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Shannon Wray


In June 1892, the Los Angeles Herald and the Los Angeles Times were at war. The cause of this conflict? Mount San Gorgonio. In an era when the Southern Pacific Railroad and other land speculators waxed poetic about sunny Southern California, what could be more exotic than a glacier? Yes, that's right, a fabled glacier on Mount San Gorgonio. As the Herald told it, "The existence of an active glacier in Southern California of such heroic proportions as to justify comparison with the minor continental glaciers of the Alps, Andes, and the Himalayas – in fact, the largest if not the only glacier in the confine of the United States – is one of the wonders which the inhabitants of this marvelous section, from a geological standpoint, can add to the local category of stupendous works in the economy of nature here to be found in sub-tropical California."

The story of their journey reads like a Jack London tale with travails and "impossible" terrain as they made their way to the headwaters of the Santa Ana River and across "The Devil's Slide" with a four-minute trip down a 1,500-foot shale field. When they arrived on the mountainside, they began their observations. "The snow at the crest of the gorge at the top of the mountain lay in strata, there being one deposit in an immense cup-like fissure, hundreds of feet in depth. On one side of this fissure, the strata are sharply defined, each representing the accumulation of a single year, the lowest and most dense approaching the blue color of ice."

Gus Knight

After more struggle to attain the 10,000-foot level suffering severe altitude sickness and awed exclamations over the immensity of the gorges filled with ice, the team reached the summit of the peak. "On reaching this point, the instrument indicated an elevation of 1302 feet." The expedition party made their slippery way down the mountain to an elevation noted by their aneroid barometer to be 10,000 feet at the great glacier's baseline, where they made a somewhat odd choice, hoping to find prehistoric fossils in the glacial mass. "A stick of giant powder was placed in a crevice and exploded, and immense fragments of ice and stone torn away, revealing ancient ice, of a dark blue color, almost verging into black. Tasting fragments of this old ice, they were found to be bitter, and permeated with a fine silt-like sand." Alas, however, no dinosaurs or giant mollusks. The team, flush with the excitement of discovery, made several pronouncements. First, they proclaimed that they discovered a glacier a mile long and two hundred feet in depth. They named it the Herald Glacier.

Next, they estimated that the ice moved at a rate of forty-seven feet per year. Viewing a small river at the base of the ice that disappeared a short distance away, the men also declared that the glacier was the source of a vast underground river that flowed to the Pacific. Finally, the explorers proclaimed the Herald Glacier the only glacier of its kind in the continental United States and a new wonder of the state of California. The party swiftly relayed their findings to the editor of the Herald. Such was his excitement that on June 15, 1892, he published the announcement of the Herald Glacier under the headline and sub-headlines: THE ONLY ONE! The Herald Finds a Glacier. An Ice River in Southern California. The Trip of the Herald's Exploring Party. A Mountain Gorge Packed With Snow and Ice. The Glacier Fully Two Hundred Feet Deep," etc.

Well, the Los Angeles Times had something to say about this story on June 29, 1892. The writer is identified only as "Neve," but the quality of his humor is akin to that of Mark Twain. The Times article was headlined: "A 'Times' Explorer Tells About That 'Glacier.' The Old-Time Mountaineers Call it a Snow Bank. There are Two of Them, Such as They Are, And They are Good Enough, What There is of Them. But as to a New Discovery, Oh, My!" The Times correspondent noted that in the blistering heat of a Southern California summer the idea of "a nice cool place where one can sit on a snowdrift during the day and lay wrapped in a sheet of ice at night," was a compelling one. "The Santa Ana country is just such a place as this, and also bears the distinguished honor of being possessed of a real live 'glacier.' (So the Herald says.) Having in aggregate spent two or three years in the region adjacent to Grayback, I may be able to write some items of interest about the 'glacial' region without bathing it in the reflected glare of a 'maiden' trip to the region of eternal snow. He goes on to talk about the two ways to get to Old Grayback. The choices were to take the new toll road to the mountains out of San Bernardino or the stage to Thurman's in Mill Creek Canyon where "steerage passage can be taken on the hurricane deck of a burro. Before the end of the first mile, you will understand why I say 'steerage.'" The writer takes on the Herald team's most startling assertion. "There are as many different opinions regarding the height of Grayback as there are lawyers in Los Angeles. The last trip I made up there, the aneroid marked about 9,000 feet at Dry Lake and 10,500 on top of Grayback. The Herald aneroid made it 13,02 and must be correct as the figures are so exact, but I am inclined to think that the aneroid was on a 'high lonesome.' The Government survey is said to be 11,500, and I am sure that I do not know how high the thing is." He goes on to say that it's a well-known fact that there is snow on Mount San Gorgonio pretty much every summer with two big snowbanks, one on the north side and one on the east side of the mountain. "The top of Grayback presents a vastly more interesting field of study to me than does the great 'glacier' which has been well-known so long under the nom de plume of 'snowbank.'" Descriptions of the Herald team's trek is flowery in the extreme. However, the deep love of a true mountaineer is in the language of the plain-spoken Times writer. "Usually there are snow banks on top of the peak, and in August 1888, there was a miniature lake in a small depression on the summit, and a big snowbank shoved its nose into the water at one side. The water was blue, although not more than a foot deep, and it was so cold that it was impossible to take more than a spoonful at a swallow. We saw the moon set in a sea of clouds and the sunrise (in a horn), and soon after the sun had risen and begun its reign, the clouds began their rain, so we gazed at the distant landscape, which looked like the famous painting of London in a fog. Then we descended, slid down a 'glacier,' only we did not know it was anything but a snowbank. I am so sorry that we did not know that it was a 'glacier,' which also might have been moving at the rate of forty-seven feet per annum. We could have camped on it, and by this time, we would have been quite a ways down the hill and wouldn't have had to walk as far as we did. Truly this life is made up of disappointments and trials. I have been up to the 'glacial regions' several times since, but I never knew what it was that lay so quietly in that deep cañon." Finally, the writer rounded off his comments in response to the Herald's great discovery with a joke that Mill Creek mountaineer Sylvanus Thurman copyrighted in 1888. "It is quite a job to mount Mt. Grayback, but I would rather climb half a dozen Graybacks than have one grayback climb me."

The Herald editor was hopping mad and wrote an editorial under the headline, "Denials Versus News." He fumed, "The editor of the Times is at his old tricks again. Whenever the Herald, as frequently happens, develops some matter of important news exclusively, the provincial contemporary, on temporarily recovering from the blow, immediately proceeds to an indulgence in vehement denials of the authenticity of the news exploited in the columns of its more enterprising and energetic contemporary, the Herald. In this manner, it seeks to lull its readers into a state of paresisical somnolence and square itself for lack of energy by general denials. When the Herald exclusively published the news of the discovery of the

Sylvanus Thurman

Salton Sea, when the whole country outside of the Times office discussed this phenomenon of the desert, the Times glibly persisted in denying its existence until the master of the establishment returned and gave the "force" a shaking up for blindly ignoring a palpable news item of national importance. Again, when the Herald exclusively let the light in on the comprehensive plans of the Southern Pacific at Santa Monica, including the construction of an immense pier at the mouth of the cañon, they again pursued the policy of denial, and ridiculed the whole matter as a wild vagary of reportorial imagination. Now comes the third denial."

It's interesting to see how time and history sort out controversies. One hundred and twenty-eight years later, we know that the Salton Sea does exist, and a giant pier stands in the sea at Santa Monica. Now, we seldom see deep snow in the summer on Old Grayback.

The Los Angeles Herald, founded in 1873 and purchased by William Randolph Hearst in 1922, merged with the Examiner in 1962. At one time, it was the largest circulation newspaper in the U.S. On November 2, 1989, it officially ceased publication. The Los Angeles Times, founded in 1881, continues to publish the daily news.

Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.

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