Century of Destruction: Environmental Devastation of the San Gabriel Mountains

Train of cars carrying lumber being pulled by a logging tractor in Central California. Lumber was also extracted from the San Gabriels. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The nineteenth century was a brutal era of exploitation of the San Gabriels. Its valuable natural resources were at the mercy of an expanding populace that believed the wealth of nature to be inexhaustible. Abuse of its timberland, watershed, and wildlife would fray its balanced ecosystem. Before the Forest Reserve Act of 1891 established them as federally protected lands, the public domain of the San Gabriels was subject to unchecked resource demands and careless destruction.


Joseph Chapman and the Legacy of Logging

Joseph Chapman, from California Series by Sid Bernstein,1960 | Courtesy of USC Digital ArchivesTimber extraction from the San Gabriels dates back to Spanish missionaries obtaining pine for buildings at Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in the early 1800s. One of the most renowned early loggers -- and the first Anglo American resident of El Pueblo de Los Angeles -- Yankee Joseph Chapman arrived at the mission after being captured by the Spanish while an officer of privateer Hippoltyede Bouchard. Using the craftsman skills he honed in the New England woods, "Blonde Joe," as he was known by the Spanish, led timbering operations in Church Canyon for the construction of La Iglesia de Nuestra Señora la Reina de Los Ángeles, in 1819. Returning to the same canyon a decade later with Mission Indian laborers -- who called him "Diablo Chapman" for his dexterity with the axe -- he dragged out timber to be used to build the first ship in California made from native materials, the seventy-foot long schooner Guadalupe.

Joseph Chapman's Plaza Church, 1870 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Throughout the ensuing decades, pioneering mountain settlers profited from harvesting timber from the San Gabriel's forested canyons. Ex-slave Robert Owens and homesteader Henry W. Millard (Church Canyon is today called Millard Canyon) continued Chapman's legacy of logging the woodlands above present-day Altadena. The Rankin Family in Monrovia Canyon assembled a saw pit for their operations, as did an unknown entrepreneur in San Antonio canyon near Mt. Baldy.

Waves of gold miners in the canyons and highlands also took to their blades to chop material for their cabins and rickety mines. Leveling of timber by foothill-adjacent ranch owners and other axemen would occur unrestricted through the close of the nineteenth century.

Bulges of wood remain at the Big Horn Mine in the eastern San Gabriels | Photo: Daniel Medina

Timber was pulled from San Gabriel Canyon. Here, squatters chop wood in the Canyon in the 1930s. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


Sheep Pasturing by Fire

In 1860, Los Angeles County was swollen with almost 100,000 sheep. Looking to rich pastures, isolated in the highlands of the city, herders guided their flocks into areas such as Placerita Canyon and the flats of Chilao. Verdant subalpine meadows were chomped to dust by thousands of pasturing animal stock. Compounding the damage, sheepherders would set areas of forest on fire to clear land for more grazing. These deliberate acts were catalysts to larger, uncontrollable blazes that thrived on the extremely flammable sheets of mountain chaparral. In 1878, two mountain fires, sparked by different cattlemen, raged in Soledad Canyon and the front range above Pasadena. The Los Angeles Herald covered the conflagration near San Pascual Ranch:

Yesterday evening and the night before a tongue of fire could be seen licking its way up the San Gabriel range of mountains ... The fire originated on San Pascual Ranch. A farmer was clearing brush and thoughtlessly set fire to it. Flames spread with incredible rapidity; at least five canyons are despoiled by flames.

Altadena ranch owner and chairman of the state's first Board of Forestry, Abbot Kinney -- of Venice of America fame -- studied the effects of unrestricted logging, pasturing, and fire clearings near San Pascual Ranch. As quoted in W.W. Robinson's "The Forest and the People," Kinney remarks in 1886:

The road to my ranch from Los Angeles passed ... across the San Pascual Ranch, most of which was then used to pasture sheep ... the foothills and mesas were covered with native growths of brush and chapparral, scrub oak, greasewood ... Every succeeding year has seen more of this covering removed from the land by clearing or fire, until now nearly all the mesas are bare of verdure.

View of sheep grazing in Placerita Canyon circa 1880 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Forest fires like this one in San Gabriel Canyon in 1924 occurred throughout the 1800s. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


Watershed Endangerment

The removal of trees and brush that Kinney observed led to changes in the mountain watershed. Rains that had been absorbed for centuries into well-vegetated slopes and canyon floors were now rushing down the slick, barren surfaces of burned and logged areas. Combined with torrential downpours, water and debris hurled down into the San Gabriel Valley. Kinney reported:

Torrents have been born; orchards, vineyards, roads, fields, and fences ... have been damaged, partially destroyed, or altogether washed away.

In 1867, a logjam in the canyon of the Whittier Narrows broke with such force that it altered the path of the San Gabriel River, from its westward course to a southbound course into Alamitos Bay. In SCCWRP's "Historical Ecology and Landscape Change of the San Gabriel River and Floodplain," W.R. Dodson of El Monte remembered an account told to him by a friend who witnessed the event:

...the water was blocked by logs and drift, and he says some 25 to 50 feet high, and backed up three or four miles, and he says when it went out made a noise loud enough to be heard two or three miles...

Gold miners in the river's canyon headwaters also contributed to watershed abuses. Effluent from their placer and hydraulic gold recovery operations contaminated the running water. By the population boom of the 1880s, the thirsty agricultural industries and satellite towns in the valley were calling for protection of the vital mountain watershed from mining and other hazards.

Roads and fences in the San Gabriel Valley were endangered of being washed washed out, like in this flood of the San Gabriel or Rio Hondo River in 1938 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

The use of hydraulic pressure to construct the Los Angeles Aqueduct, similar to the practice used in gold mining. Water under great pressure is used to cut into the earth. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library


Hunting Exploits

On Sundays in the early 1800s, the inhabitants of El Pueblo de Los Angeles could look forward to attending the sport of bear-bull fighting in the ring on El Toro Street. Vaqueros would capture grizzly bears that were abundant in the Arroyo Seco and other mountain canyons, and drag them into town to be brawled against a bull for the amusement of the crowd. This spectacle marked one of the earliest examples of hunting exploits in the San Gabriels in the nineteenth century.

Vaqueros lasso a grizzly bear | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Dr. Charles Frederick Holder with the Pasadena's Valley Hunt hounds.Following the dizzying growth of Los Angeles in the 1880s, hunters and fishermen took to the mountains in roaring numbers. They were lured from the east by Southern California Boosters, like Pasadena sportsman Charles Frederick Holder, who extolled the region's overflowing tableau of game to be had. Holder, also the co-founder of the Tournament of Roses, wrote emphatically of the year-round hunting grounds of the San Gabriels. Below, a selection of hunting quotes from Holder's 1911 "Sport with Rod, Gun, Horse, and Hound in Southern California" and 1889 "All About Pasadena and its Vicinity:"

Quail in the Arroyo Seco:

The valley quail is the most beautiful little creature ... the sportman from the East will find the little bird a fair test of his powers, it being an extremely rapid flyer, going like a shot when flushed.

Jackrabbits around Altadena:

They often spring up beneath your feet, and quick shooting is required to bring them down. When hit upon the run, they often shoot into the air two or three feet.

San Gabriel Canyon Trout:

The best fishing-ground is that of the San Gabriel Cañon and its tributaries. The fish are often found in water so shallow as to seem impossible to float them.

Mountain Lions:

...the puma, call him what you will, is as good an excuse ... to induce the sport-loving reader to enter and know the Sierra Madre.

Although he did preface that there was an "unwritten law among gentleman that no sportsman will kill more than camp demand, or rational sport justifies," restraint was not always exercised by overzealous sportmen. The last wild grizzly in the San Gabriels would be killed on May 16, 1894. Five years before, a massive, 1,200 pound grizzly named Monarch was captured, and became the last wild Californian grizzly bear in captivity, held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park Zoo until his death in 1911. Millions know Monarch today as the bear on the California state flag, which was modeled on the San Gabriels' own legendary grizzly.

Even with such immeasurable loss, the San Gabriels would survive into an era of gradual recovery, conservation, and thriving recreation by the turn of the twentieth century.

Monarch's likeness on the California state flag.

Monarch the bear today stands on display at the California Academy of Sciences | Photo: Payton Chung/Flickr/Creative Commons License

A hunter named Kirk poses with his brace of rabbits as his dog looks on. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Professor Charles Frederick Holder and boatman "Mexican Joe" displaying his then record 183 lb. bluefin tuna at Catalina,1903. | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

California mountain lion, circa 1920 | Digitally reproduced by the USC Digital Library; From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California

About the Author

I grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and enjoy exploring Los Angeles and learning about its origins.
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