by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Amid the roughly four decades or so of the Great Hiking Era, from the 1890s through the 1930s, the San Gabriel Mountains included many resorts, camps and trails that were popular with the burgeoning population of greater Los Angeles and visitors alike. Many posts here in the “At Our Leisure” series have focused on aspects of the history of the range and the featured object from the Museum’s collection, a November 1919 snapshot photograph of a woman hiker in Millard Canyon, is one of a few in the holdings of this very popular location above Altadena.
The late historian and outdoor enthusiast, John W. Robinson, wrote that the earlier moniker was Church Canyon, named because American shipwreck castaway Joseph Chapman, the first Anglo to live in Los Angeles, was recruited to cut timber in the lush forest for the construction of the Plaza Church in the Angel City. Just about thirty years later, in 1851 or 1852, the family of Henry M. Millard and Rachel Giddins arrived in the San Gabriel Valley from Arkansas, where they’d married in 1850, perhaps with settlers that established the town of El Monte.
Some sources suggest that Millard homesteaded land at the base of the mountains next to the canyon in 1862, though the federal census of 1860 shows that the family, comprising four children (sons William and George and daughters Frances and Anna) were in the San Gabriel Township, which went as far north as the mountains, with Henry engaged in the occupation of wood chopper. It stands to reason that he was already living in the canyon area given his employment.
Those same accounts state that Henry left the canyon and moved to Downey in 1872 after the deaths of his wife and daughter (Anna), but, while the latter may well be true and the motivation for his relocation, an 1866 voter registration listing showed that Henry was already in the Los Nietos Township, where Downey was later established, and working as a farmer. It is also known that he was on a 40-acre spread in that location.
Unfortunately, there just isn’t much more information about Millard, though, in July 1880, his son George filed to become the administrator of his late father’s estate and this included the sale of 40 acres of land that was probably the Los Nietos/Downey area farm. Not much could be found about the remaining Millard children—Frances lived to be in her 90s and died in Los Angeles County, little was located on William and George, a laborer at Fulton Wells (now Santa Fe Springs) pled guilty to attempted rape early in 1886 and served three of five years of his sentence at San Quentin. After his release, he lived in Arizona.
There was reference to trout stocked at “Millard’s Creek” in 1877 and the first located reference to “Millard Cañon” was two years later. By the early 1880s, water rights were sought as Pasadena and what became Altadena were increasingly developing and disputes over the precious fluid continued for years afterward. With the onset of the Great Hiking Era, accounts of visits to the canyon by small parties and large groups began to proliferate in the local press, while families like that of Levi and Sarah Giddings established ranches at the mouth of the canyon.
The Giddings family migrated from Marshalltown, Iowa (another notable from that town, northeast of Des Moines, Thomas Mercer, settled nearby in Pomona) and Levi tried raising cherries on what amounted to hundreds of acres at the Millard Canyon mouth, as well as some land in the foothills on what was formerly Rancho San Pasqual. Among their friends and associates in the area were the brothers Frederick and John Woodbury and Jabez Banbury, who also hailed from Marshalltown.
An early problem dealing with water conflicts at Millard Canyon was reported on in the Los Angeles Times of 24 October 1883, which recorded that the Woodburys acquired half of the Giddings claim to the precious fluid there, but hadn’t used their share so it was available to a claim by others after a year’s lapse. This led the developers of the Monk Tract of north Pasadena to tap the waters for their project, while another early subdivision in 1886, as described in the Times of 30 October, was “Las Casitas de la Sierra,” which was described as “a foothill tract . . . within the boundaries of which the picturesque scenery of Millard canyon is found.”
Occasionally, there were ideas of building a road through the San Gabriel range to the Antelope Valley to the north and even a railroad, with the Los Angeles Express of 30 March 1888 observing that
Some one suggests that the Sierra Madre [the common name before San Gabriel was adopted] range of mountains might be tunneled and in this way save the steep grade for the railroad entering this valley from the north. It is believed that enough ore [gold, presumably] and water would be found to pay the expenses of all the work, and perhaps mines of immense value might be found. The mountain range might be entered at the head of Millard canyon coming out at Big Rock creek on the north side. More impractical things than this have been done.
Perhaps, but the notion of a railroad, with massive tunnels or not, was beyond far-fetched, though some of the enthusiasm might be excused due to the fevered imaginations of those caught up in the frenzy of the Boom of the Eighties. What was not so fantastical, though, was the remarkable project of Professor Thaddeus Lowe and his Mt. Lowe Railway and resort, which was opened on Independence Day 1893 adjacent to the Millard Canyon area.
Another interesting end of the century reference to the canyon came in June 1898 when the Los Angeles Record observed that work was done in quarries at Millard for materials used in the construction of a massive breakwater at the harbor, now the Port of Los Angeles, at San Pedro. After the recent conclusion of the Free Harbor Fight, in which federal dollars were to be directed there rather than at Santa Monica, which the powerful Southern Pacific Railroad wanted as the beneficiary of largesse from Washington, the development of the harbor was a true harbinger for greater Los Angeles development.
Water disputes reared again that year involving the Millard Canyon Water Company, which, it was reported in the 20 November edition of the Los Angeles Herald, acquired water rights in 1892 from the Woodburys, the Giddingses and others, but were contesting the siphoning off of water by those who had cabins near Mt. Lowe. The company argued that it had invested in the infrastructure using all of the canyon’s supply for its operations, including the Mountain View Cemetery (established in 1882). The defendants claimed that they drew water from sources outside that of the canyon, but the answer from the plaintiff was that the cabin owners were trespassing on the San Gabriel Forest Reserve, recently established by the federal government.
The above quote referred to the prospect of valuable mineral deposits in the Millard Canyon area and the Express of 25 March 1899 mentioned “the recent discovery of gold made by Mr. English in Millard’s Canyon,” though it was cautioned that samples were not definitive as yet. As the 19th century came to a close, the same paper in its 25 May 1900 edition stated that “near the head of Millard’s canyon . . . a Los Angeles man by the name of [Michael T.] Ryan has struck a gold mine. He has named it the Dawn.”
The Mt. Lowe Railroad constructed a station of that name and built a trail to the mine, where, the paper observed, “about 200 feet of tunneling has been completed, and 10 men are now regularly employed.” The ore to date was comprised of sulfurets, which brought $5-14 a ton from a ledge of eight to ten feet in width and the article concluded that “a camp has been started, and rude houses and tents give the place a very business like appearance.”
The Herald of 23 July 1905 reported that a Jewish syndicate of investors from Milwaukee was to begin active mining operations the following morning, having acquired some 200 acres from Ryan’s Dawn Mining Company for $30,000 in an escrow arrangement. This meant that it had 40 days to conduct exploratory work and decide whether to pay Ryan the money or abandon the project, though the group indicated it would spent $10,000 in its investigations and, should they herald well, it anticipated spending $150,000 for a cyanide reduction plant.
A mining engineer, Horace Pullen, told the paper that he’d taken some samples from the 1,000 feet of work conducted by Dawn and added that the new enterprise looked to extend 300 feet further, though he readily admitted “we are simply taking our chances.” The syndicate was a closed entity of prominent Milwaukee citizens and did not offer stock, but, he noted, if the project did not bear out, there would be no significant financial loss to be absorbed by the investors. Told that locals felt that the area “has rather an unsavory reputation” when it came to prospects of finding gold, Pullen replied that, if he had known that, he might have come to a different decision about being involved, but reiterated that the risks were low.
As for Ryan, it was stated that he’d mined in Australia before coming to Los Angeles and working as a merchant, but he “has had faith in the mine in spite of all the adverse criticism which has been given the district as a wealth producer.” Unable to resist the lure of his former vocation “down under,” he returned to mining “thinking that a large body of ore existed in Millard canyon, even though of a low grade.” The site was declared to be “one of striking beauty” comparable to the Switzer-land resort to the west in the Arroyo Seco and superior to Rubio Canyon and other nearby locales.
It was the scenery and opportunities for leisure, of course, where the true value of Millard Canyon was demonstrated, as a “Tramps and Camps” article in the Herald of 15 May 1905 pointed out. It commented that
Millard’s is one of nature’s jewels, hid from the workaday world. The large alders which grow near the bed of the little dream shade the trail which is an easy one and plainly marked. It winds up through patches of wild blackberries, past beds of wild roses, over big boulders as large as a cottage and around the trunks of huge sycamores and liveoaks [sic].
After an hour, the hike paused at the waterfall that is, naturally, a prime attraction for those who take the jaunt. It was noted that, with abundant winter rains, the cascade “presents an imposing spectacle and the roar of the little stream as it leaps from the rock above fifty feet into the pool below can be plainly heard for some distance down the canyon.” Having experienced this highlight, it was added that “each turn of the winding canyon revealed new wonders and beauties” while, at higher elevations, “exhilarating was the mountain air and so fresh was the breeze which blew in our faces.”
After reaching the Dawn mine, a visit was had with a prospector who was told “of the happenings of the outside world which he had not seen for several months.” After some steep elevation gains and sun and heat exposure, the traveler recorded that “soon we were tramping in the shade of giant pines” before getting to areas that went above the trees but offered commanding views. It was jarring, however, to suddenly hear the noise of the Mt. Lowe Railway as the group got to the Alpine Tavern of the resort at the head of Millard Canyon and then came the famous view from the Mt. Lowe summit that took in so much of greater Los Angeles.
In summer 1907, 236 acres left of the Giddings Ranch was offered for sale by the family and the buyer was the Presbyterian Church of Pasadena, which found the place ideal for a summer resort for parishioners as well as a place for religious instruction and reflection. The Times of 28 June noted that the committee leading the effort to acquire the property was very impressed by the fact that “it is a magnificent spot, with towering cañon walls, beautiful building sites, broad picturesque grounds for the assembly buildings, and an abundant supply of water. It is a wild spot, well known to all lovers of nature hereabouts.”
When ministers were shown the ranch, they “were filled with delight at the prospect” of its future for church purposes and plans included a pavilion for Sunday school, a clubhouse, and bungalows. By early August, however, it was decided that the instruction was to be non-denominational and that a board would include representatives from other Christian churches, though with a Presbyterian majority. Moreover, there was to be a clear division between those going to the compound for rest and those for study. Because 100 acres were outside the canyon, it was decided to sell those off to accumulate funds for development of the facility inside Millard’s and this allowed for the construction of cabins and summer homes in succeeding years.
The 3 November edition of the Times noted that the purchase price was $24,000 and that this was raised by offering two dozen units of $1,000 for acquisition by investors including Union Oil founder and President Lyman Stewart, who was a deeply religious Presbyterian, but who soon moved into fundamentalism and established the nondenominational evangelical Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA, now in La Mirada.) A church leader proclaimed that Providence paid special attention to Millard Canyon when “lavishing [its] gifts on the southland” and “kindly laid it at the feet of a few men who were looking for a place” ideal for the compound.
The locale was deemed “one of the most picturesque cañons in all this region, and is familiar to all roamers among the foothills” with plenty of trees, shade, water and healthy air. While the 100 acres was to be sold for subdivision, “the cañon will be kept as nearly as possible in its virgin state” and, while there would be some landscaping introduced, “nature is to be violated as little as possible.” Moreover, trails were to be built, “affording the choicest recreation and a great variety of scenery.”
The grand plans of the Presbyterians, though, were not to be realized and another use was made of the property. This takes us to the second part of this post, so be sure to look for that very soon as we continue our look at Millard Canyon through 1919.