Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

Lake La Crescenta?

Mike Lawler is the former president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

I love to chronicle the goofy proposals for our community in the past – the schemes that could-have-been. It’s interesting to think about the effects each of these proposals would have on our community. But none would have had a more profound effect than that proposed in 1892 – to put La Crescenta under water.

In 1892, the Los Angeles Herald reported that many of the founding names of our community met to talk about CV’s bright future. Landholders and farmers such as William Gould, Theodor Pickens, Dr. Briggs, Jesse Knight, Col. Hall, and General Shields were in attendance. General Shields gave a long speech about his version of the geologic history of the Crescenta Valley and made a radical proposal that I’ll relate here. But first, to add some context, a word about “General” Shields.

Early chroniclers of the valley’s history related that J.H. Shields, namesake of a local street, debris basin and canyon, had been a Civil War Confederate general. But historian Jo Anne Sadler studied Shields in her book, “Crescenta Valley Pioneers” and found that he had never served in any branch of the service, at any level, on either side. There was a Union General Shields, but that wasn’t our Shields. J.H. Shields came from a slave-holding Tennessee family, somehow avoided service, and came to Los Angeles in 1874 where he became successful in land sales. By 1878, he is referred to in a newspaper article as General Shields and is thereafter referred to as general. Was it a joke, a take-off on the Union general? Was it a self-perpetrated lie to give Shields some prestige? Or was it just an honorific? Many people called themselves colonel back then.

Whatever the case, he acquired land high up in CV in 1882 (what is now Pinecrest) and became a respected leader locally. At this community meeting in 1892, he gave his version of the geologic history of the valley. According to Shields, during the last Ice Age there was no gap in the Verdugo Mountains at Verdugo Canyon. The Verdugo and San Rafael Mountains were a continuous mountain range, connecting with the San Gabriel Mountains at both ends of the range, forming a bowl. The Crescenta Valley was filled solid with ice, piled up almost to the tops of the San Gabriels. When the ice melted, the water scoured out three canyons as it emptied from the valley and flowed south – Big Tujunga Canyon, Verdugo Canyon and Arroyo Seco Canyon all formed by that single event.

General Shields then proposed that those three canyons be dammed up again using the vast supply of rocks in the valley. The natural flows of Big Tujunga Creek, Verdugo Creek, and Arroyo Seco would soon form a long lake against the Verdugo Mountains. The prominent landowners on the north side of the valley (including Shields) would then own lakefront property instead of the acres of sagebrush they currently had. He described the beautiful communities that would be built on the mountainside overlooking the lake. Shields claimed that the lake would change the climate of the valley to tropical, making for the unusual cultivation of star apples (cianito fruit) and bananas. The high elevation of the reservoir would provide strong gravity water pressure to Pasadena and Los Angeles, making the investors rich in water sales.

Obviously this radical proposal never came to fruition, but imagine the possibilities. Park your car on Foothill Boulevard for the short walk down to the lakeshore for a picnic or to cast a line in the water. Launch your fishing boat at the Chevy Chase boat ramp, troll through Montrose Bay behind the middle dam at Verdugo Canyon and fish the deep canyons of Whiting Woods and La Tuna Canyon. Water-ski the length of the lake from La Cañada Shores to Tujunga Cove. Scuba dive the sunken oak forests of Crescenta Valley Park. But of course there wouldn’t have been a Crescenta Valley Park, or a Montrose or Whiting Woods for that matter. I would have a very different history to relate if Lake La Crescenta had been built.     Perhaps it’s better without the lake.

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