Monuments of Eternity: The San Gabriels in the Cultural Imagination

In the spring of 1858, ice came to Los Angeles. "Mr. Marchessault and Beaudry arrived in town with the first consignment of ice from the mountains of San Antonio," the Southern Vineyard announced on April 17. The two savvy businessmen, discerning a demand for the cooling agent in the days antedating home electricity, had erected an ice plant in upper San Antonio Canyon in the San Gabriel Mountains. Today, the area is known as Icehouse Canyon.

Chiseled out of the bosky canyon funneling snowmelt from Mt. San Antonio, a.k.a. Mt. Baldy, the frigid delicacy was carved into one hundred pound cubes at the ice depot. The blocks were then strapped to the backs of dozens of mules who made the plodding descent into the San Gabriel Valley. To the citizens of scanty Los Angeles, thirty miles west, ice appearing in their moderate Mediterranean climate was a rare gift. The Southern Vineyard added that grateful residents would be "enabled to refrigerate themselves with iced wine, cobblers and ice cream to their full satisfaction."

little pinnacle
Twilight in the San Gabriels | Photo: Daniel Medina

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Survivors of the balloon "American" | Source: eadventure.net

Beneath the promise of cold dessert for early Angelenos, the brief enterprise of Victor Beaudry and Damien Marchessault, a future mayor of Los Angeles, also told of one of the first instances that brought the San Gabriels into the cultural imagination. Deliveries of ice, branded as an extraction "from the mountains of San Antonio," dropped the chilled treasures of the San Gabriels right onto the doorsteps of the infant American town. The mountains gradually grew relevant to the lives of townspeople, becoming a topic of collective conversation. The Great Hiking Era (see SLIDESHOW) that would commence in the 1880s further embedded the local mountain range into vernacular culture.

The San Gabriels soon captured the national imagination when a hot air balloon from Pasadena went missing in a mountain snow storm in March of 1909. The six men on board the balloon "American" vanished for four days, prompting screaming headlines from the New York Tribune, "AERONAUTS MAY HAVE PERISHED IN MOUNTAIN BLIZZARD," to the the Chicago Record Herald, "BALLOON AND SIX MEN LOST IN THE MOUNTAINS." Search parties were deployed, the San Francisco Call reporting that "friends of the passengers in the American are doing everything possible to secure news of the big gas bag."

On the fourth day, all six bedraggled survivors suddenly trudged into Switzer's Camp above the Arroyo Seco. The men recounted their ordeal of survival in the blizzard after a miraculous crash landing on Strawberry Peak. The search was joyously called off, and the Pasadena municipal electric plant blew two long blasts of its piercing whistle that afternoon to signal to the city that the riders were safe.

The story was sensational. The blitz of news reports around the country broadcast a tale of triumph in the face of an obstreperous landscape armed with punishing elements. It also introduced a relatively unknown mountain range to those outside of Southern California. They were not as steeped in cultural lore as the more nationally renowned Rocky Mountains or the Appalachians, but the San Gabriels were viewed as being just as unpredictable. The mountain range would then largely remain off the front pages of national publications for one hundred years, until the largest fire of L.A.'s modern age ignited on August 26, 2009.

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Station Fire plume over Los Angeles as seen from Rancho Palos Verdes | Photo: John Williams /Flickr/Creative Commons License

It was supposed to be a routine act of wildfire suppression. "This fire is probably a week away from being fully contained," a fire information officer for the United States Forest Service predicted to the New York Times on August 30. The fire would not be declared 100% contained until October 16, 2009, with the aid of rain. Chomps of flames could be seen from as far away as Rancho Palos Verdes on the southern tip of the Los Angeles Basin. A dense pyrocumulus cloud, produced by the intense heating of the air from the mountain surface, blistered from the relief of the mountain range to atmospheric heights of 20,000 feet. It was a rare episode in Los Angeles where nearly every citizen of the megalopolis gaped at the same inescapable sight. Millions witnessed the crowning of the San Gabriels by a bulbous plume of ash.

Photographs and video of the conflagration raced across the nation and even spun around the world. Shots of the downtown skyline dwarfed by the giant plume fed media outlets the quintessential apocalyptic image of Los Angeles dangling before disaster. The greater city was spared, but the devastation was staggering. The fire, ruled to be caused by arson, was blamed for the deaths of two firefighters and the loss of 89 homes. It laid waste to nearly 252 square miles of drainages and forest, and forced the closure of burn areas for years due to threats of debris flows and to protect recovery operations. The cost of firefighting was close to $100 million.

Through print and television, the world had met the San Gabriels, and saw the perpetual battle of a city with its wilderness. In "The Forest and the People: The Story of the Angeles National Forest," historian W.W. Robinson calls the San Gabriels "a friendly symbol of eternity." But to everyone watching that late summer, the scintillating mountains were monuments of eternal indifference. The San Gabriels burned regardless of consequence to homes and lives. They unflinchingly released the detritus of the firestorm down canyon chutes when seasonal rains swept the crumbling hillsides. Engineers, however, had erected a defense to protect foothill communities and cities downstream.

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Debris basin in Little Santa Anita Canyon | Photo: Daniel Medina


Just as the L.A. County Flood Control District engineered the region's watersheds into submission with 2,000 miles of concrete stream channels and underground conduits, the uncompromising mountains had been tackled similarly in the decades before the fire. "With enough money, with enough steam shovels, enough dump trucks, enough basins cupped beneath the falling hills -- Los Angeles could defy the mountains, and append to an already impressive list one more flout of nature," John McPhee wrote in "Los Angeles Against the Mountains."

The canyons had been plugged up, with the debris basins periodically cleaned of mud and chunks of granite from the rapidly eroding peaks. For years after the Station Fire, news organizations camped out in the endangered foothill communities during downpours, and viewers waited to see whether the city had flouted nature enough. Undoubtedly, the scene will be repeated after the next fire, and the one after that, in a cycle that can be imagined as long as Los Angeles exists.

"If Los Angeles hangs on long enough," McPhee continues, "it will cart the mountains entirely away." But as they stand now, cresting to the north of the city, the San Gabriels will always have a place in the cultural imagination. As they rise every morning into the horizons of Los Angeles with these stories of danger, innovation, and wonder, the mountains will endure as reminders of the city's repose at the edge of the sublime. The narratives define a collective cultural identity, and, occasionally, win the attention of the world.

No one alive today remembers that distant afternoon when Los Angeles discovered ice on its doorsteps. It still forms in the mountains, though, when the winter days are cold and the forest too damp for wildfires. And, as in every year to eternity, it will melt, bearing a hint of the mountains through the tentacular streams of Los Angeles, all the way to the sea.

aerial view of the rio hondo in 1941
Aerial view of Rio Hondo's braided streams, 1941 | Courtesy of Amigos de los Rios

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