Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

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The History of Foothill Boulevard, Part 1

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

In a regional sense, today’s Foothill Boulevard is one of the major streets of Los Angeles, stretching 60 miles from San Bernardino to Newhall. But locally, we consider “our” Foothill Boulevard to be the portion that runs straight as an arrow from the Arroyo Seco to just beyond the border of Sunland-Tujunga. It’s our main artery – our “Main Street.”

Foothill Boulevard in the Crescenta/Cañada Valley began as a surveyor’s line. In the late 1870s, Lanterman and Williams purchased the 6,000 acres of Crescenta/Cañada. By 1880 the land had been divided into 46 approximately equal lots, and surveyors had drawn a straight line along the center of the valley dividing north and south, which became a natural path. When Dr. Briggs bought his half of the valley in the early 1880s, his nephew Edward Prince Haskell cut a wagon road along that surveyed line. The new road was named Michigan Avenue for Lanterman’s and Williams’ home state.

Although the surveyor’s line appeared straight on the map, the reality of the valley’s geography made a straight road nearly impossible. The valley is made up of a series of fans of rocky alluvial debris spreading down from the mountains. The newly cut Michigan Avenue undulated over these obstructions. It would climb up the edge of an alluvial fan, dip back down in the center to the seasonal stream bed, climb the other edge of the fan, only to drop again back to the valley floor. (Today you can see a toned down sample of this undulation by driving along Santa Carlotta Avenue.) As well, it had to curve around huge boulders. (Remember that the original name of CV was “Big Rocks”!) It also had to wind through hilly areas, such as where Michigan Avenue crossed the San Rafaels Hills (near the YMCA) and around Reynolds Hill (between Briggs and Ocean View).

As the valley’s population grew in the late 1880s and 1890s and a stagecoach service was added along Michigan Avenue from Pasadena, the road was improved. The minor undulations began to be shaved down. To cross the deepest gullies, a series of wooden trestle bridges was constructed. The largest of these was at Hilliard Avenue in La Cañada (today the Foothill Boulevard exit of the 2 Freeway). That bridge crossed a 50-foot deep chasm, with a span of about 150 feet.

In 1901, these high maintenance wooden bridges were eliminated by filling the gullies they crossed with dirt. An often-published photo shows a wagon stopped mid-span of the bridge. The floorboards of the bridge behind the wagon have been removed and the wagon is dumping its load of dirt into the canyon directly below the bridge. This was done until the canyon was completely full, and a new roadway was constructed over the top. (That means the bridge pilings are still buried there, under Foothill at the 2 Freeway exit! The bridge’s floorboards and upper structure were repurposed to build a dance hall/community building for La Cañada.) Additionally, some of the rocky obstructions were blasted away, including half of Reynolds Hill. The sheer, rocky road cut became a landmark in the valley. (Just a few months ago, we watched that sheer road cut stabilized with a wire-mesh covering, to prevent rock-fall onto the roadway.) The winding route through the San Rafael Hills (by the YMCA) was straightened as much as it could through back breaking hand work by a road crew.

In 1890 rows of eucalyptus trees were planted on either side the dirt road, and the double row of trees became a well-known feature of the valley. Excursion carriages from the resort hotels of Pasadena delighted tourists with day trips along its shaded length to view the exotic Gould Castle. The trees were short-lived due to development and road widening. But the beautiful eucalyptus, and the rural lifestyle of that era live on in lines from the turn-of-the-century poem “La Crescenta:” “Purple sage adorns the valley, Great rocks gleaming in the sun. Stately rows of Eucalyptus guard, where restful highways run.”

Next week – Foothill Boulevard in the 20th Century.

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