Home

A Brief History: 1911-1986

THE SIERRA CLUB IN SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA, 1911-1986

by James Harris   
(From the 1986 Angeles Chapter Diamond Jubilee Souvenir Booklet)

In 1911 the city of Los Angeles had only 300,000 residents, plenty of room to grow, and big plans for the future. City engineer William Mulholland was in the middle of constructing an engineering wonder - a 300-mile pipeline to "import" water from the Owens Valley. The city's chamber of commerce was busy recruiting tens of thousands of new residents with a national advertising campaign promising "the most desirable of climates" and plenty of jobs for "men and women who are able to do anything a little better than the other fellow."

In the dusty suburb of Hollywood, the Nestor Film Company, which had arrived just the year before, was already expanding its first "studio."

On November 1 of that year, 75 Sierra Club members gathered in an attorney's office in downtown for a specially called meeting. With an ambitious optimism reflecting the spirit of their community, they signed a petition calling for creation of their own local chapter, the first in the history of the parent club, which had been founded in San Francisco in 1892.

From its modest beginnings, the Angeles Chapter, following the destiny of its host city, has grown and grown again. On November 1, 1986, when it celebrated its 75th anniversary, the Angeles can boast of being the oldest and largest Sierra Club chapter. With a membership of more than 46,000, it comprises fully 12% of the total club.

Today the chapter has 68 separate committees, groups and sections, ranging from Inner City Outings to 100 Peaks, from Mountaineering Training to the 20's and 30's Singles. The chapter's Conservation Committee has 28 separate task forces working on problems including land fills, groundwater pollution, urban parks, Mono Lake and forest practices. With more than 2,000 activities scheduled in 1986, the chapter is the world's largest outings organization.

Angeles Chapter leaders are proud of their chapter, not for its sheer size, but for the innovative role it has played in development of the parent club. It was the first to build its own lodge (Muir Lodge-1913) and have specialized activity groups such as the Rock Climbing Section (1934) and Ski Mountaineering Section (1935). It was the first chapter to have a separate Singles Section (1968) and to hire its local conservation lobbyist (1969) and to organize a Basic Mountaineering Training Course (1963).

During its early years, the chapter lagged behind its San Francisco counterpart in conservation activities, but made up for it with a series of hard-fought local battles in the last two decades. And it was Angeles Chapter member (and former Sierra Club President) Nate Clark who pioneered the concept of preparing an environmental impact report to challenge a major development project in a wilderness area (San Jacinto Tramway Project, 1947, 1951).

During its 75 years, the Angeles Chapter has changed considerably in orientation, as the membership responded to the rapid development of Southern California.

The chapter was founded in 1911 as the "Southern California Section." In June, 1911, the annual report of the club Secretary, William E. Colby, said, "...some of the members in Los Angeles have become interested in having local walks in the south, and it is hoped that their efforts will meet with success." The club had 1400 members at that time. A year later the annual report said, "The Southern Section of the Club has evidently been organized on a permanent basis and is conducting a series of well-attended and enjoyable walks and excursions." The club had 1527 members by then.

The main purpose of creating the new chapter was to give the Los Angeles members the status and authority to manage their own activities and to encourage more local hikes and member participation.

By 1954, the Southern California Section name had become outdated because of the formation of the Riverside Chapter (1932, now known as the San Gorgonio Chapter), San Diego Chapter (1948), and Los Padres Chapter (1952). So the Southern California Chap-ter's name was changed to Angeles Chapter.

In 1911, Southern California was a hiker's paradise. There weren't many good roads, and few could affort a "machine" (automobile), but a short trip on the Pacific Electric "Red Cars" took you to the outskirts of the city, where you could stroll through the gentle oak covered slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains. The more adventurous used the incline railway up 5,600-foot Mt. Lowe to begin a hike in the cool forest and airy summits of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Los Angeles was a city of newcomers, and there were half-a-dozen hiking clubs. But the Sierra Club members considered their group special. It had been founded by the legendary John Muir and a group of San Francisco intellectuals. (Among this group were: William Beatty, Chief Justice of the State Supreme Court; Warren Olney, a future Governor of Calfornia; David Starr Jordan and John C. Branner, each of whom were to serve as President of Stanford University; John and Joseph LeConte, founders of the University of California; and Cornelius Bradley, a UC Professor of Rhetoric and father of future Sierra Club President Harold Bradley.)

The new-born Southern California Section quickly organized a full schedule of outings and began construction of a mountain lodge in a then-remote foothill canyon of the San Gabriel Mountains. Built entirely by members, Muir Lodge was completed in 1913. Although John Muir never saw the structure, he did contribute $50 after learning it was to be named in his honor. (The elderly Muir did drop in at an Angeles Chapter evening meeting in 1913, the year before his death.)

In the pre-automobile era, the comfortable lodge proved instantly popular for weekend gatherings. Members reached it by taking the San Gabriel spur of the Pacific Electric line to the sleepy village of Arcadia. There they walked or rented a mule from the Chantry farm for the seven-mile trek up the forested canyon.

Sadly, the beloved lodge was destroyed by flood in March, 1938. Now only the dedication sequoia tree, grown to 50 feet in height, remains on the site, a short walk from the busy suburb of Sierra Madre.

Chapter membership reached 300 in 1920 and 1200 in 1930. During this period, chapter activities reflected mambers' interests. There were many hikes, ranging from one or two miles to 20-mile hikes over 11,500-foot Mt. San Gorgonio. Members were also science minded: two 1927 events were a "telephotograph demonstration at the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Building" and a "high voltage demonstration" at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena. There, the schedule noted, "Through the kindness of Dr. Sorenson we will have the opportunity to see manufactured lightning, one of the marvels of electrical accomplishment in the last few years."

The Schedule also included ice skating parties at the Winter Garden Ice Palace, horseback riding and swimming parties at Manhattan Beach and Balboa Island. Most listings gave detailed instructions on getting to the destination via the correct Pacific Electric line. On trips to the mountains and other remote regions, autos were used, and the schedule noted "Drivers of private machines will please give early notice of available seats."

Then, as now, Sierra Club outings offered a pleasant way for individuals to meet members of the opposite sex. In addition to its outdoor activities, the Angeles Chapter scheduled several "informal" and "semiformal" dances each month.

Weekend outings at Muir Lodge, which featured sing-alongs, cookouts, and day hikes, were popular with single men and women. A founding member of the chapter, Phil Bernays, recalled that young couples often enjoyed watching the sunset from the front porch where the view "inspired a good many to matrimony."

Engagements, marriages and birth announcements of club members were proudly chronicled in the early chapter schedules (1911-46) and later in the monthly Southern Sierran. During the late twenties, four to five engagements and weddings were announced in each quarterly schedule.

The March, 1947, Southern Sierran noted that at the annual chapter Valentine's Day dance, "A delightful tradition was enacted . . . and couples who had married within the club were called forward." Twenty-two couples stepped forward - an impressive number, considering that chapter membership totaled only 1,700.

Reflecting societal changes, the Valentine's Day dance has faded into history. Now the 20's and 30's Singles Section of the chapter holds an annual "Love Stinks" beach-front walk at Marina del Rey. In 1985, 400 people attended, and four separate leaders were required to monitor the crowd, which stretched out a half-mile along the sidewalk during the short walk.

During the 1920s right up into the '50s, like most social clubs of the era, the chapter subtly discriminated against minorities. Although no written policies barred Blacks or other minorities, all new applicants were carefully screened and those who did not meet the chapter's arbitrary standard were not accepted.

Nate Clark, 80, one of the chapter's oldest active members, remembers the period. Clark was already a Sierra Club member when he move to Los Angeles in 1930 to join the faculty of the University of Southern California.

"In those days to join the Sierra Club, you needed the sponsorship of two current members. And in the Angeles Chapter, you had to pass screening by the Membership Committee. This meant coming to one of the weekly Friday night dinners at a downtown Los Angeles cafeteria," he said.

During the evening, the applicant was watched closely for table manners and deport-ment and was asked questions about his background.

Clark said an early hiking acquaintance was excluded because he was "only a letter-carrier." Most of the club members were professionals-- doctors, lawyers, engineers, professors, teachers--and some people considered a letter carrier too humble a position. "Everyone liked him, and he often joined us on hikes, but he couldn't get approval of the membership committee. Years later, after the War, they let him in, and he became a major figure in the Chapter."

A small group of members, including Clark, disapproved of the chapter's discriminatory membership policy. Matters came to a head in 1959 when several chapter members sponsored a black as an applicant. The chapter's appointed membership committee rejected the woman and the integration-minded members appealed the decision to the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club.

At the time Clark was President of the national club and easily obtained a board ruling that the applicant should be admitted and that any discrimination against minor-ities was unacceptable. However, the board declined to amend the club by-laws to specifically state that anyone was eligible for membership, regardless of race or religion.

"The consensus was that there was no need for such a statement. The club had always welcomed all people who supported its ideals and activities. Furthermore, the club was not chartered to be in the business of discrimination versus integration," he said.

An avid backpacker, Clark recalled that in the early days, food was primitive and club members made their own packs and sleeping bags.

"We ate a lot of dried food, dried apples, dried beef. There weren't any freeze-dried foods and before World War II, there wasn't any nylon material, lug soles or aluminum backpacks. Pack frames were made from wood. For the horizontal members, you soaked maple flooring strips in water for several weeks and then dried them in a vise so they assumed a curved shape. You nailed these to hickory vertical strips. Over this you sewed a canvas pack, usually surplus from World War I.

"Our boots were almost knee-high, with smooth leather soles. To get traction we nailed in hob nails. Sometimes with wear, the nails came through the bottom of the boot and stuck your foot," he said.

Stephen Fox, in his book John Muir and His Legacy: The American Conservation Movement, noted about the Sierra Club in the 1930s:

 "Since Muir's time, it had become a quiet, largely social organization and even lost its traditional connection with mountaineering... Individual members like [William] Colby still did their duty, but as an organization it seldom bestirred itself in active conservation fights. In the 1930's most of the 3000 members were middle-aged Republicans. To attract a new generation, annual dues were halved for those under the age of 21."

The meetings of the Southern California Chapter...were better attended - because they were more fun. On weekends there were dance parties at the Muir Lodge...and monthly parties in Los Angeles... Clark recalled that the historic feud between Northern and Southern California had its counterpart in a rivalry between the Angeles and the San Francisco chapters.

"From the early days, the Angeles Chapter got the reputation of being a socially oriented group which was less active in conservation than the San Francisco folks. At times, several club directors, including Ansel Adams, commented that it would be good for our group to get more involved in conservation," he said.

The Angeles Chapter finally did get involved in two major conservation battles immediately after World War II. The struggles centered around Southern California's two highest peaks, Mt. San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountain. Both battles were to continue, off and on, until the mid-1960s.

San Gorgonio Mountain, a two hour drive from Los Angeles, had long been a favorite hiking spot for the club and other groups. Known affectionately as "Greyback," it boasted forested slopes, several alpine lakes and spectacular views of the valleys and the desert and a snow-capped summit every winter. When, in 1946, a local developer submitted a proposal for a large ski resort on the mountain to the U.S. Forest Service, the chapter and other outdoor groups rose up in arms.

When the hearing began, Clark noticed that much of the testimony was repetitive and based on aesthetic or emotional reasons. "It was just one person after another getting up and saying how he liked going there and how the ski resort would spoil everything. Nobody had any technical or economic arguments against the proposed development. It seemed to me the developer underestimated, or perhaps chose to suppress, the impact of a big resort with its road, traffic, machinery, noise, restaurants, maybe a hotel and a whole village of development."

Using his engineering background, Clark put together a presentation detailing the extent of the impact. He described the high-voltage power line that would be needed, the amount of road building and excavation, problems of avalanches, maintenance, safety, rescue, and first aid in the remote area. There was no helicopter rescue service then.

This early version of the environmental impact report had a strong impact on the Forest Service officials, who had only sketchy information from the developer. In 1948 the chief forester ruled against the development, retaining the area's primitive status.

The club fought successfully for the mountain again in 1962, when other developers revived the ski resort plan. Finally in 1964, when the first Federal Wilderness Area act was passed, the area was increased to 34,000 acres and reclassified from "wild area" to "wilderness area," assuring its permanent protection.

Clark perfected his concept of the environmental impact report in the battle to preserve the wilderness character of Mt. San Jacinto. This mountain is really an elevated sea of peaks, with streams, fine forests, meadows and an area of alpine wilderness that is unsurpassed in the desert region. Four of its summits are over 10,000 feet altitude and most of the area is above 8,400 feet. The Sierra Club and other organizations had worked hard for years to protect its grandeur and solitude.

The mountaintop was an existing state park, surrounded by a U.S. Forest Service Wilderness Area. The mountain mass contains five separate ecological zones, and an altitude range from the desert to over 10,800 feet.

In the late 1930s, a group of Palm Springs businessmen formed an investment company for the purpose of building a "winter park" high on the mountain with a restaurant, amusement center and other resort facilities and possibly a hotel. It would be connected to Palm Springs by an aerial tramway.

The site chosen for the proposed resort was near Long Valley, at the top of the great cliffs on the east side of the mountain-at the very heart of the wilderness-a remote and hard-to-reach campsite.

The businessmen argued that the construction project would create jobs and establish Palm Springs (then a sleepy desert village) as a major tourist attraction.

The Angeles Chapter waged an all-out fight against the proposal. Some leaders felt that the tramway could be challenged on safety ground - it would not be safe in an earthquake or in high winds. But Clark, an engineer, carefully reviewed the plans and determined that was not the case. As with the San Gorgonio matter, he felt that more than an aesthetic appeal was needed. Instead he realized the developers' most vulnerable spot was their financing plan.

Key to the developers' proposal was the assertion that it would attract at least 575,000 visitors in the early years, generating enough revenue to pay off the bonds. The number of visitors was the key to economic feasibility and thus the critical factor in selling bonds to finance construction.

Using existing data on area tourism and travel, Clark calculated with his slide rule that the tramway would attract only about half as many riders as projected, not enough to pay off the bonds. He prepared an in-depth, statistics-filled 60-page report documenting his findings.

Using existing data from many sources on traffic flows and tourism, Clark calculated that the probable patronage would be about 300,000 passengers a year. Then he estimated the costs of operation and maintenance. Comparing this with the income from that many riders, he concluded that the net income would not be enough to pay off the bonds.

Clark's report, with calculations, tabulations, graphs and a map to document his findings, proved to be amazingly accurate. Fourteen years after the tramway had been in operation, the annual patronage averaged out to 299,500 - just what he had calculated.

Using the Clark report to delay approval by the State Securities Commission of sale of the bonds to the public, and arguing to the State Parks Department and Forest Service that the mountain should remain undeveloped for conservation reasongs, the chapter was able to delay the proposal for more than a decade. In the end, however, they won only a partial victory. The tramway was built in 1963, but without the hotel or any of the elaborate resort features first proposed and the wilderness values were saved and are now protected.

In 1965, just as Clark's report predicted, the tramway had serious financial difficulties from lack of riders. Today, after several refinancings, it is still in operation and has become a popular trailhead for hikers who enjoy the still-unspoiled mountaintop.

The 1960s were a time of tremendous expansion for the Angeles Chapter and the parent club. In 1960 the chapter had only 3600 members, and nearly all of the club's 15,000 members resided in California. By 1970 the Sierra Club had chapters in all 50 states with a total membership of 75,000 and the Angeles Chapter had soared to 15,000.

Les Reid, Angeles Chapter Executive Committee Chair, 1974-76, and former member of the club's Board of Directors, said it was the big, well-publicized issues of the '60s, the Grand Canyon dams and the Redwood National Park, that drew people to the club. Under the leadership of visionary activist Dave Brower, the club had placed full-page advertisements in national newspapers protesting federal government plans to build huge dams that would flood portions of the Grand Canyon.

"Those ads and the surrounding publicity brought a lot of attention to the club. We got a lot of new members. And these were people who were joining for conservation purposes," Reid said.

With a new influx of members in the 1960s, the character and composition of the Angeles Chapter changed. Whole new groups and sections blossomed, including: Sierra Singles (1968), the Orange County Group (1961), Basic Mountaineering Training Committee (1963), Bicycle Touring (1968), River Touring Committee (1969), Chapter History Committee (1970), and Leadership Training (1968). The Angeles schedule went from 12 to 48 pages (it now has 120). In 1969 the chapter hired its first conservation coordinator, who was assigned to work on local issues.

The dramatic growth of the chapter meant a wide range of new activities and increased local political power. But it also brought an end to the intimate, clubby atmosphere the members had enjoyed for so long. As John Mendenhall, a chapter leader in the '30s and '40s put it, "It used to be that you could go the the Friday night chapter dinners and know everybody there. It has changed from one local chapter to a bunch of separate groups."

Reid acknowledged the change. "It's true, it wasn't just the same group of people anymore. At each meeting you saw new faces. I was always for growth, though. It brought new life into the club. It expanded our range. Now we could get involved in dozens of conservation projects, not just one or two."

Reid saw Earth Day, April 20, 1970, as a watershed. "We had activities going on all over the country. Every campus had a teach-in. It marked the beginning of a whole new era. There could never have been an Earth Day in the 1950s."

The dramatic increase in chapter membership reflected the massive growth in Southern California. The combined population of Los Angeles and Orange counties grew from 3 million in 1940 to 6.5 million in 1960 and 8 million in 1975. What had once been a vast chaparral wilderness had turned into an endless maze of shopping centers, housing tracts, parking lots and freeways. As the housing developments filled up the valleys and crept up the hillsides, they began to devour canyon and mountain hiking areas and a new series of conservation battles began.

Jill Swift, a chapter conservation activist for the past 18 years, said the change provoked members into action.

"We had some beautiful wooded hillsides where people had been going hiking for decades. Everyone just assumed it was public land. Then one day they showed up and bulldozers had taken out the oak trees and were carving in roads. Everyone would say 'But they can't do this!' But they could, because it was private land."

For Swift herself, the catalyst was a plan by the City of Los Angeles to widen scenic, two-lane, ridge-topping Mulholland Drive into a four-lane thoroughfare. This would literally pave the way for massive building in the then-undeveloped Santa Monica Mountains, the crowded city's backyard.

In August, 1971, she organized a march on Mulholland Drive that drew 5,000 people. It was a turning point for the Angeles Chapter. For the first time it had gotten involved in opposing local land development. Conservation had come home. It was no longer a fight for a park in the mountains or desert, it meant battling the new development up the street. And it meant opposing real estate agents and developers and contractors, some of whom were neighbors and friends.

"Although I got support from the chapter Conservation Committee and ExCom, feeling in the chapter was not unanimous. I got several calls from oldtimers who severely criticized me for the march. They said the club didn't have any business stopping local developments, it should concentrate on saving wilderness land. They felt a local protest would 'dilute' the strength of the club."

But the march was a huge success. It swung many local politicians over to the side of protecting the mountains and produced many new activists for the cause. The chapter created a new Santa Monica Mountains Task Force. Finally, on November 10, 1978, Congress created the santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area.

The SMMNRA is the most heavily used National Park facility in the nation. On a summer weekend, more than 2 million people use its beaches, trails and picnic areas.

As the '70s wore on, the Chapter became involved in more and more local issues. These included:
· the successful battle against the proposed Palmdale International Airport
· the fight to stop oil drilling in the Pacific Palisades (still going on)
· the campaign to prevent development of the Ballona Wetlands, the last wild, marshland areas left in Los Angeles County (partially successful, a greatly scaled-back development is now under construction)
· modification of a new, high-growth county general plan.

The chapter even got involved in a battle to block a freeway - the proposed Malibu-Whitnall Freeway. It would have plowed through the Pacific coast by Malibu and destroyed a remote, unspoiled canyon that is now in Malibu Creek State Park. With strong chapter support, the highway was deleted from the state's Master Transportation Plan in 1971.

But most of the freeways were built in the 1950s and '60s; why did the chapter wait until 1970 to get involved in an anti-freeway fight? And why did the chapter wait until 1970 to form its first anti-air pollution task force? Smog has plagued Southern California since World War II.

Robin Ives, a math professor at Harvey Mudd College and a chapter conservation activist since the 1960s remembers the period.

"Of course we hated smog. But the feeling then (the '50s and early '60s) was that we just couldn't do much about it. It was a big problem, and the chapter was small.

"It just wasn't in the tradition of the chapter to get involved in local political issues like that. Remember, until the late '60s, the chapter had primarily been an outings organization. When the chapter grew, a new group of people came in. They got involved in the committees and got elected to the ExCom and changed the outlook of the chapter. We're very political now."

In 1986 Angeles Chapter is involved in a wide range of conservation efforts ranging, literally, from the desert to the mountains to the ocean. The Coastal Waters Task Force is working to stop city pollution of Santa Monica Bay. In 1983 the Toyon Task Force successfully blocked city plans to create a new, giant city dump in Griffith Park, one of the nation's largest city parks. The chapter is leading the fight to create a new national park in the Mojave Desert and has worked closely with Senator Alan Cranston's office in drafting a new desert park bill. The chapter is also involved in issues ranging from groundwater pollution to toxic wastes to mass transit.

The chapter has become a true community organization, with a number of outreach programs. The R.O.A.D. Committee (Recreational Outdoor Accessibility for the Disabled) brings people with disabilities into the outdoors. The Inner City Outings Committee works with local civic, religious and governmental agencies to bring inner city youngsters on wilderness outings. The Scouting Committee sponsors Sierra Club Explorer Mountaineering Posts in the two-county area.

There are sections for ice skating, natural science, river touring, and families with children. There are three separate singles groups with more than 3,500 members.

As Southern California continues to grow - projections show the area brimming with 18 million people by the year 2,000 - the pressures on the environment will intensify. In the last 20 years the Angeles Chapter has grown into a potent local political force. The next 20 years promise an even greater challenge.