An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel: Part I
December 11, 2009 § 25 Comments
From the Fair Oaks area in Pasadena through San Marino all the way to Santa Anita Avenue in Arcadia could once be referred to as an “artesian belt”. Rainwater from the San Gabriel foothills sank into the vast basin under Pasadena and percolated upward when encountering the geological formation at its Southern end, called the Raymond Dike. The above-ground part of the dike appears as a bluff cut through with canyons. The cienegas and springs that “broke forth” from the canyons of this Dike, were among the first “developed” as water sources in Southern California, and among the most historically influential.
Irrigation maps from the late 1880s show marshy areas near the head of many of these streams. One especially detailed map of what is now the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, records minor washes and springs not indicated on the 1880s map, along with associated areas of peat. This suggests the possibility that numerous smaller seeps may have existed elsewhere throughout this belt.
About two centuries ago, the Padres directed two zanjas to be built to intercept waters from the whole range of hills from Los Robles Canyon in Pasadena to present day El Campo Drive in San Marino to supply the Mission. The dependable supply of water from these canyons allowed San Gabriel Mission to become so prosperous that it supplied food and other items to settlements and missions throughout California.
After the secularization of the missions, a politically influential group of ranchers tapped these same waters to irrigate thousands of acres of vineyards and fruit trees. These ranchers were pioneers of horticulture in the region and promoted the cause of irrigation statewide. The ranchers hosted guests from afar, and these guests in turn spread effusive descriptions of their impression of plenitude. One such writer, Benjamin Cummings Truman, said of the San Gabriel “fruit belt”: “[I]t would almost seem as if nature had fashioned this narrow belt as a theatre upon which to display the utmost prodigality of her productive powers.”
As the pace of development in the valley picked up, boring wells and tunnels into the canyons increased the productivity of the original cienegas and springs.
To this day, culverts and tree canopy in aerial views of Alhambra mark where the streams of the San Gabriel artesian belt once converged.
This posting, in two parts, describes just some of these water sources from West to East.
The Old Mill and Wilson’s Lake
From 1816-1823 the Old Mill harnessed water from the adjacent canyon to grind wheat and corn to feed more than a thousand Mission Indians.
After being put to use at the mill, the water flowed into a bog at the present day location of Lacy Park. There, the Padres built a dam to power a sawmill, wool-washing works, and a tannery. According to Hiram Reid’s History of Pasadena, the dam caused the lake to double in size. Its storage capacity increased exponentially.
Though the Old Mill was quickly superseded by a more advanced mill built closer to the Mission, the canyon waters still flowed. By the 1880s, eight tunnels drilled to maximize the original spring’s output were supplying the reservoirs of the Alhambra Addition. The total capacity of reservoirs supplied by the canyon’s flow was 6.5 million gallons in 1888.
The lake also outlasted the Mission era. Subsequent generations called it “Wilson’s Lake” or “Kewen’s Lake”. During the turn of the last century, it was a favorite with local boys:
Not a Pasadenan who has grown up here but has been licked for coming home with his hair damp with the waters of Wilson’s Lake… Years ago it was stocked with carp and catfish… But today Wilson’s Lake is nearly dry. In its deepest portions boys were wading about with their trousers rolled half up to their knees, and the poor fish, to the number of thousands, huddled together in their last refuge, prove easy game…
Wilson Canyon was the largest of the canyons, and was a favorite picnic spot for Pasadenans and San Gabrielenos at the end of the last century.
[I]n summer it seems like passing into another clime to drive from the warm sunshine into the delightsome cool green shade of the massive live-oaks, gnarled and twisted into many fantastic shapes.
Though Farnsworth’s 1883 description is one of delicate and airy grace, Truman’s description from the same era of what may be the same canyon took “immense oaks and parasitic vines” and ferns at least five feet high, to be evidence of “the long luxurience of the soil and the tropical warmth of the climate…”
By 1886 at least 9 wells had been sunk in the Canyon.
Hiram Reid wrote that tree rats inhabited the oaks, and frogs from the canyon were harvested for dissection by Throop Polytechnic.
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