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The Cradle of Pasadena-area Civilization: An Arroyo Runs Through It

by Steve Fjeldsted, Library Director

Post Date:03/05/2019 8:07 AM

The Arroyo Seco’s name is comprised of two Spanish language words for “dry gulch” or “streambed.” The Arroyo Seco is a seasonal river, watershed, and longtime cultural connector stretching southward, almost 25 miles from Red Box near Mount Wilson in the Angeles National Forest of the San Gabriel Mountains. The Arroyo spans all the way to its confluence with the Los Angeles River near Dodger Stadium and Chinatown.

Near the mouth of the Upper Arroyo, the occasional rainfall and snowmelt gather and follow the ravine’s watercourse on its voyage downstream. The Arroyo’s seasonal waters flow downward until they reach flatter land between La Cañada Flintridge on the west and Altadena on the east. Along its journey, the waters pass through Pasadena, South Pasadena, Highland Park, and along the base of Mount Washington. The Arroyo watershed also encompasses the communities of Cypress Park, Garvanza, Hermon, Lincoln Heights, Montecito Heights, and Monterey Hills.

Growing up during the last century in La Crescenta, I must have crossed the Arroyo on the Colorado Street Bridge hundreds of times. I also attended St. Francis High School in La Cañada which overlooks the Arroyo’s NASA Jet Propulsion Lab and Devil’s Gate Dam. Nevertheless, I didn’t begin to grasp the monumental historical and geographical significance of the Arroyo until I moved back to Southern California as a graying adult.


The landform known as the Arroyo Seco is dismissively overlooked by many local tour guides and contemporary California histories, an absence reinforced by a scanning of indexes and tables of contents in dozens of new and old published works. But after reading dozens of bits and pieces from a wide variety of histories, I’ve become convinced that the Arroyo Seco is Southern California’s most historically and culturally significant canyon.

In terms of worldwide fame, the Arroyo may not be the Grand Canyon or the valley of the Nile, but its importance to Southern California’s growth and advancement is profound, lasting, and worthy of more widespread awareness and appreciation. The Arroyo Seco can even be considered the cradle of civilization for the greater Pasadena area. For countless centuries before the incursion of Spanish explorers and other non-indigenous people, it served as a travel and trade route for members of the Tongva tribe, the area’s first human inhabitants who lived along its banks.

The Arroyo Seco was named by explorer Gaspar de Portola in 1770 because it had the least water of any of the canyons he had explored in the region.  Portola also encountered the Tongva indigenous people and their chief Hahamonga, who made the Upper Arroyo region their home. Sadly, the Tongva and many other Native Californians in the region were later rounded up and moved to the San Gabriel Mission and called “Gabrielinos,” losing much of their cultural identity in the process.

Unfortunately, the Arroyo Seco isn’t easily identifiable by the uninitiated. The lengthy Arroyo Seco and its varied terrain cannot be traveled top to bottom in a continuous way. The Arroyo’s also not uniformly marked with cohesive signage of any kind and much of the natural grandeur that remains can sometimes be difficult to view due to the absence of turnouts and viewpoints. The Arroyo’s natural beauty is also obscured in many places by highly concentrated urban development, traffic, and other visual distractions.

Upon first notice, the Arroyo Seco can appear to only be a hodgepodge of disconnected hiking trails, winding residential roads, a cemented wash, a seasonal babbling brook, and the West’s first freeway, the Arroyo Parkway. Construction for the 110 Freeway, as it’s now called, was begun in 1938 and it partially traces the two mile route of the Arroyo’s wooden toll bikeway that preceded it.

Originally, the Arroyo Seco Parkway had been planned as a string of parklands that would unite Elysian Park to Highland Park. Instead, it became the prototype for the modern American freeway and it still remains the most direct route from Pasadena to downtown LA.

Although many of the Arroyo’s most prominent points of interest remain, other important sites are either long gone or vanishing. The most distinguished man-made sites currently located along the Arroyo’s perimeter reveal much of its mighty influence. Besides JPL, the home of the first rocket scientists, and the beloved Colorado Street Bridge, constructed in 1913 to connect Pasadena with Glendale and Eagle Rock, the list includes the Oak Grove Disc Golf Course (the world’s first!); and Devil’s Gate Dam, built in 1920 to prevent devastating floods like the ones that roared into the Los Angeles in 1914 and 1916.

There’s also the Rose Bowl, home of the first college football bowl game; Brookside Park, where the Chicago White Sox played their winter ball for 16 years; Jackie Robinson Memorial Field, named after the heroic Pasadena sports star who broke the “color barrier” in Major League Baseball; the Hotel Vista Del Arroyo—now housing the US 9th District Court of Appeals; and the Batchelder House, home of the famed tile maker.

Paralleling the Arroyo along Orange Grove Boulevard in Pasadena are two museums that offer unique glimpses into area history. The Gamble House, a Greene & Greene Arts and Crafts styled masterpiece designed for David and Mary Gamble of the Procter & Gamble Company and the Pasadena Museum of History in the Fenyes Mansion provides displays, information, and knowledge of what makes the area so special.

Part of the Arroyo landscape in South Pasadena is the Arroyo Seco Park of about 75 acres that offers a golf course, nature trail, ballfields, horse stables, and batting cages. Situated across the LA border is the Audubon Center of LA and its educational opportunities. Farther south across the LA border lies Judson Studios, California’s oldest and foremost stained glass makers; the Abbey San Encino, a monastery-like home built by Clyde Browne, an early Arroyo printmaker and grandfather of current-day singer-songwriters Jackson and Severin Browne; the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, built in 1907 and now part of the Autry Museum of the American West: “El Alisal”— the self-built home of legendary Arroyan Charles Lummis, a groundbreaking regional author, publisher, and bon vivant; and Heritage Square— a gathering of Victorian homes showcasing early California living.

Not too far from the banks of the Arroyo once stood the magnificent Raymond Hotel, opened in 1886 as one of the grandest resorts in the West. It closed for good a second time during the Depression after being completely rebuilt after an 1895 fire. The Arroyo was once the location of the original Busch Gardens and some of its rock walls are still barely visible on hillsides. Also gone is the Cathedral Oak, reputedly where Portola and Father Crespi held an Easter Service in 1770. Absent as well is the Cawston Ostrich Farm, a popular theme park of the 1920s which is said to have sent out more mail order catalogs than any other company in the U.S. besides Sears Roebuck and Spiegel. Visitors there could watch ostrich races, ride an ostrich-drawn cart, or have a photo taken atop one.


Many other standout figures not already mentioned populate the history of the Arroyo. These include Jack Parsons, founder of JPL, Gutzon Borglum, creator of Mount Rushmore; and Mary Austin, one of the most accomplished early nature writers of the Southwest. Another notable is Robinson Jeffers, who graduated from Occidental College in 1905 when it was near the Arroyo. Years later Jeffers moved to Carmel and built his Tor House out of stone in a design similar to “El Alisal.” Jeffers is considered by many to be California’s greatest poet.

The South Pasadena section of the Arroyo provided us Margaret Collier Graham, a lauded short story writer married to the city’s first Mayor, Donald Graham. Her quip, “I have lived in California since 1876 and have in consequence no desire to go to heaven” says a lot about Arroyo life.” Two other high achievers who were lifelong friends came from South Pasadena’s Arroyo environment: lifelong friends Lawrence Clark Powell, the longtime UCLA Library Director and one of the most prolific writers about books, California, and the Southwest; and Ward Ritchie, an internationally respected book designer, who dubbed the Arroyo’s culture “A Southland Bohemia” in one of his writings.

Much of the writing about the history of Arroyo Seco is scattered in out-of-print titles, so libraries can be helpful for further investigation. A good starter book that’s still in print is the paperback “Images of America: The Arroyo Seco” by Rick Thomas, published in 2008. It’s a pictorial feast with insightful captions accompanying the rare and fascinating photographs that fill almost every page.

The Arroyo Seco Foundation website ( is another valuable resource. The group has done yeoman work through the to keep and restore much of the natural beauty of the Arroyo and is working for it to be included in the County of Los Angeles’s revised LA River Master Plan to be completed in 2020.

Nowadays, my wife and I live in Eagle Rock, only a mile or two from the Colorado Street Bridge. We enjoy walking, biking, and exploring various segments of the Arroyo Seco and have found that the more we have learned about it, the more we appreciate it.

(All three photos courtesy of Rick Thomas) 


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