860s cabin, however, was a casualty of the disaster.
What ended the facility’s operation, however, was the pursuit of water by the City of Sierra Madre. In February 1940, the municipality acquired, for close to $20,000, a half-interest in the 760 acres comprising the property and which was then owned by the Ashbel G. Strain Estate, former operators of Strain’s Camp at the summit of Mt. Wilson. There were two sets of heirs, one in Ohio and the other being Mr. and Mrs. Herbert L. Martin, who lived on and operated Orchard Camp. With this purchase, it was reported that “Sierra Madre yesterday solved its domestic water problems for all time, it was believed.”
Surviving camp structures, however, remained and there were occasional uses shortly after the acquisition, including the Pasadena Y.M.C.A.’s “Sioux Friendly Indian Club” through the Y’s boys’ department, which had a day outing ending at the camp. By fall 1943, however, the site was considered a fire risk by the City and federal forest officials. There were almost twenty structures “in various stages of disintegration” and filled with mattresses and debris. Forest service personnel, city firefighters, Kiwanis Club members and older Boy Scouts were to level the building and clean up the site for the Scouts to use for training and recreation.
Today, hikers can roam the site and still see a few remnants, such as rock foundations, of Orchard Camp. These photos and the real photo postcard from 1912 included here are documents of what was, for roughly thirty-five years, an oft-popular destination for hikers and campers during the Great Hiking Era in the San Gabriel range.