by Paul R. Spitzzeri
This fourth and final part of our look into some of the history of Millard Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains above Altadena and Pasadena focuses on the extraordinary story of Hyrel Chaney Gill, whose nearly a decade of residing in the canyon was marked by a running series of battles with area residents, the La Viña Sanitarium and local and federal authorities concerning her outsized claims of water and mining rights there.
Part three covered some of her life prior to settling at Millard, including her tumultuous relationship with husband George, culminating in his 1908 shooting and killing of his lover, May Watkins, and his resulting suicide. Hyrel, who’d lived with him and their son Richard in Pasadena as well as in Los Angeles, settled in the canyon in 1912 and, when register to vote that year—just after women were given the right to do so in California the prior year—she, a Republican, listed her profession as mountaineer. As a sidenote, when she registered again in 1914, she stated she was a miner, but also declared that she was a member of the Socialist Party, maybe because of her tussles with government? By the 1920s, however, Gill returned to being a Republican.
She first appeared in local press accounts very soon after establishing herself at Millard in the 6 July issue of the Los Angeles Times, which ran the headline of “Rotund Lady Routs Six Men” as it noted that Gill came home the prior day and found a half-dozen workers digging on her mining claim and the paper. She was referred to as “Helen Gill” and “considerably over 200 pounds” as the paper added that she “plumped herself down in the excavation” and dared those present, including two deputy sheriffs, to remove her.
The account went on to record that “the difficulty arose over an attempt to repair a pipe through which the supply of water for the La Vina Sanatorium . . . is secured,” but, several days prior, when laborers arrived, Gill, who resided in a tent, appeared to assert her rights to the property, even though La Viña opened three years before. Adding that “she is of a commanding appearance,” the Times noted that the employees returned the following day accompanied by the peace officers, but Gill clambered into the hole made by the workers and intoned “now come and put me out.” She then “entertained the party with several vocal solos” from the excavated area” and the group left and the sanitarium’s lawyer told the paper they would temporarily hold off on work.
The 25 July edition of the Los Angeles Express, under the headline of “Crowbar, Shovel, Dynamite—Bang!” noted
Millard canyon, lying just north of the limits of Pasadena, is bristling with artillery and small arms, a sand box for the conservation of the waters of the canyon has been filled with stones and dynamite and shovels, pickaxes and crowbars belonging to La Vina . . . have disappeared, according to charges and countercharges [made in court], where Mrs. Hyrel Gill, the “woman miner of Millard canyon,” and F.W. Ford, who owns a mining claim adjoining that of Mrs. Gill, appeared to defend themselves against charges of contempt.
The contempt rap came from a temporary restraining order issued a week or so prior against Ford and Gill and enjoining them “from interfering with the sanitarium company’s flow of water” after the institution’s sand box, which was reported on being Gill’s claim and used for the conservation of the precious fluid, was filled with stones, while dynamite was found there and the water pipe filled with material. Ford insisted that he was in Los Angeles at the time, but Gill readily admitted to taking the tools claiming she was gathering evidence in the dispute. She denied all knowledge of how the rocks and explosives got there and defended her prior rights to the water.
Her lawyer was Charles S. McKelvey, who had a long interest in mining as an engineer before being admitted to the bar in 1901, and it was stated that he had “a formidable array of artillery in the canyon to prevent any person from taking any of the water.” McKelvey was disbarred for mail fraud in 1915, but was reinstated after a decade and practiced law afterward. In May 1913, a compromise was reached with Ford, who was allowed 500 cubic inches of water monthly for his mining enterprise in a judgment rendered in favor of La Viña while the contempt charge was dropped. A similar arrangement was made with Gill, as well.
The matter seemed to have receded for more than two years, but the 13 October 1915 edition of the Times reported that
Mrs. F. Gill, the Amazonian mountain matron of Millard’s Canyon, who tips the scales at 300 pounds and possesses convictions that equal her weight, has made application with the State Water Commission which if granted would give her Pasadena’s watershed, water and all.
Naturally, Pasadena officials were more than alarmed and hastened to state its case to the commission, with it being added that, had nothing been done by the City, Gill’s application would have been granted. The piece concluded that “Mrs. Gill is a character of Millard Canyon whose fame has spread.” In addition to her battle with La Viña and the City of Pasadena, it was said that she “padlocked the cabins of several persons who had filed claims there” and, when they discovered what she had done, Gill insisted on their paying rent to her “as she declared everything in the canyon was hers.”
As for Ford, the Times of 9 December printed an allegation from La Viña director and Pasadena ice company owner, S. Hazard Halstead, that the miner threatened to kill him and others associated with the sanitarium, so an arrest warrant was issued. Eight days prior, Halstead asserted in his complaint, Ford wielded an ax against him and four others over continuing legal wrangling over Millard Canyon water rights and drove the group out of the canyon.
On the 15th, the paper observed that Ford was back in court on a contempt charge on an allegation from Halstead that “a hole had been bored in the water pipe” and that Ford threatened a La Viña employee with a corn knife. The account added that there had been the agreement between the sanitarium and Ford and Gill two years earlier, but then came the hole-boring incident, which included a wooden plug inserted in the hole, presumably to draw water for Gill’s use, as “a wire overhead trolley” was found to go from that point to her residence. She insisted that her son, then fifteen years old, “constructed the trolley, as a plaything” and that a can hanging on the wire was not used to carry water. When sanitarium workers tried to get a meter reading to see if Ford and/or Gill exceeded their allotment, they alleged Ford attacked them.
The Times of the 21st noted that, with a third county judge presiding over the dispute, it was found that Ford and Gill both took more than their 500 inches of water monthly, but it was added that “it is not settled whether this excess water is necessary in order to obtain a wholesome supply.” One of the witnesses in the proceeding was county Public Service Commission president Reginaldo F. del Valle, who stated that “it requires an hour and a half to fill a bottle of water” while evidence showed that “the tunnel is filled with mud and choked with debris.”
While Ford and Gill protested that the water was not “wholesome,” La Viña attorneys argued otherwise. Also discussed at the hearing was the second contempt charge preferred against Ford for the breaking of the pipeline, which he denied and noted that there was no evidence against him. Moreover, “Mrs. Gill’s boy was referred to by the court, although [the judge] made no findings,” this apparently concerned the trolley system. The jurist “stated certain of the lad’s acts are unjustifiable” and added that property rights were not to be infringed, while the question about the water supply was taken under advisement.
Two days later, the paper quoted Gill as proclaiming
I’ll give the Arroyo Seco to Los Angeles and then let Pasadena knuckle down and buy her water from Los Angeles. I have plenty [of water] to keep me and mine and the people here have knocked me until I have decided to give this property away, but not to Pasadena, as I might have done. I have never been given a square deal here. Those who could have done the right thing were afraid—politics kept them bowed down to the whims of the bosses.
Gill went on to insist that she owned 1,600 acres of mining claims, with “large values of gold” present, and their value was a cool million dollars, but demurred when asked about specifics of her alleged gift. The Times observed that “she has kept before the public ever since she moved to Millard’s Canyon,” but her latest bid to the state commission to get all the water rights engendered a movement of petitioners to seek a rejection of her claim.
Gill’s problems extended into the federal domain by mid-1916, though it was through a large-scale action instituted against eighteen persons, including Ford, Gill and McKelvey (whose representation of Gill was almost certainly paid for with interests in her mining claims) who were deemed to be “trespassers on the domain of the Angeles National Forest.” The action was brought after Rushton S. Charlton, the forest’s superintendent, and a federal solicitor filed an official complaint “after several years of bickering and discussion between the government and the parties interested.”
The filing concerned almost 2,500 acres to which the government sought to quiet (definitively establish) title and which “were originally entered by the defendants as mineral land in the Arroyo Seco and Millard Canyon,” some of this as late as 1912, when Gill, for example, filed her claims. The feds insisted that “the land is not mineral in character” and that none of the defendants had any right to their claims, while they, in turn, “standing on their supposed technical rights” fought against having to yield these.
At this time, Richard Gill was arrested by the county probation department and “charged with opening a ditch and allowing the water” apportioned to La Viña “to run over the land of his mother . . . in violation of a court order.” A Times account of 29 June noted that a pair of injunctions as well as an arrest warrant were served on young Gill, but that, when officers appeared at the house, an innocent hiker was approached with the papers instead. It continued,
Mrs. Gill, who is the ruler of Millard’s Canyon, where she allows no one to pick flowers without her permission, enjoyed the joke for a little while, and then magnanimously produced her own son and told the officer of the mistake that he had made. [After authorities placed him in a car to take Richard to Los Angeles] Mrs. Gill also attempted to get into the automobile, but was denied the privilege by [an officer,] who reminded her of how she treated him a year ago, which he said had left a bad impression.
As is often the case with affairs at Washington, D.C., the federal action against Gill moved with a glacial pace. In April 1917, the Los Angeles Express of the 5th reported, the General Land Office decreed that “action . . . to oust Mrs. H. Gill from a valuable homestead claim in Millard canyon” had to be initiated by a registrar and receiver from the local GLO district office and it was concluded that these officials were to immediately get to work on the case.
The Times of 15 January 1918 picked up the story and even included cartoons depicting her taking a broom to Uncle Sam, reporting that the work of the regional GLO authorities led to a decision by which “Mrs. Hyrel Gill , who unaided and alone held feudal sway over 2000 acres of government land in Millard Canyon and the Arroyo Seco for six years . . . yesterday lost all shadow of claim to the property.” The piece mentioned Ford, but added that “it was she who for a long time proved herself to be bigger than the national government” because she ignored eviction notices “and remained there in defiance of everybody.”
The local feds wrote in their decision that Gill’s claims were not made in good faith and were “in accord with a scheme of Mrs. Gill for her own use and benefit to acquire possession and control over a large area of land that returned a large revenue.” They deemed that her claims were not legitimate from the time she made them nearly a half-dozen years before, beginning with assertions of control of water that, the paper noted, were rejected by a state court. Her dozen mining claims included areas previously rented by the federal government and provided her $1,800 yearly and, to meet homesteading requirements, Gill fraudulently used the names of friends and family members without their knowledge for individual claims and then filed purchases of these for $1, again without anyone aware of what she’d done.
Once she’d established her claims, Gill “proceeded to try to collect rent from persons having building and homesites there and in some instances succeeded in doing so,” while she also took to charging tolls for access people had to their places that they leased from the feds on roads that were on her claims. While she averred that her land contained valuable “building stone” and other minerals, the GLO officials rejoined that decomposed granite found throughout the San Gabriel range was “useless” and the quantity of other material was “so small as to be of no practical value.
Despite the local finding, it was expected that Gill, as well as Ford, would appeal the ruling to the GLO commissioner in Washington and the Secretary of the Interior, under whose purview the GLO is situated.” The paper added that she represented herself in the proceeding “and made a good showing.” In mid-June, the Express noted that Richard Gill was attacked by a man who attempted to eject him and his mother from their place and a charge was made (almost certainly by the Gills) of attempted murder, though the matter was quickly dropped.
The Times of 5 January 1919 recorded that Gill did appeal the local GLO decision with a demand for a new trial and this was rejected. The GLO office in Washington then affirmed the ruling of its regional officials, commenting that the land had no value for cultivation or for building stone, especially as no quarrying was known to have taken place there (though rocks from Millard Canyon were, as noted in part one of this post, were used for a breakwater at the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington more than two decades prior). The feds reiterated her actions in securing water and in deriving revenue, including having “collected money from picknickers and pleasure-seekers” entering the canyon as they passed her cabin. It was anticipated that she would appeal to the Interior Department.
The 18 March 1919 edition of the paper noted, though, that the GLO commissioner’s affirmation was not followed by an appeal so that “the decision is final” and “the next thing staring local forest service officials in the face is the job of getting Mrs. Gill off the land,” a task that heretofore had yielded “no effect appreciable to the naked eye.” What Charlton, however, proposed was:
Mrs. Gill is incapacitated from work on account of a severe attack of rheumatism, and she will not be put off a lot of the land involved, provided she cares to assume the same status as 1200 other renters, under what is known as a special use permit, at the rate of $15 a year. She will be tendered this opportunity to stay where she is, but she must pay her rent to the government just the same as other clients of the forestry department in the local reserve.
The Pasadena Post of 8 October 1919 reported that “Pasadena gets a place in the reflected limelight of reopened trouble centering about another refusal of Mrs Hyriel [sic] C. Gill to be evicted from her home in Millard canyon.” Evidently disdaining Charlton’s offer, Gill was said to continue to reside in the cabin she constructed herself “and to allow her goats to wander at will through the Angeles forest reserve.”
It was added that she filed for a new homestead for her land, while the previous day, a federal district attorney formally served notice on her that she had to leave her dwelling and remove the animals, though she could still, apparently, agree to the terms established by the forest supervisor for paying that nominal annual rent. The Post, however, noted that “Mrs. Gill shook the canyon dust from her shoes last night and went to Los Angeles to start the fight” and fired off a telegram to Secretary of the Interior Franklin Lane to inquire why her homestead application had not been approved.
In April 1920, it was reported that the Gill goats were removed from the canyon and taken to private property. The Times of the 27th reported that a federal marshal sent to evict Gill and her son found their cabin empty and the animals gone. The paper added, “the woman was entitled to congratulation from one point of view. She went into the canyon alone [well, with Richard], and made for herself a home.” She was also credited for representing herself in all of the legal proceedings against her. The Post of 8 July observed that about a dozen goats were still in the canyon, apparently without her knowledge, and joked about her defiance of authority for years, though it is surprising that the paper failed to note that Gill “goated” officials during her time in Millard Canyon.
In 1922, Hyrel Gill registered to vote with an address near today’s Los Angeles Convention Center, Crypto.com Center and LA Live complex and she gave her occupation as in real estate. The following year she and her son (who later joined the Navy and then lived in Texas before returning to greater Los Angeles where he died in 1969) were in San Francisco, but they returned to the Angel City by the end of the decade and she gave her vocation as an advertiser in the 1930 census. She was living in Long Beach when she died of a heart attack in February 1940 at age 66 while visiting a friend.
The story of Hyrel C. Gill, the “Amazonian mountain matron of Millard’s Canyon,” is certainly an interesting and remarkable one for a host of reasons and is an apt one to conclude this multi-part post on the Canyon. As to the featured photograph, showing a woman seated on the thin wood rail of a very crude wooden bridge at Millard, one wonders if she and her fellow hikers ran into Gill during the remaining days of her tenure there!