by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For many years, I’ve been privileged to be a guest lecturer for docent training classes at the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, a County of Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department facility in South El Monte.
The center (click here for more information) is an oasis in the midst of our growing, busy megalopolis with walking trails wending through the 400-acre site and providing enjoyment of a wide array of plant and animal life in a wetland and riparian woodland environment.
My part in the training program has been to discuss the cultural history of the area in and around the center, an area that has been traditionally called La Misión Vieja or Old Mission. This is because the original site of the Mission San Gabriel was just a short distance southwest of the center, on the west bank of the Rio Hondo (the old channel of the San Gabriel River.
The presentation I give, though, goes back to acknowledge the particular and special geological conditions at “the Narrows” that make it, at least to this observer, the focal point of early human settlement in the region.
Specifically, it is through this gap between the Puente and Montebello hills ranges that the San Gabriel River runs and in ancient times, the river’s flow from the steep, granitic San Gabriel Mountains ran down into the alluvial plain of the foothills, actually went below ground for a significant distance and then reemerged north of modern El Monte.
The Rio Hondo is the old course of the river and, because of its significant, often dangerously heavy, flow it brought to the Whittier Narrows an abundance of plant and animal life. This, of course, attracted the first humans, the native indigenous Indians, who lived in the area for thousands of years before the arrival of the Spanish.
In July 1769, the Portolá (yep, accent on the last “a”) Expedition made its way through the region as part of the first land-based exploration by Europeans of California. The party included diaries by the leader, Gaspar Portolá, engineer Miguel Costansó, and missionary Father Juan Crespí. Crespi’s diary, in particular, is rich with descriptions of landscapes and people, who he, typically for the period, called “heathens.”
Crespí was especially taken with the Whittier Narrows area, identifying it and the “La Puente” area the expedition had just left as prime locations for a mission. A little more than two years later, this was done, as the Mission San Gabriel was established in “the Narrows.” It didn’t last long, however, as flooding devastated the tule and brush structures of the facility, which moved by 1775 northwest to its current location higher, drier ground.
As for the Old Mission area, it remained mission property until “secularization” enacted by the Mexican government in the 1830s shut down the missions. This freed up former mission land for private land grants, including several in the Misión Vieja area like Rancho La Merced, Rancho Potrero Chico, Rancho Potrero Grande, and Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo. In the mid-1840s, a new contingent of settlers moved into the Old Mission region, including the Alvitres, Valenzuelas, Perezes, Lobos and others.
Massive changes, including the American conquest of Mexican Alta California, the ensuing Gold Rush, and the arrival of increasing numbers of Americans and Europeans, marked the late 1840s and 1850s. When Casilda Soto de Lobo, a rare female owner of a rancho, La Merced, borrowed money from new arrival William Workman of Rancho La Puente and couldn’t repay the $2,000, Workman foreclosed on her ranch in 1850.
Workman, in turn, turned the ranch over to his La Puente foreman, Juan Matias Sánchez, and to his daughter and son-in-law, Margarita and F.P.F. Temple. In following years, the Old Mission community grew with families like the Basyes, Bermudezes, Manzanareses, Barrys and Davises moving in along with the Temples and Sanchezes.
Cattle ranching was the lifeblood of the regional economy, until the decline of the Gold Rush, a national depression in 1857 and flood and drought in the first half of the 1860s led to a shift to agriculture. Misión Vieja became a farming community amid the rich soil fed by the river.
In 1875-76, an economic collapse in California affected the Los Angeles bank of the Temple and Workman families and, to secure a loan from “Lucky” Baldwin, Sánchez agreed to help his compadres and put his share of La Merced up as collateral, When the bank failed, the three men were wiped out, though Sanchez and the Temples were allowed to keep their homes and some acreage around them.
The location of the nature center was partly on a 130-acre walnut ranch on the Rancho Potrero de Felipe Lugo, owned in the late 1870s and most of the following decade by John H. Temple, a son of Margarita and F.P.F.
Life largely continued the same for Old Mission residents up until the First World War years when oil was found on Temple and Baldwin lands in the Montebello Hills area and transformed the community. Oil wells sprung up throughout the community and many residents left. After a series of floods between 1914 and 1938, though, another transformation was underway.
This was the decision to build a dam in the Narrows and put most of the Misión Vieja area under the control of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. In 1941, the dam project was approved and, after World War II, funding was appropriated for the work, which was finished in 1957. Much of the recent history of the area has been tied to flood control, including the development of the Whittier Narrows Recreation Area. For an interesting article on this period, click here.
One of the elements that was preserved amidst the huge changes wrought by the dam project was a bird sanctuary opened by the Audubon Society in 1939. This property came under the control of the county’s parks and recreation department and morphed into the Whittier Narrows Nature Center, where my talk was held today in a covered outdoor shelter.
For some fifteen years, a proposal to establish a San Gabriel River Discovery Center to replace the nature center has raised controversy among nature center supporters, the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians and others who question the purpose of the proposed center. This story is still being played out, but will be added to the history of an area that could justifiably called the historic center of greater of Los Angeles.