Monday, January 21, 2013

Around Town: A legend delivered by word of mouth

By Anita S. Brenner

When we moved to La Cañada in 1976, our 83-year-old neighbor, Hazel Castevens, told us that the Wells Fargo Pony Express once had a route past what is today the west end of the Crescenta-Cañada Family YMCA parking lot. The street was called Michigan Avenue. It was later renamed Foothill Boulevard.

Defects in Hazel’s story, while not obvious to us, were obvious to others. The Pony Express route was from St. Joseph, Mo., to Sacramento. The route went nowhere near La Cañada.

Also obvious to others were the dates. The Pony Express was in existence from 1860 to 1861. In 1861, the Crescenta Cañada Valley was still owned by Julio Verdugo. There was no need to deliver mail. Crescenta Valley pioneer Col. Theodore Pickens would not arrive for another decade.

We began to examine other possibilities. Perhaps Hazel was referring to the Wells Fargo stage lines? Or a connecting short line stage route? Wells Fargo historians note that “from 1852 to 1918, Wells Fargo rushed customers’ important business by any means — steamship, railroad, and, where the railroads ended, by stagecoach.”

Our Wells Fargo theory fizzled out. Although Wells Fargo did join with other stage companies to form the Overland Mail Company, with a route through Southern California called the Butterfield Line, that line did not go near Foothill Boulevard.

Marianne Babel, a Wells Fargo historian, showed us a map. The Butterfield route went through Los Angeles and El Monte, but it never came to La Cañada.

We began to explore a railway connection theory. By 1891, when President Benjamin Harrison made his famous train tour of California, the mail system relied heavily on the transcontinental train system. There also were short-line stagecoach connections. By 1891, there was major train depot in Pasadena. We wondered if a short line stage company picked up the mail at the train station and delivered it to the Crescenta Cañada valley.

Eager to solve the mystery, my editor, Carol Cormaci, helped me scour the Los Angeles Times’ (digital) archives. We discovered that by 1908, La Cañada was known for hotels, hiking trails and quail hunting. Weather permitting, stage lines did travel between La Cañada and Pasadena.

We found clear proof in a 1908 Times article concerning the brief “war” between two competing stage line owners, a Mr. Bergmann and a Mr. Hood.

“Bergmann and Hood used to race madly from La Cañada to Pasadena in the effort to get extra [passenger] traffic. A few weeks ago Bergmann delivered a crushing blow to his opponent: he bought an extra team and equipped his stage with four horses.” (“Pasadena-La Canyada stage war is settled and monopoly is left in control.” Sept. 7, 1908, Los Angeles Times.)

Could our neighbor, Hazel, have been referring to a mail delivery by the stage lines that ran between Pasadena and La Cañada?

Local history expert Bob Moses put the kibosh on the Pasadena mail run theory. Bob is a descendant of a pioneer La Cañada farming family and a dedicated volunteer at the Lanterman House museum. In fact, he’s president of the Lanterman board.

Bob explained that before 1912, all La Cañada mail came up from Los Angeles. He has family letters, the envelopes for which bear the Los Angeles postmark. The mail would have been delivered from Los Angeles to Shutz’s, the combination general store, library and post office, located in “old town La Cañada” near Indiana Street.

After 1912, the construction of a bridge over the Arroyo Seco allowed year-round travel between Pasadena and La Cañada.

Still on the hunt, we met with Candace Dougherty, a Lanterman House docent. Candace is the daughter of the late June Dougherty, whose local history collections are a primary source for Crescenta-Cañada research. Candace found the answer, smack in the middle of one of her mother’s books.

The book is “Sources of History for 3rd Grade Teachers in La Crescenta.” The answer was on page 208. The book described how, from 1910 to 1937, Frank Vernon Hall delivered the mail.

Her book includes a clipping from the now-defunct Crescenta Valley Ledger, which states that Hall’s “first route, delivered by horse and buggy, was Los Angeles Route 13, and included the entire Valley including Tujunga. However, the bulk of the mailboxes were located conveniently (for him) on the main roads…” (“Sagebrush Sketch,” Dec. 2, 1948, Crescenta Valley Ledger.)

Hall did not switch to the “horseless carriage” until after 1927, when his choice of ride became the Model T Ford. By then, the mail came to La Cañada from the Pasadena Post Office.

By all accounts, Frank Hall was nice to the children. Years later, as adults, they reminisced about their childhoods. They told stories about sagebrush and bandits. They talked about the “good old days” when mail was delivered on Michigan Avenue by Frank Hall’s “pony express.”

Hazel Castevens heard those stories and passed them on to us.

Right here in La Cañada.

No comments: