The Unexpected Flow of History through Eaton Canyon

A rocky river with trees in the background
Water races down Eaton Canyon Wash after a rainstorm as it has for thousands of years. Photo by Edgar McGregor

The Water

The history of Eaton Canyon, from prehistory through today, is inexorably tied to the availability of water. First, water shaped the canyon and was a sustainable resource for local tribes. Later, it was piped through the cliffs as a commercial enterprise.

The earliest known sustained water use at Eaton Canyon likely involved the Gabrieleño village of Topisibit, situated near a high point of the canyon. There both game and water were plentiful nearly year ’round.

For the Gabrieleño, water played a critical role in food production and on social occasions. The use of the village temescal (or sweathouse), for example, was nearly always followed by bathing in cold canyon water.

During food production, acorns were pounded and soaked with water into a mush and eaten cold. And local Mountain Cherries, known to the Gabrieleño as islay, were cooked, roasted and ground into a nutritious meal, which was then eaten with cold water.

While Topisibit had access to water, it was interdependent with the lower Puntitavjatngna (now northeast Pasadena) Gabrieleño settlement for hundreds of years. Neither village was ever heavily populated, with perhaps 500-1500 huts each. The key to the sustainability of both villages, though, was the reliable availability of the canyon’s water.

Village life was irrevocably changed, though, when Spanish settlers arrived between 1769 and 1840. Predictably, the Gabrieleño had little resistance to either firearms or diseases.

With its water supply, “El Precipicio,” as Eaton Canyon was called by the Spanish, was viewed as prime ranch land for cattle and goats. The nearby Gabrieleño presence and the village’s subsistence use of water was viewed by the settlers as a problem. And soon after the arrival of the Spanish, the surviving Gabrieleño were unceremoniously transported out of Eaton Canyon to the new Mission San Gabriel Arcángel in what is now Alhambra. Their lives would never be the same.

What followed was the rancho era in and around Eaton Canyon, as royal grants deeded the Rancho San Pasqual, Rancho Santa Anita, and other land to in-favor Spanish families. Many of the surnames of their descendants remain familiar today, including Sepulveda and Garfias.

By mid century, Eaton Canyon was settled by and later re-named after Judge Benjamin Eaton, who built the first Fair Oaks Ranch House in 1865, not far from the Eaton Canyon Wash. Reportedly, Eaton was the first person to use irrigation to grow grapes in the canyon. Again, the canyon provided the water necessary to sustain the latest commodity.

But water itself was eventually recognized as more valuable in the thirsty San Gabriel Valley than cattle, goats or grapes.

In the spring of 1887, the Precipice Canyon Water Company was incorporated to mine for water in Eaton Canyon. Many of the canyons in the area had their own water company, but Eaton Canyon was one of the largest producers. According to Dr. Hiram Reid, who wrote extensively about the area in his “History of Pasadena,” there were a total of 50 tunnels that supplied water to the greater Pasadena area.

Even naturalist John Muir, who spent long days hiking through Eaton Canyon, noted the extensive water tunnels after coming across a man who invited Muir to camp with him in a small hut.

John Muir at Eaton Canyon
John Muir at Eaton Canyon

“He was going to settle among these canyon boulders, and make money, and marry a Spanish woman. People mine for irrigating water along the foothills as for gold. He is now driving a prospecting tunnel into a spur of the mountains back of his cabin. “My prospect is good,” he said, “and if I strike a strong flow, I shall soon be worth five or ten thousand dollars. That flat out there, ” he continued, referring to a small, irregular patch of gravelly detritus that had been sorted out and deposited by Eaton Creek during some flood season, “is large enough for a nice orange grove, and, after watering my own trees, I can sell water down the valley; and then the hillside back of the cabin will do for vines, and I can keep bees, for the white sage and black sage up the mountains is full of honey. You see, I’ve got a good thing.”

— John Muir, “The Mountains of California,” 1894

In Eaton Canyon, the Tunnel Trail was built sometime around 1902, or possibly even earlier by the Precipice Canyon Water Company. It was never intended to be available to the public but was discovered by intrepid hikers. After some rough climbing, the trail featured the small entrance to a giant water tunnel approximately 6-feet in height that ran straight through the mountain to the other side.

“A few rods below the falls the mountain wall spreads and rises in a vast amphitheater, near the top of which a tunnel is cut through to an upper canyon and second falls, and water piped out from that high point. There is a narrow foot trail leading up to the tunnel and the crest, where those who want to try a little bit of dizzy mountain climbing can make the venture.” 

— Hugo Reid, “History of Pasadena,” 1905

Around 1980, nearly 75 years later, the US Forest Service destroyed the trail and tunnel to avoid the liability of letting it remain open without being maintained. Sadly, this decision later resulted in hundreds of difficult rescues, at least 20 deaths and many serious injuries as videos posted on social media encouraged inexperienced hikers to attempt dangerous climbs to reach the upper Eaton Canyon waterfalls. In 2014 the area above the lower falls was officially closed to hikers. Eric Leifer wrote about the closure for National Geographic.

Canyon rescues still occur, but being rescued by helicopter costs between $5,000 and $10,000, which is billed to the victim. This sobering reality has reduced the number of thrill-seeking cliff climbers, like the Eaton Canyon Falls themselves in late summer, to a trickle.

Water carved Eaton Canyon and it remains the canyon’s fundamental resource. Even today, the City of Pasadena and parts of Altadena receive about 40 percent of their water from sources fed by the San Gabriel mountains. Either directly or indirectly, Eaton Canyon’s water legacy has touched millions of lives for millennia.

The Rockets

One of the joys of researching history is uncovering a project that continues to have global implications, was once considered a national security secret and is still generally unknown. Such is the story of the Caltech-NDRC-Navy Rocket program based from 1941 to 1946 at Eaton Canyon.

The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has long been identified with American rocket science since its first successful experiments with liquid-fueled rockets in 1936, which led to the founding of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. But Caltech carried on another rocket program during the 1940s, and the development, testing and mass production effort at Eaton Canyon was a military secret.

The program was so successful that the plant at Eaton Canyon ran 24 hours a day and produced millions of rockets for the military. And those rockets were critical on the battlefield.

Major General E. R. Quesada is claimed to have dictated this order for arming P-47 fighter aircraft, “We want Caltech rockets. Repeat, we want Caltech rockets, not Army Ordnance.” And Major General B. E. Meyers described the “Holy Moses” air-to-ground rocket as the “best antitank weapon of the war.”

Some of today’s air-to-air guided missiles like the Sidewinder, Sparrow and Harpoon are descendants of the first aircraft rockets developed below Kinneloa Mesa, work that ended in the canyon when the program was moved to Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake.

A vintage photo of a rocket motor on a test bench
A Caltech-designed rocket motor on a test bench at Eaton Canyon during WWII

Rather than repeat the excellent history of the Eaton Canyon rocket program written for the American institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, we’ve linked it here.

For a sense of how the “Holy Moses” rockets performed in combat, the following is a brief newsreel produced during the war and shown in US movie theaters.

The Restaurant

The El Dorado Inn restaurant in 1957. Photo by Mark Molander courtesy of the Altadena Historical Society

In the 1950s, building the El Dorado Inn restaurant on New York Drive at the base of Eaton Canyon probably seemed like a fine idea. It was a more-or-less upscale neighborhood steak house that sounded good when you really needed a mixed drink and a reasonably priced ($4.95) medium rare filet mignon after work.

Or maybe for date night you could order the New York cut for two for $10.50. There was a sailing ship printed on the menu but they mainly served beef. You know, that kind of place.

A close up of text on a white background
Beef was definitely what’s for dinner at the El Dorado Inn during the 1950s and 1960s

Perhaps the three-masted ship graphic was a portent, though, as the entire restaurant became unmoored during the January 1969 flood that roared through Eaton Canyon from the 18th through the 22nd. A roof-pounding downpour the following Saturday destabilized the mud and rock under the building, lifting the restaurant off its foundation and that was when it cast off.

The last anyone saw of the El Dorado Inn or its walk-in refrigerator full of steaks was as the building floated south in the general direction of East Sierra Madre Boulevard.

Local rumor holds that the restaurant’s safe was never recovered and may still lie buried somewhere in the deep muck behind Eaton Wash Dam.

The US Weather Service reported that the storm dropped 21.17 inches of rain in Eaton Canyon that January. The rainfall total set a record.

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