by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With greater Los Angeles’ (usually) expanding economy, rapidly growing population, the stratospheric rise in automobile use and a ballooning interest in our local mountains as year-round playgrounds for locals and visitors alike, not to mention to escalating role of government in providing recreational opportunities, it was small wonder that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors embarked on such projects as better roads and new facilities in the San Gabriel range.
This included the creation of what was often called Los Angeles County Park, but better known as Big Pines Recreation Camp, partially opened in spring 1922 and fully available over a sprawling 5,600-acre tract in summer 1924. Boating, swimming, hiking, horseback riding and skiing were among the options for outdoor activities with camping and cabin facilities available for longer stays. Some of the original elements, including the wood recreation lodge and adjacent stone pillars, the latter having plaques dating to the Roaring Twenties, can be seen today.
The featured artifacts from the Homestead’s collection for this edition of “At Our Leisure” are a pair of press photographs from the Newspaper Enterprise Association (N.E.A.), dated 28 and 31 December 1927, showing park guests enjoying sleigh and toboggan rides amid ample snow due to wet weather in the region. This was despite the fact that, after two consecutive seasons of more than usual rainfall and the accompanying flooding, the 1927-1928 season was under 10 inches, though the majority of it came early during October through December of the former year.
After a storm came through the region on 10-11 December, dropping a foot or two in mountain areas and with reports that “Big Pines recreation camp . . . has three feet of snow on the level areas,” it was high time for some in the “flatlands” to make their way up to enjoy the winter weather. The Monrovia News of the 13th, for example, related that “most Monrovians looked longingly at the white-capped peaks of the mountains” but “not to be satisfied with just a view from a distance,” a half-dozen denizens of the town “bundles up in heavy overcoats and galoshes and set out for a day in the mountains.”
Long before State Route 2 was completed from La Cañada-Flintridge to the site, visitors headed out east, in this case on Valley Boulevard, and into the Inland Empire before climbing north through Cajon Pass and then west to Wrightwood. The group, indeed, found three feet of glistening powder and “the jolly party was greeted at the Inn where they enjoyed their dinner around the large fireplace.”
One of the group was Methodist minister Fletcher Watson, who had pastorates in Santa Ana, Inglewood, Pico Heights in Los Angeles, as well as in the foothill town (and whose namesake son became a noted professor of science education at Harvard), and he told the paper that the hostelry’s managers indicated that further storms would ensure that snow would be plentiful through the month and that “the resort affords such popular winter sports as skiing (long before the Mountain High ski area) and sledding. Access was good with chains only needed for the last ten miles of the jaunt.
Others who took their winter trips into the regional ranges were children and adults associated with scouting and the Y.M.C.A. The Van Nuys News reported, in its issue on the 20th, that fourteen scouts with Boy Scout Troop #13 enjoyed a weekend at Big Pines, “enjoying the winter sports in the snow.” The paper added that the group, which reported that 5,000 persons flocked to Big Pines on Sunday,
camped the first night at Big Rock [towards Antelope Valley, as the group went up Newhall Pass and along what are now state routes 14 and 138], but when they reached the park they soon discovered that the weather was decidedly chilly for camping outdoors, so bunked in the big kitchen at the camp.
A few days later, the Burbank Review stated that 61 youth and adults from that city and adjoining Glendale went on a four-day camping trip to Oak Knoll Lodge in Big Bear Valley northeast of San Bernardino.
On a frozen part of the lake some ice skated while
The boys and men constructed a local toboggan slide and spent most of their time on the slippery slopes. It was so fast that several boys got shaken up by collisions with trees but none were serious. A local leader, Art Powell, was one of those who failed to miss a stately pine, receiving a bruised shin. An innovation in the way of winter sports was experienced in the form of football played with a large pine cone as the ball and fluffy snow as the turf.
At night, a roaring indoor fire was enjoyed with songs, joke telling, “Bible stunts,” a piano performance, and readings (including religious ones), while a good hike was also completed by the group. The Covina Argus of the 23rd noted that more recent precipitation meant that, with regard to snow in the “Sierra Madre mountains” (the old name for the San Gabriels), there was “what is said to be the heaviest amount that has been known . . . for many years at this time of year.” Big Pines, along with Opid’s Camp, Camp Baldy and others, had a foot of snow, so that there were “many holiday parties enroute to enjoy an old-fashioned Christmas wih sleds and toboggans.”
A couple of days after Christmas, observed the South Pasadena Record, sixteen members of the YMCA were to head for Camp Arbolado at Barton Flats along the Santa Ana River east of Highland. It was noted “the camp is now buried deep in winter snow which adds to the fascination and lure of the trip,” while “many winter sports are planned as well as a number of trips which will give the lads a real winter experience.” Beyond this, camp and wood crafting and a lengthy hike to Mt. San Gorgonio were in the offing.
On 27 December, noted the Los Angeles Times, thirty-two Boy Scouts who’d earned their merit badges were to leave Ontario and make the jaunt to Big Pines and their work to get those badges meant they “have proved themselves competent to care for themselves in the snow-covered forest and mountains by previous camp experience.” The five-day trip was to include “regular daily winter programs” and, with two feet of snow found by scout leaders who went up in advance, “the boys named for the trip have made a sixteen-foot toboggan [run]” while others constructed their own skis.
While they were residents of the coastal communities of San Pedro and Lomita, attorney Lloyd Nix and George Preston, reported the San Pedro Pilot, “are interested in the winter sport concessions which opened last week at Wrightwood, Cal., with two 1200-foot toboggan slides.” One of these is almost certainly the one shown in the highlighted photo. The account noted that there was three feet of snow in that vicinity and that Preston was recently chosen as mayor of Wrightwood.
In its Christmas Day edition, the Times issued an extensive feature on holiday trips throughout the region with several photos, including a pair at Big Pines, and the paper began its piece with,
With Santa Claus a guest in every home in Southern California this weekend [as with this year, Christmas fell on a Sunday] many of the motorized homes are wondering where to drive to entertain the old fellow during this stay.
A staffer with the information and resort bureaus run by the Times came up “with a number of tentative suggestions of places to go including beaches, desert spots, lake resorts and the most popular of all places at this particular season—those resorts blanketed with snow and offering winter sports.” A driving tour was arranged that went from beaches to the valleys and terminating “in the snow at Big Pines.” Regarding the latter, a Pomona woman, Mrs. Ray Root, as reported in that city’s Progress-Bulletin, “had the misfortune to tear the ligaments of her right limb [leg] near the knee-cap . . . while toboggan sliding on the Los Angeles County’s playgrounds,” presumably at Big Pines.
The edition of the paper on the 30th previewed the New Year’s weekend holiday by observing that all the roads were passable and that “the presence of snow in the mountains will take many to the high resorts,” while others would be drawn to Pasadena’s for the Rose Bowl gridiron contest between Stanford and Pittsburgh, with the former eking out a 7-6 victory. Meanwhile, Auto Club reports included the notation that there were ten inches of snow at Big Bear with lake skating on hand, while rain at Lake Arrowhead cut the snow pack to half a foot.
Big Pines, where there was two feet of snow on the ground, was accessible from either direction, though motorists were advised that the Cajon Pass route was preferable. Camp Baldy, where 10 to 12 inches of powder were found, was the only local mountain area where chains were not advised. Another article in that paper noted that a group from La Verne went to a church camp on Barton Creek, not far from the aforementioned YMCA facility, and enjoyed a natural skating rink at Jenks Lake, as well as toboggan riding.
The same day’s Whittier News, ran a photo of a fellow who “met disaster” with his sled (much like the ones seen in the second image of the seven folks readying for their downhill ride) at Big Pines, but asserted that the reason for publishing the image wasn’t for the spill. Instead, it asserted that the view was unusual in that it didn’t show beach scenes, which, it claimed, were the only kinds to be expected in a Golden State winter, even though there were plenty of examples year to year of snow and winter sports in the local mountains.
In any case, these photos are among a decent sized group in the Museum’s holdings showing folks enjoying winter activities in the region’s ranges and we’ll look to share more of these in future editions of “At Our Leisure” during that time of year.