Fred E. Wadsworth with two women at summit of Blue Ridge Mountains. Photo archives from L.A. county Library
Establishing Big Pines Recreation Part I
A collection of news clips and photos from the archives of the Los Angeles Times, Los Angels Examiner, Los Angeles Public Library, National Forest Service, and Swarthout archives.
Big Pines, first conceived in the 1920s by a Los Angeles county supervisor and a recreation and parks manager for the county, opened four years later during an era when big public works projects were being carried out throughout the region. Los Angeles County Superintendent Fred E. Wadsworth noted that he and Supervisor Robert F. McClelland hiked from Mt. Wilson to Big Bear Lake McClellan, and Wadsworth teamed up with county and forestry officials to survey the San Gabriel Mountains to find a suitable location for the new park. They hiked eastward from Mt. Wilson to Big Bear. The team determined that a heavily timbered section of forest at the head of Swarthout Valley would make an ideal site for the park. The broad, sloping valley was named after the Mormon pioneer Swarthout family, who first settled there around 1852. The location was nearly untouched, but it could be made easily accessible by extending a short section of road up from the nearby Wright’s Ranch. The 6,800 ft. elevation ensured snow in the winter, and cool days in the summer. Beginning around 1921, L.A. County purchased the Big Pines Ranch and other properties in the area and started building new roads and park facilities. County jail inmates were used for highway construction and about 100 of the stone “fireplaces”, such as that shown in the photo, were built. Difficulty in obtaining water for the park were met by installing a pumping plant. Tables and firewood were available at each location of the fireplaces. Big Pines Recreation Park was dedicated on July 22, 1924 by a party of city, county, and state officials, and it was opened to the public a few weeks later on Labor Day. The park was reported in the Los Angeles Times that the total acreage acquired was almost 4,000 acres at an expenditure of some $100,000. F.E. Wadsworth, the facility’s superintendent, gave an interview in which he explained what was involved in the development of the park. The Community House, (Big Pines Hall) a large lodge, was complete. It had two large stone fireplaces at each end and a large dance floor. A reading room and library and a store were also in the structure. A 35-acre lake a mile away had facilities for swimming and plans were made for ice skating in the winter on the frozen body of water. A large barbeque area was also finished, and horses were available from an adjoining ranch. A swimming pool and campsites for such groups as the Boy Scouts were also in the works. Of interest also was Wadsworth’s statement that: the park also has historic significance. . . as several Indian corn bowls were excavated about four feet below the present ground level when the roads were being built. . . the park was a seasonal camping place [it was claimed] of Indian tribes in their migration between the Tehachapis and the Imperial Valley region . . . [and] was undoubtedly one of their chief hunting grounds. The corn bowls now are used as decoration in the community house.
Big Pines Recreation scandal Part II
A collection of news clips and photos from the archives of the Los Angeles Times, Los Angels Examiner, Los Angeles Public Library, and the National Forest Service.
The development of the Big Pines scandal
In late 1926, Los Angeles County accused nine officials of bribes, criminal conspiracy, false evidence, and embezzlement. First was the loaning of $50,000 of the county’s money to Allen Jones to obtain an option of 560 acres in Big Pines county park, which Jones was alleged to have subsequently sold to the county for $62,000. Additionally, they were charged with filing false and fraudulent claims for labor and services in connection with the improvements made on the 34 acres near Big Pines. In political warfare between the Board of Supervisors and District Attorney Asa Keyes, the latter filed felony criminal charges against the board in 1926, the claims alleged that the supervisors were said to have turned the Big Pines park into a private mountain resort for themselves. They categorically denied the felony charges. District Attorney Asa Keyes, the Los Angeles County Prosecutor, was caught in an unexpected backwash from the $100,000,000 Julian Petroleum Corporation stock scandal earlier that year. Kayes awaited trial for bribery where he was accused of taking $140,000 to undermine the prosecution; however, a superior court ordered the charges dropped, stating that there was simply no evidence of wrongdoing by the board. Keyes was then arrested, tried, and convicted for accepting bribes in the notorious scandal involving the Julian Petroleum Company Ponzi scam and sent to state prison for a five-year term. He was pardoned by James Rolph in summer 1933 and died just over a year later.
High cost to maintain Big Pines While it was contended that the money invested in developing Big Pines and its annual maintenance costs were well within the ability of the county to handle, that view changed by the end of the Depression years. Starting in 1940, the county began negotiations with the U.S. Forest Service, which has jurisdiction over the Angeles National Forest, to turn over Big Pines to the federal government. The district attorney, however, ruled that it was not legal to simply hand over the property. Finally, however, in late 1946, a deal was reached for the land swap and Big Pines was handed over to the federal government. The U.S. Forest Service’s Big Pine’s Information Center itself is located in what was once the Big Pines Lodge. The lodge was once part of the Los Angeles County Playground. In the early 1920’s R. McClellan, Chairman of L.A. County Board of Supervisors, encouraged the board to purchase land in the Swarthout Valley to be used as a county park. In 1923 the county purchased some 760 acres at Big Pines. Big Pines was a big project of Los Angeles County’s department of Recreation, Parks and Playgrounds, opened partially in spring 1922 and fully in August 1924 on a massive 5,600-acre parcel on which visitors could boat, swim, hike, ski and bobsled, ride horseback, camp or stay in cabins, picnic, and engage in many more recreational activities. By then, the camp, with maintenance costs becoming harder to cover during the Great Depression years, had been transferred to the United States Forest Service for about a decade. There are still original elements of the camp in use today, including the recreation hall, some of the campgrounds, hiking trails, fishing spots and others, but nothing like the site that was built in the 1920s. The Swarthout Valley Lodge has been a major part of Big Pines Park since the Park’s opening on Labor Day, 1924. Immediately following the construction of the Big Pines Club House, the Swarthout Valley Lodge was built. The Lodge itself was completed in 1925-26 and over the years contained the store, restaurant, soda fountain, and genuine post office. Even though Wrightwood was a short four miles away, Big Pines had the largest number of full-time residents at the time. Thus, it was the first to get its own post office. In October 1926, the post office was established, and Big Pines became its own separate town. Wrightwood would get its own post office two years later. Next issue will feature the Fire at Swarthout Valley Lodge.
LA County superintendent Fred Wadsworth, Supervisor R.F. McClellan, C. Herbold and chief mechanical survey the land. Photo archives from L.A. county Library
February 17, 1987 arson fire destroys Swarthout Building at Big Pines Center. Photo by Bob Hedden
A Look Back - Arson at Lodge Part III
A collection of news clips and photos from the archives of the Los Angeles Times, Los Angels Examiner, Los Angeles Public Library, and the National Forest Service.
Park control to the US Forest After Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation gave complete control of Big Pines Park to the United States Forest Service in July of 1941, the Swarthout Valley Lodge served as a café of sorts, but subsequently became offices for the Forest Service. The lower level was used as storage for supplies used in the area around Big Pines, while the upper level became administration and patrol offices. One of the offices belonged to Big Pines Ranger Doug Milburn, who over the years had also become a Forest Service archeologist. An archeologist is someone who studies the buildings, graves, tools, and other objects of people who lived in the past. They not only study past history, they categorized it. This is what Ranger Milburn did at the Lodge. The Lodge was where nearly all of Big Pines history had been stored. Those items included early documents, official photographs, written records of its beginnings, and the revamping of the Park after it was given back to Forest Service control. The building housed bits and pieces of southland ski history in the park and the many Indian artifacts found within her boundaries. Swarthout Lodge preserved history for the generations to come. It was supposed to be around for a long, long time. Thanks to a black-hearted arsonist, the Lodge was not going to fulfill that destiny. Arson fire breaks out at the Swarthout Valley Lodge It was around 4:30 a.m., February 17, 1987, when a car full of teenagers sped eastbound on Big Pines Highway, while behind them and coming from the Big Pines Ranger Station, the orange and red glow of a growing fire was an unreal sight in the pitch blackness of an early winter morning. The role that the occupants of the speeding car played in the fire behind them was unclear until a further investigation would reveal that they were only driving to Wrightwood to report the fire. Quickly turning into a driveway on the outskirts of Wrightwood, they begged the residents to use the phone. The fire was reported at 4:38 a.m., and en route was a San Bernardino Sheriff patrol car. The Los Angeles County Fire Department received the fire call at 4:45 a.m. and was responding from a fire station in Pearblossom, which was about 28 miles away. With red lights and siren rebounding off quiet mountain sides, the deputy responded to the blaze and observed a dark colored 1976-77 El Camino speeding towards Wrightwood from Big Pines. Suddenly, a roadway that is usually as dead as a graveyard had vehicles coming out of the woodwork. The car was interesting, but not yet suspicious, for the cause of the fire was not yet known. The El Camino was suspicious. Was the driver’s intention to report the fire? The only call received came from the teenagers in the first car. The fire to the Swarthout Valley Lodge was more established “after” the El Camino was seen leaving the area. Did the occupant have a dark purpose? It was later speculated by some investigators that the driver remained at the fire scene to get his last bit of excitement before he fled. To this day, the El Camino remains a mystery. Big Pines Ranger Doug Milburn writes, “At this time, it remains only speculation that it was somehow connected to the fire event.” Immediately behind the deputy sheriff were many volunteers and county firefighters from Wrightwood Fire Department. The fight that the men brought to attacking the Big Pines Ranger Station was awesome. L.A. County Fire Department Chief White gave them this praise, “The Wrightwood people did an excellent job of protecting that western exposure to the location.” (photo by Chief Bob Hedden, courtesy of Barbara Van Houten Collection) Indeed! By protecting the western part of the burning structure, the Wrightwood fire volunteers prevented the intense fire from spreading to the forest canopy and the older Big Pines Club House. Not even taking time to wipe the early morning sleepiness from their eyes, the volunteers threw everything that they had into the battle. By themselves for 45 minutes with only 3,000 gallons of water, the Wrightwood firefighters turned back the flames and controlled the blaze. Finally, other firefighters arrived from nearby Pearblossom and as far away as Acton. Because there was no water source for firefighting available at the location, water from nearby Mountain High Ski resort was trucked in. The intense fire had finally consumed the old Swarthout Valley Lodge, and as it collapsed on itself, firefighters put all their effort in protecting surrounding buildings and the forest area. The blaze took more than seven hours to extinguish, caused an estimated $300,000 in damage - $260,000 to the building and $40,000 to its contents. No price tag for the damage would cover what was really destroyed inside the historic Swarthout Valley Lodge. It was all the historical photos, books, papers, and records that were destroyed. Most Wrightwood volunteer firemen and local Forest Service rangers felt sick to their stomachs. The San Gabriel Mountains Interpretive Association was especially impacted by the arson fire. San Gabriel Mountains Interpretive Association, who at the time of the fire was based in Wrightwood, provided conservation through education. They provided U.S. Forest Service Visitors Centers with books, maps, and other interpretive materials. They planned educational events and stewardship projects that taught others about our land and natural resources. They helped people realize that public land was our land. Then, like now, they have a positive impact on the forest, natural resources, and people. They raised thousands of dollars for the building’s refurbishing as well as obtained $7,700 worth of books about the area’s plants and wildlife. These books were for sale to the public. Local historian Barbara Van Houten was the person most instrumental in the formation of the original SGMIA. These items from SGMIA, among other items of historic and informational value, were destroyed in the fire of Swarthout Valley Lodge. Next issue will feature the Investigation of the fire at Swarthout Valley Lodge.
Look back at Big Pines Recreation Camp Part IV - Investigation of the Big Pines Fire Throughout the arson fire investigation, although Ranger Doug Milburn was the supervisor, Ken Harp and he worked as more-or-less equal partners. They directed a Forest Service task force that also included John Bennett (Fire Prevention Technician-Law Enforcement Officer), Ed Bodenlos (Special Agent), and Gene Schmoker, (Fire Prevention Technician). The Los Angeles County Fire Department arson detail made the determination that the fire was accidental. Eyewitnesses, who included fireman, saw flames coming from the roof in the area of the Swarthout Valley Lodge’s heater unit. The investigator visited the site and was reported to have walked briefly through the burnt-out remains, but never really did any detailed analysis - beyond saying it was the result of a faulty furnace. Voila! Case solved. Or was it? Forest Service Resource Officer Doug Milburn was a little more suspicious of the cause of the fire. Ranger Milburn’s office had been located in the late Swarthout Lodge, and he was aware that even though the building was 60 years old, electrical resources such as the water heater, wiring, and heating system were in perfect working order. The origin of the fire appeared to have started against a center wall of the upper level of the Swarthout Valley Lodge, which caused great heat to build and spread evenly through the structure. The fire appeared to have been specifically located to cause the desired result of completely destroying the whole building. The photographs taken by local photographer Dennis Nadalin and Fire Chief Bob Hedden had revealed an even burn. The center portion of the heat was precisely in the center of the building. The upper level collapsed onto the lower level as both south and north exterior walls crashed inward. Based on the behavior of the fire, Ranger Doug Milburn believed it to be the result of someone intentionally setting the fire. The California Fire Marshal’s Officer concurred with Milburn’s findings. However, the Los Angeles County Fire Department arson detail did not. No report was taken by that office. USFS Ranger Doug Milburn wrote, “As result of his careful screening of the side door area, USFS Fire Prevention Technician (FPT) Gene Schmoker actually found a door hasp with the missing lock that first gave indications of a break-in.” It was a small piece of evidence that experienced arson investigators had earlier missed. It was also proof positive that person(s) unknown unlawfully entered the location to commit larceny. During the course of the investigation, The USFS Forest Service investigators were told by one of their informants that a person named Mark Hurst had told them he had started the fire by lighting a pile of papers against the wall. Closer observation of the crime scene revealed that the suspect tried to force open the safe in the office area in a quest to find money. The hammer and claw marks on the safe handle gave testament to his failure. Ranger Milburn also noticed that six sets of old skis were missing, as was his personal briefcase that contained Forest Service tools like a water testing kit, a compass, and surveying kit. Suspicions confirmed, he made this statement to the Antelope Valley Press, “It looks to us as arson because we’ve eliminated almost everything else.” The Forest Service prevention and enforcement investigator added, “I can say it was an incendiary fire. That it was person-caused rather than accidental or mechanical fire.” With the assistance of Ranger Ken Harp, Doug Milburn dug into the arson investigation like a bulldog. Within less than a month, that investigation would lead to a surprising end and the arrest of the bad guy. One day prior to the arson fire at the Swarthout Lodge-Big Pines Ranger Station, an incident occurred over 35 miles away in Hesperia, CA. Long-time Wrightwood resident Phil Odom was patrolling the street as a deputy sheriff when he observed a thick column of black smoke drifting to the sky. As Deputy Odom approached the location, a car with a single male occupant raced past him away from a van that was fully engulfed with flames! Subsequently, it was learned that Mark S. Hurst had set fire to the van that belonged to his ex-girlfriend. He had threatened to burn the family’s business, “The Sunshine Market,” in nearby Phelan and kill his girlfriend and her family. At the same time Hurst had been a person of interest in several burglaries in the area, where many of the break-ins ended with a fire. Even though the fires were “interesting,” they were handled as accidental fires. The threats that Hurst made on the family tied him to activities of burglary and arson…a similar method of operation that led to the burning of the Swarthout Lodge. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office contacted Ranger Doug Milburn and said that Mark S. Hurst might be a person of interest in the Big Pines Ranger Station fire. If Hurst was involved with the fire at Big Pines, there was much to be concerned about. There were several burglaries in the nearby high desert and over 30 fires connected to them. Up to this point, the fires were considered to be accidental. The Big Pines incident drove the fact home that the Phelan fires might have been anything else but accident. USFS Rangers Doug Milburn and Ken Harp focused their arson investigation on Mark S. Hurst by going after his friends. Wise cop work to be sure. Since there is no honor among thieves, the quickest way to hang a bad guy is to go for his friends. They found two. Milburn used the “tragic card” on Friend Number 1. “That fire burned the oldest building around Big Pines. All that history up in smoke and nothing is left to remind people of the old days,” might have been the way Milburn presented the case to Friend Number 1. “Friend Number 1 was a pretty hard nut, “ Milburn remembers,” while most people seemed to be somewhat afraid of Hurst, this guy didn’t seem to be even a little bit afraid of him.” Perhaps the informant was not concerned about Mark S. Hurst, he was helpful. Friend Number 1 took the rangers out in the middle of the high desert and showed them where he, Mark Hurst, and another friend had been stashing stolen goods in a grove of Junipers. Both rangers observed piles and piles of stolen televisions, stereos, and other electronic items that have been stolen in many burglaries in the area. “It is my recollection that it was Friend Number 1 who stated during our interview with him that Hurst may have done it “to get his rocks off.” The El Camino was never tied to Hurst and it is not known if he stuck around very long after he started the fire to view his handiwork,” Milburn concluded. Subsequently, it would be Friend Number 1 who later gave testimony during the preliminary hearing in Victorville. As the USFS rangers continued to concentrate on Mark S. Hurst’s friend, they found Friend Number 2. “Friend Number 2 was actually easier to sway. He seemed like a pretty good kid who had just gotten caught up into the stuff that Hurst was doing,” shared Ranger Milburn. Detective Snowball set up the polygraph and was present during its execution, as were Ken and me. It was my recollection the Friend Number 2 was probably involved in some of the Phelan burglaries but didn’t seem to know a whole lot about the Big Pines fire. He was never really considered by the DA to be a good witness for trial.” With the find of the stolen burglary items found in the desert and statements implicating Hurst was committing burglary and the arson of the Swarthout Valley Lodge at Big Pines, there was enough to go for an arrest warrant and soon law buzzards would be circling Hurst’s head. Bringing in Mark S. Hurst’s head would come from another frontal attack as San Bernardino Deputy Chuck Willis began following footprints from a burglary location in an unrelated burglary investigation. A day after a March 6 resident burglary in Phelan, Willis followed tracks that led to the Sheep Creek residence of Mark S. Hurst. As their investigation continued, Hurst consented to a search of the premises by Deputy Willis, who noticed six pairs of skis and other items that raised his interest. Willis met with other agencies that were investigating Big Pines burglary and arson fire, including Ranger Doug Milburn, and it was determined that there was sufficient reason to search the residence for more evidence. A search warrant was obtained on March 27. Along with men from the California Department of Forestry, Detective Earl Snowball and Ranger Ken Harp, Deputies Chuck Willis and Mike Jones carried out the conditions of the search warrant. They found items to three separate Phelan burglaries, including the one at Big Pines. In the attic of the home they found and recovered Resource and Protection Officer Doug Milburn’s briefcase and other items that were identified by Milburn as being stolen from Big Pines Ranger Station at the time that the arson fire burned it down. Over the course of the crime investigation that subsequently resulted in the arrest of Mark S. Hurst, it was revealed that Hurst was sicker than anyone first thought. He did not commit the arson on Swarthout Lodge for revenge; the Big Pines Ranger station had no connection with the family that he swore revenge on. It was not for vandalism, nor was it arson for profit. During the course of the case, it was implicated that Mark S. Hurst did not commit the arson to conceal the crime of burglary. That left only one motive, perhaps the sickest of them all. Hurst committed the arson for excitement; for the sheer jolly of it, something to get his “rocks” off. On February 10, 1988, in the State of California, the County of Los Angeles, the City of Lancaster Superior Court, Mark S. Hurst met justice. In a moment, the result of that trial...... Mark S, Hurst, 25, of Phelan, California, had pleaded no contest to one count of arson to the February 17, 1987, Swarthout Valley Lodge-Big Pines Ranger Station fire that destroyed the building and its historical contents. The sentence of four years in state prison and a $400,000 fine in restitution was handed down by Lancaster Superior Court Commissioner Victor Leichman on February 10, 1988. Hurst had become suspected in 70 other arson and/or burglaries in the San Bernardino County area......The Swarthout Valley Lodge had been an important part of the early Big Pines Park. It later played an important role of holding both Wrightwood and Big Pines history up until the arson fire of 1987.
Odd history of the Zoo at Big Pines
Big Pines Zoo was one of the many attractions of the Big Pines Park. In the book, "Wrightwood and Big Pines," by Pat Krig and Barbara Van Houten, they talk of "the animal park" and say it began in the 1920's and was active into the mid-1930's. Pat Krig, a longtime resident of Wrightwood and one who knew a great deal of history of Wrightwood, described the remains of the Big Pines Zoo. The animal park supposedly had buffalo, elk, deer, bears, reindeer, and smaller animals, including rabbits.
Mr. Terry Graham of the Wrightwood Historical Society did a great job archiving and interpreting old photos and memorabilia to sort out the intriguing history of this area, just west of the Ski Club Lodge.
Closing the Big Pines Zoo
Around 1932, interest in the Animal Park petered off and soon the reindeer and elk were taken from the center. The remaining animals had to transported to the Los Angeles Zoo.
The Park Supervisors decided to contract the hauling of the animals and made a deal with Jim Prince and Frank Bogart to load and take them away.
The two saddle partners, Bogert and Prince, thus began an adventure that only legends can be made of. The boys were both brash young cowboys, convinced they were capable of anything, (and besides, the money was good). As described by Pat Krig: The two saddle partners Bogert and Prince temporarily traded in their horses and took a Model T Ford truck and built a wooden box on the rear. They then constructed a ramp from the beast’s pen. With careful maneuvering and prodding they aligned the buffalo and the truck. They continued to herd and prod the huge animal out of his pen, up the ramp, into the truck. Alas! Mr. Bison simply walked through the front of the box, through the cab of the truck, and over the hood, and on his merry way.
The Great Escape
This was one of the culprits that started a legend that persists today: animals escaped from Big Pines Animal Park. There were many black bears that needed to be caged. It was a sweaty, tiring job of putting each bear in individual cages and became quite a chore. Finally, with cages secured in the bed of the stake side truck, Bogert muscled the vehicle into first gear and exited the opened gate at the entrance of the Animal Park. Stopping at the gate to say a quick 'adios' to the gatekeeper, the gatekeeper told them, "Sure is an interesting way to haul animals." Looking out the windows of the large truck, the two saddle partners saw that most of the black bears decided that they didn't want to go anywhere.
The bears had somehow escaped their cages and were either lunging up the slope or heading straight for their comfortable cages back at the Big Pines animal park! After some time of scrambling around and shooing the troublesome creatures back into their individual cages and loading the truck once again, the trek to the city continued.
Next to go were the American bison. The little spikes and cows were not that hard to load, just a little shove here, a slap in the rear there, and a pile of feed to urge the way. Frank and Jimmy were satisfied with the lot. The only one left to load was the one that the two saddle partners dreaded the most. The bison bull! The shaggy 1600-pound cantankerous ill-mannered bison bull lived up to the reputation of its ancestors of being able to run 40 miles an hour, jump six feet high, and have a general dislike for humans if they were in the wrong place at the wrong time around them. With wild snorting and foam flying from its nostrils and flaring mouth, the two saddle partners had to resort to using whips and slaps and jabs with gun barrels to get the beast loaded. But the bull's disfavor to the situation didn't stop. Savage kicks and head strikes from its massive noggin' began splintering and breaking the stake sides of the transport truck! Frank and Jimmy quickly fixed the stake sides, only to have the bull smash them again! Finally, enough was enough, and the pair tranquillized the bull bison. Without further ado, the last of the zoo animals were taken away...and a padlock locked the gate of the Big Pines Animal Park forever. Derived from Terry Graham, Wrightwood, Ca 2008
Frank Bogert and Jimmy Prince transported the remaining zoo animals to their new place of residence in the Griffin Park Zoo in Los Angeles, along with some others housed in the Big Pines Park Animal Park.
Big Pines is the highest point on the San Andreas Fault Park VI
Archives of the Mountaineer Progress
The Big Pines Visitor Center sits directly on a geologically significant site, the San Andreas Fault, at 6,862 feet elevation. There is a dip in the terrain created by the grinding action of the fault. The large rock tower at Big Pines marks the location of the San Andreas Earthquake Fault that runs down its center. The San Andreas Fault reaches its highest elevation at the U.S. Forest Service’s Big Pines Information Center, situated four miles to the west of the village on U.S. Forest Service land, the highest elevation of the fault. The rock outcropping along many trails around Big Pines is evidence of the vertical uplifting of the fault. The San Andreas fault is at the sliding boundary between the Pacific tectonic plate and the Northern American tectonic plate. The plates move past one another at a couple of inches a year. Geologist David K. Lynch, Ph.D., says that the Pacific Plate is traveling north, and Los Angeles will be next to San Francisco in a couple of million years. This grinding action has gone on for millions of years. The last recorded earthquake at 6.6 or 7 was in 1812. CalTrans took over the road (HWY 2) leading up to Big Pines Recreation area. It was determined that the rock tower, with a bridge that stretched across the highway, was directly on the San Andreas Fault and was too dangerous. CalTrans dismantled the south tower and the arch. Only the north rock tower remains as a testament of the past 96 years. The highest point of the San Andreas Fault is not the only thing you’ll discover. There are countless campgrounds and private camps nestled in the surrounding forest and the Big Pines Hall waiting for someday to reopen its doors.
Winter sports in the Big Pines
The first stirring of what is known today as a resort community began in the early 1920s with building a road up Table Mountain. The road was created by the Smithsonian Institute, which made an observatory to study solar measurements. Before that, only hardy ski touring groups had traversed these San Gabriel Mountains. Before that, it was only a few hardy outdoorsmen and women who would brave the cold to do what they loved to do, ski down pristine snow-clad mountains. They would fight their way up steep mountainsides carrying long ski boards to glide down and then do it over again. There were no quads, no chairs, no platters, and no ropes. The Big Pines Ski Club regularly skied the area, but few others were willing to do all the climbing required. By 1924 the Los Angeles County Big Pines Recreation Area was attracting attention. The park opened in August 1924, and it was reported in the Los Angeles Times that the total acreage acquired was almost 4,000 acres at an expenditure of some $100,000. County jail inmates were used for highway construction and about 100 of the stone “fireplaces” were built. In 1924 and through 1929 a world-class ski jump was the focal point of winter sports for Southern California. Big Pines Park opened on Labor Day in 1924 and hosted its first winter carnival in 1927. A 35-acre lake a mile away had facilities for ice skating in the winter on the frozen body of water. Ed Corpe, an old Wrightwood resident, was quoted of local youths being hired to pack the hill. Several young people would sidestep the entire jump take-off and landing area. The Los Angeles Country Department of Parks and Recreation and the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce began work in 1929 on a world-class ski jump. The 1,150-foot-long jump was finished in time for the Third Annual Big Pines Winter Carnival in 1929. The three-day event was a huge success, with over 19,00 people attending. The size of the jumping hill and the inherent excitement of a skier soaring through the air following a rapid descent on a long in-run captured attention in Southern California. Many winter sports fans made the trek to Big Pines to see the ski jumpers. In 1931 a flurry of record-breaking ski jumping occurred: Halvar Bjorngaard, Halvor Halsad, Lars Haugen, John Elvrun, Hjalmar Hvam, and Alf Engen soared to new distances on the steep stage at Big Pines. Alf Engen set a new world record by jumping an amazing 243 feet! In 1937-1938 Frank Spinger and Tom Triol became managers of the Blue Ridge, formerly Los Angeles County’s Big Pines Park. The original group of developers were getting things going at Blue Ridge. In 1932 Big Pines Recreation was the topic for consideration of the Winter Olympics. The world’s largest ski jump at the time was constructed in Big Pines. William Mazy Garland, president of the California X Olympiad Association, wanted the games to take place in Wrightwood and Big Pines. The top-notch facilities impressed the Olympic Board. Unfortunately, the snowfall that year was not enough, along with other complications, and the games ultimately were awarded to Lake Placid, NY. Finally, in late 1940 the Big Pines area was swapped for land and handed over to the ferderal government. Start of the Wrightwood Ski Resorts
After Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation gave complete control of Big Pines Park to the United States Forest Service in July of 1941, Frank Spinger and Tom Triol, managers of Blue Ridge, formerly Los Angeles County Big Pines Park, worked like demons on their improvement projects, carrying 55-gallon drums of gasoline up the hill to the lift. They built the area’s first chairlift in early 1947. On January 30 of that year, after the lift and its 67 chairs were considered complete, Triol threw down his tools and jumped on the first chair. Spinger took the second ride. Blue Ridge built the third chairlift in all of California and the fifth in the nation. Sepp Benedikter took a look at the old Los Angeles County Park and Playground area and decided there was potential there. He moved to Wrightwood in 1948 and began building a chairlift and clearing the runs. Where once there were tennis courts and where rodeos were once held, a new giant ski complex was formed. John Steinmann came from Switzerland in 1948. Wrightwood was having winters of heavy snow and John decided to invest. By 1948 John Steinmann formed a partnership that same year, but it was short-lived. Both were strong-willed. In 1951 they parted ways, with Benedikter selling his share to Steinmann. In 1950 John Steinmann gained control of the area, and the first mile-long chairlift was built, with a vertical of 1700 feet. Jay Swarthout also worked as a makeshift medic in the Swarthout Valley Lodge treating snow-play injuries during the 30s and early 40s and preparing the injured for transport to San Bernardino area hospitals. After John Steinmann assumed sole ownership of Holiday Hill, he and his sons owned and operated it for almost 30 years. The family’s strong Swiss heritage was reflected in the facilities and activities at Holiday Hill.
Serving Wrightwood, Phelan, Pinon HIlls and West Cajon Valley Since 1961