At Our Leisure Through the Viewfinder: A Photo Album of Camping in Big Santa Anita Canyon, San Gabriel Mountains, ca. 1910s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

During the Great Hiking Era of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, residents and tourists flocked to the San Gabriel Mountains, known previously as the Sierra Madre range, in droves, whether for day hikes and trips or longer stays in camps and resorts. Under the “At Our Leisure” banner, a series of posts on this blog have shared some of the photographs and other artifacts from the Museum’s collection from visitors from the Arroyo Seco out to Mt. Baldy.

While it has not been uncommon to find professionally taken real photo postcards by such photographers as Ernest B. Gay or snapshots by those making journeys into the mountains, it is pretty rare to come across photo albums with these items, especially those dedicated exclusively to images.

That’s why the featured artifact from the Homestead’s holdings for this post is particularly notable because it contains fifty photos and it appears from the same excursion. This was a trip up Big Santa Anita Canyon above Arcadia and Sierra Madre, easily one of the most popular spots, along with several in San Gabriel Canyon north of Azusa and up San Antonio Canyon beyond Claremont and Upland.

While the photographs are numbered, suggesting there was a list identifying locations and people, perhaps along with other information, there was no such document when the album was acquired. There are a few that have clear identifications, including the lodge at Sturtevant Camp, as well as the few professional views taken and two of which are labeled Hoegee’s Camp.

Whether there were two overnight visits, one at the former and the other at the latter, is not clear, though there are a quite a few photos that appear to have been taken at lodgings and the vicinity of Hoegee’s. It could be (and this is where some eagle-eyed readers might help us) that there are some at the beginning of the album from Sturtevant’s that are suggestive of a stay there, as well.

Whatever the situation, this album is a treasure trove of images of these camps and other locations within Big Santa Anita Canyon showing this popular area from over a century ago. Most of its comprises scenery, including panoramic views; trails; a pack-mule train carrying equipment, baggage and other items up from the “flatland;” streams; the landscape of the majestic mountains; several of people; camp buildings and tents, including some rare interiors; and more. There is even one of the inevitable outfitting of a mule in clothing, including denim trousers with suspenders, boots and a hat.

Most of the photos pretty much speak for themselves, but a little commentary here and there seems appropriate. One immediate item to note is that, while we can easily and conveniently drive up Santa Anita Avenue and then Chantry Flats Road up the canyon, access in the early 20th century involved those pack mule trains, riding an animal or hiking the narrow trail that wended its way up from Sierra Madre. To the west is Little Santa Anita Canyon and a trail that was formerly the Mt. Wilson Toll Road.

Still, the reward was to reach the canyon beyond where the Santa Anita Dam was later constructed and to follow Santa Anita Wash back to Sturtevant Falls or follow Winter Creek to the west from its junction with the wash. Either by hiking above the falls or taking a trail north from the creek one got to Sturtevant Camp, where the Sturtevant, Mt. Zion and Gabrieleño trails merge now.

Hoegee’s Camp was next to Winter Creek and the trail of that name with the Mt. Zion Trail coming in from Sturtevant Camp to the north. Winter Creek Trail then turns southwest and connects to the Mt. Wilson Toll Road trail, while the Upper Winter Creek Trail heads back down to the Adams Pack Station at Chantry Flat, where today’s parking lots and trailheads are for those taking the road up from Sierra Madre.

Photos of trails including those winding along the chaparral-covered mountain sides, including that great view of the pack mule train, while others are in the heavily forested sections of the canyon, amid sycamores, oaks, alders and others. One really nice view shows a hiker making his way along a trail as a massive tree trunk leans over the route from the steep side to the right.

Also prominent are pretty sylvan views along creeks, presumably Winter, with one showing the water flowing past massive boulders and a stone wall and steps, probably at Hoegee’s Camp. third shows a pool of water with a trail above it toward the upper left, this being an especially attractive scene. Another photo shows a man seated on a rock at the water’s edge and it would hardly surprising if he was cooling off his “dogs” after a good spell of hiking!

There is just one photo of a waterfall, but it is one of the finest in the range, with Sturtevant Falls always a draw for visitors, who mostly take the generally easy up the Gabrieleño Trail from the parking lot and trail head. The image shows the fall terminating in the pool that still summons those who want to cool off in the bracing water, while trees provide ample shade and the steep rocky faces are also partially in view.

Of the structures, one that is especially noteworthy is Muir Lodge, completed in 1913 and which was an early project of the Southern California chapter of the Sierra Club, Its namesake, famed naturalist John Muir, never saw the structure although he did contribute fifty dollars towards its construction. It may be that the photo here was taken not long after the building was completed and later there were annexes for men and women and a covered outdoor kitchen.

After a quarter century, however, the terrible floods of 1938 (by the way, there are forecasts of an unprecedented storm, due to climate change and atmospheric river conditions—an ARkStorm scenario—in the next forty or so years that would up to double the precipitation of 1861-1862, the so-called Noah’s Flood, that dropped an estimated 50 inches over more than 40 days of downpours!) destroyed the lodge, though this great Sierra Club Angeles Chapter page has great gallery of photos and information about the structure.

Another intriguing photo shows a bearded gent sitting in front of the open door to a rock cabin, though, other than the name “Flower” at the lower right, also found on a photo of the creek and stone walls and stairs mentioned above, it is not known what the location was. Very impressive is the Sturtevant Lodge, a pavilion with abundant use of rustic wood poles for rails, posts, and what might be called tracery on the entrance side, as well as the rock foundation.

This is one of the few professional images, take by H.S. Ross, and is a fine image of the 1898 structure first called the Swiss Dining Room and which was enclosed in 1945 by the Methodist Church group that still owns it. Ross also took took great photos of Hoegee’s Camp that are in the album, including one of the main lodge building and another of two women on a hammock stretched out between trees near a group of crisp white canvas tents.

Many of the later photos are of a cabin with clapboard walls, a two-gable shingled roof and a roughly stacked stone chimney for the fireplace, which one image shows has a blazing fire while the same gent cooling his heels in the creek, mentioned above, relaxes in a chair next to it. The structure is surrounded by trees and looks like as idyllic a scene as could be imagined.

Another great image shows a woman, perhaps the wife of our friend from the fireside who is also pictured in one view holding a book next to a built in bench under a quartet of windows, with a kettle next to a cast-iron stove with what look to be kerosene canisters for fuel under the pair of burners. This photograph looks to have been taken in a screened-in porch behind the cabin and it’s also fun to see a metal bread basket on the bench behind the lady.

There are several views of the interior and exterior of the cabin, such as a couple showing a built-in bench outside with one showing what look to be an outhouse, and another with an adjacent tent, as well as quite a few of the couple, who were joined by a second man in one shot. Another pic has the couple on horseback with a mule loaded with material, though whether it was their arrival, departure or mid-vacation excursion is the question.

Again, with fifty photos in the album and a limit on what we can say about it, we can only show a sampling of the images, though there may be other opportunities to share some of these in other ways, such as our social media platforms, particularly the Homestead’s Instagram page. In any case, we’re very happy to have this very rare item in the collection as a great representation of camping in the San Gabriels, especially the remarkable Big Santa Anita Canyon which offers so much so close to “civilization.”

Leave a Reply