Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

The La Crescenta Hotel Disaster of 1887 – Part 1

Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

Dr. Benjamin Briggs, the founder of La Crescenta, was a community builder. He came to the valley in the early 1880s with the dual idea of creating a health resort and a town. He purchased the western half of the Cañada Valley, renamed it the Crescenta Valley, and set about building a town. He divided the land into lots and sold mainly to easterners coming to Southern California for the clean dry air, the only known cure for the lung diseases that plagued eastern city dwellers. Along the way he encouraged the establishment of a store, post office, school and church. In 1887 Briggs enticed two real estate men from Los Angeles to build a hotel. It was built that year, but only lasted a few months before it was completely demolished in a terrific windstorm in December 1887, killing two people and injuring many more. This spectacular disaster was written of in detail by Jo Anne Sadler in her fascinating book “Frontier Days in Crescenta Valley.” But any tale as dynamic as this deserves more coverage, so here’s my take on it.

In the spring of 1887, a two-story structure was built on the northwest corner of Rosemont Avenue and Foothill Boulevard, about where Foster’s Donuts is today. It was made of wood and contained 24 rooms. The construction was contracted out and was, by all accounts, poorly designed and executed. One has to remember that in 1887 Los Angeles there were no enforced building codes, and a building’s sturdiness was entirely up to the skill and conscience of the builder. The hotel was built too tall and too narrow to stand up to any sideways force such as a wind. In addition, the structure was built not with a foundation, but instead sat on small brick pillars spaced six to eight feet apart, lending even more instability. Even the businessman who had the hotel built admitted afterward that the building wasn’t sufficiently braced.

The Crescenta Hotel’s owners had just hired a family to run the hotel in December 1887. Edwin Arnold, an experienced hotel manager, brought his wife Clementina and two young daughters, 10 and 3 years old, and they took up quarters in the rear of the hotel building.

The hotel had 15 guests on Saturday, Dec. 11 when the Santa Ana windstorm began. It was a strong one, with estimated gusts of up to 90 miles per hour. While that’s no stronger than the Santa Ana winds we experience today, the destructive force of the wind was greater back then. There were few trees in the valley to serve as windbreaks and the wind gusted hardest at ground level, where the poorly braced buildings took the full brunt of the wind.

The wind continued for several days and across the greater Los Angeles area many structures were lost. Houses across the region were blown down or shifted off their foundations. In Pacoima, San Gabriel and La Verne, big hotels were blown down. The town of Cucamonga was almost totally destroyed, losing a hotel, several retail buildings and its train depot. Near there a steam locomotive’s wooden cab was torn off the engine. The orange groves suffered terrible damage, the fruit stripped from the branches and several trees ripped out of the ground. In the Crescenta Valley, two wooden houses were demolished and the smarter residents took shelter in the schoolhouse, located on the northeast corner of Foothill and Dyer, where the library’s lower parking lot is today. The one-room schoolhouse was the safest building in the valley. It had just been constructed of cement imported from Germany, perhaps the first cement public building in Southern California.

But in the shivering and swaying Crescenta Hotel, the guests unwisely stayed put. The wind continued for three days. On the third day, the hotel’s owner finally decided that the next day he’d get some lumber and brace up the rickety building. But the hotel couldn’t stand one more night of howling wind. The stage was set for disaster, which we’ll cover next week.