Name Origins for the Peaks Around Us – Part 1
In the next few columns I’ll try to shed some light on the name origins for the peaks of the San Gabriel Mountains above us. You’ve doubtless been exposed to the names of many of our geographical features of the mountains to the north. We’ve all heard of or seen road signs for such names as Mt. Lukens, Mt. Wilson, Barley Flats and Vetter Peak. Where did those names come from?
I’ll attempt here to give you briefly the often fascinating and sometimes evolving stories behind their names. I pull most but not all of my info from the website of the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club.
The range itself, the San Gabriel Mountains, has not always been known by that name. The Spanish called these mountains the Sierra Madres, the “mother mountains.” When the United States took control of California in the 1840s, they sent their own surveyors and cartographers into the area. In 1861, surveyor Josiah Whitney, for who Mt. Whitney is named, officially named the range “San Gabriel Mountains.” It was named in honor of both the San Gabriel Mission, where European dominance of the area was first asserted, and for the San Gabriel River into which much of the mountain’s watershed flows. However, the old name held on and the mountains continued to be called the Sierra Madres even on official maps into the 1920s. In 1927, the U.S. Geographic Board made a big stink about the name change and the name San Gabriels picked up strength until by the 1950s San Gabriels became the dominant title.
Mt. Lukens is the mountain directly above our valley and it too has gone through a name change. It was originally known as Sister Elsie Peak, but the origins of that name are murky to say the least. The name given the mountain above the Crescenta Valley first shows up in a survey done in 1878 as Sister “Else” Peak, and didn’t become Sister “Elsie” until 1907. No one really knows who Sister Elsie was as any record of the name’s origin was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. In the absence of an official story, another story evolved in the early 1900s through frequent retelling. The story went that Sister Elsie was a Catholic nun who established an Indian orphanage in the Crescenta Valley. Supposedly she and a group of other nuns had a herd of milk cows to feed their charges, and after Sister Elsie died of smallpox the grateful Indians named the mountain after her. In the last few decades both local historians and the Catholic Church have both deemed the story as highly unlikely, but there’s no alternative story to fill the gap. In 1922 the name Mt. Lukens was put forth as a replacement for the controversial Sister Elsie Peak.
Theodore Lukens managed the area we now know as Angeles National Forest, and was twice the mayor of Pasadena. A conservationist, Lukens was good friend of John Muir and was an early activist in the Sierra Club. He pioneered many reforestry techniques and he is considered the father of modern forestry.
Next moving east would be Mt. Pickens. USGS doesn’t list Mt. Pickens and it’s not marked on the maps I have seen. I had always understood that it is the little peak that rises out of the southeastern side of Mt. Lukens, on the west side of Pickens Canyon, and I believe the firefighting water cistern there has Mt. Pickens written on it.
But then I find on the Internet references to it being on the east side of Pickens Canyon. Maybe a reader can clear this up? Whichever it is, it would be named for Pickens Canyon, which drains the east side of Lukens. Pickens Canyon is named for Theodor Pickens, considered the first American settler in the Crescenta Valley. He built a little cabin up on Briggs Terrace in 1871.
Next week, I’ll continue east along the face of the San Gabriels, with more interesting background on the names of geographic features.