Driven Out: Louis Newcomb, the Last Mountain Man of the San Gabriels

A forest ranger looking for fire from a national forest lookout station. | Photo: The Training of a Forester/Project Gutenberg

In late September 1939, the heart of the San Gabriel Mountains was breached. The aggressive might of the Angeles Crest Highway finally carved its way into the forested flatlands of Chilao, roughly thirty miles from the highway's origin in La Cañada.

Populated by flush strands of big cone spruce, incense cedar, and jeffrey pine, Chilao was host to plentiful picnic grounds and camping sites developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Upon reaching the major recreational area at the then-terminus of the highway, motorists undoubtedly marveled at the ease at which this former isolated wilderness was now accessible to the public.

Not everyone was celebrating the achievement. Louis Newcomb, a pioneer and former forest ranger who had settled in the area in the late 1880s, despised the crowds that the road brought to his once-quiet mountain hearth. Newcomb, in his late eighties by 1939, was a living legend in the San Gabriels. Few people had been a first-hand witness to the transformation of the mountains' wild interior over the past five decades.

A winter stream flowing through Chilao. | Photo: Daniel Medina

Map of Angeles Crest Highway. Chilao is located near the center of the route. Click on the image for a larger view. | Source: California Highways and Public Works

Louie Newcomb's cabin on his Chilao homestead | Photo Courtesy of Robyn Newcomb

Louis Newcomb stands second from right | Photo:
Like outlaw Tiburcio Vasquez before him, Newcomb was drawn to the sheltered woodlands of Chilao when he first arrived from Iowa to Los Angeles in the late nineteenth century. An expert carpenter by trade, Newcomb built a cabin here in 1890 and soon after filed for 160 acres in the area under the Homestead Act. The self-reliant pioneer's life boasted a routine of hunting deer and grizzlies, mountaineering, and welcoming hunters and herders to his humble abode; above his door a sign read, "Meals at all hours." His Chilao was a free range, its natural resources open to the damaging escapades of herdsman, axemen, and riflemen.

The forest conservation movement in Los Angeles, however, would soon end the era of exploitation in Newcomb's Chilao. Through the local advocacy and clout of Abbott Kinney, management of unregulated wilderness like the one found in the San Gabriels was made an urgent matter on the national stage. Kinney, founder of Venice of America, an Altadena rancher, and also a chairman on California's first Board of Forestry, feared the destructive consequences that unchecked manipulation of mountain resources would have on its vital watershed that contributed to the growth of Los Angeles. The first report from Kinney's State Board of Forestry concluded:

The destruction of the forests in the southern counties means the destruction of the streams, and that means the destruction of the country.

The contentious issue reached congress and President Benjamin Harrison's desk by the early 1890s. On December 20, 1892, the President signed a proclamation creating the the 555,520-acre San Gabriel Timberland Reserve (renamed the Angeles National Forest in 1908), creating the first forest reserve in California. After the passing of the Forest Reserve Act, Newcomb found himself living on federal land, his backwoods no longer governed by settlers like himself. By 1898, enticed by the $50 per month salary promised to the nation's pioneering forest rangers, Newcomb went to work for the Department of the Interior.

Forest rangers scaling timber | Photo: The Training of a Forester/Project Gutenberg
Forest rangers getting instruction in methods of work from a district forest official | Photo: The Training of a Forester/Project Gutenberg

In 1900, Newcomb directed the construction of the first ranger station in California, which also had the proud distinction of being only the second built station in the United States. According to historian John Robinson, the one-room cabin along the West Fork of the San Gabriel River, built out of alder logs and incense cedar shakes -- squared by Newcomb himself -- cost $70 to build. From this remote station, Newcomb and other early rangers patrolled the vast wilderness for illegal activity, built trails, looked out for forest fires, and helped lost hikers find their way home.

After thirteen years of service, Newcomb, ever the recluse, grew dissatisfied with the Forest Service and left in 1911. He retreated back to his beloved Chilao, no doubt hoping to escape the throngs of Angelenos tearing into the San Gabriels during the Great Hiking Era (see SLIDESHOW).

The second ranger station built in the United States was moved from the West Fork to the Chilao Visitor Center and restored in the early 1980s. | Photo: Daniel Medina

Newcomb's ranger station | Photo: Daniel Medina

Time and the city's eventual encroachment on the mountain frontier chipped away at Newcomb's resolve to remain steadfast in the San Gabriels. He embarked on a new stage of his life when he got married in 1920. For the next twenty years, Newcomb split his time between a new home with his wife in the foothill town of Sierra Madre and his cabin in Chilao. In 1929, he sold his property to his cousin Lynn Newcomb, who developed the two-story Newcomb's Ranch Inn to cater to weekend guests in Chilao. Then came the highway in 1939.

"[It] ruined the place," Louis Newcomb reportedly grumbled when reflecting on the Angeles Crest Highway. He left his Chilao home permanently in the early 1940s, spending the remainder of his days in Sierra Madre until his death in 1954. His name survives today in his cousin's Newcomb's Ranch, which continues to operate today as a bar and restaurant popular with visitors to Chilao. To this day, it is the only private property along the highway.

It is not known if, when he departed Chilao for the final time, Newcomb was driven down the highway he so maligned, or if he choose to go on foot through the forest he knew so well. Had he walked out, it would have been fitting that -- even in his eighties -- Newcomb was still loyal to the ways of his halcyon days as the last pioneer of the mountains.

Louie Newcomb's grave in the Sierra Madre Pioneer Cemetary | Photo: Daniel Medina

The remains of Louis Newcomb's cabin in Chilao, built in 1910, near Newcomb's Ranch. It was destroyed by the Station Fire in 2009 | Photo: Daniel Medina

Newcomb Ranch Inn, 1930s | Photo Courtesy of Robyn Newcomb

Newcomb's Ranch on the Angeles Crest Highway | Photo: Daniel Medina

Entrance to Newcomb's Ranch  | Photo: Daniel Medina

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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