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When Los Angeles Abandoned its Mountain Frontier

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It was two o'clock in the morning on September 15, 1936, when the piercing wail of the fire siren crashed into the handsome guestrooms of the Mount Lowe Tavern. Men and women, still in their nightwear, flew out of their beds and darted outside of the hotel to catch their romantic lodging engulfed in flames. The crisp alpine air was choked by smoke. As the blaze shot into adjacent cottages, the guests were herded onto a trolley car that pulled up to the hotel entryway.

A frightening two hour descent down the mountain ensued, the nervous conductor negotiating the serpentine tracks in total darkness. The trolley would be the final car to ever carry guests on the Mount Lowe Railway. The passengers reached safety, and the Tavern, the last standing attraction of a stunning mountain enterprise that had steadily worn away, burned to the ground.

ruins of echo mountain house stairs
Ruins of the Echo Mountain House at sunset. | Photo: Daniel Medina

The perilous escape from Mount Lowe that night was part of a gradual abandonment of extraordinary recreational and commercial ventures that had sprung up in the mountains of Los Angeles since the 1880s. The zealous spirit that had initially inspired these exploits and fostered them for nearly five decades was rooted in the tantalizing national myth of the vanishing frontier. The mythology grew at the turn of the twentieth century, as the comforts of rapid modernization of the city beget a strong romantic nostalgia for the hardy, rugged experiences offered by life in uncultivated lands that once represented the promise of the West.

big horn mine on mountain side
Skeleton of the Big Horn Mine | Photo: Daniel Medina

The wilderness of the San Gabriels, located just on the margins of the city, was steadily perceived as the last bastion of this regeneration and renewal associated with returning to a more rudimentary frontier past. In "The Trouble with Wilderness," author William Cronon argues that wilderness began to stand for "the wild freedom of America's past and seeming to represent a highly attractive natural alternative to the ugly artificiality of modern civilization." It was believed that the frontier was passing, and it was imperative to capture the fleeting experience in the local mountain wilderness.

From the 1880s through the 1930s, Angelenos craved a piece of the San Gabriels' primitive environment for themselves. The frontier experience was offered -- for a price -- by mountain resorts catering to the charge of tourists during the Great Hiking Era (see SLIDESHOW). Yet as Angelenos built into the mountainsides more and more in the attempt to capture the spirit and treasures of the frontier myth, their encroachments began to rust the allure of the wilderness. "The irony, of course, was that in the process wilderness came to reflect the very civilization its devotees sought to escape," Cronon asserts.

angeles crest highway in comparison
(L) The Angeles Crest Highway above the Arroyo Seco, 1924. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library, (R) The Angeles Crest Highway below Strawberry Peak today

The corruption of the frontier fantasy was further catalyzed by the invitation of the automobile to the San Gabriels. As enthusiasm for car culture was solidifying in the urban environment of the early twentieth century, plans were drawn to cement a path for four-wheel access to the mountains. The Angeles Crest Highway, approved for construction in 1919, was built in incremental segments, originating on the west slope of the Arroyo Seco, and continuing deep into the backcountry. It took 27 years for state and county work crews, with aid from prison laborers, to finish the 65.36-mile modern mountain highway. By October of 1956, the scenic road that wound from La Cañada to Big Pines was complete.

The easy access that the highway afforded city-dwellers to the backcountry, which formerly had taken days to reach on foot, profoundly changed the urban-wilderness dynamic. The embrace of the snaking contours of the highway began to strangle the romance out of the backwoods. It took only one hour for weekend tourists to drive to the Switzer-land resort high in the Arroyo Seco. The isolated appeal of the camp and others like it was lost, and never fully recovered.

christ chapel of switzer-land
(L) Christ Chapel of Switzer-land in 1929. |  Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library, (R) Location of the Christ Chapel today.
ruins of chapel arches
Remains of the Christ Chapel arches at Switzer-land. | Photo: Daniel Medina

One of the final and most devastating blows to the seduction of the mountain frontier was the great flood of March 1938. A powerful rainstorm over the first two days of March dropped a rage of water that plummeted through the major canyons, washing away roads, trails, and completely destroying some hotel resorts. A wall of water 150-feet wide screamed down San Antonio Canyon, leveling cabins and parts of the famous Camp Baldy.

Echoing a flood that annihilated the legendary gold mining town of El Doradoville in 1862, San Gabriel Canyon was once again a scene of apocalyptic obliteration. A strong deluge not only washed away canyon resorts, but also crumbled the nine-year-old East Fork highway in the narrow chasm. L.A. County chose not to reconstruct the ruined highway, but the flood did spare the single-arch concrete bridge that would have connected the lost highway across the deepest gorge in Southern California to higher elevations.

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Plans were in the works for a highway from the San Gabriel Canyon to the Antelope Valley. | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Bridge to Nowhere Banner
The Bridge to Nowhere

The "Bridge to Nowhere," as it's known today, still stands as a monument to the mountains' sublime power to flush away any infrastructure attempting to breach its domain. In "Mountain Resorts," historian Abraham Hoffman declared that the flooding of 1938 "changed the face of the mountains and put to an end to the camps and resorts of the hiking era."

Several private enterprises in the San Gabriels went bankrupt after the damage inflicted by the great flood. Coupled with the ease of one-day trips made possible by the automobile, resorts that largely depended on multiple-day stays to remain economically viable were weakened further. On Mount Lowe, even though there was hope to rebuild the resort after the fire, the rainstorm rendered the prospect mute when it washed away major sections of rail track and trestle structures. It was officially abandoned in November, 1939, and shortly after the remains were sold for scrap at a cost of $800. Vandals would consume the rest.

echo mountain ruins
Rail and Echo Mountain House ruins. | Photo: Daniel Medina
ruins of echo mountain house
Ruins of the Echo Mountain House | Photo: Daniel Medina

By the 1940s, the spectacle of wilderness and the bounties of the perceived frontier were diminished by the very efforts of Angelenos to sculpt the mountain environment to their desires of comfort and accessibility. The sheer natural forces of the San Gabriels -- the floods, fires, and incessant of rates of erosion -- that laid waste to these ventures also demonstrated that the mountains could not be readily domesticated. Angelenos realized that the efforts to harness the fantasy of the frontier were Sisyphean in nature. It was no longer a priority to be pursued.

The power of fantasy, however, didn't die easily for everyone. It was none other than Walt Disney who contemplated the resurrection of the Mount Lowe Railway, the former symbol of frontier seduction that once drew millions of people to the San Gabriels. As related in Michael Patris' "Mount Lowe Railway," the entrepreneur and rail fan contacted railroad historian Donald Duke after World War II about restoring the abandoned complex into a new tourist attraction. Yet, as evidenced by the eventual Anaheim opening of Disneyland in 1955, Disney's grand mountain vision above Los Angeles was never realized.

But it was just as so. Los Angeles had moved on. Its frontier was closed.

big horn mine
The San Gabriels through the ruins of the Big Horn Mine. | Photo: Daniel Medina
ice house canyon
1/1 A charred mattress coil springs into the air in a abandoned cabin in Icehouse Canyon. | Photo: Daniel Medina
ice house canyon
1/1 Remains of a cabin in Icehouse Canyon | Photo: Daniel Medina
ice house canyon
1/1 Remnants of a chimney and foundation in Icehouse Canyon | Photo: Daniel Medina   

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