by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With both the explosive growth of Los Angeles and the increasing emphasis on both mountain recreation and the expansion of municipal parks and playgrounds for the benefit of residents, the creation in the 1910s of a city vacation camp at Seely Flats in the San Bernardino Mountains was one of many examples of the significant investment made by the municipality for its citizens. Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is a circa 1918 (there are date stamps of 5 January 1918 and 6 June 1923, the latter from the News Enterprise Association, but the clothing and hair styles seem to favor the former as the date it was taken) photo of a group of young women on a hike at the camp, showing them amid pines with part of the range in the distance.
The idyllic location above San Bernardino was named for David Seely (1819-1892,) a key Mormon leader of that city, when it was established by LDS members in 1851. He was from Whitby, Ontario, Canada and his wife Mary Pettit from New York, but the two joined the church and migrated to Zion (Utah) in 1847, following this with their move to the church colony.
A sawmill was established at the flats, but in the extraordinarily wet winter of 1861-62, the enterprise was flooded out and a new mill was built nearby. A half-century later, after the mountain range became part of the national forest system, the City of Los Angeles found the site ideal for its purposes of establishing a municipal camp and a lease was ready to be arranged.
As announced in the Los Angeles Times of 29 August 1913, “a summer vacation camp in the very heart of the pine woods of the San Bernardino Mountains” was to be established by the Playground Commission, with Superintendent Charles B. Raitt, appropriately-named commission member Richmond Plant, and a forest service supervisor inspecting the 25-acre parcel before submitting the plan, which included just $10 a year in lease fees, to the commission.
Right away, a misspelling took place as the land was called “Seeley Flats,” but the paper noted that “it is in the very midst of the pines, and Seeley Creek meanders through the grounds, while springs are located close at hand on either side of the tract,” which is fourteen miles north of San Bernardino off what became State Route 18. Because of the excellent road, it was added that transport costs would be similar to that of what was used as a city summer camp the prior two years in the much-closer Fish Canyon near the mouth of San Gabriel Canyon above Duarte, but which was determined to be too small for anticipated growth.
Just before Thanksgiving, however, the Los Angeles Express reported that “there is danger that the Los Angeles playground commission may lose the ideal playground camp site in Seeley flats” because the head forester in Washington “has issued an order throwing the land . . . open for Homestead entry,” with two such filings purportedly submitted.
The commission rushed out letters to the Secretary of Agriculture as well as regional members of the House of Representatives and the state’s two senators, arguing that, not only was the property perfect for the municipal camp, but that Los Angeles had more than a half-million denizens and “is on the road to 1,000,000 inhabitants in a few years.”
In mid-January 1914, the good news was received from the Agriculture Department that the flats was going to be leased to the city, after all, and the Times noted that there would be a nominal amount charged “which in turn will come from the boys and girl[s] who will pay a very small weekly sum of their actual living expenses.” It was explained that the department stipulated that the use of the land for public benefit outweighed any homesteading considerations:
Since the lands are desired by the city of Los Angeles for municipal use, one which appears to be of pressing necessity to the city, and to be of great benefit to a large portion of the population, it is believed that governmental or municipal use is superior to agricultural use.
Raitt was quoted as saying that “the boys and girls from the poorer families look forward to such a treat and there are a number of them who are working today to save enough to allow them the privilege of the outing next summer. The new camp will be a great improvement over the old and we will be able to double our capacity during the first year.” Estimates were that up to 1,000 persons would use the camp in that inaugural season.
As the initial outing neared, well-known clothier Francis B. Silverwood, who also wrote the lyrics to the state song, “I Love You, California,” and who was a playground commission member, announced that he and his friends would pony up the $750 for the first 100 boys to use the site. Though there was probably some reason that made sense to the commission, boys were allowed use of the camp in July, followed by girls in August and, finally, families had a couple of weeks into mid-September before the season closed.
Just after the Fourth of July, the pioneering party of campers arrived at the site, having had the distinction of being the first passengers on a newly completed Pacific Electric streetcar from the Angel City to Railto, from where buses took them to Seely Flats. it was reported by the Express of the 6th that the young men’s “arms [were] loaded with baseball bats, tennis rackets, mit[t]s and other recreation equipment” for use during their two-week sojourn.
One early photo printed in the Times of that date showed the newly poured concrete for the swimming pool and, its detailed coverage, the paper noted that the 1,800 square-foot plunge was continuously fed with sping water, though its transport over a long distance lessened the coldness. Daytime sports, games and hikes were folowed by evening concerts, games, mock trials and campfires, while food was served in the “open air dining room,” meaning out under the shade of the pines. There were also to be clases in hwo to prevent forest fires, avoid getting lost and, if the latter did happen, how to make a temporary camp.
Notably, the Times recorded that there were more applications coming in for girl campers than for boys and, for each month, there would be two large groups of each gender taking two weeks at a time. From the end of August until 14 September, families could use the camp, though it was noted that “the management is unable to make any special provisions for the babies or children under 3 years of age.” Also mentioned was that there was a first aid station and physician on hand, as well as a phone.
The 31 August edition of the Express described the “small army, bearing heavy blankets, canteens and other camping paraphernalia” which “hummed, sang and laughed” on the trip—most of the “soldiers” were women and children, with just a few men partaking of the experience of getting out an enjoying nature.
On 2 September, the paper reported that close to 500 campers used the site those first two months, while about 50 others in families would complete the last two weeks—this was quite a bit fewer than previously stated, but more than triple the attendance at any of the previous summer camps offered at Fish Canyon. Moreover, the success was such “that it will be greatly enlarged in accommodations for next season.”
There were, however, some challenges, including the risk of damage from a forest fire just a few days later that roare up from a canyon on the north side of the range out of a Mojave Desert-facing canyon. In November, a claim was filed against the City on behalf of a teenager who broke his arm during a visit “but was allowed to lie in a tent without care or medical and surgical assistance, and then was instructed to take his pack and walk two miles to the stage line,” after which he had to wait several hours. Additionally, it was asserted that he contracted pneumonia and “has been permanently disabled by the injuries and lack of attention.” Nothing was found about a ruling on his $30,000 claim.
For the second season, a recreation and assembly hall was constructed and “wherein the campers may asemble at nights for music and entertainments, and to have a huge stone fireplace built in the center of the building.” The third season, however, saw this concept greatly enlarged so that “construction of the largest log cabin on the Pacific coast” was engaged for a nearly 5,000 square-foot, one-and-a-half story structure with an assembly hall, library and reading room. The facility was dubbed “The Lodge,” but it wasn’t to be ready until 1917, with the opening day of the current season delayed for two weeks because early June proved to be unseasonably cold and reservations were taken through near the end of September.
The 10 September 1916 issue of the Times included a lengthy article on the camp and it observed:
That the people of Los Angeles are realizing more and more fully the value of this playground camp is shown by the increasing numbers visiting the place. This summer, especially during the months of August and September, has seen the camp crowded to thlimits of its current capacity, and even welcoming more visitors than it had been thought capable of entertaining.
Accommodatios were enouh for about 300 pesons at a time including nearly fifty cabins in a semi-circle around an open space, the center of which contained a campfire. The stone foundations and fireplaces were completed for The Lodge, while the lumber for the rest of the structure was on the ground and seasoning. Also mentioned were tennis courts, a ball field and croquet grounds and several hikes of varying lengths and degrees of difficulty, but most popular was the pool, which allowed each person to enjoy the water for up to a half-hour at a time. Some took long auto stage rides to as far as Big Bear along the Rim of the World route.
It was added that each camper was expected to contribute an hour to maintaining their share of the tent they occupied. Accommodations were spartan with iron or canvas cots, many of which were taken outdoors for sleeping under the stars, and hooks or nails for hanging clothes. Each person broughtheir own blankets, while wooden boxes used on site were coveted for tables. Candles were used for lighting, either in lanterns or on their own
As for food, it was noted that “good, plain camp fare is served” including canned vegetables, stewed fruits, rice, assorted breads and butter and, for breakfast, eggs and cereal, though meat was brought out for Sunday dinner. Notably, “two or three peddlers have seized the opportunity to sell their wares,’ including fresh fruit and milk, for campers looking to diversify their diet.
The evening activities varied considerably, including a mock motion picture rehearsal, vaudeville acts, “a minstrel show with the real darky flavor” (obviously the campers were all white), with members of several tents assigned to come up with part of the entertainment on an evening. It was emphasized that, for up to 300 persons, “who gather unduly generous amounts of dirt on apparel and persons,” there were just two showers, one bath tub and four wash tubs, with hot wateprovided from time to time. At 9:30, a whistle sounded to announce “lights out” and a quiet end to a busy day.
An early August 1917 Times feature accounted that “Uncle Sam’s Angeles National Forest is acquiring so wide a reputation that it is probable the coming summer seasons will see developed numerous camps similar to the municipal camp,” which was a model for at least six other cities in the state to follow. Some 1,800 persons were expected to utilize the sixty-two cabins on the grounds, wihch were expanded to 31 acres, and the apportionment was changed so that boys had two weeks, then girls and then families for the same interval before the order was reprised.
After reviewing camp amentiies and activities, such as were covered in the aforemetioned article, the piece noted that “Los Angeles is fortunate in being so close to a national forest reserve, but few of its population realize that large number taking advantage of this opportunity to get near to nature.” The Angeles forest, for example, had some 350,000 visitors in 1916, but there wer also more summer houses, camps, and resorts leased from te federal government than in any other national forest in the country.”
At that time, however, Los Angeles City Council member Neal P. Olsen presented a resolution to his colleagues “calling for the limiting of the enrollment of guests at the playground camp to those who do not receive a salary of $100 a month,” but said he might reduce that figure to $75. He added,
I am opposed to the city appropriating money to provide cheap board for persons who are well off, while others who cannot afford to pay are crowded out because of lack of accommodations.
Meanwhile, members of the council and playground commission went out to Seely Flats to attend the dedication of the newly completed Lodge and were excited about the camp, with council member Othello P. Conway was paraphrased a saying the facility “is a wonderful enterprise and [that] the city should do all in its power to encourage it” to residents.
In protest to Olson’s resolution, a letter was signed by nearly everyone staying at the camp, as they argued that 95% of the visitors were “persons of limited means.” Moreover, they asserted that his proposal would be unfair to taxpayers because those who contributed to its maintenance should have the right to stay at the facility, which otherwise would be stigmatized as “a charity or a place ‘to herd the poor.'”
Moreover, it was claimed, “this would prove humiliating and would finally keep away those self-respecting families of small means who would not accept the brand of charity or poverty.” Finally, the communication pointed out “that every camper pays in full for all expenses incurred—nothing for transportation or keep comes from public money.” It is not known whether Olson’s resolution got anywhere with the remainder of the council and he only served a single two-year term on that body.
Camp Seely remains a City of Los Angeles facility today and icludes 60 cabins sleeping 4-5 persons, the lodge, kitchen, dining hall, restroom and showers, game room and playing field, and is mainly open for groups of 125-270 persons, though families have access a few weeks during the year. It is, however, closed until further notice due to the pandemic.