Eaton Canyon History

The beautiful San Gabriel Mountains have a rugged, steep southern ridge and a taller northern ridge, the two being separated from one another by a series of east-west canyons. They run along the San Gabriel Fault, once a main part of the San Andreas Fault, and contain the east and west forks of the San Gabriel River. Although Mount Wilson is over 5,700 feet high, there is a large group of mountain peaks which rise to more than 9,000 feet, including Mount Baldy and Mount Baden-Powell.

Eaton Canyon lies nestled in the foothills of these San Gabriel Mountains, just a stone’s throw from downtown Los Angeles. Originally called “El Precipicio” by the Spanish settlers because of its steep gorges, it is now named after Judge Benjamin Eaton, who built the first Fair Oaks Ranch House in 1865 not far from Eaton Creek. Judge Eaton was the first to use irrigation from the creek to grow grapes on the slopes. He was also instrumental in the development of the Mount Wilson Toll Road in 1891, and proposed a tramway to Mount Wilson which later was built to Mount Lowe instead.

Most of the 190 acres that presently make up the Eaton Canyon Natural Area lie on the northern boundaries of the old San Pasqual and Santa Anita Ranches on county-designated Southern Pacific Railroad land. Since the railroad did not use the land, it was open for homesteading.

Today the City of Pasadena and parts of Altadena, which it serves, receive about 40% of their water from local sources, 50% from Colorado River water, and 10% from Northern California.

Chronology of Events

Thanks to Kate Lain for her research

  • Pre-7000 B.C.: Hokan-speaking peoples are believed to have arrived in southern California
  • ca. 2000 B.C. – ca. A.D. 700: Uto-Aztecan peoples arrive in southern California, displacing Hokan-speaking peoples
  • 1771: San Gabriel Mission is founded; local native people are sent to the mission
  • 1826: Rancho San Pascual set aside for Eulalia Pérez de Guillen; it is later deeded to her second husband, then to José Perez and Henrique Sepulveda; it is finally granted to Manuel Garfias in 1843
  •  1833: Missions begin to be secularized
  •  1841: Rancho Santa Anita granted to Hugo Reid
  •  1862: Eliza Johnston, widow of Confederate Army General Albert Sidney Johnston, buys land near Eaton Wash; she builds a house on the land and names it “Fair Oaks;” she leaves the ranch in 1863
  •  1865: Judge Benjamin Eaton moves into the Fair Oaks Ranch house
  •  1869: James Craig buys a 5,000-acre tract east of Lake Avenue
  •  January 27, 1874: Indiana Colony, later renamed Pasadena, is founded
  •  1876: Benjamin Eaton sells the Fair Oaks Ranch to James Fillmore Crank
  •  1877: In August, John Muir ventures through Eaton Canyon and stays in a man’s cabin there; the following month, Carlos Cruz moves into a cabin in the meadow with his family; he grows grapes, fruit and olive trees, and a field of barley; he later builds a new house in the meadow area
  •  1878: William Allen buys the area north of New York Drive; he names it Sphinx Ranch
  •  1880s-1890s: gold veins discovered in Eaton Canyon
  •  1880: Abbot Kinney purchases 500+ acres of land above and to the east of Eaton Wash
  •  1882: Crank family builds the second Fair Oaks Ranch house
  •  1883: Charles J. Fox buys 108+ acres of land from Carlos Cruz for $2000 in gold coin; Mary Beatrice Fox, daughter of Charles Fox, later inherits the estate
  •  1884: William Henninger moves onto the flats above Eaton Wash
  •  Late 1880s: British Army Captain Arthur Hutchinson, friend of the Allens and the Foxes, builds a cabin on a small plateau above the north end of the meadow; he lives there for some time before he and his wife, Sadie Patton (cousin of General George S. Patton), move to Tulare County
  •  1891: Mt. Wilson Toll Road is constructed; first toll house is built on the east bank of Eaton Wash
  •  December 20, 1892: San Gabriel Timberland Reserve, the first forest reserve in California, set aside; it later becomes part of the Angeles National Forest
  •  Early 1910s: Altadena Drive is extended to Lake Avenue; Eaton Canyon bridge is built; the second toll house is built on Altadena Drive at the start of the Mount Wilson Toll Road; the original toll house on east bank is taken over by Los Angeles County Forestry Division
  •  1911: Emil Bruno Gunther, a naturalized German, moves onto land on the bank of Eaton Wash with his wife, Almira, and their three boys; the Gunthers finish their house the following year; they receive 40 acres via the Homestead Act in 1915
  •  1912: Summer cabin sites in the Angeles National Forest are made available for lease to the public; cabins are built on the Eaton Canyon Tract in upper Eaton Canyon in the subsequent years
  •  1914: Charles J. Fox retires and builds Rockwood, later renamed Fox Ridges, and moves into it with his family
  •  1915: Emil Bruno Gunther founds Camp Idle Hour in upper Eaton Canyon; the camp eventually closes down in 1929
  •  1928: Sphinx Ranch home is torn down for a subdivision
  •  1930: Pasadena-owned land in Eaton Canyon and Eaton Wash is declared a bird and game sanctuary
  •  1938: Heavy rains cause extensive flooding in San Gabriels, prompting the closure of many popular mountain resorts; the wooden bridge crossing Eaton Canyon is destroyed
  •  Early 1940s: California Institute of Technology builds laboratories and experimental stations in Kinneloa area as part of the secret Eaton Canyon Project to develop and manufacture rockets for World War II
  •  1950: Mary Beatrice Fox sells the canyon portion of her property to Los Angeles County for a park, with a provision that mammals are not to be kept in cages
  •  1958: Miss Louise A. Luckan moves her nature appreciation operation from the Eaton Canyon Golf Course to Eaton Canyon Park; she is forced to retire in 1962
  •  1963: First nature center is built; it is dedicated and is named after Robert McCurdy, an outstanding civic leader in Pasadena
  •  1969: Thirty-five inches of rain produce floods that wash out the El Dorado Restaurant (just south of the park), large chunks of land on either side of the wash, many oaks, sycamores, and other plants; Eaton Canyon streambed more than doubles in width
  •  1978: Eaton Canyon’s first docent volunteers are trained
  •  1979: Pinecrest fire burns much of the area in and around Eaton Canyon
  •  1993: Fire ravages much of Eaton Canyon and the surrounding area; nature center building burns to the ground
  • 1998: New nature center building opens