11 January 2014

Tonner Canyon's Future and Past, Part One

In the last month or so, the Champion newspaper has reported that the City of Industry, which acquired the majority of Tonner Canyon north of Carbon Canyon from 1978 onwards through its redevelopment agency, is looking to repurchase the several properties within the canyon from the successor agency to the redevelopment agency, which was abolished along with all others in the state a few years ago. 

According to the city, it still has plans for a reservoir for future water supply, a proposal that has met with opposition from environmental groups, as well as the City of Brea, which lies below the project site.  Meantime, the cities of Diamond Bar (which has its city limits within the smaller section at the north end of the Canyon, essentially north of Grand Avenue) and Chino Hills (with its boundaries basically south of Grand and taking up a larger portion of Tonner) have zoned smaller areas within Tonner Canyon to meet state mandates for affordable housing.  These "place-marker" actions are not indicative of concrete plans to allow for construction of these units, but merely comply with the law requiring zoning for them.

As our region continued to develop, pressures are increasing for housing and other forms of development in those last bastions of open space--namely the canyons and steeper hill areas that constitute the last remaining native animal and plant habitats, but also provide some of the greatest risks for natural disasters including fire, flood, landslides and so forth.

Carbon Canyon has clearly been discussed frequently on this blog regarding the threats to its future through continued attempts to develop housing projects within it and the recent inauguration of sewer line work for the 76-unit Forestar Canyon Hills project, started within the last several weeks, is an indication that the improved (even if modestly) economy and housing market are going to bring further pressures for developments.  Starting 21 January, the Brea City Council will be holding hearings on an appeal for the 162-unit Madrona project on the Brea side of the Canyon.  Approval of this project would further constitute greater demands on fire protection and traffic flow in the area in addition to losing a significant swath of oak and walnut woodlands, which are rapidly vanishing from our region.

Tonner Canyon doesn't get as much attention because it remains largely hidden from view and scrutiny and has remained almost completely undeveloped (there are scout camps and oil wells at the southern end closer to Brea), but that will certainly change in coming years and, perhaps, decades.  It is, actually, astonishing that Tonner has remained in this state and, frankly, if Industry had not acquired its holdings over a quarter century period, there would almost have certainly been some development, especially at the northern end, by now.  Forecasting the future is not the aim here, but it stands to reason that there will be many vested interests (cities, environmental organizations, developers, and others) contesting what is really some of the last large-scale open space in the area.

As to its past, new rummaging around has revealed some interesting history.  Much of this goes back to the Mexican era of California, when the local area was divided into large cattle ranches, interspersed with public lands, set aside to allow ranch owners to graze their herds in common areas to avoid overgrazing on those ranches.  A good deal of the local hill lands, from the Puente Hills in Whittier to the Chino Hills in this area, were set aside as public lands.

With the seizure of Mexican California by the United States in 1847, subsequent years brought about the conversion of these public lands to properties sold to private individuals.  With respect to Tonner Canyon, there was a mixture of ranch and public land properties that created what was eventually a 10,000 or so acre holding known commonly as Los Nogales Ranch.

The ranch's origins came in 1840 with the grant of Rancho Los Nogales, amounting to slightly over 1,000 acres, by Mexican California's governor Juan B. Alvarado to Jose de la Luz Linares.  Linares died within a few years, however, and his widow María de Jesús Garcia, decided, in 1847, to sell the property to Ricardo Vejar.  Vejar had been, for the previous decade, co-owner of the Rancho San José, a large property to the north and east that he received with Ignacio Palomares.  While the latter built his home and raised cattle on the north part of San José, Vejar settled on the south side at the base of what is now called Elephant Hill in Pomona.

After acquiring the Los Nogales property, Vejar probably ran his cattle on it without much in the way of improvement and then came the Gold Rush, which burst forth in 1848-49 and continued full steam through the mid-1850s, allowing ranchers like Vejar to make fortunes supplying fresh meat to miners and other residents of the burgeoning new state.  Flush with cash, Vejar built two substantial two-story homes, one on San José and the other, for his son Ramon, on Los Nogales.  While they probably did some farming for personal and local use, they almost certainly relied on cattle raising for their living.

The glory days of the Gold Rush petered out, however, after about 1855, as placer production dropped and cattle ranchers faced not only declining demand for beef, but competition from imported longhorn cattle, a superior breed, from Texas.   A national economic downturn in 1857 made matters worse, but nothing could compare the dual disaster that came in the early 1860s. 

First, over a month of solid rain in December 1861 and January 1862, estimated to be up to 50 inches in some places, caused massive flooding throughout the state.  This was followed by two consecutive years, in 1863 and 1864, of almost no precipitation--estimates being about four inches per year locally (we should note here that 2013 had an official reading of 3.89 inches, the lowest since official records were started in 1877 and comparable to the 1860s drought--the difference being that we import huge amounts of water now.)

The Vejars, along with many ranchers, were wiped out by these conditions and borrowed from merchants in Los Angeles to keep afloat, but were unable to pay these loans with the drought proved to be the proverbial last straw.  Foreclosure took the family's portion of San José, which soon became the property of Louis Phillips, an eastern European-born Jew, whose name is reflected in today's Phillips Ranch subdivision in southwestern Pomona.  Phillips lived in the Ricardo Vejar adobe below Elephant Hill until he razed it and built a French Second Empire house in 1875, a structure that survives today and is a Pomona city historical landmark and under the management of the Historical Society of the Pomona Valley.

As to Los Nogales, the family held on to it for several more years, but began selling it off in sections during the early to mid 1870s.  It seems probably that they did so because the economy improved dramatically in the late 1860s and a small rush of settlers, many leaving the southern states devastated by the Civil War, came to Los Angeles, which experienced its first development boom.  Railroads, banks, harbor improvements, new towns, and the subdivision of the old Spanish and Mexican ranchos to farms were among the features of this boom, which lasted through 1875.

The Vejars sold Los Nogales to two livery stable proprietors from Los Angeles, Wilson Beach and George R. Butler--perhaps they had been customers or were friends, there's no way to tell. It is also assumed that the Vejars acquired the hillside public land to the east that had been the former common grazing lands mentioned above, though Butler and Beach may have done this, as well.  Ramon Vejar moved to what is now La Verne and Ricardo remained in an adobe house he constructed in what is now Walnut and died there in 1881.  Members of the Vejar family still live in the area today.

Wilson Beach was born about 1823 in Ohio and came to Los Angeles sometime in the 1850s, where he was listed in the 1860 census as a stock raiser with Pennsylvania native Jacob Metzker.  The two self-reported a combined $12,000 value of their personal property, presumably the bulk of this reflected in the cattle herds.  As noted earlier, though, the floods and droughts were on the horizon, and, in an 1867 voter registration list, Beach's occupation was given as farmer.  By the early 1870s, though, he decided to become a livery (horse) stable keeper and partnered with George R. Butler.

Butler, was born in New York, about 1836 and seems to have come to Los Angeles during the 1860s.  In the 1870 census, he is listed as owner of a livery stable on Main Street in Los Angeles, and took on Beach as a partner.  Butler was also the city treasurer of the town during the early part of decade.  In July 1874, the Los Angeles Herald ran a short article noting that the two were selling their stable to Macy and Wilson for $14,000, so that the paid could "devote their time and attention to sheep-raising upon their extensive ranch." 

Sheep ranching, in fact, became a growing part of the local economy from the mid-1860s onward (though it existed before that), as such transplants from central and northern California as James Irvine and the Bixby brothers bought cheap ranch land during the droughts of 1863-64 and stocked them with sheep.  With the economy growing by leaps and bounds, it made sense for Beach and Butler to quit the livery stable business and head out to Los Nogales, where they almost certainly occupied the Ramon Vejar Adobe as their headquarters.

Unfortunately for them, the economy soon crashed.  San Francisco speculators with stock from silver mines at Virginia City, Nevada created a massive bubble that burst in late August 1875 causing the suspension of the Bank of California, whose president was found the day after floating in San Francisco Bay.  The telegraph brought the news to Los Angeles, where the town's two commercial banks, Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman suspended operations for a month after a panic led depositors to swarm the banks demanding their deposits.  While the former reopened with no damage to its operations, Temple and Workman remained closed until a loan could be made, but that, too, failed to stem the tide, and the bank succumbed in early 1876.  Los Angeles fell into a lengthy downturn that lasted well into the 1880s and led to a population decline, a phenomenon not witnessed since.

Not surprisingly, Butler decided to sell out at Los Nogales.  In June 1876, he sold off 1/3 shares of his holdings to his former partner Beach and to Charles M. Wright and Spencer H. Wilson--for a total of $64,000.  He then returned to his old profession, opening the Fashion Livery Stable in Los Angeles, which he operated for years afterward.  In May 1893, however, while riding his horse-drawn wagon in the city, he was bucked off the vehicle and was mortally wounded, dying a few days later.

As for Los Nogales, a new phase of its ownership will come with the next phase of this post . . .

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