Uncovering San Dimas Canyon's Hidden History

Hiking San Dimas Canyon | Photo: Courtesy J. Lopez
Hiking San Dimas Canyon | Photo: Courtesy J. Lopez

We hiked up San Dimas Canyon in search of the past.

It was impossible to miss some of its etchings, most obviously those cut into the ground by the now-vanished community that once fit within this narrow, steep-walled canyon formed by the west fork of the San Dimas River, a tributary of the San Gabriel.

Framing our route were the river-rock foundations of cabins that had housed upwards of ninety families on land leased from the Angeles National Forest. Vinca minor, an exotic vine with periwinkle-blue flowers, crawls over the gutted structures, cast-off kitchenware, and exposed nooks and crannies; climbing up the eastern and western slopes are sturdy clumps of cacti left to fend for themselves after the 2002 Williams Fire gutted these residences, a blaze that ultimately torched the entire watershed.

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As for the road that had snaked along the San Dimas, it too had fallen victim to the conflagration: intense post-fire flooding and erosion has taken out most of its bed, and what remains is almost impassable; we had to clamber over alders, oaks, and pines that have dropped like Pick-Up-Sticks to block its meandering route.

A ghostly community: its silence shattered when a red-tailed hawk coasted overhead and let out a hoarse scream.

These communal artifacts, as haunting as the raptor's cry, were not the ones we were seeking. Instead our small party of three had set off from the Forest Service's San Dimas fire station hoping to relocate a memorial plaque erected in 1927 on an upstream hillside honoring Stuart J. Flintham.

The first professional forester and chief of what would become the L.A. County Fire Department, Flintham (1879-1925) was a central figure in the establishment of the region's modern fire-fighting operations and the fostering of inter-agency cooperation between county and federal land managers. He earlier had worked for the Forest Service, and it was therefore apt that my guides on this excursion were members of these same two institutions.

Better than apt: in Herman Garcia and J. Lopez, I was decidedly lucky. A Forest Service fire-engine captain, Herman has worked on the Angeles for most of his 32-year career; along with J., a long-time forester for the L.A. County Fire Department, he made certain I didn't do damage to myself - always a live possibility. Along the way the two men shared their considerable knowledge about the canyon's complex weave of human and ecological history.

To recover these older stories had required a Google search. After writing a column about Flintham last May, and speaking later that month at the centennial celebrations for LACOFD's forestry division, I realized there was much more to the man than I had realized. While hunting online for additional information about the New York native, a reference popped up for the Flintham Memorial Forest Plantation near San Dimas. I'd never heard of it and immediately sent an email to forester Lopez asking if he knew anything about the place; while he began asking around among his colleagues, I started roaming through the LA Times' electronic archives for references to its establishment.

We struck pay dirt at the same time: I came upon a 1927 photograph of Flintham's young daughters, Dorothy and Eleanor, standing before a stone-studded memorial marker commemorating their late father's achievements. Meanwhile, J. had heard through the grapevine that in 2000 a Forest Service employee named Herman Garcia had guided one of Flintham's granddaughters to the site, 73 years after her mother and aunt had posed for the LA Times photographer.

Much had changed since that flashbulb had popped, and nothing illuminates this back story better than the pine plantation itself.

Opening ceremonies of the Flintham Memorial Forest Plantation in 1927 | Photo: Courtesy San Dimas Historical Society

It had been the brainchild of the Angeles Forest Protection Association, a volunteer support group for the national forest, which secured permission from U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary William Marion Jardine to locate the memorial on a knoll (elevation: 2,180 feet) that rises above the canyon floor. As revealed in photographic evidence from the opening ceremony archived in the San Dimas Historical Society, the widely spaced, four-foot Coulter pines the association planted had a lot of room to grow, and in what proved to be prime conditions: the species, which can reach 80 feet in height, likes dry rocky soil (check); prefers a south-facing slope (check); and flourishes best at an elevation between 600 and 7,500 feet (check).

This physical setting came with biographical significance. Flintham had helped fight the 1919 San Dimas fire, an inferno that opened up the hillside on which the posthumous plaque would be erected. This fire, along with others that summer, was important as well in that they exposed flaws in the region's firefighting capacities: "if there was ever a 'straw that broke the camel's back,'" observes fire historian David Boucher in Ride the Devil Wind (1991), "the fires of 1919 were it, as far as the organization of fire protection in Los Angeles County was concerned." In the smoky aftermath, county supervisors expanded Flintham's job title - the forester took over the responsibilities previously assigned to the Fire and Fish and Game Wardens - new work that allowed him to better coordinate local responses to wildfires.

Typical watershed conditions after the fire of July 1960, at the San Dimas Experimental Forest. | Photo: USFS

Once planted on that stony grade, the Coulter pines grew. They continued to flourish even though a portion burned during a 1960 wildfire that swept across the upper San Dimas canyon, blackening most of the Forest Service's adjacent San Dimas Experimental Forest. The plantation was largely intact 40 years later when Herman Garcia and Flintham's granddaughter came to pay their respects.

By then, Herman estimated, many of the pines measured 30 inches in diameter, a towering presence on the hillside; so dense was the 20-acre forest that the visitors had to circle around the entire expanse before they found the memorial, set on its southeastern corner.

It's there still.

Nothing else remains. That's because two years later the Williams Fire incinerated the plantation during its week-long run through 38,000 acres of chaparral and manzanita, alder, pine, and oak. Herman was on the frontlines throughout the inferno, battling its flames from Tanbark Flats high above the canyon near Glendora Mountain Road down to the cluster of cabins whose remains we would walk past a decade later.

He recalled the tearful plea of one resident, as she evacuated before the wall of flames and embers swept in, that he please, please save her house. The LA Daily News recounted his creative heroics:

Out of the wreckage, up from that scorched environs, has come new life. That's what J. helped me appreciate. His encyclopedic knowledge of fire-zone ecology - of the changes that big burns can bring to a landscape, to its plants, animals, and hydrology - opened up a larger discussion about the kinds of adaptations and regenerative strategies that can turn gray ash into green shoots. Alders have sprouted up in the riparian habitat; chaparral, sagebrush, and ceanothus are reclaiming slopes and drainage features; yerba santa and raspberries have occupied once-disturbed areas; everywhere butterflies flit and lizards scoot.

But the hardiest reclamation agent is the scrub oak. That's the clothes-snagging lesson I was about to learn when, after hiking for a couple of miles along the gurgling river, Herman spotted a tall, unburned Coulter pine hugging the western bank of the San Dimas. It sparked a memory: somewhere around this spot, he and Flintham's granddaughter had started climbing.

They at least had the plantation to guide them uphill; we had no such pointers.

Herman Garcia poses with the plaque | Photo: Courtesy J. Lopez
Herman Garcia poses with the plaque | Photo: Courtesy J. Lopez

With nary a pause, Herman headed up, red-bladed brushcutter in hand, opening the way as we switchbacked along the steep grade. The loose soil and brittle rock so characteristic of the San Gabriels added to the difficulty of our movement (as did my klutziness - J. hauled me out of any number of thorny run-ins with that tough flora). After 30 minutes or so, Herman shouted that he had found what we had been seeking: his GPS-like memory led him to clear a trail to within two feet of the memorial.

Absent a few of its rivets that had popped out when the Williams inferno turned the air into a furnace, the brass plaque appeared unscathed. The monument, in which it is embedded, could not have been more prominently placed. Scanning the horizon to the south, we could see straight down the canyon into San Gabriel Valley; Mt. Baldy, its flanks glistening with snow, anchored the north and east; and to the west rose a brush-choked ridge separating San Dimas and Big Dalton watersheds.

The Coulter pine, left, next to the stump, center | Photo: Courtesy J. Lopez
The Coulter pine, left, next to the stump, center | Photo: Courtesy J. Lopez   

What remained of the former pine plantation was difficult to discern; decaying trunks lay hidden beneath impenetrable growth of scrub oak. One such prickly copse revealed a surprising juxtaposition: next to a bleached stump grew a five-foot Coulter pine, a blue-green wedge pushing up into the cloudless sky.

This affirmation of renewal came with a subtle reminder of the indelible bonds between then and now. Heading back downhill, I skidded into a gnarled oak, held fast, and pressed my nose into its charred bark: a faint, acrid whiff of the past.

Char Miller is the Director and W.M. Keck Professor of Environmental Analysis at Pomona College, author of "Public Lands, Public Debates: A Century of Controversy" (Oregon State University Press), and editor of "Cities and Nature in the American West." He comments every week on environmental issues. Read more of his columns here

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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