At Our Leisure: The Early History of Switzer’s Camp in the Arroyo Seco, San Gabriel Mountains, 1885

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Though Great Outdoors Month ends with the closing of June, there are plenty of people enjoying outdoor activities through the rest of the summer and, of course, year round, but we’ll make our second contribution to the observance with this post. The intention was to write about the general history of what was first known as Switzer’s Camp and then Switzer-land, one the earliest resorts in the San Gabriel Mountains, but there are so many great artifacts from the Museum’s collection to share as well as remarkable information about its founder, that we’ll offer this early history post now and then do future follow-ups.

Commodore Perry Switzer’s unusual name was likely in honor of the famed Navy commander Oliver Hazard Perry, who was a hero of the War of 1812 and older brother of Commodore Matthew Perry, who, in 1853, forced Japan to open its ports to American ships for trade, supplies and fuel. Switzer was born in Virginia in September 1826, but details of more than a quarter century of his life have proved, so far, elusive.

An early reference to Switzer in Los Angeles with a militia formed during an especially violent period in the pueblo, Los Angeles Star, 4 April 1857.

In 1853, he was in Council Bluffs, Iowa with fellow carpenter, Ohio native William H. Perry (no relation to the commodores) and Buckeye State farmer William W. Hollister, who were among a party of some 50 persons driving the first sheep overland to California for supplying meat to Gold Rush miners and other residents of the Golden State. Hollister wound up in northern California, where the San Benito town of that name was established near his ranch, though he had great success in Santa Barbara County after moving there.

Perry and Switzer made their way to Los Angeles, where the former later said he arrived with almost no possessions and, as many overland migrants were, tired and dirty. For his part, the latter, in a June 1906 interview with the Los Angeles Herald, recounted what he said was a year-long trip to California with Perry and Hollister and discussed encounters with Indians and the terrible leg of the journey from Salt Lake City, where they stayed among the Mormons just months before the David Workman family arrived there, as many of their sheep died in the harsh desert conditions.

Switzer’s enumeration on the top line of this sheet in the 1860 census at Los Angeles while he was a cabinet-maker for William H. Perry.

Switzer recalled “when we arrived at San Bernardino we had only 3,000 of the 7,000 sheep with which we started.” After several days at that Mormon outpost, he, Hayes and others continued on and “in the Eagle Rock valley we left the sheep and I came into Los Angeles the morning of New Year’s day, 1854.” Not surprisingly, he got an immediate taste of the deviltry in the City of Angels, observing,

The same day I saw a man hanged to a post near the plaza, and I thought the country pretty rough, but it was not long until I became used to the ways of the new country and became a member of the vigilance committee.

Switzer, a Freemason, added that he immediately sought out his fraternal brethren and found sixteen of them in an adobe building. This was Lodge 42 of the Free and Associated Masons, who built a two-story brick lodge the following year that was just south of the Plaza and among whose members were William Workman and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple.

Los Angeles News, 1 December 1865.

He recalled that he was present for the initiation of John G. Downey, future governor and developer of the city that bears his name, though Switzer said Downey was the first Mason in Los Angeles—perhaps he met first initiated in the city with the other sixteen already having been in the order before settling there.

Switzer then recalled “I remember when Billy [William H., then city treasurer of Los Angeles] Workman’s father died and I acted as one of the pallbearers.” David Workman was driving sheep and cattle to the gold fields in the southern mining region of the Sierra Nevada Mountains for his brother William and was killed at the end of June 1855 searching for a stray animal.

Switzer mentioned as the wood worker on the Pico House hotel, Los Angeles News, 16 September 1869

It took some time for his body to be retrieved and then buried at El Campo Santo Cemetery, newly established some 300 yards east of the Workman House and still at the Homestead today. The services were conducted under the auspices of Lodge 42 and coverage of the funeral by the Los Angeles Star provided notable detail about the ceremony. Switzer added that young “Billy” who was a teen “was attending school in Los Angeles, and I knew him as one of the smaller lads in the city.”

Switzer also noted that “for several years I worked in Los Angeles” as a carpenter, though it was actually more than 15 and he mentioned a project of special interest. First, though, he was employed by Perry, who opened a cabinet-making shop before going into the lumber business and doing very well in that endeavor.

Switzer counted on line 34 in the 1870 census at Los Angeles.

Notably, the aforementioned reference to vigilantism is at least partially verified by the fact that Switzer was a corporal in the Los Angeles Rifles militia, which formed in 1857 during more violence in the Angel City. He was also involved in the local Democratic Party, which totally controlled local politics.

In the Civil War years, Switzer was also active in mining and was a founder of a company that prospected as so my others did along the Colorado River on the Arizona side just across from California. In 1865, he formed a partnership with J.W.C. Buchanan in contracting and building with a specialty in carpentry. That enterprise lasted three years and then Switzer went solo, advertising his expertise in carpentry, cabinet building, stair construction, upholstery and wood turning.

Switzer and his wife Elizabeth, lines 10 and 11 on this sheet, in the 1880 census in South Los Angeles.

That building project of noted hinted about above was mentioned in the 16 September 1869 issue of the Los Angeles News, which reported that “the old adobes fronting the plaza, known as the Pico block, are fast disappearing, and in a few days the workmen will have commenced the erection of a magnificent new brick building upon the ground.”

With the design by “Mr. Keiser,” this actually being, Ezra F. Kysor, the first trained architect to practice in the city, this new project, financed by ex-governor Pío Pico’s selling of the southern half of the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando, became the Pico House hotel, still standing today.

A 1920s photo of the wagon road built by Walker and Switzer some four decades prior.

The article noted that Jacob Weixel was manufacturing the bricks with “wood work by Switzer & Co.,” while it ended by noting that “this building, when finished, will be an ornament to our city.” Construction was finished by the end of 1870 and the structure is two doors north of the surviving building of Lodge 42.

Switzer, however, soon left carpentry and building and moved south of the city near today’s Vernon and took up farming. From there, he made an investment in the San Gabriels along the Arroyo Seco north of the recently established town of Pasadena, with his 1906 interview saying that it was in June 1880 that he and Harvey Walker began a road up the Arroyo into the backcountry of the range. As expressed in the Herald interview,

Two pioneers . . . filled with this same longing for the wild that now grows strong in men’s hearts, wended their way through the brush of Altadena, through the dense undergrowth of the arroyo and finally up the side of a great mountain. From this mountain they looked back toward the ocean and saw Catalina, and then below them, they saw a sheltered nook and heard the roar of a great waterfall.

After a full half-day of work, they hacked their way down and “set foot on the site of what is now Switzer’s camp, but then a natural favored spot in the arroyo.” The piece continued “as the two men looked at the natural beauty of the place . . . they realized they had found a place where man had not yet set foot.” It seems hard to believe, though, that our region’s indigenous people had never been to that locale!

A section of Switzer’s Trail also likely from the 1920s.

In any case, Switzer and Walker built a cabin and then set out a fifteen-mile trail, named for the former, up the Arroyo, followed by a wagon road and it was stated that these were so well done that relatively little maintenance was needed in the ensuing years. The article then pointed out, “in 1883 Mr. Switzer had the camp arranged so that he could take parties with his burros to see the camp, and it was so thoroughly admired that in 1884 he decided to make it a resort.

It was Jeanne S. Carr, who with her husband Ezra, owned a 42-acre place called Carmelita (get it?) on the east bank of the Arroyo where Colorado Boulevard and Orange Grove Avenue meet in Pasadena, who visited and dubbed the place Switzer’s Camp. It was added that, for a dozen years, Switzer and Walker operated the resort, which was declared to be “the largest camp as well as the first resort ever built in the Sierra Madres. A side-note was that the Arroyo was used as an escape route by Tiburcio Vásquez, the notorious bandit chieftain, though the details were wrong in the article.

Los Angeles Herald, 17 June 1906.

With respect to Carr, she wrote a long feature about “The Switzer Trail” for the Los Angeles Times and its 28 June 1885 issue with this being the earliest located mention of the route and of the camp. Notably, Carr wrote that “for fifty years” after the Spanish colonization of California, “an Indian trail from the desert led to the San Gabriel Mission along the Arroyo Seco and its branches, through the intricate Sierra Madre range,” which is why the Gabrieliño Trail system in this area is so named.

Carr and photographer Nellie Heiss made their journey up the Arroyo and it was recorded that there were 40 stream crossings before Switzer’s Trail was reached. After a lengthy exposition on the beauty of the area and a not incidental mention of her own Carmelita estate, Carr wrote

Mr. Switzer’s camp is in a very charming nook on the main stream of the Arroyo; a veritable log cabin, with its stone chimney, and three of four tents, give a hospitable human interest to the landscape as we descend the trail. On a nearer view an old-fashioned Dutch oven becomes a centre of interest, from its mysterious depths came the sweetest, fresh loaves and the brownest of baked beans, eaten with mountain appetites on our arrival.

We slept on beds of fragrant fir branches, the Arroyo singing the while over its rocky bed, and woke in a heaven of sylvan music made up of robbin [sic] trills and notes of linnets and finches, and sharper squirrel chirps strangely commingled. It was Sunday, and far up among the hills the faint tinkle of bells told us where our four-footed servants were feeding.

How welcome and perfect a day of rest in Nature for man and beast . . .

And I say confidently, that for tourists and home itinerants, there is nothing to be found more enjoyable than a trip in the Sierra Madre over the Switzer trail.

Carr added that an overnight stay at the camp was necessary if one wanted to see the falls and noted “we found an excellent table with every attention,” while, even “though the arrangements are primitive” there was “a good deal of fresh air in the dining and bed-rooms.” The overall effect was that “one can easily dispense with superfluities for a few hours or days, with a greater good in view.”

Los Angeles Times, 28 June 1885.

Switzer and Walker had a toll road established with fifty cents charged to those riding in while hikers paid half that amount. In all, Carr prophesied “that many of the excursionists who linger a few days in Los Angeles, will gladly avail themselves of the opportunity to see Southern California in its original condition.” She closed by gushing over the plant life and trout in the upper Arroyo, though “the stream has been ‘fished to death’ lower down” and the deer and bears “have also retired into the almost unexplored regions of the range.”

As noted above, we’ll return with more photos of the Switzer Camp, that is, when it was known later as Switzer-land, along with some of the remarkable history under subsequent lessees and owners of the resort.

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