An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel: Part II

January 6, 2010 § 10 Comments

This 1904 map shows a slender stream forming in the upper end of San Marino Canyon. Vegetation is labelled as "oaks" and "brush thicket". This item reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.

This is part two of a posting that describes the Artesian Belt in San Gabriel from West to East. For the introduction to this section, click here.

Grading and Draining: the transformation of the Shorb Ranch

The property we know as the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens, was once part of the famed ranch of J. De Barth Shorb, named San Marino. We are fortunate that relatively detailed documentation of the property has been preserved, giving us an intimate view of shifts in land use during the intervening century.

Forward-thinking in every way, Shorb began as the business partner and son-in-law of B. D. Wilson. Land development, horticulture, politics and irrigation were only some of his notable pursuits. Anne and Ruth, daughters of B. D. Wilson, enjoyed regular ‘literary talks’ with their cultured and articulate brother-in-law. Anne complained of one visit in her diary, however, because despite some talk of poetry, “most of the conversation is about ‘pipes and reservoirs.’”

What could be more interesting than pipes and reservoirs? Such infrastructure allowed a landowner to tap his land’s full potential. A significant portion of the San Marino ranch lay within the San Gabriel Artesian Belt, and the advantages of this were described by Shorb in 1889:

The San Marino Tract comprises within its boundaries proper about 500 acres of land. Of this acreage about one half is under water, or lies within such topographical lines as to permit the water rising on the property from the cienegas or natural marsh lands, to be used all over it without difficulty or expense… From the East to the West lines of these lands where the water rises, a sufficient fall exists to apply to a water wheel, and a sufficient power South is created, as to pump the water inexpensively to a higher level, not exceeding 30 feet…

Land was worth little if not irrigable: passionate irrigationists such as Shorb acknowledged water to be a “wealth producing element.” Dams, wells, pipes, drains, and reservoirs would maximize the value of his land. Shorb pursuits in this regard were described with admiration by Truman:

He has already reclaimed several tracts of what was hitherto worthless bog, by the construction of drains, using for the purposes the tiles which many of the old buildings of the early Spanish settlers were covered. It is his purpose to continue the work until there will be no more marsh on the estate… In due time iron pipes will convey the surplus water to the outlying tracts to the south of the estate, hundreds of acres of which will thus become available for the creation of new estates where now only the wild flowers and grasses of this section are to be seen.

These acres of wild flowers and grasses were likely sections of San Gabriel and Alhambra. The latter development has been called the first subdivision in California served by water piped in from elsewhere, and Shorb is also credited by some as the first in the region to use iron pipes to convey water.

Henry Huntington acquired the former Shorb property in January 1903. Envisioning horticultural pursuits on a dramatically larger scale, he realized that managing water flow would be the foundation for future development.

According to William Hertrich, who became Huntington’s Landscape Gardener in 1904, “Improvements for the first two years were directed toward the laying out of an extensive drainage system to take care of excess storm water.” Equally pressing was the building of new reservoirs and sinking of new wells to accommodate the scale of plantings in store.

Fixing up the ranch gave Huntington immense satisfaction. As quoted from Thorpe’s biography:

Huntington wrote to his mother, “I am doing some grading on the Shorb Place. You know I can’t well live unless I can be grading somewhere.” And he added, as a corollary of his grading activities, “This is a beautiful day—so peaceful, so calm, so restful.”

Though Huntington and Hertrich gradually transformed most of the property into a series of exotic landscapes, the basic patterns of drainage are unchanged and continue to influence the structure and layout of the gardens we are familiar with today.

The Lily Ponds

Huntington’s first serious garden project involved transforming a wash into an exotic water garden. Hertrich recalled that this narrow ravine “detracted from the beauty of the landscape…” A series of ponds was excavated by a first Grounds Supervisor.

When Hertrich took over the position of Landscape Gardener, he lined the ponds with concrete and installed rockeries. He also installed a thousand feet of 2” galvanized pipe along the edge of one large pond. Pumping heated water through the pipe allowed the horticultural wonder of a tropical Amazon water lily to flower into January, when the Huntingtons were in town.

Mission Canyon

In the late 1800s, Mission Canyon was described in the most effusive terms:

One of the smallest, and, without doubt, the prettiest of the hill-canyons… is generally known as Mission Canyon… On one side of the gorge a narrow road, leading to Mexican houses on the highland above, clings to the hillside; while at the bottom of the short, steep declivity the merry brooklet dances along over the pebbles. Tall brakes [ferns] wave over its mossy banks, and here may be found their more delicate sisters [maidenhairs, gold and silver ferns, and coffee ferns] intermingled with a profusion of trailing vines and softly tinted woodland denizens…

Hiram Reid noted in 1895, that it was also called “Wild Grape Canyon” after “the abundance and fine quality of its wild grapes, from the days of the padres down to the present time.” Peat existed in the upper section.

Hertrich mentions that during Shorb’s day, water rights to the canyon stream, without pumping privileges, were sold to a group of citrus growers. This lasted until surface flow ceased. We also know from William Hammond Hall, that around 1888, Mission Canyon was the main source of water for the Alhambra development. Collected just Southwest of the current Huntington property, the canyon’s waters traveled in a 5” iron pipe to Alhambra Road, where it filled reservoirs of 1.25 million gallon total capacity.

When Huntington bought the former Shorb ranch in 1903, the canyon formed the western border of the property, and would soon become a trouble spot. After Huntington’s men graded and developed land higher up in the watershed (between California and San Pasqual Streets), Hertrich noted increased stormwater flow through the canyon:

In the early days… the hay and grain pastures had absorbed most of the rains and the canyon had taken care of the excess water. But as soon as improvements were made and the open fields were no longer there, the surplus water increased to the extent of lowering the floor of the waterway every winter…

Building and rebuilding structures to control erosion in the canyon became a running theme in the early correspondence between Huntington and Hertrich. Fixing the canyon’s drainage vied with topics as the acquisition of cycads, the progress of the Japanese Garden, and the unpacking of precious art objects.

Hertrich even devoted a small section to the canyon in his memoirs. He writes, “We installed some check dams, but the increased volume of water, we found, could only be controlled by building a storm drain the entire length of the canyon, a matter of 4,400 feet…” When completed, the drain was covered and planted over with “native shrubs and ferns.”

Henry Huntington always loved a good joke. That he saw Mission Canyon as little more than a drainage channel adds a twist to that bit of Huntington lore: that the canyon, bordering the two properties, “was used as the stake in the card games played by [Henry Huntington and his neighbor George S. Patton Sr.], and that this piece of land changed hands as often as did their luck at cards.”

By 1904, two reservoirs situated on what had once been swampy land, provide water for irrigation. Courtesy The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

One unnamed cienega….

At the Southwestern corner of the current Huntington property on what had once been a spring and peat bog, Shorb situated a rectangular reservoir with an impressive capacity of 4 million gallons. This reservoir supplied citrus orchards southward.

In the Huntington era, this reservoir was also referred to as a bird sanctuary. Selena Spurgeon writes of the reservoir in its last days:

Arabella Huntington was earlier bothered by the hordes of mosquitos and requested that the lake with its boat and swans be filled in, but the work was not accomplished until after her death, when the lower orchards along Huntington Drive were sold and subsequently subdivided, and thus the reservoir was no longer needed for irrigation.

A map made soon after the property was acquired by Huntington shows a gully and a row of sycamores along a section of the main road into the property. This suggests that that part of that road ran alongside one of the washes that led toward the bog.

Other evidence suggests that this gully was filled and some sycamores removed in 1908. This road is the same one that still divides the current Desert Garden from the Palm Garden, and three of what may be original sycamores (or suckers from the originals) can still be seen there.

And another unnamed cienega….

Just Eastward of the large reservoir just described, across what is now San Marino Road, was once yet another swampy region. By 1904, another reservoir was built on it.

This spring produced at least 30 miner’s inches (270 gpm) at one time, an output equal to springs much more well known. As large scale development in the area caused the water table to drop, a dispute over said water rights dating from Shorb’s day escalated into a court case.

As surface flow began to cease, in the resourceful fashion of ranchers, Hertrich’s men “found that highly valuable peat could be dug out of the ground. We hauled close to 8,000 wagon loads of this peat into the garden areas…”

San Marino Canyon

Shorb had built two lake-like reservoirs in San Marino Canyon in the late 1800s.

The upper reservoir was described by Hiram Reid in 1895 as “a large tule lagoon or private duck pond.” Peat had also been recorded here.

Early photographs of the lower part of the same canyon show its steep slopes studded with great oaks, some of which almost certainly still stand. The lake formed by the lower reservoir is so large as to dwarf the rowboat floating on it.

Henry Huntington was not charmed by the rugged canyon with its tangle of wild grape vines and poison oak. Nor was he moved by Hertrich’s initial plantings of native shrubs and ferns in the canyon. Huntington asked Hertrich to transform it into an attractive garden. The Japanese theme was agreed upon.

After “[h]undreds of loads of dirt and gravel” were lifted from the former reservoir, extensive regrading, concrete work, planting, and several train car loads of boulders from the San Gabriel River brought the new Japanese Garden to life…

The exact location of the lower reservoir in the Japanese Garden awaits to be determined by a persistent sleuth. However, the location of the upper reservoir is the site of the current Chinese Garden pond.

In 1904, reservoirs existed on the sites of today’s Chinese and Japanese Gardens. Courtesy The Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens

The San Gabriel Artesian Belt East of the Huntington Property

San Marino High School

San Marino High School was the site of artesian wells which supplied water to the community of San Gabriel in the late 1800s. A concrete channel that originates in Altadena now drains this area into the Rio Hondo River.

One of the several abandoned wells on this property became the site of tragedy in 1949 when a three year old girl fell into it. The ensuing media frenzy is discussed in this lecture by William Deverell. Present in the audience were many who remember the event, making for an interesting discussion afterward.

Thanks to Huntington volunteer Bob Maronde who reminded me of this event.

La Presa

“Water bearing lands” at present day El Campo Drive in San Marino were a key source of water for San Gabriel Mission. It is said that north of the Raymond dike was once a thick oak forest. South of the dike, the land was arid. The springs themselves were surrounded by sycamores and cottonwoods.

In the early 1820s, Joseph Chapman supervised the construction of a stone dam on the site for Mission use. It was referred to as La Presa (“Dam”). To this day, visitors to the dam can press their hand into a palm print left two centuries ago in wet cement by one of the many anonymous Gabrieleno workers.

When L. J. Rose acquired the land in 1861, Gabrieleno women from the nearby village of Acurag-na would still do laundry on the dam’s broad surface.

Rose named the estate Sunny Slope. His extensive vineyards and orchards were nearly as famed as those of his neighbor Shorb.

In the days before widespread use of electricity, lands North of the fault scarp (uphill) were considered difficult to irrigate. Thus, these were the first of Rose’s lands to be subdivided.

Sunny Slope Water Company was incorporated as a mutual (or non-profit) water company in 1895. It was the largest of such local companies. At that time, its 22 springs produced a total of 2200 gpm without pumping.

Though it’s mandated that chlorine be added before distribution, the water is not filtered.

The company provides water to Temple City, and parts of San Marino, San Gabriel, and Arcadia. These days, the waters of the San Gabriel Valley aquifer southward supplement the original waters, which come from the Raymond Basin, the aquifer underlying the San Gabriel Artesian Belt.

Santa Anita Ranch

The E. J. Baldwin portion of the Santa Anita Ranch, which includes the present day Arboretum, was once home to a cienega belt spanning 450-500 acres (about .75 square miles). One dry summer in the late 1880s, the total of all the sources on this portion of the Santa Anita Ranch including flows from Santa Anita and Little Santa Anita Canyons was measured at 104 miner inches (approximately 16 gpm).


Acknowledgments and Sources

Thanks to all my coworkers at the Huntington who generously share their knowledge and love of the gardens with me.

The main sources for this posting include:

Jennifer Goldman and the collections at the Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens.

Michael J. Hart, formerly Vice President, General Manager and Zanjero of Sunny Slope Water Company.

Brick, Tim, “Flowing Waters, Fruitful Valley: a Brief History of Water Development in the Arroyo Seco,” (accessed 2006-7).

A Southern California Paradise. Ed. R.W.C Farnsworth. Oakland: Pacific Press, 1883.

Hall, William Hammond. Irrigation in California (Southern): Report of the State Engineer of California on Irrigation and the Irrigation Question. Sacramento: J.D. Young, Supt. State Printing, 1888.

Hertrich, William. The Huntington Botanical Gardens, 1905-1949. San Marino: Huntington Library, 1949.

Myers, William A. Ranches to residences: the story of Sunny Slope Water Company, 1895-1995. Pasadena: Sunny Slope Water Co., 1994.

Read, Nat B. Don Benito Wilson: From Mountain Man to Mayor, Los Angeles, 1841 to 1878. Santa Monica: Angel City Press, 2008.

Reid, Hiram. History of Pasadena. Pasadena: Pasadena History Company, 1895.

Midge Sherwood. Days of Vintage, Years of Vision. San Marino: Orizaba Publications, 1982.

Thorpe, James. Henry Edwards Huntington: A Biography. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994.

Truman, Benjamin Cummings. Semi-Tropical California. San Francisco: A. L. Bancroft & Company, Publishers, 1874.

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§ 10 Responses to An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel: Part II

  • Joe Linton says:

    Wow… thanks for a beautiful pair of articles. It’s a treat to imagine all those oaks and wetlands and wild grapes, flowers and grasses. Those blue maps are beautiful, too.

  • Barbara E says:

    Jane – great articles! It hurts my heart to think of someone actually saying:

    “…hundreds of acres of which will thus become available for the creation of new estates where now only the wild flowers and grasses of this section are to be seen.”

    Thanks for bringing this local info to us.

  • […] An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel Part II: Grading and Draining: the transformation of the Shorb Ranch Possibly related posts: (automatically generated)An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel: Part IIStill Summer Here […]

  • Holly Imler says:

    One of your sources listed is William A. Myers. His book “Ranches to Residences: The Story of Sunny Slope Water Company” is part of our in-house library. We would like to contact Mr. Myers. Is there any contact information available that can be forwarded?

  • […] two cursory posts on the topic of this Artesian Belt: An Artesian Belt in San Gabriel, and Grading and Draining: The Transformation of the Shorb Ranch. Michael Hart’s paintings along with Alan Jutzi’s research in preparation for this show […]

  • Scott Babcock says:

    Hi Jane, I was excited to find you writing about the Raymond Scarp area. I grew up in the Oak Knoll area and spent countless hours in Kewen Canyon and the “unimproved” acres of the Huntington Library, skateboarding and exploring the forgotten corners of the canyons. It was a place that was sacred to us. I guess because of that I’ve remained fascinated by the area, and have logged some time (ok, a lot of time) scouring the internet for historic photos of the area.. It was a magical place.
    I would love to see accompanying maps of all the canyons and cienegas you mention in the article as they exist today- I could use some clarity as to place names. I’m wondering if the “Wilson Canyon” in the article is the one I know as Kewen Canyon.
    Great work, hope there’s more!

  • jane says:

    Scott, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. You will have to come see the show Alan Jutzi is putting up at the Huntington. It’s a simple small show, but has some juicy info and images in it. Open weekends only Nov 19- Feb 18 at the Flora-Legium room at the Huntington. I wish I could answer your question about the place names right off the top of my head. The fact is that they are quite confusing. We will have some map overlays in the show that will help you compare the historical streams with the current street grid. In the meantime it’s not clear to me if you also read Joe’s post about the show (on the LA Creek Freak front page today)… which also has some juicy info.

  • […] Jane Tsong covered the topic of the arroyos and fascinating geology of this area in depth (here 1, 2) – so I’m going to stick to the maps. […]

  • Ilsa Setziol says:

    Fantastic work, Jane! Thank you.

  • Thomas says:

    Wilson/Kewen Lake at Lacy Park was a sag pond which developed at a left stepover of the Raymond Fault. Likely the entire “Artesian Belt” is due to Raymond Fault scarp. This is the fault responsible for the Pasadena 1988 M5.0 quake.

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