At Our Leisure: A Photo of Camp Rincon, The Gem of San Gabriel Canyon, July 1908

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As a number of posts on this blog have noted, the Great Hiking Era spanned from the late 1890s to the 1930s, when many Americans developed a passion for the great outdoors through tramps in the wilderness, but also camping, fishing, hunting and other activities. A string of resorts and camps sprung up in the San Gabriel Mountains during this period, including the subject of today’s highlighted artifact from the museum’s holdings, this being a photograph of Camp Rincon in San Gabriel Canyon.

Taken by Ernest B. Gray, who was discussed extensively in a previous post here, the elevated view looks over the three main campground buildings and glimpses of other structures including tent and other cabins, spread over the 40-acre site, a quarter of a tract owned by C.D. Potter, just south of the confluence of the north and west forks of the San Gabriel River, not quite fifteen miles north of Azusa.

An early ad for Camp Rincon, Los Angeles Times, 12 May 1903.

It turns out that the Covina Argus of 27 June 1908, in its “Notes from Camp Rincon,” reported that “Mr. and Mrs. E.B. Gray, the photographers, are located here for the summer.” It may be that this photo was just published, when it was purchased by a woman named Bertha and sent to her younger sister, Myrtle of Jasper, Missouri.

The message, in part, referred to the celebration of Independence Day by saying

We went up in the San Gabril Canion [sic]. This is a picture of the Camp where we went. It is a fine place. We had a fine time . . . Today we taken [sic] some pictures up at the camp and when I finish them [get them finished] I will send you some.

As for the camp, some sources state that it was opened in 1897, though the earliest newspaper references located were from a half-decade later (and a 1906 ad said it had been open for four years), including when operators Charles E. Smith and a partner named Hall advertised in the Los Angeles Times of 12 May 1903 that “this beautiful resort is now open [perhaps for the season]” and that “fishing [is] in prime condition,” while the site offered a “level camp ground, [and] plenty of shade. By August, however, Smith was managing the resort on his own and also advertised that there was “good table, good service,” while the camp was a “clean and cool” place to spend a summer vacation.

Times, 14 May 1905.

Notably, in its 1904 season ads, the camp specifically stated that “no consumptives taken,” meaning that no one with tuberculosis, a highly contagious lung disease, was going to be accepted at the facility. The following year, Smith advertised that the camp had a new tennis court and croquet grounds and that the trout fishing was the best it had been for years. In fact, just two weeks later, the Times reported that legendary outdoors man Augustus (Gus) Knight, who happened to be married to Mary Workman, a granddaughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was “not the only man [in the region] who can catch big trout,” as Smith hauled in a large fish a quarter mile from the camp.

Later in 1905, Potter sold the 160 acres and associated water rights from the river or $10,500 to a group and the Los Angeles Express reported that “the new owners and the lessees [Smith remained the proprietor of the camp] are said to be planning extensive improvements for the resort.” The next spring, the trails were being improved before the peak summer season, including a new horseback trail on the west side of the river.

Los Angeles Express, 14 October 1905.

In May 1906, the Times noted that the San Gabriel Cañon and Resort Company was formed in Azusa and that it had purchased the Potter ranch. Moreover, the paper stated that

The company has let a contract for the immediate construction of three buildings, each 30×50 feet. The first to be used as offices, parlors, rest and baggage rooms; the second a dining room, with a kitchen annex; the third to be used as a pavilion or amusement hall.

These are, of course, the trio of structures shown in the photo and it was added that other bulidings “required to make the resort complete in its appointments” were to be constructed and a plunge [swimming pool] and telephone system were also on tap. That September, there was even a Rincon Photo and Amusement Club formed in Los Angeles, “composed [a pun, perhaps?] of people who were at Camp Rincon the past summer” and who had “interesting kodak and other pictures” to share.

Times, 21 May 1906.

In summer 1907, the Argus, in its “Camp Rincon” update, stated that “as a summer resort, a place of rest, amusement and general toning up of a fagged [tired] body organism, the nearby camps [such as Bonita, Coldbrook and Follows] in the San Gabriel Canyon are becoming more popular year by year.” It added that “of these camps Rincon has been improved to a greater extent than any other . . . here may be obtained the best table board and tents for rooms at a surprisingly reasonable cost.” Furnished tents made for easy maintenance and the store offered “everything from choice cuts of steak to the most seasonable fruit.”

Horseback and burro trips, tennis and croquet, fishing and hunting, and “the new swimming pool” were featured and it was noted that “a good orchestra gives a short concert every evening, after which dancing is enjoyed on the new pavilion.” The paper continued that “the camp is now crowded to its fullest capacity and many Covina people are registered.” It felt compelled to add that “the plan everything is run on draws the best class of people and the free mountain life seems to make everybody sociable and ready to welcome the newcomer and help them to have a good time.”

Covina Argus, 24 August 1907.

As use of the mountains increased and the role of federal government in managing what was then a forest reserve (it is now a federal monumnet), trails were added and/or improved dramatically during these years. In its edition of 17 April 1908, the Times reported that an 18-mile trail from Monrovia to the west fork of the San Gabriel River was just completed after three years, while “a new trail is being built between the Camp Rincon Resort and San Gabriel Cañon,” though, because the camp was actually in the canyon, it may be that what was meant was a better access route into it from the valley and then to the camp, especially because it was stated the trail was fourteen miles long.

The account noted that “it will not only furnish a ready mode of access for visitors to the mountains, but will be of great assistance in safeguarding against fires,” with wildfires, naturally, always of great concern. To pay for the project, the paper added that “part of the money required for the work is being taken from the county fund and part from the fund of the forest service.”

Redondo Reflect, 23 April 1908.

The Redondo Reflex of the 23rd clarified that the trailhead was from Sawpit Canyon, which is now part of the Monrovia Canyon Park, and the Monrovia Canyon Truck Trail leads to the Upper Clamshell Truck Trail, which in turn intersects with the Rincon Shortcut OHV Trail, terminating east at the resort location. That paper pointed out that

The completion this week of the Sawpit canyon trail leading from Monrovia to Camp Rincon is the San Gabriel canyon, will establish the connecting link in a circular trail which will permit of a round trip from Monrovia to Azusa through the heart of the San Gabriel forest reserve. The trail is twenty-three miles in length from Monrovia to Azusa . . . One of the uses to which the trails will be put is the transportation of men and supplies in times of forest fires.

Shortly afterward, on 2 May, the Argus noted that “Camp Rincon, that restful and delightful spot among the pines, amid the grandeurs of the San Gabriel canyon” was opening for the summer season. It added that there were abundant trout in the streams to “disport themselves,” while the facility’s “management states that this season they are better equipped than ever for the accommodation of guests.”

Argus, 2 May 1908.

More ground was cleared, the “plunge bath,” or swimming pool, was completed, showers added, and there was a new dining room and pavilion. Sanitary condition were also improved, while “they raise their own vegetables and always have a plentiful supply of good Jersey milk from their own herd.” An ice house was also just finished, while “pleasing attractions of the camp are a first-class tennis court and croquet ground and a pavilion for use for meetings or amusement, where the piano is located.”

As for accommodations, the paper added “there is a splendid assortment of campers’ tents, which are fitted with frame and floor, and well located in shade, and convenient to water.” These tents had beds, bedding, stoves, dishware and everything else needed for campers. There was also a new manager as Smith was replaced by [Henry] Dwight Briggs, who, it was said, was available to get visitors situated and procure supplies and groceries for them.

Times, 2 August 1908.

The piece concluded by averring that “no more ideal summer resort can be found in the mountains of Southern California.” Not only that, but “within easy reach of the camp are many beauty spots in the mountains which can be reached on foot or horseback and a good supply of the best saddlehorses and pack animals are always at the disposal of the guests at the camp at a small remuneration.”

In August, the Times provided some fairly extensive coverage of a masquerade ball held at Rincon and it was noted that the new pavilion “was beautifully decorated from the cañon’s bountiful store of mountain flowers and greenery, including ferns which were pronounced to be complementary to the display of the American flag. An orchestral march, it was added, “mingled with music of the rippling San Gabriel River a short distance away.”

Times, 23 August 1908.

The account continued that the conductor “had hardly raised his baton when in marched a strange lot of people,” including Mary and her little lamb, Dianas from ancient Greece, a cowboy, and “chinamen, negroes, [and] mammies,” with these latter seeming perfectly natural for the all-white attendees used to the casual and overt displays of racism like this. Notably, there was, in 1911, an effort to establish a resort called Camp Ussher nearby on the east fork and Cattle Canyon “solely for colored men and women,” though it is not known how this project fared.

As to the masquerade ball, prizes were handed out and it was reported that “Carrie Nation [that is, someone dressed as the hatchet-wielding radical temperance reformer who died a few years later] was present, but found no fault with the crowd, as it was strictly temperate.” In August, the management even staged a mock “hold up” with manager Briggs the driver of the open vehicle begging for his life from the trio of desperadoes waving their guns and calling for money and jewelry and the like before guests were informed of the hoax. Gray even took a photo that was reprinted in the Times.

The Homestead has a few dozen other Camp Rincon photographs and a couple of brochures, though this appears to be the earliest and so we’ll share more of these and some of the resort’s history in later posts, so please check back with us.

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