The Mysterious Lost Mountain Cabin of Grizzly Flat – Part 1
On the other side of the San Gabriel Mountains is a huge flat terrace perched halfway up the mountainside from Big Tujunga Canyon, between Vasquez Creek and Mt. Lukens. It’s called Grizzly Flat, no doubt for some long forgotten incident with the many grizzly bears that thickly populated the San Gabriels in the 1800s. Before the Station Fire, hikers who reached this magical place marveled at the dense pine forest mixed with stands of oak and seemingly out-of-place eucalyptus groves. And going back further, before the 1970s, hikers reaching Grizzly Flat wondered about a mysterious empty stone cabin situated deep in the pine forest, seemingly in the middle of nowhere. There were rumors, including the tall tale that the old stone house had been a secret hideout of Vasquez, the legendary bandit of the late 1800s. No one seemed to know who had built the cabin, or how the dense forest came to be in an area made up of mostly chaparral. Today all that’s left are old stone foundations, and a ghost forest of charred logs.
The mystery was solved a few years ago when my good friend Art Cobery wrote a history of the fabled lost cabin and it’s from his research that I write now. Furthermore, I was amazed to find out that it had a very direct connection to La Crescenta. To learn the story, we need to know the history of local firefighting efforts. From La Crescenta’s beginnings in the 1880s, past the turn of the century into the teens, firefighting in the Crescenta Valley was an ad hoc affair. A structure fire was the responsibility of its owner and maybe a neighbor, but a brushfire was everyone’s responsibility, as it threatened all. There were no firefighting tactics and equipment, only loose bands of locals who tried to smother fires with shovelfuls of dirt or water-soaked potato sacks.
In the teens, all that changed. Wealthy Harvey Bissell, the heir to the Bissell Carpet Sweeper fortune, moved to the valley. He bought the ranch at the top of La Crescenta Avenue, today’s Pinecrest neighborhood, and called it the Hi-Up Ranch. Bissell was a natural organizer and very community minded. He and other community leaders saw a need for an organized fire fighting force and in 1916 they formed what would soon come to be called the Angeles Forest Protective Association. Bissell purchased a truck to carry men and equipment and installed a fire bell at his ranch to summon firefighters. Local men were formed into units and trained with military precision in techniques of forming fire lines, cutting firebreaks and lighting backfires.
Bissell and Art Aiken, another CV pioneer, took things a step further by exploring the idea of reforesting our often denuded mountains. Their concept was to build a forest nursery where they could experiment with tree varieties and planting methods. They chose Grizzly Flat for their base of operation. It was a well-watered bench of land protruding from the backside of Mount Lukens, overlooking Big Tujunga Canyon. In 1925 they began developing the site. Pack mules were loaded with building materials and cement sacks for the climb up from Briggs Terrace, switch-backing up the ridgeline above Pickens Canyon, over the saddle to the east of Lukens, and down to Grizzly Flat. A stone cabin was constructed to serve as headquarters for the experimental forest, along with a dam across the creek to store water. A novel hydraulic ram forced water from the reservoir and into a water tank which then watered the seedlings. The cabin had a corrugated roof and a fireplace big enough to accept four-foot logs. The cabin became a magnet for the firefighters, and several weekend firefighting training sessions were held here. Here also Art Aiken developed many novel planting methods and a vast forest of different types of trees soon developed around the cabin and spread across Grizzly Flat.
Next week I’ll write about what happened to the cabin and the forest, and how to get to this magical place today.