BURRO TRAINS TO BIG BEAR
The 1880s were the period when real mountain tourism became the rage. Travelers journaled some exciting – and often amusing – descriptions of what it was like to be a tourist on a trip from Los Angeles to Bear Valley. Victorian gents and ladies boarded the California Central line train in Los Angeles early in the morning on a Monday or Thursday. They made the pleasant trip to the Santa Fe station in Redlands for a fare of $2.55 for the round trip ticket. Redlands, California founded in 1881, was still young but featured several livery stables. In 1889, a gentleman wrote that a liveryman named Reeves met passengers with a comfortable coach at the Redlands train station and took them to one of three destinations in Mill Creek Canyon. “Roberts' place, where the parties sometimes stop and take burros, is just at the opening of Mill Creek cañon. If one prefers to stick to the coach three miles further into the cañon, he will find the ride enjoyable, although the road is rather rough, frequently crossing a deep, roaring stream. At Thurman's place, the travelers eat dinner and take to the burros, or mules, or horses, whichever of the three are provided. Three men make a regular business of taking parties over the mountains - Roberts, Thurman, and Jackson.” The cost of the stage to Thurman's was $1.50. William Roberts was the son of Berry Roberts, who came to the area in 1857 and established a large cattle ranch in San Timoteo Canyon.
Sylvanus Thurman came to Mill Creek Canyon in 1877 to help farm his father-in-law Peter Forsee’s land. Later, he homesteaded on his own acreage just down the canyon from his in-laws. George Jackson came to the canyon with his mother, stepfather, and brothers in 1875. His stepfather, William Petty, was the first squatting homesteader with Forsee, claiming all of the lands from present-day Mountain Home Village to the east end of Mill Creek Canyon. George Jackson had his own homestead in the canyon as an adult.
Mr. and Mrs. Sylvanus Thurman George Jackson
All three of these ad hoc tour guides had strings of pack burros. The fare to travel by burro train to Bear Valley from Thurman's was $3.00. “As to the outfit, it must be such as anyone who has ever made a mountain trip will readily devise. It should, of course, be as limited as possible, and bags and bundles are more readily packed on burro-back than valises. Climbing about among rocks and brambles means boots or leggins for footwear and strong, rough clothing. One effect of the high altitudes during the first day or two is chapped lips or nostrils, and a box of cold cream is indispensable.”
A female journalist with a group of ladies making the journey kept a different pace. They took the train to Redlands’s Santa Fe station from Los Angeles, then the Redlands Loop train to Mentone’s train station. From there, they took a private stage to the Crafton Retreat, where they enjoyed lunch and dinner and stayed the night. Leaving early the next morning, they rode in a carriage to Thurman's, where they found several small buildings and a refreshing mountain spring. "Standing by this spring, under the shade of the alder trees, one of the party, a young and happy maiden, was seen to be in tears, when in answer to our inquiries she replied that she wept because her capacity for drink was no greater." The mountain spring water was an elixir of such purity that it made them marvel. The next morning, the ladies were all a-froth over the "fiery and romantic" burros. Their attire, described in detail in Pioneers of Mill Creek Canyon, was elaborate, including layers of denim, large hats, and swaths of veiling. Their enormous canvas bags carried a comical array of wardrobe. The next morning when they set off, the ladies’ romance with the burros was sorely tested, and they were sure that they were risking injury on these sturdy, (frequently flatulent), little steeds. At the summit of Mountain Home Canyon, four and a half miles from Thurman's, they dismounted and had a picnic beneath the giant old-growth pines, then rested from their “weary” journey.
Scenes along the way included Peter Forsee’s ranch and apple orchard, where "the finest apples in Southern California" grew, and two other small farms. These were the Jackson ranch and Skinners in Mountain Home Canyon.
From the heights of Mountain Home Canyon to the terrifying descent, travelers described half a dozen ranches and camps along the Santa Ana River. Regardless of who told the tale, everyone's next stop was Matthew Lewis's hostelry in Seven Oaks. Tired and awe-struck tourists often opted to stay for several days, or even weeks, at Seven Oaks, where there were eight or nine cabins and six large, comfortable tents to rent. More hearty travelers pushed their horses, mules, or donkeys to make the trip all the way to Bear Valley in one day, which was regarded as a very rough adventure. In Bear Valley, a young Gus Knight and his partner, Metcalf, provided “crude but comfortable” accommodations and “plain but appetizing” fare only a mile from the lake. Both Lewis in Seven Oaks and Knight in Bear Valley charged $10.00 per week per person to stay at their rough and tumble “hotels.”
Horses for touring around the valley could be rented at a rate of fifty cents or a dollar per day. Ultimately, Thurman cornered the tourism market when he anchored both ends of the journey by hosting guests on his Mill Creek Canyon ranch and at his 120 acres at Bluff Lake, which he received a state land patent for in 1899.
Whomever they traveled with, or wherever they stayed, guests considered the arduous trip to Bear Valley and the rustic comforts along the way worth it for the “pure mountain air, the cool, invigorating climate and the smell of the pine woods.”
Copyright 2020, Shannon E. Wray. All Rights Reserved. No reprints in whole or part without permission.