by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With the increasing recognition and use of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountain ranges for all kinds of outdoor activities from the late 19th century into the first few decades of the 20th century, posts on this blog have, through artifacts in the Museum’s collection, such as photographs, emphasized the importance of the recreational importance of these areas of our region.
Initially, the focus tended to be on the warmer weather periods and the proliferation of hiking trails, camps and resorts and other components of what has often been called the Great Hiking Era. The winter season was generally one in which the focus was for chilled folks, generally the well-to-do, coming out to the area to enjoy the balmy winters as well as for health-seekers to come to sanitariums.
As the early 20th century progressed, however, more attention was gradually paid to winter sports, such as skiing, toboggan riding, ice skating and others and the idea that greater Los Angeles was an all-year playground, including winter sports and frolics in the mountains, was an increasingly important part of tourist promotion.
Naturally, there was the necessity for adequate snowfall, in these days when man-made snow was not yet in the cards, from reasonable precipitation during the winter. In these years, periods of drought would be punctuated by winters of abundant rain and snow fall and those who yearned to play in the powder could obviously head to the mountains to enjoy the aforementioned activities.
Another key matter, though, was access. Correlated to the increasing role of the federal government in preserving mountain areas as forest reserves was Los Angeles County’s growing interest in setting aside areas for year-round outdoor recreation as well as its desire to build highways for the dramatically escalating number of automobiles in our car-centric region.
So, as posts here have noted, one of the biggest undertakings by county authorities was the creation of Los Angeles County Park, also known as the Big Pines Recreation Camp, situated at the edge of the county near Wrightwood in the San Gabriel Mountains. Access was had either by heading eastward through the San Gabriel Valley and Inland Empire and up Cajon Pass before traveling west through Wrightwood or by going north through today’s Santa Clarita area and into the Antelope Valley before turning east and reaching the facility from the northwest. It was not until after 1930 that the construction of Angeles Crest Highway, State Route 2, provided even more direct connections.
In the San Bernardino range, there were such resort areas as Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, along with camps in the Barton Flats area and others, while the construction of roads from San Bernardino into the mountains and what became known as the Rim of the World Highway and associated roadways also key for access to these places of recreation.
This posts features from the Museum’s holdings a group of photos showing winter activities at Big Pines during March 1930. Though the winter actually had a level of precipitation slightly below what is considered “normal,” though this calculation has to be questioned in light of more long-term historical trends rather than just those that were observed after official government record-keeping began in 1877.
In any case, the tally for that 1929-1930 season was 11.52 inches, but it was highly concentrated with two months providing virtually all the precipitation. These were January at 5.57 inches and Marc at 3.99 inches and, while most years found at least several months with decent levels of rain and snow, this season was rare in having that condition. In fact, the last year in which there was that degree of concentration was 1923-1924, which, however, was a severe drought year with just 6.67 inches recorded.
In fact, it is interesting to note that variations in rainfall for the preceding decade, during which there were a couple of years of significant precipitation (and, not surprisingly, some major flooding):
There is also the matter of when the most rain and snow fell in any given year. In 1919-1920, there was a fairly even distribution across several months with the highest level recorded rather late, about 4.25 inches in March. The following year this was even more the case as the largest amount came in May. In 1921-1922, the wettest month was December and then came three years of drought.
The 1925-1926 season started off as a continuation of this worrisome condition, but in April 1926, more than 7.5 inches of rain fell, bringing great relief to farmers and orchardists, but also heavy flooding. The next year was another peak for the decade, but the heaviest period of precipitation was in February when more than nine inches fell and more widespread inundations took place—including at the Homestead where the floods from San Jose Creek got very close to the Workman House and the nearly completed La Casa Nueva and there was major damage to the walnut grove and other crops being grown on the 92-acre ranch.
The 1927-1928 season was a low-precipitation one in which more rain came earlier, in October and December with smaller amounts in February and March. In 1928-1929, the total was closer to the so-called normal with a relatively even distribution from November through April. As noted above, however, 1929 did not bode well in its early stages, with just a third of an inch of in September and nothing at all through the remainder of the year.
The situation was such that county officials, who had ambitions plans, despite the onset of the Great Depression, the worst of which would not come until 1932, for winter recreation. Thousands of dollars were appropriated for the 6,000-acre Big Pines park for the Playgrounds and Recreation Commission to expend on improvements for such major events as a mid-winter carnival with competitive sports like ski jumping, ice skating, ice hockey and others, as well as general enjoyment for the tens of thousands of visitors expected during the season.
In fact, with almost no precipitation through the end of 1929, there was talk of postponing the festival in hopes that storms would soon come and dump enough snow to make the event worthwhile. Yet, when this did materialize not long after the onset of the new year, the conditions were such that the delay to the last day of January and the first two days of February was because of too much snow coming so quickly and clearing by plows needed to provide ready vehicularly access. The late January snowstorm was reported to be the biggest since 1921.
Eventually, there were three major winter carnivals held in the local mountains, including ones at Big Bear and at Camp Seeley at Crestline, during the early part of 1930 and there was wide coverage of these events in local newspapers, while images of competitive skiers, players from the University of California, Berkeley and the University of Southern California in their hockey contest (won by the Bears by a score of 6-4), Josephine Hoffman, Queen of the Winter Carnival at Big Pines, and the monarch with a giant snowman decorated with boots and clothing were published nationwide. Camp Seeley, being the first of the festivals, was reported to have done well with attendance.
For the Big Pines carnival, sponsored by the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, it was reported in the 9 February 1930 edition of the Los Angeles Times that the three-day attendance topped 30,000, though there were forecasts of around 40,000 or more—in 1929, it was said the total was in the neighborhood of 50,000. The last day, which was a Sunday, provided about 70% or so of that total with some 6,000 cars making their way to the park. In the ski jump final, it was reported that there were 4,000 spectators to see Halvor Bjorngaard, a champion skier then residing at Ogden, Utah, establish a new world record of 137 feet, 6 inches. Notably, Bjorngaard opined that Los Angeles could well host the 1932 Olympic winter games, which were held that year at Lake Placid, New York.
The following weekend of the 6th-8th of February at Big Bear, a state chamber of commerce sponsored event, the last of the three major ones, drew some 3,500 persons who watched as Sig Blake captured the 8-mile cross country ski race with a time of 1 hour and 26 minutes, nine minutes ahead of Otto Olson, while Ole Rosenberg came in just behind Olson (is anyone surprised by the prominence of Scandinavians in these events?). Rosenberg, however, took first place in the ski jump contest.
As for the photos, they show a group of women tramping through the deep snow at Big Pines as well as a couple of artistic views of snow-covered trees and shrubs, though we are sharing half of the octet of images that were taken. With our wet winter this year and the record snowfall that has, unfortunately, caused significant problems for residents of such mountain communities as Big Bear (it should be noted that a century or so ago, there was only a tiny fraction of permanent residents in these areas compared to now), there have been closures and limited access in many areas.
The current warm atmospheric river storms are bringing more rain and less snow and the concern is that there will be rapid thawing of the latter and serious concerns of additional flooding beyond what has already been experienced in coastal locales, such as Watsonville in Monterey County. With accelerating climate change, it has long been said that extremes will become a new normal, with bone-dry years occasionally followed by very wet winters—this in a very different way than was a century ago.