At Our Leisure with Photos from Switzer’s Camp, San Gabriel Mountains, 30 May 1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

For many people, the Memorial Day holiday is, in addition to honoring those who in the military have sacrificed their lives for their country, an unofficial opening of summer and a three-day weekend to get out and enjoy the outdoors, whether at a park, the beach, or in the mountains. During the Great Hiking Era, generally attributed to have taken place during the half-century roughly between the mid-1880s and the mid-1930s, this often meant trekking into the San Gabriel Mountains and other chains in the region to enjoy the fresh air, beauty and tranquility offered in them.

Whether people went out for day hikes or stayed at one of the many resorts and camps, the San Gabriels, particularly in the period of the year between Memorial Day and Labor Day, were often teeming with visitors. The Homestead’s collection features a fair number of historic artifacts connected to the activities and places enjoyed in the great outdoors, including a goodly number related to that portion of the range above Pasadena in the Arroyo Seco.

Los Angeles Times, 9 June 1921.

Easily one of the most popular destinations of the era was Switzer’s Camp or Switzer-land, and a few posts on this blog have shared some of these objects and history. An early example from 2015 highlighted a circa 1920 image of the lodge at the resort and very brief touched upon the history of the site. Last June, a couple of photos from that era illustrated an entry that went into the origins of the camp and, specifically, delved into the history of its founder and namesake, Commodore Perry (that was his actual name!) Switzer.

In August, a post with a couple more great photographs from the Museum’s holdings from August 1914 featured the resort and its enterprising owner, Lloyd B. Austin, and his family, who took over what was briefly called Losadena in May 1912. After heavy rains, which caused significant flooding throughout the region and spurred the earliest efforts towards a comprehensive flood control plan by Los Angeles County, wreaked much havoc at the camp, as elsewhere in the mountains, Austin undertook major improvements.

These included the remaking of the lodge and surrounding accommodations, the elaborate landscaping and, in one of the most remarkable projects undertaken anywhere in the San Gabriel range, built the amazing Switzer-land Chapel—which we’ll look to highlights in its own post at a future date. As for this post, the images shown here come from a pair of photo album pages, dated 30 May 1921 and which mostly contain snapshots taken at or near Switzer’s Camp.

These include a great view of the main camp area from an elevated position; a shot of the West Fork of the San Gabriel River to the east of the camp; an image of the well-known Switzer Falls; a group standing at one end of a rough-hewn wood footbridge passing over the waterfall; a pack train of burros carrying supplies to the camp; and a group of seven hikers, with a couple carrying bedrolls and other with backpacks, out on the trail. This is just a third of the photos on the pages, which are a great addition to the collection.

At the time these views were taken, there was some items in local newspapers relating to Switzer’s worth noting, with one being an advertisement in the Los Angeles Times of 22 May, which stated that it was “the ideal week-end trip” and offered “housekeeping and boarding tents and cabins” accessible via a daily stage from Pasadena.

A 5 June ad from the paper under the heading of “Switzer’s and the Switzer-land Tours” noted that the resort was “a genuine Alpine home in the heart of the Sierra Madres,” which was the name for the mountain chain before San Gabriel was adopted. Clarifying that the stage was an auto one, the piece added that it was a “four-mile trip over [a] new trail.” Moreover, a visit involved “wonderful gorge scenery, excellent table service, high class entertainment, new housekeeping and boarding cabins, [and] modern sanitation.”

Pasadena Post, 31 May 1921.

With respect to the stage, a 16 May notice in the Pasadena Post noted that it was “the only stage line to Switzers Relay,” from which it was four miles to the camp,” while the line passed Oak Wilde Camp and other interesting spots along the way. Buses left each day from the city’s depot, with an address given at the intersection of Fair Oaks Avenue and Green Street, near the famous Green Hotel and Central Park in the Crown City.

Also mentioned was that there were “personally conducted trail trips through the Sierra Madre and San Jacinto ranges and to Mt. Whitney,” with the second mountain range being near Palm Springs and Idyllwild and the latter mountain, the highest point in California, in the Sierra Nevada Mountains to the north. Four days later, a “Go With Austin” ad promoted a guided hike from the camp “through the heart of the Sierra Madre Mountains” leaving on the 20th and suggesting that interested parties inquire for a schedule of “the Switzer-Land Tours.”

As for the holiday weekend, the Post of the 26th reported

Elaborate plans have been perfected for the entertainment of guests at Switzer’s camp, in the upper Arroyo Seco over the Memorial day week-end, according to information this morning from the popular resort.

Even though the camp has been enlarged so that at least 250 guests can be accommodated, it is impossible to care for all those who desire to spend the coming weekend there.

It was added that members of the Long Beach Community Players, including three men and a woman soprano “will contribute Saturday evening in making a success of the entertainment program to be given.” The paper of the beach city also briefly stated that a dozen residents, including three mentioned in the Pasadena sheet, would be at Switzer’s.

Lloyd Austin informed also the Post that the Switzer-Land Club, the president, Dr. J.M. Adams, of which was an educator from the “University of California southern branch,” then operating at what became Los Angeles City College and later becoming U.C.L.A., “co-operated with the camp and with the United States forest service in the construction of a new stretch of trail to Switzer’s camp.” Other officers of the club were Vice-President Frances Wagley; Treasurer Dr. J.A. McKellar; Recording Secretary Charles A. Gerry; and Corresponding Secretary Lottie Eginton.

After the weekend, in its edition of the last day of May, the Post briefly recorded that “the largest crowd which was ever entertained at Switzer’s camp [was] spending the Memorial Day holiday period in the mountain resort” noting that “over 250 pleasure seekers went to the hills on Saturday and enjoyed the fine program arranged for their entertainment by Lloyd Austin.”

This map from the 18 June 1921 edition of the Los Angeles Express concerning roads in the San Gabriel Mountains not only shows the route to Switzer’s Camp up the Arroyo Seco, but also identifies “Negro Canyon” as a side canyon in the Arroyo—this is now known as El Prieto Canyon, the Spanish name meaning “dark-skinned” and referring specifically to Robert Owens, an early Black pioneer of Los Angeles.

The same day’s issue of the Los Angeles Record observed that, in addition to one automobile death and two injuries in car accidents with the fatality taking place when a Pasadena man lost his life as a vehicle plummeted down a slope in Mint Canyon in what is now Santa Clarita, two persons suffered broken legs in hiking accidents in the San Gabriel. A Los Angeles woman had her injury inflicted at the world-famous Mt. Lowe resort, while an Eagle Rock man was hurt near Switzer’s Camp.

Local notable events taking place at or near Switzer’s in June included a gathering, the weekend after Memorial Day, of the Los Angeles Y.M.C.A.’s After Coffee Bible Club and this was undoubtedly a connection to Lloyd Austin, who, prior to acquiring the resort, was the education director for about seven years of the Y.M.C.A.

This annual venture, of which some 100 persons took part in 1920, included a musical and literary offering Saturday night, followed by services on the following morning and the Post of 3 June observed that “the membership of the club includes some of the finest talent in the city and the program is always of exceptional merit.”

The 20 June edition of the Pasadena paper discussed the week-long excursion advertised earlier and noted above and it was reported that 22 hikers joined Austin for the “tramp through the hills.” It was added that the annual trip was where the Switzer-Land Club was established the prior year and that some participants were on their fourth ramble, which was to go to Mt. Islip at the northern edge of San Gabriel Canyon and to Mt. Baldy at the eastern extremity of the itinerary. It was expected that there would be snow in these higher elevations and the article ended by recording that 150 visitors were at the camp the prior weekend, with readings and music offered.

At the end of June, the Post highlighted the silver anniversary of Lloyd and Bertha Austin, who married at St. Paul, Minnesota in 1896 before migrating to Los Angeles just under a decade later. The article noted that the couple was surprised by a dinner attended by thirty persons “including the whole camp family and the guests.” A Philadelphia minister gave “a delightful congratulatory speech in which he dwelt on the beautiful homelike spirit which pervades the camp.”

In response, Lloyd Austin “spoke of his early life on a Minnesota farm and on the happiness of his 25 years of married life.” The article concluded that “the dinner table was decorated with a profusion of wild flowers to be found near the camp” and observed that “a pleasant feature of the occasion was the presentation of little Mary Hamilton of a huge bouquet of wild blossoms” to the feted couple.

Snapshots shared by Deborah LeFalle of her aunt Lilly Bates (nicknamed “Puddin” and lying on the grass in the top left image; leaning back at the left at top right; and seated at left on the lower right) and others, including a 1928 hike up the Arroyo Seco towards Switzer’s Camp.

By a remarkable circumstance, I was contacted yesterday by Deborah LeFalle, who lives in the Bay Area and was looking for confirmation of the location of some snapshots showing her aunt and others on a 1928 hike in what some of the images identified as “Switzer’s Canyon.” Given the terrain, the large boulders in a creek in one of the views and the fact that the photos were developed at a Pasadena shop, it seems almost certain that the jaunt was in the Arroyo Seco on the way to the camp.

One of the questions Deborah asked was whether there were any restrictions on African-Americans having access to the mountains and, while there weren’t any of which I was aware, it did occur to me that there were very likely such barriers to Black visitors at the camp and the others that were found in the range.

Another great photo shared by Deborah LeFalle, with her aunt Lilly Bates, who lived to be 100 years old, kneeling at the far right.

Of the many photographs, the Homestead’s collection has related to hiking and other activities in the San Gabriels in the period before 1930, only a couple have people of color in them, these showing Latinos. So, to be able to see these great images shared by Deborah was, of course, interesting on its own, but her important question is a reminder that unequal access would have been the case in the mountain resorts as it would at local beaches, swimming pools, and other leisure sites, in addition to the pervasive and pernicious “restrictive covenants” which kept ownership of properties throughout greater Los Angeles in the hands of those “of the Caucasian race.”

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