Pioneer Memories: Art Aiken – Timber Operations
Many residents of the valley are surprised that our bare, rocky San Gabriel Mountains were once forested with big conifers and that lumber camps were part of our landscape. The forests were cut for firewood for Los Angeles, specifically to feed LA’s brick-making factories. Art Aiken was there to watch it happen. He moved here in 1887, and here describes the lumber operations:
“I know first-hand that as late as the 1890s there were spotted stands of Big Cone Spruce, near the crestlines and canyon slopes, while in the canyon and also on the canyon slopes were to be found generous sprinklings of canyon live oak, California sycamore, California laurel or bay tree, broadleaf maple, and many other varieties and species of forest trees.
“As for cutting fuel on a large scale, it really existed for from 1893 to about 1900 [and] in Pickens and Sutton Canyon alone many thousand cords were cut. In those locations the operation sounds difficult but, to the contrary, it was simple. A crew put in the winter months felling and cutting into four-foot lengths the big cone spruce, two feet or more in diameter (some perhaps in excess of five feet), splitting these logs with the aid of black powder and of course the usual woodsman tools. Then when spring opened, they were ready to transport down the mountain.
“This was done by the building of a tramway two-feet wide with steps (ties) about 20-inches apart, all of which was made of wood, and traversed the canyons over two miles. On this track were small cars made of light, strong wood not over one-foot high, with small wooden wheels which were shod with steel. Four or five cars were hooked together, each with a separate rope brake that operated from a rear platform where the driver stood.
“Owing to the steep grade the operator needed great care that his load didn’t go too fast as that would be disastrous, both to his load and himself. After reaching the lower end of the track he would unload the wood, then pile the four or five cars one on top of the other, put a rope around his shoulders and drag the empties to the top for another load. After two loads in the A.M. this operator would be relieved from this duty and spend the rest of the day getting ready for the next load, while someone else would take down two loads.
“The down trip was lots of fun for me, but the return trip, pulling the cars back, was anything but fun. I never tried to pull them back alone, but the lumbermen did.
“From the end of this tramway the wood would be taken to Los Angeles by teams, a hard day’s journey away, to be used for fuel. At this time most of the cutting for wood was spruce; there was considerable oak that was cut for the same purpose.”
These timber-cutting operations were handled largely by Chinese crews.
Imagine the danger of felling big trees with axes on the near-vertical slopes of our mountains. And imagine the labor involved in laying two miles of track down the mountains, tall trestles spanning the canyons. Those tracks still existed at the turn of the century, and a couple of old photos exist showing them, but I’m sure they soon burned. Being wood, no trace of them exists today.
As for the large conifers (called spruce by Aiken and commonly called both bigcone Douglas fir and bigcone spruce), the forests that once blanketed our mountains are gone. The fir trees never grew back. A very few isolated single trees can be seen high up in the canyons above us. As Art puts it:
“Some of the reasons for their disappearance can be laid to fires, some to flood, and some to cutting for fuel and clearing land.”
Aiken was a founder of the Angeles Forest Protective Association in the ’20s. At Grizzly Flats, just over the ridge from Briggs Terrace, Aiken replanted a vast forest, which grew thick and green for decades until the 2009 Station Fire burned that forest to the ground.