The Man for Whom Mount Lukens is Named
The namesake of the peak above the Crescenta Valley is Theodore Lukens, one of the founding citizens of Pasadena. He made a fortune in real estate in the late 1800s, was elected mayor of Pasadena, and was the president of the Pasadena National Bank. They named a nearby mountain after him, a mountain that already had a name, “Sister Elsie Peak.” So far it sounds like the naming of Mount Lukens was nothing more than a political favor, another tribute to wealth. But read further, and you’ll find as I did that the tribute was truly deserved and that its naming also holds irony, and a challenge for the future.
Theodore Lukens was a man born and bred to love trees. He was born into a family that owned a tree nursery in Ohio and, as a young family man, he started his own tree nursery business. When his young daughter had health problems, he and his family joined the migration of health seekers moving to the foothills of the San Gabriels.
Settling in Pasadena in 1880, Lukens found himself in the right place at the right time for real estate, and he made a fortune in the land boom of 1886. Now a wealthy man, he involved himself in banking and community service.
But he was never able to shake his love for trees. He spent his off hours tramping the San Gabriels, carving trails as he went, treating the land as he would a vast tree nursery. Anytime he found tree seeds on the ground he would make a hole in the dirt with his walking stick and plant the seed, being sure to carve drainage channels in the dirt above it so that rainfall would gravitate to the new seed. He carried a tree saw with him, and trimmed diseased branches wherever he found them. The notebooks he carried on his hikes were filled with rainfall measurements and tree growth records. He called the trees his “children.”
As his knowledge of the mountains grew, he spoke to all who would listen about his findings – his philosophies of tree propagation, fire prevention and water management. Horticulturists and conservationists from across the country began to seek his counsel. He became great friends with John Muir, and was an early member of the Sierra Club. As mayor of Pasadena he provided political leverage for the establishment of the Angeles National Forest.
By 1897 he couldn’t ignore his true love for the wilderness any longer, and resigned from his bank presidency to promote conservation full-time. John Muir wrote to him: “I’m glad the bank is off your back, so now you can go free in the woods.” Lukens became involved with the U.S. Forest Service, rising to the position of supervisor of the newly created San Gabriel preserve. He built up backcountry firefighting capabilities, and began tree-planting to reforest the San Gabriels, which had been devastated by uncontrolled lumber and mining operations. In 1903 he established a huge tree nursery halfway up Mount Wilson at Henninger Flats, still in operation today.
Another local legacy of Lukens is Hahamongna Park (formerly Oak Grove Park) in La Cañada that he advocated for before his death in 1918. He’s buried in Mountainview Cemetery in Altadena.
In the ’20s Lukens was honored with a peak of his own, a 5,000-foot mountain standing high above the Crescenta Valley, whose previous name of Sister Elsie Peak was nebulous (no one knows who Sister Elsie was). The naming of this peak after a man who was deemed “the father of modern forestry” carries great irony. The heavily forested slopes of Mount Lukens had been clear-cut in the late 1800s and have never grown back. But the future of Mount Lukens is being shaped in a way Theodore Lukens himself would approve of. Volunteers have planted hundreds of trees – native big-cone Douglas firs and oaks – snaking up Dunsmore Canyon in Deukmejian Wilderness Park on the slopes below Lukens’ peak. Lukens’ challenge of reforestation is being met today, right here in the Crescenta Valley.