February 2005 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



The Great Floods of the San Gabriel Mountains-Part 1

by Cecile Page Vargo

          California, land of little rain. Some years are so dry one forgets what moisture is. Then comes the rain years, and at times it's as if God turned the faucet on and forgot to turn it off. Yearly rain averages can be hard to calculate for this reason. Recent January 2005 rains dumped more water in a few days than all of 2004. Throughout recorded history this is not uncommon. Unfortunately these dry periods followed by short periods of  large amounts of rainfall make many areas of California ripe for catastrophic floods. The San Gabriel Mountains north of the City of Los Angeles, and the communities that built up in and around the mountain have been molded and shaped by the great rainfalls and the destruction they caused.  

Cars detour around a portion of Big Tujunga Road washed out by the waters of Big Tujunga Creek in January, 2005. 

 Part I:  Camps & Resorts Rise and  Fall With The Flood Waters  


           "There has been some excitement this past week about the new gold diggings on the headwaters of the San Gabriel . We have met persons who have been out prospecting and although they found gold of the best quality, differ very much as the regards the richness of the mines. The Crab Hollow diggings are now considered the best and will pay from two to five cents to the pan. It is understood that if the river can be turned from its present bed, some rich leads may be found and big piles realized." The Los Angeles Star, September 21, 1854 . 

          The lure of gold brought men to the San Gabriel Canyon , with the big rush coming in 1859. The first mining camp was set up to supply needs of the miners and a place for them to spend their gold.  Prospect Bar was located four miles up the East Fork, near the stream and Cattle Canyon. The Little Falls Company, and McClure & Company were just two of many mining operations that sprang up. "The former have constructed a flume several hundred feet in length, and of sufficient capacity to carry the waters of the San Gabriel at a high stage...The later of the parties named above are engaged in putting up a hydraulic pump for the purpose of washing a hill claim." The Southern Vineyard, August 23, 1859

           "A dam has been constructed which lays bare a large section of the river bed, which they have found quite rich…" The Star, November 5, 1859

          By December 3rd, the Star was describing devastation caused by heavy rainfall a few weeks after the construction of the dam:  "We regret to have to record the total demolition of the  mining works in the San Gabriel Canyon...So tremendous was the force of the torrent rushing down, that it swept away as chaff all the mining works erected on the river--dams, wheels sluices, everything, in fact.  The amount of damage sustained by miners cannot be calculated."  

          Within a month, San Gabriel Canyon prospectors had rebuilt their dams, waterwheels and sluices, and gold was being pulled out once again. The Eldoradoville Mining District was formed by March of 1860, and the town of Eldoradoville took Prospect Bar's place. Eldoradoville was a rowdy town with no law, just the justice of a knife or pistol. Three stores, and  half dozen saloons accommodated the miners needs. By August 1861, the Wells Fargo & Company reported shipments of gold from their Los Angeles office, averaging $15,000 in a six month period, primarily from the San Gabriel Canyon mines.

          The night of January 17th-18th, 1862   Eldoradoville was hit by a torrential cloudburst once again. The East Fork turned into a flood of churning gray water intent on destroying everything in it came across. The residents of the town managed to climb the hillsides to safety, but the town was washed away. Shacks, whiskey barrels, groceries, beds, roulette wheels, sluices, long toms, wing dams and China pumps were swept into the floodplain of the San Gabriel Valley. Eldoradoville was destroyed by the same forces of nature that had hit Prospect Bar; only mud and debris remained. The boom mining days on the East Fork of the San Gabriel River were gone.

 The Great Hiking Era  

           Stuart O'Melveny gives us this picture of the San Gabriel Canyon in the 1890's: "In the old days, before hydroelectric development and flood control dams, the San Gabriel River flowed even in summer all the way to the mouth of the canyon above Azusa. There was no other trout stream in Southern California that could compare with it. The water was clean and clear, alternating between sparkling riffles and darker pools. Wherever the floods of winter had not scoured the boulders, alders and sycamores graced the banks, casting their shadows athwart the stream. The old wagon road wound its tortuous way in the canyon bottom, crossing and recrossing the rocks and river, and only seemed to make progress if it reached some bench or flat a little above the stream level and lined out across the sandy earth."

          The fishermen and the hunters came after the miners. Great lodges, and camps soon dotted not only the San Gabriel Canyon but others in the mountain range of the same name. These places tucked away in barely accessible nooks and crannies, became popular vacation spots for any and everyone during the Great Hiking Era that began in the late 1880's and went through the mid 1930's. Floods brought on by extremely heavy 1938 rains, roared down the mountainsides and canyons washing away many of the resorts. This combined with the popularity of the automobile and easy access provided by the construction of the Angeles Crest Highway contributed to the demise of  the Great Hiking Era.

 Switzer's Camp & Oak Wilde

           The trail we know today as Commodore Switzer Trail Camp was originally discovered by Bob Waterman of Pasadena in 1883 when he ventured into the canyon labeled Arroyo Seco by the Spaniards. Waterman took his bride and a single pack horse for month long camping adventure, and came back and told Commodore Perry Switzer about it. Switzer was so excited by the tale he heard that he decided to go up there himself in 1934 and build a rough trail that lead to the original Waterman campsite above beautiful waterfalls. He packed in tents, kitchen equipment and food, thus creating the first tourist resort in the San Gabriel Mountains. The Waterman's were happy to fund his venture, and eventually joined in management of the hostelry.  Relaxation, stream fishing and hiking awaited tourists who arrived on either mare or burro after enduring eight miles of zigzags and sixty stream crossings. 

          Switzer's Camp was quite popular for an entire decade. It proved not to be a big money maker, however. The Commodore, in failing health left his wilderness camp to his nephew. A forest fire in 1896 damaged the Arroyo Seco watershed and several of the Switzer cabins. In 1905, Clarence Martin and a man named Brainard brought the old resort back to life, keeping it going until Martin's death in 1911. That same year Lloyd B. Austin wandered up the failing trail camp and managed to turn it into the number one resort in the mountains. For the next 24 years, Switzer's was the place to be, until Angeles Crest Highway and the automobile enabled tourists to travel to greater places in the high elevations of the San Gabriel mountain range. 

          Progress couldn't completely kill Switzer's, but the flood waters of March 1938 nearly did.  The Arroyo Seco trail was demolished and trees littered the canyon floor. A road leading to the camp called Oak Wilde, that had been built by J.R. Phillips at the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and Dark Canyon, was also damaged, as were its cabins and sections of the Arroyo Seco trail. Switzer-land struggled on for another 20 years to the 1950's, but the road to Oak Wilde was barricaded right after the flood by the City of Pasadena and permanently closed in 1941.

  Valley Forge - "The Gate Way to the Wild"

           In 1913 Ernest and Cherie De Vore leased ten acres of Forest Service acres in the San Gabriel's West Fork. Camp West Fork followed the alder, live oak, and spruce tree lined creek. The main lodge sat on a flat area above water. One could enjoy a good meal there, or buy groceries to make their own. Card games went on regularly for one to join in on, and Saturday nights were for dancing. Books were provided by a branch of the LA County Library, for those who wanted to read. Crouquet and horseshoe courts were available outside. In 1920 a swimming pool, probably the first in the mountains, was added on for enjoyment, as well.  Four cabins, and several small tent houses were available for overnight guests. Vegetables and fruit grew in a large garden and orchard. A sawmill, also built in 1920, cut lumber for building materials.

          A dispute over ownership in 1923, caused the death of Camp West Fork, forcing the DeVore's to concentrate on another Forest Service lease they had. This one was at the junction of Valley Forge and the West fork, three miles upstream from their original camp. They called it Valley Forge Lodge. In 1924, when it looked as if the Devore's were losing Camp West Fork to the legal dispute, they hurried to move most of the equipment and buildings to the new site. Although they eventually won their case, there was now so little at Camp West Fork, the Forest Service decided to cancel their lease.

          Valley Forge Lodge became "The Gateway to the Wild".  The secluded spot alongside three bubbling streams and small waterfalls, was well shaded by touring spruce trees. The spacious rock lodge was build with two great fireplaces constructed from creek bed boulders. The lodge was surrounded by small housekeeping cabins. Guests enjoyed trout fishing, horseback riding, dancing, badminton, hiking and good food once again. Ernest Devore left Valley Forge sometime in the 1920's, but his wife Cherie continued to operate the lodge by herself for a couple of years. In 1935, Cherie married Bert Rice and the two continued to manage Valley Forge Lodge together. 

          Rain drenched the San Gabriel mountains the entire night of March 1-2, 1938, swelling creeks until they overflowed and raged through the canyons. Every camp or cabin was either destroyed or heavily damaged. Valley Forge might have weathered the West Fork as it flooded, but it could not  survive the torrents of debris that came down Valley Forge Canyon thanks to the ridge a thousand feet above where the Angeles Crest Highway was being constructed. Only the great stone lodge survived. The giant spruce trees that had provided shade for the lodge  were carried down the canyon. The two waterfalls in the center of the camp, and the stone arch bridge crossing West Fork were buried under the mass of debris. 

          Valley Forge Lodge was so destroyed that Cherie Devore decided to sell it to the Long Beach YMCA who operated Kamp Kole as a summer camp for boys down stream from where the original lodge was. In 1949 a fire destroyed Kamp Kole. Today the Forest Service runs a public campground where the old lodge once stood.

  Camp Rincon - "The Gem of the San Gabriel Canyon "

           Charlie Smith of Azusa leased 160 acres of land from William Potter in the 1867 and soon turned it  into  "The Gem of the San Gabriel Canyon". "There is nothing in all nature so beautiful as the moonlight evenings under the live-oaks" bragged the 1911 Camp Rincon brochure.  "The campers gather for dancing at the big open-sided dance hall and there are masque balls, candy pulls, popping corn in the coals of a dying campfire and pool and billiard playing.  In the afternoon there is the big concrete plunge to swim in, mountain walks over the trails, a few sets on the splendid cement tennis court, and trips to Painted Rock, Fern Falls, Cold Brook, and through the long mountain tunnel. If you prefer the simple life, the day can be spent in hammocks and swings." 

          By 1905 the popular resort included not only hotel, cabins, tents, swimming pool, dance floor, and tennis court, but the largest general store in the canyon. Everything from food and spirits, to clothing and fishing gear was available for miner and vacationer alike. In the spring and summer months, Camp Rincon's four horse stage carried visitors from the Santa Fe train in Azusa over the "picturesque mountain road" and returned "in time for the 4:45 Santa Fe Local" for a price of $2 per day, or $10 per week, according to an advertisement in the Azusa Pomotropic of August 24, 1905.

          In 1907, William Potter sold the prosperous hostelry to four businessmen, but Charlie Smith remained as manager for the next two years, until Raymond Briggs took his place. Camp Rincon continued to be a popular spot through the 1920's, when the automobile caused it's decline. In the early 1930's, Burt Lackey tried his hand at reviving the camp by attracting attention to it with the first neon lights in the canyon. From 1933-1935, the camp was also used by the Civilian Conservation Corp. The floodwaters and debris of March 1-2, 1938, wreaked havoc over the once tranquil sanctuary, washing out all but a few of the camp buildings.  What little remained of it was leased from the Los Angeles County who owned it at that time, to Clara Schmidtd who once again tried to turn Camp Rincon into "The Gem of the San Gabriel Canyon", but failed at her attempt. 

          Sadly, after WWII, Camp Rincon was nothing more than a beer joint with a few rental cabins that were occupied by canyon residents. In 1969 mother nature's continuous tears created floods another time, destroying not only the main building, but most of the cabins. Half of the land disappeared in the river's floodplain. What remains today is a occupied by a USFS fire station.

Next Month  -  Part II:  

Sunland/Tujunga, & La Crescenta Valleys Nearly Washed Away



The San Gabriels:

The Mountain Country from Soledad Canyon to Lytle Creek

by John W. Robinson

Big Santa Anita Historical Society


The San Gabriels:

Southern California Mountain Country

by John W. Robinson

Golden West Books\San Marino CA

 Internet Sources:

History of Follows Camp


Los Angeles Times

Stranded, but Not Helpless

by David Peterson, staff writer

January 29, 2005



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