At Our Leisure with a Real Photo Postcard of Carbon Canyon Road and La Vida Mineral Springs, Brea, California, 1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There are several mineral, or hot, springs of note in southern California, with many, perhaps, being familiar with Glen Ivy near Corona and Lake Elsinore; Murrieta in the city of that name to the south; and San Juan in south Orange County. Lesser known were the Alvarado Hot Springs in what is now Rowland Heights in the eastern San Gabriel Valley and a pair in Carbon Canyon, where Orange and San Bernardino counties meet, including the Carbon Canyon Mineral Springs in the hamlet of Sleepy Hollow in the latter and the much better known, though long gone, La Vida Mineral Springs in Brea in the former.

Tonight’s featured artifact from the Museum’s collection is a very rare real photo postcard, stamped 12 September 1920 when it was sent to Kansas, of what was referred to as “La Vida Springs.” The name “Carbon Canyon,” is, of course, evocative of the type of volcanic environment in our area and who knows whether the hot mineral water, claimed to have all manner of health benefits, that bubbles to the surface in a little side gulch on the north side of Carbon Canyon Road was made use of by the indigenous people of our region who were here for many thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish in the late 18th century.

Santa Ana Register, 30 July 1915.

Carbon Canyon was part of public lands, set aside outside the ranchos established under Spain and then increasingly granted to private citizens in the Mexican period (roughly from 1820 to 1848.) Again, no information has yet surfaced (!) regarding the mineral water being utilized in any way, but that would change by the turn of the 20th century when oil was found just to the west on the Olinda Ranch by Edward L. Doheny in partnership with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway.

There have been stories of grimy, tired workers in the oil fields soaking in the hot mineral water in a rudimentary fashion at the La Vida site, but it was not until the 1910s that the first early formal references to a resort began to appear and the timing appears to have coincided with the earliest work to complete a graded dirt road through Carbon Canyon from Olinda to what became Chino Hills, a project that was finished in 1914.

Register, 6 July 1922.

The following year, the Santa Ana Register of 30 July reported that

Belief in the medicinal value of hot water which flows from the La Vida Hot Springs in the Carbon Canyon three miles north [east] of Olinda has induced Abbot & Son to make many improvements in the locality. Among the plans are the building of a 20-room hotel in the fall. The hostelry will be equipped with a large dance hall and rest . . . The waters of the spring are reported efficacious in the cure of rheumatism and other diseases.

Allen Abbott worked for a time in the Columbia Oil Company lease at Olinda and his uncle, Edward F. Gaines, long owned the Flying Cow Ranch, situated just to the west of La Vida where the residential neighborhood of Olinda Village is today. It seems obvious that this connection is what led Abbott to pursue developing a modest resort at the mineral springs site, though whether all the improvements mentioned in the Register article were completed or not is not known.

Register, 28 July 1922.

About 1915, James Williams managed the resort, likely for Abbott and there is a brief reference in a student magazine for the George Junior Republic early that year that one of the customers of the print shop for the institution for troubled boys now known as Boys’ Republic in today’s Chino Hills was “La Vida Springs.” Williams was formerly a resident of Clearwater, now Paramount, near Long Beach, where he ran a grocery store and, because Gaines was also from that area, they may explain why the former went out to run the “La Vida Springs” resort under Abbott’s ownership.

Also of note is that Williams resided in a house precariously perched just above Carbon Canyon Road at the base of the steep hillside across from the resort and it was just around this time that Orange County officials approved the building of Carbon Canyon Road along Carbon Creek with the thoroughfare, running to the south of the Gaines Ranch, then climbing northeast into the canyon.

Register, 9 September 1922.

A cousin of James Williams told his grandson, Nick Williams,

When we were there in 1915, your grandparents lived a little health resort up in the canyon.  James Monroe [Williams] was managing this health resort.  It was a very primitive hot bath.  You walked down into these cubicles . . . cement places . . . and they let the water cool awhile before you went in, it was that hot. 

After just about four years of managing La Vida, Williams died and, in the 1920 census, Allen Abbott was enumerated as being the manager of the resort and, under his supervision, the springs got more media attention and use. For example, in July 1922, there was an advertisement in the Register for a “Big Dance” at “La Veda Springs” on weekends including some “snappy music” courtesy of “Curley” Heard and his tickling of the ivories.

Register, 23 September 1922.

That fall, the Orange County Automobile Trade Association held some functions at the site, with one short Register article from 9 September observing, “The canyon resort is a new point to many Orange County dealers” who looked forward to “the further fact that they are to be served with a real home-cooked chicken dinner.” A subsequent gathering at “Lavida Springs” by the group included the showing of a film and a talk along with a “mother’s chicken dinner” offered by the managers of the resort.

The canyon’s remote location also offered plenty of opportunity for bootleggers during the era of Prohibition, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, with the paper reporting in its 28 July 1922 edition that two deputy sheriffs were “drawn to the scene by suspicions that Laveta Springs was moistening its pastoral surroundings not alone with its sparkling mountain water.” Instead, men from Brea and Placentia were nabbed on the bootlegging charge, with the Register adding,

A dance was in full swing at the Carbon canyon resort when the officers made their appearance, seeking whatever vagrant purveyor of the more invigorating sensations they might find.

For a time it seemed that they had wasted their journey. But eventually they noticed a tendency among approaching automobile headlights to stop briefly at a certain point along the road. Such cars as stopped, likewise betrayed [an] impatience to return there at intervals.

The deputies took their place in the line of vehicles and, when one of the pair stepped out from the tall grass near a row of bottles stationed along a fence, he recognized one of the deputies, offered a greeting by name, and then ran up the hillside before he thought better of it and submitted to arrest. When the officers got to the La Vida dance hall, the second man was boasting of how he’d eluded the deputies and stashed his supply in a safe place, but the deputies heard exactly where and waited at an orange grove near Placentia for the loudmouth bootlegger to show up to retrieve his stash.

Register, 31 May 1924.

In July 1924, the Register reported that a trio of Fullerton business figures purchased La Vida for $50,000 with plans to invest $200,000 in its improvement and development such that it was “to become a haven for pleasure seekers, second to none in the state.” The new owners planned “a new hotel, swimming pool, bath house and a large dance hall” with work to commence imminently. Later that year, the “La Vida Mineral Springs Company” received its incorporation designation from the State of California.

Every so often, reports were in the local press of functions held at what was officially renamed as “La Vida Mineral Springs,” such as a July 1925 confab of members of Orange County masonic lodges including a potluck dinner and dance, with a full orchestra, for up to 500 guests from all over greater Los Angeles, including the Angel City, Glendale and Los Angeles. But, canyons have their special risks, including fires, such as one that began near La Vida in 1923, but spread north towards the Diamond Bar Ranch, and floods.

Register, 21 July 1924.

The section of Carbon Canyon in which La Vida was situated was especially steep and narrow with Carbon Creek running right next to the structures and other elements of the resort. In February 1927, a powerful storm hit the region and, for example, sent floodwaters from San José Creek nearly up to the Workman House and the nearly completed La Casa Nueva at the Homestead.

The Register of 16 February recorded that “a cloudburst in Carbon canyon yesterday sent a flood of water down the canyon, and the little community of La Vida springs was ruined,” at least to reports that could not be corroborated, though county road supervisor Nat H. Neff did tell the paper “all of the buildings except the large dance pavilion were washed away.

Register, 22 July 1925.

Moreover, Carbon Canyon Road had just, the pervious year, been improved because the 1914 version of the thoroughfare was poorly built and frequently subjected to washouts, but the 1927 storm caused the destruction of two bridges spanning the creek. In fact, several years later, Gaines was induced to sell land on his ranch for a new roadway above the creek that, while it divided his house and outbuildings from the rest of his ranch, proved to be much better for the road.

It also appears that the 1927 flood caused the Fullerton-based owners of the resort to sell out, because La Vida was taken over by William Newton Miller of Anaheim, who made some money in the oil business. Miller and his descendants wound up owning the resort for about a half-century and made many new improvements, including a bottling plant that sold La Vida mineral water throughout California and elsewhere in the west. We’ll, however, save that story for another post in April when a presentation about the resort will be given to the Orange County Historical Society.

Register, 16 February 1927.

As for the photo highlighted here, it shows Carbon Canyon Road curving eastward through the canyon with La Vida out of view to the left or north and the residence formerly occupied by the Williams family and perhaps occupied in 1920 by Abbott on the right. Today, there are remnants of flagstone steps at the base of that hillside, but no indications that there was a house to which these led a century or so ago.

On the reverse is a message from “Mae” to her sister, Mrs. Carl Ward, a resident of Collyer, Kansas. The message says nothing about La Vida, only mentioning that roses were sent back to Kansas and acknowledging the receipt of some letters. But, it turned out that the women, Mae and Blanche Purinton were distant relatives of Cleve A. Purington, the founder a few years later, in 1923, of the Sleepy Hollow community mentioned at the top of this post.

Blanche Ward wound up soon moving to this area and settled for a time in Santa Ana before relocating to the Sacramento area where she stayed the remainder of her years. As for Mae, who was already living in Orange County in 1920, she was in San Juan Capistrano later. Their relative, Cleve Purington, died in the latter part of the Roaring Twenties, but, not long after, a Carbon Canyon Mineral Springs resort opened in Sleepy Hollow and seems to have existed in the last half of the 1930s and into the early Forties.

Again, look for more on the history of La Vida in about seven months!

2 thoughts

  1. I love to read your daily articles. They are so interesting. I am wondering though why the photo of the postcard of interest is not included?

  2. Hi Linda, thanks very much for your kind comments about the blog. The photo of Carbon Canyon Road next to the resort is the front of the card, but were you asking about the back, as well?

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