Nestled in the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains, the City of La Cañada Flintridge is a unique and beautiful place to live, work and play. Incorporated since November 30, 1976, the City is a “contract city.” It has a small full-time staff and contracts for many of the services provided to its citizens. The City Council, Commissions, Committees, and staff strives to be responsive and provide the highest level of service to residents. All City staff is housed in City Hall and organized into four departments: Administration, Community Development, Finance, and Public Works.
The story of La Cañada has many chapters. The first inhabitants were probably the Shoshoneans who settled in the Los Angeles basin about 2500 years ago. They lived in small villages near water sources and hunted and gathered game and acorns from numerous oak trees in what is now La Cañada Flintridge. Without a year round source of water there would not have been a permanent Indian village here.
The recorded history of our area starts with the Pope deciding that all of Columbus’ New World west of a line in the middle of the North Atlantic could be claimed by Spain, and all of the discoveries east of this line would belong to Portugal. Centuries later (1769) Spanish missionaries, including Father Serra, arrived here with military guards. With Native American help they built missions at San Gabriel and San Fernando.
When one of the guards, Jose Verdugo, retired, he was granted permission to graze cattle if he did not interfere with the Indians or the missions. He named his property Rancho San Rafael. It extended north from the confluence of the Arroyo Seco (Pasadena Freeway) and the Los Angeles River (Golden State Freeway) “to the mountains.”
Ignacio Coronel and Rancho La Canada
In the 1820s the Mexican Revolution removed Spanish rule from California. Our isolated valley, when inspected in 1843 by Mexican officials, was reported as “unoccupied and unused” and was granted to a Mexican schoolteacher from Los Angeles, Ignacio Coronel. He named it Rancho La Cañada. Its southern boundary was near Freeway 134 from the Eagle Rock west to what is now Glendale Avenue. Julio Verdugo (Jose’s son) protested vehemently but his protest was ignored.
Coronel built a small house near where is now Glendale College and farmed there until outlaws threatened his family. During the Mexican War (1847) he abandoned the ranch and later sold it. In 1858 Julio Verdugo finally acquired Rancho La Cañada by trading what is now Burbank for it. Julio moved its southern boundary north up to where Honolulu Avenue is now in Montrose.
Sale of Verdugo Property
During the 1860s the Verdugo saga of flood and drought, debt and foreclosure was that of many Californios caught in the undertow of natural disasters and change from the rancho barter system to the “Yankee” economy. Luckily, after foreclosure, the man who bought much of Rancho San Rafael let Julio keep 200 acres and his house, which was near what is now Forest Lawn.
First U.S. Settlers
Very few people lived in Southern California at that time. Transportation from the east was slow and difficult. It took months to come by ship or to ride across the continent in a covered wagon. When the railroad finally came to Los Angeles, many newcomers looking for low priced land and a healthy climate arrived. Many of them were Civil War veterans and their families, many of whom had serious lung diseases. The Government sold inexpensive homesteads to settlers who would build a house and live there a few years.
One of the first settlers in our valley was Colonel Theodore Pickens for whom a street, a mountain peak and a canyon are named. In 1871 he settled on a homestead in the foothills north of Rancho La Cañada. Pickens’ cabin was on what is now called “Briggs Terrace” at the top of Briggs Avenue. Although a Kentuckian, Pickens fought in the Union Army and carried a bullet in his wrist to the end of his days. He was known as an honest and independent man and a genial companion.
Another early settler was Colonel Thomas Hall. He had been a “49er” and returned in 1874 with his son Tom, aged twelve, who had a serious lung disease. In our healthful climate, Tom recovered and lived to be an old man on their ranch which became Alta Canyada.
Lanterman & Williams
In 1875, the 5,830 acre Rancho La Cañada was sold to two healthseekers from Michigan, Dr. Jacob Lanterman (dentist) and Colonel Adolphus Williams (Civil War Veteran) for $10,000, a very low price because of lack of water. They hoped to subdivide it and sell lots to support their families. Dr. Lanterman built a house he called “Homewood” which still stands near the La Cañada Congregational Church (formerly Church of the Lighted Window). Col. Williams built a house, which was removed in the 1950s to build Lanterman Auditorium.
The partners drew a subdivision map with forty-six 1/4-mile wide lots averaging more than 100 acres each on either side of Michigan Avenue, now Foothill Blvd. The map was recorded in 1881. Without a good water source few lots sold.
The next year Jacob Lanterman and the heirs of Adolphus Williams sold all the lots between Pickens Canyon and the Tujunga border to Benjamin Briggs, M.D. and his sister Maria Haskell and recovered their original $10,000 investment. They called this area “La Crescenta,” which is not a Spanish word, but a name they coined for the valley’s crescent shape.
Lanterman and Williams helped to found a school and a church. These attracted buyers. Successive generations of Lantermans diligently developed their part of Rancho La Cañada; typically having marginal success starting with barley on newly cleared land. Later came stone fruits, grapes and oranges. The eldest Lanterman son, Frank D. Lanterman I, spent many years (1885-1935) developing real estate in La Cañada. He surveyed land, drew maps, supervised road construction, wrote broadsides promoting the sale of the subdivision, conducted tours from Los Angeles for prospective land buyers and promoted other schemes to attract buyers with varied success.
Frank’s sister-in-law, Emily (Mrs. Roy) Lanterman, reminisced many years later about her first impressions of La Cañada in June 1885:
” Leaving Pasadena in an old buckboard with our luggage strapped on behind we drove through fields of golden poppies,across the Arroyo Seco bridge shaded by towering sycamore trees…until suddenly the way was blocked by a gypsy caravan drawn by donkeys with gaily-bedecked riders. At last! The second mesa, a breath of incomparable pure mountain air and a view of…Michigan Avenue in the heart of… our valley. I found most of the families in the Valley to be interesting, kindly people, some prosperous, but mostly struggling ranchers, for a drought was upon the land, and a threatening depression alarmed everyone. ”
But in the early 1880s, only twelve families occupied the area between the Arroyo Seco and Rancho Tujunga. Most of these families had at least one member seriously ill with tuberculosis or bronchitis seeking a healthful climate.These immigrants were from all walks of life. There were farmers and professional people who kept bees and chopped wood or ranched as best they could while lungs healed. There were wives and husbands determined to save the lives of their spouses. Their legacy is a standard of education far above that of ordinary communities with humble rural beginnings.
By 1893 there were 53 houses in La Cañada. A few residents were prosperous but most were ranchers struggling with drought and economic depression. Some of them became discouraged and homesick, but cured of their lung diseases, moved back to their hometowns in the east. Those who stayed erected a community building where dances and elections were held and started a literary society, a hiking club and a fruit growers association.
Forming A School District
In 1885, when the school population reached the required fifteen, La Cañadans voted to remove themselves from the old Sepulveda School District (Glendale) and form their own district. For many decades, the school was the center of political activity in the community. During the 1890s, conflicting factions of prohibitionists versus friends of the Halls (who owned a winery) disagreed frequently on such issues as who to hire as schoolteacher and whether dances should be held in the schoolhouse. Guns were worn at the polls one school board election. As the community matured, school problems continued but were somewhat less heated.
Although La Crescenta and La Cañada were isolated from one another by a steep hill just west of where is now the YMCA, their development was similar. They both voted to remove themselves from the old Sepulveda school district (Glendale) in the 1880s and form their own districts. Their churches were founded at about the same time and their residents struggled with the same drought. Picken’s Canyon water was a source of conflict between the two communities for many years. During droughts, desperate ranchers, in the dark of night, sometimes opened ditches so water would flow to their dry orchards. Other ranchers guarded their water flow with rifles.
Isolation of both communities from Pasadena and its railroad was relieved when an iron bridge across the Arroyo Seco at Devil’s Gate was built in 1893. This facilitated stage transportation from La Crescenta, through La Canada, to Pasadena each day. The corral for the team was near what is now Foothill and Commonwealth. The stage was only a wagon with benches. The flat canvas top had side curtains which were rolled up except in cold or wet weather. The driver sat on the front bench. In those days, almost every family had a horse or two. Children could drive if the horses were gentle and the roads not too steep. The bridge also facilitated excursions into our valley of tourists from Pasadena hotels in Tallyhos. By 1908 La Crescenta had 150 residents, including children.
End of Isolation
As Los Angeles grew, people looked for places to spend weekends and vacations. Some of them took rail cars to Glendale and hiked up to La Cañada and La Crescenta. Some built small cabins. A few came in “horseless carriages ” and built mansions.
Water was always the biggest problem in the valley. The water table was so low that the more than 50 wells that had been dug around the valley were failures. Surface water piped down from high in Pickens Canyon was almost the only reliable source. Some relief came in 1910 when electricity came into the valley and made possible deep well pumping. On Lanterman property, wells were sunk near where is now Flintridge Preparatory School. These new sources produced enough water to supply some newcomers. The growing population founded a library. A new schoolhouse with electricity and plumbing was build where Memorial Park is now located. The bell from the original schoolhouse was hung on its porch, and now is located in front of the La Cañada Elementary School.
In 1913, men who built a streetcar line down to Glendale founded Montrose. The State of California paved Michigan Avenue, now Foothill, and Verdugo Road. With the streetcar, good roads, and autos, La Cañadans and La Crescentans could work in Los Angeles. The valley began the change from an agricultural area to a suburban area. U.S. Senator Frank Flint divided 1,700 acres south of Michigan Avenue, now Foothill, into large lots on which many large houses were built . He called his subdivision “Flintridge.” Flintridge is on the north side of the San Rafael Hills, which makes it more shady and green than the other side of the valley. Edwin T. Earl bought the old Hall ranch and called his subdivision “Alta Canyada.” Streets were cut through the old ranches; grain fields, vineyards and citrus groves became small chicken ranches and home sites for commuters to Los Angeles.
Most people were pleased with the new roads except when “rowdies” from outside the valley (Pasadena) used them to travel to dances at the La Cañada Community Building which were open to all. The open dances were forced to discontinue. In 1920, La Cañada joined the Pasadena High School District.
1930’s & Depression
In the 1930s, there were about 1,500 people living in each community. Most of the business was in Montrose which had grown to be a good sized village with a bank, a J.C. Penney store and a sheriff’s office and small jail.
The greatest natural disaster to the valley was a November fire on Mount Lukens, which burned off the chaparral and led to a terrible flood during a cloudburst the following New Year’s Eve. Mud and boulders slid down into the valley causing serious damage. Many homes and lives were lost in Montrose and La Crescenta. Since then, Los Angeles County has built many flood control channels and small dams designed to prevent floods such as the one on New Year’s 1934.
In the Depression years of 1930 to 1938, almost no houses were built in La Cañada. The Community Chest gave food and clothing to hungry families. Some old ranches were sold at bargain prices to the rich from Los Angeles, including Manchester Boddy of the Los Angeles Examiner who planted a beautiful garden. When he retired, he prevented it from becoming a shopping center by selling to LA County at a low price; thus it became Descanso Gardens.
La Cañada & The Space Age
The 1930s were also the beginning of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Starting as a little test station, it has grown into 175 acres and six thousand employees and has become the leading U.S. center for robotic exploration of the solar system. JPL spacecraft have visited most all known planets. 1941 was a turning point for our valley. Few orange groves remained and ranching was almost dead due to low prices for fruit, freezing weather, and costly water. World War II brought many defense industry workers from out of state who saw La Cañada and wanted to return here to live.
In 1950, Frank Lanterman, a member of the founding family, was elected to the California State Assembly. He hoped to get Colorado River water for La Cañada, and succeeded in 1955. This allowed more people to live in our valley and hundreds of houses were built, creating more streets, stores, and schools. La Cañada changed from a ranching community to a residential community.
For forty years, La Cañada students had gone to John Muir Technical High School in Pasadena. In 1963, La Cañadans voted to form their own unified school district and build their own high school. But the most serious event was the building of the 210 Foothill Freeway in 1972, which cut La Cañada in two, removed La Cañada Elementary School, the post office, and 550 houses.
A City At Last!
It took two trips to the polls by voters to approve cityhood. The first came in 1964 with the Chamber of Commerce and Realtor Dick Keilholtz, head of the newly formed incorporation committee, leading the ill-fated charge. When the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, and Supervisor Warren Dorn of La Cañada, drastically changed boundaries of the proposed city at the 11th hour, cutting its size nearly in half, the cityhood plan was doomed. Many La Cañadans felt that Dorn’s action was a sellout to influential property owners.
In 1969, there was another step toward cityhood when a small group of La Cañadans, headed by John Bond and including two Flintridge and two La Cañada residents, formed to restudy the incorporation issue. The effort lasted about six months and was followed by a general mailing to the community. However, the movement came to an end when a defiant Flintridge, always wanting separation from La Cañada, put up too strong a fight.
Five years later in 1974, community residents organized the La Cañada Cityhood Action Committee for another shot at incorporation with George Parrish its leader. The decision to try it again came at a town meeting hosted by the La Cañada Coordinating Council with backing from the Chamber of Commerce, then the only local organizations with a broad-based membership. A hand vote was taken there with 658 La Cañadans favoring cityhood and only two dissenting.
Of course, the paramount challenge was for the committee to convince Flintridge to join in this all-important effort to save the valley community’s identity. Neighboring Pasadena and Glendale had agreed on how they would carve up unincorporated La Cañada and Flintridge, according to a “sphere of influence” plan of the State Legislature. Glendale’s “prize” would have been Descanso Gardens; Pasadena’s takeover would have included all of Flintridge.
In May of 1976, some 986 La Cañadans still remember visiting the LA County Supervisors chamber for a Local Agency Formation Commission (LAFCO) meeting on cityhood. LAFCO felt that suburban areas should belong to adjoining cities. Resident Warren Hillgren dramatically stated that the County “had recently divided our community in two, with a freeway decision in which we had no participation – something we seek should never happen again”
Parrish and his cityhood committee were successful in bringing several Flintridge leaders into their fold. It took a lot of selling to Flintridge voters, who wanted to protect their high living standards and retain their low density zoning, but the job was accomplished. The vote in the election was 7,355 to 2,849.
Fifteen La Cañadans vied for City Council seats. The five winners were, in order by vote count, Mike Mount, George Parrish, Warren Hillgren, Edmund Krause and J.D. Smith. Mount and Parrish won four-year terms, and other three won two-year terms.
A month later, on Dec. 8, the official incorporation of La Cañada Flintridge took place as Councilman Edmund Krause filed the incorporation certificate of completion with the County Recorder. The new city would comprise 8 1/2 square miles and have a population of 21,000.
Later that evening an historic community event was recorded. Held at the La Cañada Golf and Tennis Club (later becoming the Country Club) with 500 La Cañadans in attendance, the five Council members were sworn in by local County Supervisor Baxter Ward, who had earlier unseated incumbent La Cañadan Warren Dorn. The first City Attorney was announced as well – J. Kenneth Brown, a resident of the Flintridge area.
The new City Council held its first regular meeting on Dec. 9 in the La Cañada Elementary School Auditorium with an agenda to set up the LCF government with its necessary resolutions, city staff and volunteer city commissions.
As formation of the new city took place in the days to follow, Clark Smithson was named City Manager, Caroline de Llamas City Clerk, and John McCormick City Treasurer. De Llamas stayed only briefly and was replaced by Pat Anderson, who only recently retired. The City chose to contract with Los Angeles County for police and fire protection, road repair and building inspection.
McCormick and Krause, who was a retired senior state tax collector and a person with many contacts, provided wise direction for the new city. Krause was instrumental in scheduling the incorporation timetable in 1976 so that completion of cityhood occurred late in the year, enabling LCF to receive a full year of state funding. Financially, it was Krause and McCormick who knew the money market and had contacts who were helpful in making sage investments for the City. Those investments created an unheard-of $10 million reserve fund in the first year of operation in 1977.
La Cañada Flintridge became known as the city without a hyphen in its name, demonstrating community unity. There was a local furor when it was learned that a clerk in Sacramento had inadvertently added a hyphen while working on some LCF papers. It took an ordinance to correct the mistake. Never was that to happen again.
A City At Last! reprinted with permission from Don Mazen – “Story of LCF Cityhood”, Outlook, December 6, 2001