The San Gabriels – Our Mother Mountains
I wrote recently about the historical name change of the peak above us, Mt. Lukens, and its former life as Sister Elsie Peak. My friend Art Cobery suggested I let readers know that the entire San Gabriel Mountain range above us also went through a similar name change. Art tells me that throughout his hiking years as a young man in the ’40s and ’50s the range above us was the “Sierra Madre Mountains.” Indeed, as I look through old newspaper articles from that period and before, the name Sierra Madre Mountains is used more often than San Gabriel Mountains.
So when did the name change, and why? It was the early Spanish settlers that originally named our mountains the Sierra Madres, or “Mother Mountains.” Perhaps it was reverential, in that those mountains looked down over their fertile valleys and provided timber to build their homes, and life giving water. And so for more than a century that maternal name was undisputed and freely used by the Spanish, Mexicans, Indians, and the few Yankees that lived here.
But the United States took control of the area in the late 1840s and entered the stage like a conquering army. To the victors go naming rights, and some place names taken for granted by the Spanish were renamed by surveyors and cartographers in a series of U.S. sponsored geographical expeditions after statehood was achieved. Josiah Whitney, for who Mt. Whitney is named, spent several years cataloging, surveying, mapping and naming places in California. In 1861 he ignored the local name Sierra Madre, and officially named the range separating the LA basin and the Mojave Desert the San Gabriel Mountains. His reasoning was sound. The San Gabriel Mission was the basis of settlement below that range, and the majority of the mountain’s watershed drained into the already named San Gabriel River.
But the new name didn’t even make a blip on the consciousness of Southern California residents, and the name Sierra Madre Mountains persisted. Various published maps, descriptions, and histories of the area continued to use the name Sierra Madres, and even up until the ‘20s it was shown as such in Rand McNally atlases. As the area became more populated the discrepancy between the two names was brought to the attention of the U. S. Geographic Board. They held a hearing, and on Oct. 5, 1927 proclaimed the name “San Gabriel Mountains” official, and to be used exclusively on maps and documents thereafter.
However the old name persisted, and as Art described, was still used locally. The published maps began to change, and awareness of the name “San Gabriels” began to take hold. In both 1949 and 1955 Glendale newspapers printed articles declaring the name Sierra Madre dead, and I would guess that today you’d find few who would recognize our mountains as “The Sierra Madres.” None the less, a recent internet search I did turned up a website of a realtor in the San Gabriel Valley in which he described the community of Monrovia as “nestled at the base of the Sierra Madre Mountains.”
Physically our mountains are nothing more that the crumbly fractured edges of the huge and constantly moving Pacific Plate as it rubs against the North American Plate. Between the two plates is the San Andreas Fault, where these two land masses collide and grind. The immeasurable impact of the two land masses has pushed the San Gabriels higher and higher, making them some of the fastest growing mountains in the world. At the same time, their granite structure is fractured by the constant shaking and tearing along the San Andreas, and the solid rock falls apart like broken china, making them among the fastest eroding mountains in the world. Rising and falling at the same time!
Despite this incredible instability, I’ve always felt a certain security here in our valley, and I’ve often described the San Gabriels and the Verdugos as encircling us like a mother’s arms. I call them the San Gabriels, but I think the “Mother Mountains” or the Sierra Madres fits just fine too.