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History of the Crescenta Valley

Geographically the Crescenta Valley is the western half of the Crescenta-Cañada Valley, a seven-mile long bajada, or series of alluvial fans, descending from the San Gabriel Mountains on the north and bounded by the Verdugo Mountains and San Rafael Hills on the south. The La Cañada Valley constitutes the eastern half.
The Crescenta-Cañada Valley was originally part of the domain of Native Americans of the Tongva, or Kizh, people, later named Gabrieleño by the Spanish missionaries. They lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in communities near water sources in the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys while exploiting the resources of the Crescenta-Cañada Valley, especially acorns. In 1772 the invading Spanish disrupted their society and caused the relocation of most of the Native Americans to Mission San Gabriel. This migration, together with European diseases such as syphilis, measles, and smallpox to which the Native Americans had never been exposed and lacked immunity, depopulated their communities.
In 1784 Spanish Governor Fages granted Don Jose Maria Verdugo, a Corporal in charge of Mission San Gabriel's guards, a conditional permit to occupy 36,403 acres which became known as Rancho San Rafael and included the current communities of La Cañada Flintridge, Montrose, La Crescenta, Glendale, Eagle Rock, Highland Park, and a small piece of eastern Tujunga. Don Jose died in 1831 and title passed to his son Julio and daughter Catalina, whom smallpox had blinded at an early age.
In 1843 the Mexican government, claiming Julio was not using the 5,832-acre portion of Rancho San Rafael situated in the Crescenta-Cañada Valley to graze his herds, granted that portion to Ygnacio Coronel, who called it La Cañada atras de los Verdugos (the glen behind the Verdugo Ranch) or Rancho La Cañada. Coronel built two houses, planted crops, and kept livestock, but continuing depredations by Native Americans, probably many whose lives had been disordered by the secularization and sale of the missions, drove him out. In 1850 Congress established a Land Commission to validate the ownership of Spanish and Mexican land grants. Coronel applied and won his case, but in 1852 he sold Rancho La Cañada to his attorneys, law partners Jonathan Scott and Benjamin Hayes, for $700 and professional services.
In 1858 Julio Verdugo, seeking to reclaim Rancho La Cañada for the water resources in upper Verdugo Canyon, worked out a trade with attorney Scott: in exchange for Rancho La Cañada, Julio gave Scott a parcel of land comprising the current city of Burbank.
In 1861 Julio and Catalina divided Ranchos San Rafael and La Cañada between them with Catalina taking the northern portion that included Rancho La Cañada and Julio the southern portion.
Beginning in 1861 the free-spending Julio experienced a series of reverses: a flood in 1861-62, drought in 1863-64, and foreclosure of a usurious mortgage loan. Further, a group of claimants who had acquired portions of the ranchos filed litigation to validate their titles. His tenure of the two ranchos ended with the judicial decision known as the “Great Partition of 1871.” Thirty-one sections were granted to twenty-eight different claimants. Julio received 200 acres in what is now eastern Glendale and Catalina and Julio’s son Teodoro received 2,629 acres constituting Verdugo Canyon. Real estate lawyers Glassell and Chapman obtained title to Rancho La Cañada.
In December, 1875, health-seeking partners from Michigan Adolphus Wiliams and Dr. Jacob L. Lanterman came to the Crescenta-Cañada Valley and purchased Rancho La Cañada for $10,000. A dispute over Williams’s slow progress doing the surveying led Lanterman to sue Williams. Williams won in Superior Court but Lanterman won on appeal during which Williams died. Williams and Lanterman had agreed to subdivide the rancho into 46 lots centered on Michigan Avenue (now Foothill Boulevard), each with a width of one-quarter mile. The agreed division was now implemented with Williams’ heirs taking the even numbered and Lanterman the odd numbered lots. The map was filed with the county recorder in 1881. As lots were sold the valley was settled.
The County of Los Angeles survey of 1877 showed seven settlers residing north of the rancho boundary on lands at the mouths of canyons with water sources. On completion of the survey they filed land patent applications to secure the properties. These included Theodor Pickens, considered the first American settler in the valley, and Delia Dunks, who operated the resort Verdugo Heights.
In 1882 Dr. Benjamin Briggs, a physician from Crawfordsville, Indiana, who had searched worldwide for the ideal climate for the treatment of lung disease, found his way to Southern California. He purchased many of Williams’s and Lanterman’s lots, primarily large blocks west of Pickens Wash. North of the rancho line he purchased from Theodor Pickens a parcel for his home on what is now known as Briggs Terrace, and several springs. In 1884 Briggs platted and recorded the Crescenta Cañada tract featuring parallelogram-shaped 10-acre lots. He created the townsite “Crescenta” centered on the intersection of Michigan Avenue and Los Angeles Avenue (now La Crescenta Avenue). Legend has it that he named the town after three “crescents,” mountain peaks that he saw while looking out his window one day. In 1887 the townsite was renamed “La Crescenta” at the behest of the post office to avoid confusion with Crescent City. He intended to devote himself to horticultural pursuits and to establish a health resort, but did not live to carry out his plans. However, others, similarly influenced, were attracted to the area. Health workers and physicians established clinics and sanitariums for asthmatics, the sick, and the infirm. As the area grew in the 1910s and 1920s, orchards, vineyards, and health resorts proliferated.
In 1910 real estate agent Robert A. Walton of the Holmes-Walton agency teamed with J. Frank Walters to buy 250 acres from Briggs’s daughter, which they subdivided in 1913 to create the town of Montrose. Walton laid out a unique pattern of curved streets to complement the physical shape of the valley. They also brought an electric trolley line up from Glendale, the Glendale and Montrose Railway, which contributed to an explosive pattern of growth for the entire valley through the 1920s.
Just after midnight on New Year’s Day, 1934, nature intervened with a massive flash flood that swept through the valley, killing as many as 40 people, and leaving hundreds homeless. To preclude a repeat, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed an extensive network of flood control projects, with concrete flood channels and debris basins.
Jurisdictionally, today the Crescenta Valley is divided between the City of Glendale on the south and west and the unincorporated community of La Crescenta on the east. This anomaly is attributable to that indispensable commodity: water. Unsuccessful efforts to incorporate portions of the Crescenta Valley or to annex them to Glendale had begun as early as 1925. As the valley grew, water companies relying on local groundwater were formed to serve its communities. After World War II the Crescenta Valley began to enter mainstream suburbia with tract homes replacing farms. However, in the late 1940s a crisis was at hand: drought conditions caused local wells to run dry. In 1949 Glendale, a member agency of the Metropolitan Water District (MWD) importing Colorado River water, authorized an emergency connection to its system. Further, the County Board of Supervisors acted to hold a special election to successfully create the Crescenta Valley County Water District, later renamed the Crescenta Valley Water District (CVWD), encompassing the entire valley, to acquire the local water companies. However, it had become obvious that imported water was essential to serve the current population as well as future growth. In a 1949 election, a proposal to annex the entire valley to Glendale was soundly defeated, but certain local neighborhoods continued to petition for annexation.
Initially only incorporated cities had been eligible to join MWD. This changed in 1951 when, thanks to the efforts of Assemblyman Frank Lanterman of La Cañada, state water law was amended authorizing creation of the Foothill Municipal Water District (FMWD). On December 18, 1951, voters in Altadena, the La Cañada Valley, and the Crescenta Valley overwhelmingly adopted a proposition to form the district as a unit of the MWD. The local water agencies had hoped to forestall the Glendale City Council’s acceptance of annexation petitions from valley neighborhoods, but it was too late. Glendale had scheduled an annexation election for December 11, one week ahead of the FMWD election, and it passed by a slim majority. The annexed area included the Montrose business district and an area south and west of an irregular line running roughly from there north of Honolulu Avenue to Rosemont, up Rosemont to Montrose, west on Montrose to Pennsylvania, and north to the mountains. Later the CVWD and FMWD boundaries were adjusted to exclude most of the annexed area.
Opening of the 210 Freeway in the early 1970s, which the local communities had unsuccessfully fought for eight years, finalized the trend of urbanization weaving the Crescenta Valley firmly into the fabric of Greater Los Angeles.
References consulted for this condensed history include:
Anonymous, Schwald Family Genealogy https://schwaldfamily.org/index.php; “Alta California History” page.
Juliet M. Arroyo, Images of America: Early Glendale, Arcadia Publishing c. 2005.
Perry E. Caswell and Carroll W. Parcher, Glendale Area History, James W. Anderson, Glendale, CA 1974.
City of Glendale, North Glendale Historic Context adopted by the City Council November 29, 2011 as Appendix A to the North Glendale Community Plan.

June Dougherty, Sources of History, privately published 1993.
Mike Lawler and Robert Newcombe, Images of America: La Crescenta, Arcadia Publishing, c. 2005.
League of Women Voters, Pasadena area, La Cañada Unit, La Cañada: a Look at Our Community, La Cañada Flintridge Chamber of Commerce and Community Assn., 1973.

William McCawley, The First Angelinos: The Gabrielino Indians of Los Angeles, c. 1996 by the author.
Robert Newcombe, Images of America: Montrose, Arcadia Publishing, c. 2013 by the author.
Grace J. Oberbeck, A History of the La Crescenta and La Cañada Valleys, published by the Ledger, c. 1938 by the author.
Jo Anne Sadler, Crescenta Valley Pioneers and their Legacies, The History Press c. 2012 by the author.
Jo Anne Sadler, Frontier Days in Crescenta Valley, The History Press c. 2014 by the author.
Yana Ungermann-Marshall, Images of America: La Cañada, Arcadia Publishing c. 2006 by the author.
In addition, issues of Los Angeles Times and Ledger newspapers were essential to summarizing the jurisdictional issue.




Historical Sites of the Valley

The following are just a few of the sites that are significant to the history of the Crescenta Valley:

St. Luke's of the Mountains

2563 Foothill Blvd.


St.Luke's of the Mountains Episcopal Church was designed and built by the famous artist Seymour Thomas in 1924. Constructed of natural stone from the valley, it is reminiscent of a woodlands church in northern Europe. It is considered to be the architectural centerpiece of the valley.


Le Mesnager Barn

In Deukmejian Wilderness Park at the top of Dunsmore Ave.


Image credit: Bill Weisman

This stone barn perched high above the valley was built in 1911 by George Le Mesnager, a French patriot, to store and process grapes from his grapes from his vineyards in the Sparr Heights area. These grapes supplied his "Old Hermatage Vinyards" winery in downtown Los Angeles. There is still a Mesnager Street in the downtown area where the winery had been located. It is owned by the City of Glendale, which plans to restore it as an educational nature/history center.


La Crescenta Women's Club

4004 La Crescenta Ave.


The La Crescenta Woman's Club began in 1911, incorporated in 1923, and built this beautiful clubhouse in 1925. This structure has been the social center of the valley for most of the last century, and is the home for the organization's many charitable and social events.


Sparr Heights Community Center

1613 Glencoe Ave.


Originally built in 1930 as the real estate office for the Sparr Heights residential tract, then named Oakmont Park. It was later donated to the residents of the area, and has been a community hall and senior center since then.


Crescenta Valley High School

2900 Community Ave.


This portion of present day Crescenta Valley High was built as La Crescenta Junior High School in 1933. It was renamed Andrew W. Clark Junior High School in 1938, after a beloved citizen on Crescenta Valley. It became Crescenta Valley High with a major expansion in 1961, and the Clark name moved to the new junior high on New York Ave. Since a remodel project in 2002, this 1933 portion of the school has regained its original appearance.


La Crescenta Elementary School

4343 La Crescenta Ave.


The original school was built in 1887 at the corner of Foothill and Dyer, but soon moved to a new location at La Crescenta and Prospect. A wooden schoolhouse was built on this site in 1890. A larger school building replaced it in 1914, and the present structure was erected in 1948. The school is currently being expanded, and the front view shown here will change somewhat.


The Old School Bell

In front of La Crescenta Elementary School


La Crescenta's school bell first rang students to school from across the valley in 1890. It was placed in storage from 1948 until 1976, when it was re-hung and dedicated with a plaque listing the names of the kids in the first class at La Crescenta Elementary. The bell is now rung once a year in June by the graduating students.


La Crescenta Presbytarian Church

2902 Montrose Ave.


This striking church building was constructed in 1923. This is one of the oldest congregations in the valley, first meeting in the 1880s. In the congregation's early years they shared facilities with the elementary school, as did the Episcopals that later built St. Luke's.


Former Potts Family Store

2200 Honolulu Blvd.


The first store in what is now the Montrose Shopping Park was the Montrose Hardware and Grocery Store, built in 1914. It featured a gas pump out on the sidewalk on the Verdugo side.


Original Fire Station

2541 Foothill Blvd.


This early fire station was built in 1929. It became obsolete to the fire department when 15 feet was cut off the front to widen Foothill Blvd. It is now owned by St. Luke's Church.


Glendale & Montrose Railway Carbarn

3711 Verdugo Rd.


This structure is the last remnant of a short-lived streetcar line that connected the Crescenta Valley with Glendale and Los Angeles. It was the barn that housed the trolleys that ran up the median of Verdugo Road, around the curve along Montrose Ave., terminating at Pennsylvania. The line was characterized by the use of some single-truck cars, called "dinkys" by the locals, that pitched and rolled like a small boat at sea. This line only ran from 1914 until 1930.


Seymour Thomas Portraits

La Crescenta Elementry School & La Crescenta Women's Clubhouse

Seymore Thomas, an early resident Crescenta Valley, was one of the leading portrait artists of his time. He painted the Presidential portrait of Woodrow Wilson that now hangs in the national gallery, and portraits of Dr. Millikan and other leading early scientists of Caltech. He met his bride-to-be when he was a young art student in Paris in 1889. She was Helen Haskell, niece of Crescenta Valley pioneer Benjamin Briggs. She was in Paris after being the first teacher at the newly formed La Crescenta Elementary School. Many of his early portraits were of her and they married 1892. The drumbeats of WWI drove them back to the La Crescenta, and for the next two decades their home was the social center of the area. Helen died in 1942 and Mr. Thomas spent the last years of his life donating his portraits to schools, librairies, and hospitals. The painting on the left of Helen Haskell Thomas hangs at La Crescenta Elementary School where she taught in 1885, and the painting on the right hangs in the La Crescenta Women's Club, where she was president for a time.


The Bathey House

At the intersection of Shields and Briggs


This house was built in 1883 by the Bathey family on their 160 acre homestead. It was owned by the Batheys until the 1960s.

Rockhaven Sanitarium

2713 Honolulu Ave.


Rockhaven Sanitarium was established in 1923 by a nurse who was appalled at the treatment of mental illness in women and thought she could do better. She established Rockhaven as a "home for the feeble-minded". Residents were treated with care and respect and even housed several Hollywood celebrities, such as Billie Burke, Flo Zigfield, Francis Farmer, and Marilyn Monroe's mother. Its beautiful oak treed grounds cover 3 1/2 acres with several vintage hospital wards and guest cottages. It was run by the founder's family until 2004, when it was purchased by a large health care organization, who soon after dismantled the sanitarium, removed the residents and is currently selling the property for land value. The Valley was once known for its sanitariums, having a score or more in operation at one time. It was the last operating santiarium in the Crescenta Valley.


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