by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As noted in a recent post here about Orchard Camp, the Mt. Wilson Trail was built in 1864 by Benjamin D. Wilson, the prominent rancher, early Los Angeles mayor, and state senator who came to this area with the Workman family and others late in 1841, so he could pursue logging on the mountain that bears his name. Early references to Orchard Camp were located in the middle of the first decade of the 20th century and, soon after, the trail became the focus of competitive trail running.
Tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings is a real photo postcard from 7 July 1907 showing J.C. Wright posed on Inspiration Rock. Clad in a long-sleeved shirt with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows, knee-length trousers with black socks to his knees, and light-colored hiking boots, Wright stands astride the granite projection and gazes out to the distance away from the unidentified photographer.
At the top of the photo is inscribed in ink, “On Inspiration Rock / Mt. Wilson” while in the margin at the bottom, Wright proudly recorded, “I am the champion mountain climber of Calif. now. Just broke the former record of 1:59 for climbing Mt. Wilson distance 9 miles. I left the foot at 7:15, arrived at the top at 9:09, beating the record 5 min., resting 5 min, I climbed down 1:13 min.” He signed his name and inscribed his Los Angeles at 1012 S. Olive Street, just south of 10th Street, later named Olympic Boulevard because of the 1932 games held in the city.
That former record, however, was not exactly either long-standing or terribly official, though the Los Angeles Times did report on 25 June that
J.C. Wright climbed Mt. Wilson Sunday in 1 hour and 54 minutes, beating the time made by Eugene Estopp[e]y a week ago by five minutes. Wright started from the foot of the mountain at 7:15 o’clock, yesterday morning [the report obviously was sent to the paper the day before publication], and reached the summit at 9:09. At 10:28 he was again at the base of the climb. Before the trip Wright weighed 114 pounds, and after the climb tipped the scales for five pounds less. His height is 5 feet 6 inches.
To verify the feat, there were three witnesses at the trailhead leading into Little Santa Anita Canyon, while two others were at the summit and it was added that Wright decided to try and best Estoppey’s effort after reading about it in the Times.
Moreover, it was reported that Wright, whose portrait accompanied the article, was a recent immigrant having “arrived in Los Angeles from Missouri on January 22; having made the trip on a bicycle” traveling almost 3,400 miles in sixty-six days. The paper added that “he has never had a special interest in mountain climbing, but his athletic training has fitted him for this kind of exercise.”
Apprised of Wright’s feat, Estoppey, a native of Switzerland where the Alps were an excellent training ground, proclaimed that his run up to the summit was timed incorrectly and that he actually completed the trek in 1 hour 50 minutes. The Times noted “he says that he can beat that mark by several minutes” and that he could do so either “in a match race with one or more entries, or by himself.” He challenged Wright to “a special match race at any time” and told the paper that on Sunday he walked the route all the way and did so in just above two hours and would make the trip again the next Sunday. In fact, there was talk of weekly walks up the trail and Estoppey offered to be the guide for that upcoming jaunt.
Nothing further was found regarding Wright until the end of 1907, when the Times noted that he was making weekly ascents to Mt. Wilson with a 62-year old man who packed his dinner for the Sunday sessions. The article, which noted that the latter gent missed the prior day’s trek, repeated that Wright was still the acknowledged record-holder for making the trip at an hour and fifty-four minutes. There was, however, a next step in an official manner.
This involved a race in April 1908 being sanctioned by the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), established in 1888, and with a grand prize, valued at $150, established by Richard F. Fox, publisher of the Police Gazette in New York and whose son, Charles, was visiting Sierra Madre and a mountain enthusiast (this period was known nationally as the Great Hiking Era, lasting from the late 1890s through the 1930s). It was said that Fox wanted to promote mountain climbing, which was gaining in popularity in the western United States.
The plan for the Fox prize was for the gold medal (worth, it was said, $50) winner to retain it for a year until the next contest, though anyone taking first place three consecutive years could keep it for life. Meanwhile, the champion was to receive a gold medal with the two runner-ups to be given silver and bronze ones, with all retained by the racers. Having the AAU involved was due to a “ruling that no athletes belonging to that organization could compete for medals of large monetary value” in any events sponsored by the Union, but the Mt. Wilson race was off its schedule and thereby posed no conflict.
The Pomona Progress of 4 April reported that “the first effort against time” on record was noted at the Mt. Wilson Hotel register when Estoppey made his record 1:59 race up to the mountain on 16 June, but it noted that, while he claimed he actually was nine minutes faster, “as the Mt. Wilson hotel has changed management since June the register is the last court of appeal.” It added that Wright’s scramble a week later was still considered the record-setting effort until Austrian Paul Reinwald, another experienced Alps mountaineer, took to the trail on 1 February.
Reinwald got to the top at 1:50 and 30 seconds, while also making the downward trip four minutes faster than Wright. Not to be outdone, Reinwald made a second round trip in time for lunch and, on 7 March, with snow on the route, he went up in 1:43 and then back in just 57 minutes and, once again, took a second run. Finally, H.C. Bowden was said to have shattered Reinwald’s overall mark with a 1:47 scamper up and just 47 minutes descending.
The race was set for the 29th with the Los Angeles Herald reporting that “the trail has been put in shape as far as the half-way house,” which is where Orchard Camp was situated, with the remainder to the summit said to be “in fairly good condition.” There were reported to be six entrants including Bowden (who had a leg injury, however, though he elected to still compete), Reinwald, Estoppey, Ed Norman of Los Angeles, high schooler Glenn Morrissey of Alhambra (who, however, did not run, after all), and Wright, with all feted by Charles Fox at a hotel the evening prior to the contest.
The first runner was to start at 7 a.m. with others following at ten minute intervals. Once at the summit, there was to be a half-hour rest period before the descent. The article concluded with the observation that “a recent measurement of the trail up to Mount Wilson registered slightly more than seven miles, and this distance, over the rough ground, will prove the capabilities of any runner.” Naturally, there were to be no short cuts and the trail was to be kept to strictly.
The Times, however, stated that the route was nine miles one way, adding that the event was “probably the fastest aggregation of long-distance runners ever gathered together in Southern California.” Not only this, but that paper reported that the record was actually then held by Joseph B. King of San Francisco, who on the 26th, scurried up to the summit in 1 hour and 36 minutes, while Estoppey was said to have made the trip in 1:41. Moreover, King, in what was his first time on the trail, asserted he lost a full five minutes “by getting off the trail just above Martin’s Camp.” The paper recorded that there were eleven entrants.
When the Herald published a photo of the contestants the day after the race, there were nine men lined up. The paper’s Chester L. Lawrence filed a lengthy report in which it was announced that King raced up to the top in just 1 hour and 25 minutes with guests at the Mt. Wilson Hotel watching him through telescopes. He was reported to have “crossed the tape at the summit strong and without the sign of a sweat,” though he said he was quite cold when moving through lower sections of the trail. Notably, he continued standing and walked around the hotel during the half-hour rest period before heading down with his descent taking just 46 1/2 minutes.
Twenty minutes later, Estoppey reached the summit, but was “panting hard with his face drawn” and Wright, a resident of Riverside and said to be a vegetarian, soon appeared “running strong” as he made it to the top and then took a cold bath “which refreshed him greatly and evidently helped on the down run.” While the former loudly proclaimed that he had plenty of energy in reserve for the downhill, he wound up being passed by the latter, as well as Norman and C.L. Hanlon.
Hanlon, in fact, “reached the top of the trail strong and with a good stride” and just seven minutes behind King’s time, so it was anticipated he would finish second. Otto Carque, born in France and raised in Germany, was a Los Angeles vegetarian and natural food promoter and, when he got to the top he promptly dropped on a blanket and remained there for the 30 minute rest having gone “all in.” The last to make it to the summit was 55-year old H.H. Wheeler, who didn’t train, but did ride a bicycle 25 miles to the start of the race and then made his way up.
Reinwald, however, considered a favorite to win and who trained for three months, was not able to complete the race as “his shoes gave out, the sharp stones on the trail cutting them to pieces before he reached the half-way house.” He would not stop “until his feet were cut and bleeding from the rough path.” The Times reported that he lost a shoe which fell off and went down a cliff. Bowden’s injury forced him to abandon the race, while W.C. Dewey, just over a major illness, quit after the “quarter-way house.”
As King approached the finish line, he was still running strong and was given a great cheer as he waved his arms and yelled and showed how fit he was after the grueling race by doing two handsprings and then sprinting down to a hotel for a bath and rubdown before returning to the finish line. Wright finished second, though he “was on the verge on the collapse” and couldn’t acknowledge the ovation of the crowd as he needed to be assisted to his “dressing quarters.” Norman was third and “came in panting hard, but otherwise strong.”
The Herald called the race a great success and congratulated Charles Fox for his management and it was stated that this is the first of many races which will take place on the trail and promises to be one of the biggest amateur events in the country.” In all, eight of a dozen men finished the race, with one making it to the summit but having to make the descent on a burro.
There was a race in 1909 and Wright, who’d moved to Seattle, was reported to have considered entering, but he chose not to compete. None of the top finishers from the prior year were among those coming in among the upper three and the winner, Ed Dietrich of Los Angeles, was 3 1/2 minutes under King’s time, with the ascent being the only official time.
From then, there were occasional Mt. Wilson Trail races through the late Forties or early Fifties and then about fifteen years passed before a revival took place in fall 1965 and has remained consistent since then. The course, however, has been from the bottom to Orchard Camp (about halfway to Mt. Wilson) and back, spanning some 8.6 miles. Moreover, fires, floods and quakes have altered the route and so no official time is kept and this year’s race is scheduled for 16 October.
This photo of J.C. Wright as he proudly asserted his supremacy, short-lived though it proved to be, as the “champion mountain climber of California,” is reflective both of the growing popularity of mountain sports and the attention given to our local mountains during the early years of the Great Hiking Era. He did, however, gain a place as a pioneer in a tradition that continues to this day with the modified Mount Wilson Trail Race.