“The Geologic Mother of Southern California”: The Mountain Number of “The Land of Sunshine,” August 1895

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

With the Great Hiking Era starting during the time and concerns about flooding from storm waters emanating in the range mounting in succeeding decades, today’s featured artifact, comprising the “Mountain Number” of The Land of Sunshine issued in August 1895, is a particularly interesting one given what followed with the recreational and flood mitigation uses of the San Gabriel, more commonly called the Sierra Madre in the 19th century, range.

The magazine was edited, starting with the January 1895 issue, by Charles F. Lummis, one of the truly notable characters in greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and he brought in a number of prominent poets and writers to contribute to what was Los Angeles’ first durable and substantial literary magazine. The Homestead’s copy of the August number is ragged, with the upper right corner of the publication chewed off by who knows what. Fortunately, the losses do not involve any of the articles because of the generous margins employed on the pages!

In his essay, “The Mother Mountains,” the editor employed his usual loquacious style in his opening paragraphs:

There is wonderful significance in the name Sierra Madre; a poetry which the self-satisfied race would be none the worse for capacity to feel; an aptness upon which science at a latter century’s end cannot improve. It means more than the shaping of an infinite brood of foothills; more than a synonym for “the tallest range.” It is not Mother of Mountains, but Mother Mountains; whose offspring is—Southern California.

Into the mysteries along whose rim we crawl, the child-heart sees often deeper than do the brains of maturity. So it is, perhaps, nothing strange that a simple people of the childhood of the race, feeling dimly but truly toward wisdom yet to dawn, “put names” beyond which the author of Cosmos [referring, it appears, to the influential work of German explorer/scientist Alexander von Humboldt] could not have gone.

For in all lands and in all times the mountains have been the mothers . . .

More of Lummis’ signature purple prose followed, including his contention that mountains mated with the sea, cast here as a male, to create the land on which life developed with the “mother mountains” there to “suckle the thirsty land, and cover its rock-bones with plumpness from their own emaciation.”

This fanciful description led him to repeat that “the Sierra Madre has been the geologic mother of Southern California” and that the range captured the clouds dropping rain and snow on the peaks which “has given of her ripening granites to be carried down to fill this once vast lap of primary rock with soil, upon which an Eden blooms today.” As the process continues, Lummis went on, “the peaks grow gaunter, the valleys wax fat,” while the Pacific “blinks approvingly to that patient, wrinkled, snow-crowned face up yonder—what is left of the stark young range he took to wife when Time was new.”

The writer noted that the Sierra Madre range, with its abrupt steepness had just one contemporary in the Americas, that being the Cordillera of Peru and Chile, but the latter, he claimed “lacks the unique beauties of the Southern California cordillera.” The San Gabriel range, in fact, was such that “there is, probably, no other place on the globe where so much geography is crowded into so few miles.

The falls in Rubio Canyon by William H. Hill of Pasadena.

Again, Lummis waxed poetic as he rhapsodized that:

To look up from the aisles of an orchard heavy with orange-blossoms and golden with fruit to snowpeaks whose summits are not ten miles away in an air-line is an experience not to be had outside of the New Garden of Eden . . . I believe there is no other spot where the dweller in a city of 80,000 can leave a home among bananas and oranges and within 25 miles find the northern trout, deer, bear, bighorn, and other game; or ride from his door on electric cars to the heart of a wilderness of great peaks, gashed with vast cañons.

There is more of the wonderment in his discussion of the frequent retention of snow into the summer, especially on the north-facing slopes, and which was the source of “the magnificent reservoir which gives to drink to all this thirsty land,” as well as his listing of “dizzy cañons, exquisite waterfalls, ferny dells, great forests of giant pines and firs, hidden cañadas shady with enormous sycamores—and on the last peaks the bald domes of colossal granite.”

Lummis added what would become a commonplace saying about the remarkable climate of greater Los Angeles in observing that “in ‘winter’ you can snowball at 9 a.m., and at 11 be bathing in a summer sea.” For this and the other reasons elucidated in his panegyric, the writer insisted that “this vast huddle of granite giants is worthy to be better known than it is” and he added that “you can hardly find a valid excuse for ignoring it; since no other great mountain range in the world can be explored so cheaply, so handily, with so many ‘modern conveniences.'” Finally, he averred that “nature—who knows, quite as well as the philosophers, that mountains have as much to say in the development of human character as in the modeling of continents—has seen to it that here no thing shall be lacking that can aid her experiment in the evolution of a new race.”

Elsewhere, there is the second part of “A County of Outings” subtitled “Some Mountain Resorts” and which, likely written by Lummis, asserts that the array of offerings in the local ranges was such that ther was “no other in the world which has in that array of mountains so many charming resorts, and a perfect ocean, equally easy to be enjoyed, within eye-shot.” Chief among the outings was the remarkable Mt. Lowe Railway, which was a notable “combination of scenery with man’s most daring achievements.” It was claimed that the Echo Mountain House was “one of the best appointed hotels in California” and far superior to any of mountain hostelry elsewhere in the country, while the builder, Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, was lauded for being “the projector and accomplisher of this enormous enterprise.”

A trio of images from the “A Country of Outings” article.

Meanwhile, there were nearby camps, such as Martin’s, Strain’s, “and other delightful mild-roughing-it resorts,” along with “comfortable ‘camps’ in the principal cañons,” including Big Santa Anita and San Gabriel. Outside the immediate area there was Bear Valley (Big Bear), Cuyamaca near Ojai and areas near San Diego, while Santa Barbarand Ventura counties had the “most beautiful camping-grounds in mountain and cañon.” In all, this short piece concluded,

it is wholly safe to be said that nowhere else in the world can man find so many restful pleasures of mountain scenery and mountain sports, so easy of access, so comfortable in point of stay, so cheap, so varied and so delightful.

There are other features of interest, beyond those related to our local mountains. Adeline Stearns Wing’s article of Mission San Juan Capistrano indulges in the romantic perception of the decaying Spanish-era institutions that were fascinating to those only having a superficial understanding of them (though Lummis was a leader of The Landmarks Club, which sought to preserve and restore the missions).

San Juan Capistrano from the mission by Charles B. Waite.

In any case, Wing’s essay begins with the statement that, after disembarking from a train, “we come upon this picturesque ruin of semi-Moorish architecture, set in opalescent landscape of green hills and purple mountains, [and] we feel that we have wandered into another century, or become part of an old-time poem.” After invoking myth and legend about early California and other areas of the Spanish Americas, the author strangely opined that “when we remember how this mission itself sprang up in the midst of a wilderness, and blossomed so quickly into all that it was of [sic] good and rich and beautiful, it seems like a tale from the Arabian Nights, and this a bit of old Spain, transported here on a Magic Carpet, and then turning to ruin and decay, like most fairy gifts.”

The romanticism extended to her view that “you see this lovely country and the mission buildings with the eyes of the devoted priests who gave up all of love and fame to bring the savage heart to God.” Wing then went on a descriptive tour of the site, adding that “no photograph can do justice to this scene” while artists were “perpetrating horrors in red and nightmares in green under the name of water-colors,” so she called for “one of our great artists [who] would come and do justice to the most picturesque ruins in the United States!” She also critiqued “the labor of the savage” because the rooms, pillars, and spans of arches were not crafted properly. On the other hand, she praised “some excellent wooden statuettes of saints, of Indian workmanship.

Mission San Juan Capistrano by Frederick H. Maude.

Elsewhere, Wing reported on “the remains of what was once the finest library in the State” with books of leather and sheepskin bindings and some with “a portly dignity quite beyond that of our common books of the present day.” She also saw that “the first page of the record of marriages is written and signed by Junipero Serra, the saint and pioneer of California.” Yet, in the prior decade, many arches of the porticoes collapsed and in the last quarter-century “the buildings have been barbarously treated,” while the adobe enclosure wall for the gardens, orchards and vineyards was mostly gone.

Delving into local history from later periods, the writer noted that “near Capistrano is a clump of trees under which the celebrate dbandit, Flores (who, with his men, plundered and terrorized the pueblo for days,) ambushed and killed the Sheriff of Los Angeles county and all but one of his posse. She also claimed that weapons of Californio defenders during the Mexican-American War were captured there by John C. Frémont before “we wander back through the quaint little village, with everywhere its adobe ruins, and revel in the calm content of the placid inhabitants. They sit in bright-colored clothes under the brush roofs of their piazzas, and oblingingly make water-color pictures of themselves.”

Jonathan Trumbull (Juan José) Warner late in his life by John G. Schumacher.

Typically, Wing sought to make direct comparisons of past and present, asserting:

In the rush of our century Capistrano stands calm and still. Kind Nature goes on draping the sad old ruins of the mission with bewildering lines and colors—or does she wave, in each tiny grass and flower on the crumbling walls, a flag of triumph over those who invaded her unbroken privacy?

Henry D. Barrows, an avid chronicler of greater Los Angeles history, contributed a remembrance of Jonathan Trumbull (known commonly as Juan José) Warner, who died on 11 April at the age of 87. A native of Connecticut, his health led him west to St. Louis and then via the Santa Fe Trail to Mexican-era New Mexico. In September 1831, almost exactly a decade before the Rowland and Workman expedition, he and ten others used the new (and misnamed) Old Spanish Trail to Los Angeles.

The Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway crossing the Arroyo Seco at Garvanza, later annexed to Los Angeles and adjacent to Pasadena and South Pasadena.  The photo is by John R. Putnam.

Warner received a land grant to Rancho Agua Caliente (Hot Water) in what became San Diego County and remained there, at what has since been known as Warner Springs, for over a dozen years before returning to Los Angeles, where he briefly published the Southern Vineyard newspaper and served in the state assembly. In 1876, he, with former judge Benjamin Hayes and Dr. Joseph P. Widney, wrote the first published history of Los Angeles County and, several years later was said to be very helpful to Helen Hunt Jackson as she wrote her famous novel, Ramona. In his last years, he was completely blind, “but his intellectural faculties remained clear to the last.”

Finally, the 1890s was the age when the electric streetcar became the dominant means of urban and suburban transport in greater Los Angeles and “A Model Electric Road” discussed the just-completed Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway, which inaugurated service on 1 May. The piece began with the observation that “any city in the country might well be proud of so perfect an electric transit system . . . and it is doubtful if any other city can yet match it” and claimed that not even New York City had anything comparable.

A Putnam photo of the interior of one of the twenty cars carrying passengers on the Pasadena and Los Angeles Railway.

The eleven-mile line had a route that was considered “most fortunate” between Los Angeles and up the scenic Arroyo Seco to Chestnut Street, just west of today’s Civic Center and just south of Interstate 210/134 Freeway, in the Crown City; in fact, it was asserted that the line was such that “thus made easy of access, the charming valley of the Arroyo Seco will be built up densely all the way.” There was a single track, but it quickly was realized that a second needed to be added and which was just finished. Three major bridges spanned the Arroyo in Los Angeles, in nearby Garvanza (later annexed to the Angel City), and one over the Los Angeles Terminal Railway line in South Pasadena.

Details were provided as to the road, power station, car house, machine shop, water supply and cars, with the latter “finely upholstered and finished in mahogany, with plate-glass windows.” The piece added that “it is the intention to extend this system to a connection with the Mt. Lowe Railway at Altadena, which will greatly add to the public convenience and the patronage of the road—already extraordinarily large.”

The organizers, including Eli P. Clark and Moses Sherman, who were well-known in Los Angeles transportation and business circles, were congratulated for their “pluck and judgment” in completing the line during a nationwide labor strike (not to mention the aftermath of the Depression of 1893). There are also some excellent photos of the line, befitting the statement on the cover that the magazine was “lavishly illustrated.”

We’ll conclude with a sampling of poems by Charlotte Perkins Stetson, better known later with the married name of Gilman for such works as “The Yellow Wallpaper” and by Joaquin Miller, one of California’s first nationally known writers whose popularity was highest in the 1870s, but who was not always viewed as a great versifier as much as someone who self-consciously cultivated a frontier image in such countries as England and was known as an inveterate liar. In any case, the “Poet of the Sierras” contributed an anti-mountain poem, “Give Me The Desert,” of which here are a few lines:

Give me the desert! I should trust

Nor sea nor ship nor mountain chine.

Nude nature, ashen, prone in dustry ;

So like this bittered life of mine.

Give me the desert, emptied quite

Of all that maketh man’s delight.

The desert! dust, bone, stone for me,

And there, companioned but by Him

Behold my faith shall grow a tree

So bright all other shall grow dim ;

So tall no serpent eye can sight ;

So green no slander tongue can blight.

As for Stetson, her brief contribution was titled “It Is Good To Be Alive” and is a paean to nature and its bolstering of life:

It is good to be alive when the trees shine green

And the steep red hills stand up against the sky ;

Big sky, blue sky, with flying clouds between—

It is good to be alive and see the clouds drive by.

It is good to be alive when the strong winds blow,

The strong sweet winds blowing straight off the sea,

Great sea, green sea, with swinging ebb and flow—

It is good to be alive and see the waves roll free.

The Homestead has a good selection of The Land of Sunshine and its successor, Out West, which was edited by Lummis until 1909, though, after his departure, the magazine continued until the early 1920s when it merged with the older and well-known The Overland Monthly until the combined periodical folded in the mid-Thirties. So, check back for more posts about this important regional magazine.

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