Treasures of the Valley » Mike lawler

The Fabulous Castle of La Crescenta

Dr. Benjamin Briggs, the founder of La Crescenta, was a wealthy man, and many of his rich friends and family followed him to his newly found paradise, La Crescenta. One such relative was his niece, May Gould, daughter of George Briggs, who had brought the raisin industry to California.

It was the 1880s, the so-called “gilded age,” a time of fantastic fortunes. In California then, just like today, those with money could re-invent themselves into whatever they wanted. The rich May wanted something exotic and with her new husband (a ranch-hand elevated from one of her father’s farms) decided to build a full-on castle like those she had seen in Spain. For their new “winter home” she chose sunny acreage near her Uncle Benjamin’s place on Briggs Terrace.

The land was just to the east across Pickens Canyon, near what is today the top of Ocean View, and a 185 acre estate was envisioned by May Gould with a stone castle as its centerpiece.

May drew up the concept for the castle and local rancher Charles Bathey who lived in nearby Goss Canyon was hired as foreman for this amazing construction feat. The spot chosen for the castle was a terrace high on the hillside with a fantastic view of the L.A. basin, the Pacific Ocean, and Catalina and San Clemente Islands. It wouldn’t be made of rough alluvial rock, but the more elegant cut stone.

The granite blocks for the thick walls were to be quarried from the thousands of boulders strewn about the valley floor. The stones were cut wherever they were found, and with no power tools available, ancient methods were employed. The natural fissures in the massive boulders were observed, and small holes were hand-drilled or chipped at the fissure’s heads. From there, small “feathers” or wooden wedges were hammered in to carefully crack the stones into workable blocks.

The head stonecutter was an interesting character known only as “Elliot.” He had lived an adventurous life, starting as an officer in the Royal Navy. The English officer decided to desert his ship in New York harbor to try his hand as a cowboy.     After being smuggled ashore by sympathetic Yankee sailors, he struck out for the Wild West, where he fought Indians and later became a buffalo hunter. He joined the Colorado gold rush, and learned the art of stonecutting while working a mine in New Mexico.

As the blocks were created, they were presumably hauled by wagon up into Pickens Canyon below the castle site. To get the granite blocks, plus tons of sand and gravel with which to mix mortar, up from the canyon floor to the building site, an elaborate cable car system was constructed.

A ship’s capstan was mounted on the terrace where the castle was being built. The capstan, a geared vertical cylinder, was turned by a horse harnessed to a long sweep. It would lift the loaded cable car on railroad tracks running straight up the side of the canyon. The stone and other building material was loaded and unloaded into the cars by gangs of Chinese laborers who had come to America to build the railroads.

The grounds of the estate were terraced with miles of rock walls, and rare shrubs and trees were planted on the various levels. Expansive orchards of citrus and olive trees were planted and an elaborate irrigation system of pipes was installed, fed by a 60-by-60 foot reservoir that tapped into mountain springs.

In 1892, the castle was completed. The west wing contained the living quarters, bedrooms, and a tall tower that held May’s studio. The east wing had an impressive main hall, framed with marble columns and arched windows, plus a big dining room, kitchens and cellars. The two wings of the massive structure were separated by a courtyard containing rare plants and a huge koi pond, surrounded by castellated walls and a wide veranda that ran along the front.

However, their lavish lifestyle was to be short-lived.

But I’ll tell you that story next week.

Mike Lawler is the president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley. Reach him at