At Our Leisure with a Photo of a Visit to the Mt. Wilson Hotel, 21 August 1906, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Having covered some of the history of sender Herbert W. Chesebro in part one, we turn now to the second and final part of this post, highlighting, from the Homestead’s holdings, a 21 August 1906 real photo postcard of Chesebro on a mule at the Mt. Wilson Hotel, by looking at some of what was happening at this San Gabriel Mountains landmark during that month.

One of the many dangers for those hiking in the range has always been the possibility of getting lost or having a serious accident—as this winter showed with unsafe conditions leading to deaths and other issues. At the first of the month, the Los Angeles Times reported that “a party of seven guests from the Mount Wilson Hotel got lost while out on a tramp yesterday and spent most of the night out in the open. They were found this morning by searchers sent out from the hotel.”

Los Angeles Times, 1 August 1906.

The five women and two men headed out for a scenic summer’s picnic on the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, passing through the amazing Big Santa Anita Canyon, and, on their return made their way by Sturtevant’s Camp, one of the best known in that locale. During the four-mile trek between there and Mt. Wilson, however, the septet, not having the benefit of the signage and other trail markings of later vintage, much less maps and guides, “lost their bearings and wandered over the ridges and through the brush till daylight, when overtaken by searchers.”

Some of the rescuers went out during the prior evening and the paper added “all night was spent shouting and signal firing.” When the group was located and brought back to the hotel, it “was the occasion of a warm reception,” and the report ended with the note that “though greatly exhausted, they were none the worse for their night’s experience.”

Times, 4 August 1906.

The next day’s edition of the Times had an unusual tale to tell as Henry E. Cordrey and Carrie Joss were on their way with a quartet of friends from Los Angeles to the Mt. Wilson hostelry on a Pacific Electric Railway streetcar, when, in the early afternoon of the 1st, their car collided with a Southern Pacific train. Cordrey managed to escape with some significant bruising and a scraped scalp, but Joss suffered a ruptured blood vessel in her ankle and had to be conveyed back to the Angel City on a relief train sent out to take the injured home or to hospitals.

What made the story more notable, though, was that Cordrey and Joss were secretly married at the Broadway Christian Church by department store owner and minister Benjamin F. Coulter just minutes before they met their unsuspecting pals at the PE depot at Main and Sixth streets for what the latter assumed was a pleasant mountain day outing. After the mishap, however, the Cordreys had to reveal their secret nuptials, which they were intending to mention once at Mount Wilson and then have their surprised but overjoyed companions hurry back to spread the good news.

Times, 2 August 1906.

Henry even managed to salvage something of the wedding cake he’d tucked under his arm and which was “a much dilapidated pound cake,” but he tossed it aside and “worked valiantly to help the more unfortunate victims who were pinned under the crushed timbers of the street car.” It was “to the accompaniment of the groans of the injured,” that he told his fellow travelers of the clandestine wedding, but all “vow that they will still celebrate the wedding of Cordrey and Miss Joss on the summit of Mt. Wilson” and he added that “when his bride recovers and he is able to be about, the same party will make the trip . . . and celebrate the delayed honeymoon.” The couple were together over a half-century, had four sons and a daughter and resided in South Pasadena until his death in 1958 at age 80, while Carrie lived almost another twenty years and passed at the age of 97.

The most famous element of Mount Wilson is the observatory, which opened there in 1908, having been funded and a site leased by the owners of the hotel. Early in August 1906, the Los Angeles Herald observed that Sunday the 5th “was probably the best day of the season up to date” for the hostelry as crowds headed up to enjoy the area. In the evening, the Woodhouse brothers of Pasadena provided musical entertainment for guests at a dance at Strain’s Camp, “which was a most enjoyable affair.” It was added that,

Many who visit the peak these days are trying the new trail in order to get a glimpse at the work going on there for the widening of the trail. The observatory people have a force of sixty-five men at the lower end of the trail doing the loose work, cutting down brush and grubbing away the loose stones. Fifteen more men will be added soon.

Blasting was not yet being conducted, but a freight truck with an electric drill was soon expected and it was anticipated to be “a curious thought effective contrivance” in the work to establish an 8-foot width for entire length of the trail in what was deemed a major effort. The Herald went to observe that, “anyone who has followed this eight-mile trail from its foot just below Esperanza in Eaton’s canyon, to the summit plateau of Mt. Wilson, will wonder how a trail of the desired width can ever be made,” but those engaged in the work noted that “it will require many wide cuts in the solid rock and many walls built into the canyon, but with time and money it is not impossible.”

Los Angeles Herald, 6 August 1906.

The paper also recorded that the expanded route would allow for its use in transporting machinery and equipment for the observatory, though it also asked whether it would be utilized for burro pack trains, autos and trucks “or will that long hoped for electric railroad become a reality with this magnificent trail as a foundation?” This was obviously a nod to the famous Mt. Lowe Railway, owned for the past several years by the Pacific Electric. The Mt. Wilson Toll Road Company, headed by the prominent Pasadena financier William R. Staats, was said to “have no settled idea . . . as to what will be the outcome of the present important work,” but it was at least expected that “passenger traffic to and from Wilson’s peak will somehow advantage by it.”

On the 28th, the Herald provided an update on the project, stating that, after some three weeks, and with ninety laborers at work, “wonders have been accomplished” because “where before was a narrow, precarious trail, now stretches a wide thoroughfare, astonishing in comparison, of full eight feet.” While an inexperienced visitor might think the finished portion was ready for use, it was noted that “many ledges and great boulders project” and little attempt made to work with these until that modified truck was ready for use.

Herald, 28 August 1906.

Again, the paper wondered, given the “simply wonderful” progress to date with not only the widened route but grades set to no more than 10%, that the endeavor “ought to set the builders of mountain railroads to thinking—and it will.” Meanwhile, while the effort during August was from the bottom of the trail, the 30th was to inaugurate work from the top with a crew of 75 graders “crawling down the mountain step by step to meet the force coming from the bottom. Tents were being put up and a burro train to bring all the supplies and materials needed.

With respect to the observatory, astronomer George Ellery Hale and those working with him on the Andrew Carnegie Foundation-funded project “talk guardedly of plans for the erection of possibly a half dozen new buildings” around what was called the “monastery,” a dormitory for visiting scientists, along with workshops and the experiment stations. These could not be worked on, though, until the widened trail was completed and it was added that one structure would be for the public, but there was concern about allowing general access for some time to come because “it is reported that some very expensive apparatus has recently been ruined because of the unintentional carelessness of visitors.”

Los Angeles Express, 23 August 1906.

The building would display photos, charts and records of discoveries and it was anticipated to become, “with its setting of clouds and mountain canyons, hoary forests and sparkling oceans, another of the famous wonder spots of Southern California.” The Herald concluded the feature by stating, “if someone will only build a railroad which will make this great peak more easily accessible—but that altogether is another story.” While that never happened, direct automobile access from Angeles Crest Highway (State Route 2) was completed almost three decades later in 1935.

There were frequent reports in papers in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, Whittier and Long Beach about groups making the trip up to the summit, sometimes on moonlight hikes as “long strings of pleasure seekers go up the trail to Mt. Wilson.” Being the summer hunting season, there were also those heading into the mountains to go after deer and the Whittier News of the 6th briefly noted that a pair of hunters were requesting that their friends “hold their orders for venison—but not to hold their breath at the same time.”

Whittier News, 6 August 1906.

After the second weekend of the month passed, the Herald of the 13th reported on activity at Mt. Wilson, including the booking of thirty guests in one day at Strain’s Camp and crowded conditions at other lodgings. It continued by observing,

Mt. Wilson was as near ideal as is possible, with its shade and its coolness, and the week has been about the busiest of the season. Nearly every morning parties have been made up for longer or shorter trips over the mountain trails centering here. Sturdevant’s [sic] camp being a favorite point to visit.

Hardly a day passes without people stopping at the summit on their way to the west fork for deer or on their way to the valley after a try for deer up in the mountains [including the duo from Whittier] . . . Card parties and dances, with nightly visits to Echo rock to see the moon rise, make the cool evenings pass delightfully.

Speaking of parties, the Times of the 22nd reported on a “masque ball,” these being very popular during the period, at the Strain’s Camp lodge hall, held not quite a week prior by “refugees from the summer heat” who weren’t in much “envy [of] the seaside loungers.” The festivities, the paper continued, were carried out by “a crowd of congenial mountaineers [who] decided upon a rip-roarin’ function that would shake off any symptom of lassitude which might threaten the sylvan fastnesses.”

Herald, 13 August 1906.

Animated by “a general feeling of eager delight and anticipation,” the revelers made costumes, some of which “would have knocked a Parisian theatrical couturiere into the back yard of obscurity” while it was asserted that “the variety of raiment represented couldn’t be duplicated even by the average dramatic stock company.” Telegraphs were sent out and invitees came in from Los Angeles, Pasadena and other points so that “a jolly bunch of merry-makers presented themselves in the ballroom.”

The result was that “the fun that followed the arrival of the masked devotees of Terpsichore made the cañons in the vicinity of Strain’s Camp echo till nearly daylight.” The American flag was prominent among the décor in the hall and a complete orchestra was on hand, as well. Many of those in costume were cowboys, women in calico dresses and bonnets and miners while Buffalo Bill Cody and his beau “Sis Hopkins” put in an appearance, as did a circus clown.

Long Beach Telegram, 11 August 1906.

The pervasive racism of the time meant that there were also “a negro lady [obviously a white person in blackface], who looked as though she might have just ‘blown in’ from Alabam’,” and “a number of ‘colored gem’men,’ typically attired, with chadelier diamonds and junk jewelry,” along with Indians, obviously present to kidnap the white women, “Chinamen, some of them said to be contrabands,” and “Dago” peanut vendors.

After noting the presence of nursery rhyme and fairy tale characters like Little Bo Peep, Old Mother Hubbard and others, the paper recorded that the revelry was determined to be “an unusual success” for a first-time occurrence and it was hoped that the “midsummer masquerades” would become a recurring feature of the camps social activities and the purple prose of the unidentified journalist peaked with this closing remark:

Pines and oak trees, arroyo and cañons, reverberated with the echo of laugh and music, and only when the moon began to snooze off behind a cloud and the red blush in the east gave notice of approaching day did the masqueraders adjourn to their slumbers.

August ended with the Herald offering a humorous account of how “a man wearing a beard of two weeks’ growth, a slouch hat pulled far over his eyes, a dark blue sweater and high boots a little the worse for wear, drifted into the Angelus hotel” the previous night with a “rough sack over his shoulder” and a travel bag. After a bellhop reluctantly took the latter when called by the gent to do so, the stranger walked up to the check-in desk and asked for a room, but the clerk demanded to know what was in the luggage.

Herbert W. Chesebro, whose father Herbert E. was a prominent figure in Covina, posed atop a mule at Mt. Wilson in an image taken by the well-known mountain photographer Ernest B. Gray and with a message to Clara Menefee of Covina dated 21 August 1906.

This led to offended visitor to rejoin with, “I came from back in the mountains. Anything else you want to know about me? Do you intend to give me that room?.” After a repeated query about the contents of the sack and bag, the grungy guest growled, “what would I be doing with them if they were not mine?” Once he signed his name, however, as Chester R. Olmstead, it was realized that a practical joke had been well-played, as Olmstead was the Angelus’ chief clerk, just returned from two weeks at Mt. Wilson, during which time “he has been climbing over mountains and allowing nature to make over his features.” The beard and suntan were excellent disguises, but “the slouch hat made the disguise complete.”

The Homestead’s collection has plenty of other great early 20th century photos, as well as other objects, from our local mountain camps, resorts and trails, so look for future “At Our Leisure” posts for more featured artifacts.

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