By Mike Lawler
I continue now with my series on the history of the land now occupied by the Verdugo Hills Golf Course, perhaps the most dynamic spot historically in the entire valley. In my previous column I wrote that the golf course, known geographically as Las Barras Canyon, was the likely spot of Wikangna, Crescenta Valley’s Indian village. Those familiar with California history know that the history of the Mission system was woven tightly to California’s Indians, and so it was with the village of Wikangna.
Once the Missions at San Gabriel and San Fernando had been established, it would have been a relatively straight line between them following the well-used trails between the Indian villages along the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and through the Crescenta Valley. It was about 30 miles total, more than a hot summer day’s walk for the sandal-shod Padres. Exactly halfway on that journey was the sheltered canyon and spring of cool water of La Barras Canyon, former Indian village and current golf course site. And so we can suppose that the regular travelers between the Missions would have established a shelter here.
In fact some recollections of old timers suggest that this was the case, and that remnants of this overnight stopover for the Mission travelers did exist, even until recently.
Pioneer Phil Begue recalled that when he first arrived at his family’s new land purchase of Las Barras Canyon in 1882, a band of displaced Indians was camped there around an already established well. Also in the canyon were the ruins of adobe walls that Begue supposed were a “half-way house” built by the Mission Fathers. Begue also referenced a large sycamore tree that had sprouted from a log laid next to the well, put there to keep saddle stock and cattle away from the well opening. The old well was undoubtedly filled by one of the many floods that crossed the valley in the early days.
An unconfirmed legend revolving around the canyon was that of Sister Elsie, a Catholic nun who supposedly established an Indian orphanage near there, using the meadows and water of Las Barras Canyon for her dairy herd. The legend of Sister Elsie has endured largely because of the many landmarks that carry her name. Mt. Lukens was until the ‘30s officially named Sister Elsie Peak, and in fact one of the cisterns kept atop Lukens for firefighting still has “Sister Elsie” painted on it for aerial identification. Sister Elsie Drive is a street name in Tujunga not too far from Las Barras Canyon.
The most accessible Sister Elsie artifact is a plaque telling her story placed in 1930 at a motel just off Tujunga Canyon Blvd., today a rest home located at the intersection of Haines Canyon Blvd and St. Estaban. The plaque is still mounted on a fake well out front, and is accessible for viewing. The legend of Sister Elsie has never been confirmed, and local historians still wrestle with proving or disproving the story.
The last remnant of the golf course’s supposed Mission connection comes from a memory from Verdugo Hills Golf Course golf pro John Wells in a news article from 1986. He related that in 1960 before the golf course was graded a small section of adobe wall still existed in the upper part of the canyon, and that the wall had niches in the Mission style.
There are some in the valley who theorize that if the Mission system had flourished, Las Barras Canyon would have been a likely spot for a new Mission to fill the gap between San Fernando and San Gabriel. But it’s all supposition now.
It tickles the imagination to envision the Mission soldiers carrying messages from Spain along Honolulu Avenue and camping under the stars on the driving range of the Verdugo Hills Golf Course.
As we continue this history of the golf course on its fiftieth anniversary, we’ll look next at its time as a CCC camp, and then its most infamous chapter as a WWII detention camp.
Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the
Crescenta Valley. Reach him at email@example.com.