Treasures of the Valley

More on the Pickens Canyon Logging Railway

I often spend time down at the History Room at the Glendale Central Library. It has an amazing collection of historical records – not just Glendale, but our area too. Recently I found a paper written in 1987 by Marvin May, a former resident of Briggs Terrace. He wrote his memories of exploring Pickens Canyon as a kid in the late ’20s and the discovery of the wreckage of the old logging railway there. Marvin gives a detailed description of what he found, although he had little background of the history behind what he was seeing.

He describes upper Pickens Canyon as being dry and growing only chaparral. He relates that it was Sutton Canyon that had the continuous water flow, which drained into lower Pickens. Sutton Canyon branches east from Pickens and in the 1920s when Marvin saw it it was lush with mature sycamores and oaks, and small pools of clear stream water. It was in Sutton that young Marvin discovered a portion of the track. A 10 foot-long piece of 2×2 ripped lumber had small crossties attached, 16-inches apart, and another shorter board attached parallel to the 10 foot section, clearly forming train tracks. The wood was held together with square-cut spikes.

Marvin returned home excited with the news of his discovery. His dad suspected the tracks belonged to a mine. The two set out the next weekend to find the mine. But after bushwhacking up Sutton Canyon, they found no indications of a mine.

What they did find was many old stumps of big fir trees. It was obvious that intense logging had taken place and Marvin’s dad suspected that perhaps the railway was associated with that as the wooden tracks were probably too weak to carry heavy ore carts. Higher up, they found the old roadbed of the tracks, about 15- to 20-feet above the canyon floor, and about two miles in length. Cuts and fills had been constructed as the railway wound its way down the canyon. Much of the track was gone, but enough remained to show what had been there. They followed it down, all the way to Pickens Canyon where they surmised that a high trestle had crossed the canyon to land on Briggs Terrace. It was long gone of course.

After returning home, they consulted old-timers locally and found that indeed there had been a man-powered tramway into Sutton Canyon. They told Marvin and his dad that locals had used it to collect firewood. They used wheeled carts that were part of the logging operation and dragged them up the steep tracks, stepping on the crossties as they pulled. They loaded them up with firewood then walked behind coming back down while pulling hard on a braking device.

Marvin said this was borne out by the wear on the crossties. The crossties had peculiar wear marks. The upgrade side of the ties was worn away in two scallops, showing where the man pulling the cart had placed his shoes on the crossties whereas the downgrade side still had a square edge.

It was really fun to find this narrative from Marvin, describing what he had found in the canyon over 50 years before. What Marvin didn’t know, but only suspected, was that this was indeed a major logging enterprise. We know today that this railway was built by brick manufacturers to supply wood for the brick kilns of downtown Los Angeles in the late 1800s. Each winter Chinese crews camped in the canyon, cut down the thick pine tree forests from the near vertical slopes and trimmed them into four foot lengths. In the summer those same crews loaded the logs onto the rail carts for the trip to Briggs Terrace and then by wagon to downtown LA. Then the carts were walked back up the tracks for another load.

Of course all the wooden tracks are gone today, long ago burned in our many fires. As well, the trees never grew back probably for the same reason. But I wonder if the railroad’s roadbed is still there on the side of the canyon?

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