Mount Lukens or Sister Elsie Peak?
For those of us that like to hike our local trails or just enjoy gazing at the incredible vistas of the San Gabriels from our valley, Mt. Lukens is a central theme. It’s the highest point in the range above us and it dominates our valley. But the name “Sister Elsie Peak” floats around Mt. Lukens like a jealous ghost. A firefighting cistern on the peak of Mt. Lukens is marked “Sister Elsie Peak,” and a USGS bronze benchmark disc there also calls it that. Even the occasional map will put Sister Elsie Peak in parenthesis below Mt. Lukens. So what’s the story?
Until the 1920s that mountain was known as Sister Elsie Peak. When a name change to Mt. Lukens was proposed in 1926, the L.A. Times published an objection by CV pioneer Phillip Begue, who told the story of Sister Elsie.
According to Begue, early Catholic nuns ran an Indian orphanage. For milk, they maintained a herd of cows in the Crescenta Valley, fed by a rich spring-fed meadow at Las Barras, what we know today as the Verdugo Hills Golf Course. Indians lived near the site and tended the herd under the benevolent guidance of Sister Elsie. They named their little ranch “El Rancho de la Hermanas” (Ranch of the Sisters) and dug a well there. When the beloved Sister Elsie died, the lamenting Indians named the peak above them after her. That well (if the above story is true) can still be viewed in the front courtyard of the Foothill Retirement Home at 6720 St. Estaban Rd. in Tujunga. The facility is the former Tujunga Motel, a ’20s era resort that incorporated the well, and story, into its tourist draw. A plaque placed on the well is still there to back up the story. I urge you to drive by for a look.
But was it true? Phil Begue was well versed in the lore of the San Gabriels, having been one of its first forest rangers. But he was also a notorious storyteller, and owned much of the land this story takes place on. Perhaps he wished to capitalize on the Mission craze of the ’20s that was drawing tourists to California? As well, the L.A. Catholic Archdiocese has no records of a Sister Elsie or the above story.
So what’s the origin of Elsie? In the 1870s an Army survey team under the command of Lt. George Wheeler was dispatched on a decade-long expedition to map the western US. In 1875, he reached Los Angeles and his maps denoted what we know today as Mt. Lukens as Sister “Else” Peak. The name’s origin is unknown. Was it named after some local person as Phil Begue maintained? Was it named for the sister of someone in the survey party? The records of the reasons behind the names on Wheeler’s Survey were destroyed in the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, but one researcher notes that there are several spots on Wheeler’s maps named after “Else,” whoever that may be.
The name change to Lukens in the ’20s is an honor well deserved. Theodore Lukens (1848-1918) was a giant in early forest management and conservation of the San Gabriels. He promoted and managed the San Gabriel Timber Reserve, the second national forest in the US and what we now know as the Angeles National Forest. He pioneered reforestry techniques and established the Henninger Flats tree nursery. A personal friend of John Muir, he was an early activist in the fledgling Sierra Club and was even twice mayor of Pasadena. Theodore Lukens is considered “the father of modern forestry.”
So which is it? Mt. Lukens or Sister Elsie? The reality or a legend? I think Mt. Lukens is the perfect name, even lending a certain irony as that mountain was clear-cut during Lukens’ era. The fact that it has resisted several replanting efforts in decades past should serve as a challenge to us to make our tree planting efforts today match his legacy.
Sister Elsie Peak can be a nickname – a nod to our sometimes misty past.