by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Past posts in this blog have discussed aspects of the history of Mt. Wilson, the peak in the San Gabriel Mountain range above Pasadena and Altadena named for Benjamin D. Wilson (1811-1878), who came to Los Angeles in the Rowland and Workman expedition of 1841. One post dealt with the remarkable work conducted during the 1920s by astronomer Edwin Hubble at the famed observatory. Another brief entry shared an impressive winter scene from about 1910 at the Mt. Wilson Hotel, a long-standing facility on the peak near the observatory, an earlier version of which was funded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie.
A third offering here highlighted a pair of photos taken at the camp near the peak established by Ashbel G. Strain, who was active in real estate in Long Beach during the famed Boom of the 1880s before homesteading on Mt. Wilson. Strain had a strained relationship with others, including the proprietors of the well-known Hollenbeck Hotel in Los Angeles and Peter Steil, who had his own camp, who claimed possession of the land in that area, though he emerged largely victorious in bitter battles on the spot and in court.
What was not mentioned in that latter post was that, by 1890, Strain advertised his log cabin as the Mt. Wilson Hotel and camp, which, he stated, offered “good accommodations” near the rudimentary first observatory with meals and lodgings at fifty cents each (meaning each meal and each night’s day were that price separately) per day and where the “bus meets trains for foot of trail, where burros can be had.” For one day, a burro could be rented for $2. This, of course, was the Mount Wilson Trail, sometimes a toll road, heading up Little Santa Anita Canyon from Sierra Madre.
The Los Angeles Times of 9 May 1890 noted that Strain “has a comfortable old-style log cabin built of pine and fir logs, which is nestled in a cañon beneath lofty trees and close to pure water and furnishes a delightful resort for tired mountain climbers who make the journey up Wilson trail.” The account added that “he will add to the attractions of his retreat a telescope with three-inch lens, which is to be mounted on a prominent point to gain an unobsctructed view of the valley and the heavens.” Because the observatory as not open to the public, this was a boon for visitors, though Strain was looking to obtain a superior instrument.
By 1895, Strain sold out to James H. Holmes, the long-time manager of the famed Hotel Green (built by Holmes’ brother-in-law, Colonel George G. Green and the remnant of which is now the Castle Green luxury apartment complex) and William Morgan of the Mt. Wilson Toll Road Company, with these two men possessors of nearly 900 acres in what was called “Strain’s Camp” and another 220 in Henninger’s Flats, established by William K. Henninger, a long-time resident of San Gabriel and said to be the first to find gold in San Gabriel Canyon when he prospected there in 1858.
A decade later, Holmes, along with William R. Staats, a prominent Pasadena bonds and real estate dealer, and two other Crown City gents, comprising the Mount Wilson Resort Company, associated with the toll road firm, “decided upon making extensive improvements at their resort, to be completed in time for use during the summer season.” It was added that “this will include a new water and sewer system , a hotel, dancing pavilion and thirty cottages.”
A Times article from 12 May 1905 noted that builder D.M. Renton had material for the hotel, cottages and other elements hauled by the mountain by burros, and that the resort was to open in July. The piece concluded with the observation that “there has been an increasing demand for facilities at Mount Wilson, and the success of the undertaking is practically assured from the start.”
At the start of the following year, Holmes, Staats and W.S. Wright of the resort company organized the Mount Wilson Railroad Company, which took over from the toll road firm and planned, but never got beyond that stage, a line up to their resort. What was completed at that time, however, was a new Pacific Electric Railway streetcar line to Sierra Madre and the Los Angeles Herald reported that, on the first day of business, 8 January, hundreds tramped up the trail with some making the eight-mile trek to Mt. Wilson “for a glimpse of the new resort there.” The hotel was then operated by Robert B. Rich and Jacob M. Beard, who had 75 guests despite frozen water pipes.
That April, there were further reports of large crowds in the mountains and Beard informed the Herald that there were 60 guests who enjoyed the “absolutely perfect” daytime conditions, but who found the cold at night such that it “forced the guests to gather closely around the roaring fire in the big fireplace.” That summer, an ad, “Among the Pines” stated that the “Mt. Wilson Hotel and cottages offer unexcelled advantages” as the altitude at nearly 6,000 feet meant “the air is always cool, bracing, and dry, the table the best, and the spring water is famous for its good qualities.”
In addition to hiking and hunting, there was the promotion of “ski-jumping” as “between the Mt. Wilson Hotel and Strain’s camp,” noted the Times of 29 January 1907, “there are long reaches of gentle slope, covered six feet deep with close-packed snow, where easy jumps could be essayed by beginners.” It was even claimed that there were plenty of spots for “this exhilirating sport” to be practiced in ways that would rival what happened in Norway or the Swiss Alps, but even safer, because of the lack of ice and fewer sheer precipices.
New sports were being introduced, as well, one of which was trail racing, highlighted here in a recent post, while improvements to the Mt. Wilson Trail completed just two days prior meant that Edward Loudencios raced up the renovated route at the end of May 1907 in his Reading Standard motorcycle in 49 minutes, with his return taking 45 minutes, including five stops to snap photos to commemorat his achievement.
It was reported in the Herald of the 27th that “visitors at the Mt. Wilson hotel on the summit were astonished at about 9 o’clock to hear the chug-chug of a motorcycle on the trail.” Beard hoped to congratulate Loudencios on his feat, but the intrepid rider didn’t even stop to take it all in, but promptly raced back down to make his record time. The piece ended that Beard “offers properly to entertain the first automobile party which shall mount the new trail” and the paper prophesied that “the burro trains up Mt. Wilson are about doomed before the march of this up-to-date means of passenger and freight transportation.”
In September 1909, a group in an Oldsmobile 30-horsepower automobile made the ascent in a record-setting 45 minutes, while a pair of gents in a Mercedes drove six miles from Pasadena and then up the trail with the entire trip taking an hour and twenty minutes. It was also only a matter of time before auto excursions into many areas of the mountain range became commonplace, including in many areas where such access was later banned.
In early 1908, there was reporting of another popular means of ascending the slopes to Mt. Wilson, as up to six hundred people disembarked from the streetcar for a “torchlight procession” at night. The Times noted that “so eager were they to see real snowdrifts and to revel in the delights of snow battles that they were willing to mount the steep and winding trail after dark, guided by the glimmer of lanterns.” Stating that “the Mt. Wilson Hotel was taxed to its limits,” the paper added that “fifty men sat up all of Saturday night in the hotel dining room” and “organized a glee cluband whiled away the long hours with song.”
In May 1907, Rich sold out his interest in the hotel to Beard, who, shortly after, transferred it back to Holmes and his associates (and then went on to operate Orchard Camp), with Fred Ross hired to manage the enterprise, which also included Strain’s Camp and the spring 1908 reopening of Sturtevant’s Camp nearby after five years of closure “on account of the forest reserve law” with the head of the federal Department of Forestry Gifford Pinchot ruling that the camp was on protected land, a ruling reiterated shortly after the camp resumed operations.
There were also major improvements being made to the Mt. Wilson Observatory in the late 1900s including “the revolving dome which is to house the largest lens in the world” and this, the Times of 12 October 1908, reported, “has furnished increased interest for the guests of the Mt. Wilson Hotel.” In addition to snow and tower scopes, the new dome was about finished with its sixty-inch lens, or silver plate mirror, being readied for positioning once the mechanism for operating the telescope was completed.
In June 1909, the paper reported on the sinking of a 90-foot pit “for the big tower solar telescope” while the dome was to rise 175 feet above ground. Less than a year later, Carnegie came to Los Angeles and spent a night at the hotel, though fog and clouds prevented him from getting a clear view of the heavens through the instruments he funded.
Recurring challenges continued during these years, including wildfires, a cottage fire that fortunately was limited to the destruction of just one unit and a December 1909 conflagration that destroyed the Monastery, a wood-frame structure housing staff and astronomers at the observatory, as well as further battles over the control of land in the area.
With the latter, Charles Chantry, who arrived at Big Santa Anita Canyon in 1905 from the mines of South Dakota, began operating burro teams to haul people and materials to camps, but ran afoul of both the operators of the Mt. Wilson Hotel and Orchard Camp (or the Halfway House, so named because it was halfway from Sierra Madre to the summit and which opened a few years prior).
When the McNallys, operators of Orchard Camp, confiscated Chantry’s burros “on the ground that they were trespasers on [their] private property” and demanded rent of $1 per stall for the animals, Ross of the hotel added that the Mt. Wilson Resort Company and the McNallys’ Orchard Camp Company spent some $500 annually on maintaining the trail “which is a county highway and therefore open to the public.”
But, he alleged, Chantry “misrepresents Mt. Wilson and Orchard Camp” but “who never spent a dollar toward the upkeep of the trail” and “something must be done to protect reliable interests.” Moreover, the McNallys challenged the notion that the Mt. Wilson Trail was public, claiming that it had private interests due to an arrangement with the Carnegie-funded observatory. Nothing, however, could be found about the outcome other than that Chantry did retrieve his animals on a writ, pending a court ruling on the matter.
In April 1910, when Halley’s Comet made its approach (being the first such time when it could be photographed), it was reported by the Herald of the 25th that 1,500 people clambered up to Mt. Wilson hoping to see the phenomenon. The chief clerk of the hotel noted that it was filled to capacity and many were turned away, while “several hundred who arose early to get a look at Venus came away satisfied that they had seen Halley’s comet.” As late as early August, a minstrel show held at the venue featured “jokes from Mars, Venus, Halley’s comet and other famous planets and stars.”
As for the image, it was taken by Ernest B. Gray, a prolific photographer of the San Gabriel range and its many camps and resorts, and shows about the same view as the winter scene mentioned at the beginning of this post. There are several people posed next to the structure with its dormer balcony, large stone fireplace and screened area (which was previously open) at the right, while pines and other trees are in abundance behind the building. A short note on the back, dated 13 August 1910, stated “I’ve made the trip and feel fine, rode a burro 1/2 way and walked 1/2 way, going to walk all the way back.” There was a fire that destroyed the hostelry in 1913, though it was rebuilt and stood for over a half-century until it was razed in 1966.