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Forest Rangers Go a Long Way (25 Miles) to Protect a Pioneering $70 Investment

August 29, 1985|MARY BARBER | Times Staff Writer

On a little knoll high in the San Gabriel Mountains there is a log cabin that stands victorious over the ravages of time, nature and vandals. It took two years to move it to safety, log by log, up 25 miles of mountain road, and it looks now as if it could last forever.

California's first forest ranger station was built by a pioneer in 1900, eight years after President Benjamin Harrison signed a bill that created the San Gabriel Forest Reserve. Louie Newcomb, a mountaineer who became a ranger in 1898, got $70 from the government to build the one-room cabin at the West Fork of the San Gabriel River below Red Box.

A U.S. Forest Service spokesman said that in those early years the West Fork was reputed to be the best trout stream in the Western United States, and resorts for hikers were built along it. None of them remain.

Those were Pasadena's halcyon days as a resort town, when thousands of summer tourists vacationed in the mountains at Switzer's Lodge, Alpine Inn on Mt. Lowe, Mt. Wilson Hotel and Echo Mountain House. All of those big, elegant structures disappeared long ago in fires, floods and landslides while the little cabin endured.

In 1924 a fire burned 40,000 acres in the San Gabriels. Another followed in 1925, and both times the cabin escaped damage.

The Forest Service expanded greatly after World War II and used the cabin for a storage shed as it built bigger, newer buildings nearby. Those buildings also vanished while the cabin lived on.

It was used into the 1960s, as a public campground grew up next to it.

But after more than 80 years of service and neglect, rangers said they knew the cabin could no longer withstand attacks from insects, weather and vandals.

"It needed some attention or it was going to return to the earth," said Bruce Bundick, a ranger stationed at the Chilao Visitors' Center in Angeles National Forest.

"It was rotting badly, partly because the alder logs are not very insect-repellent," Bundick said. "But the worst was vandalism. Fortunately, most people respected it, but vandalism seems to have increased everywhere."

On a weekend in May, 1983, volunteer rangers and civilians tagged every log and beam in the cabin, made a schematic drawing for reconstruction, dismantled it and began trucking the parts to the unused Chilao Mountain School.

There they dug a trough, lined it with plastic sheeting, filled it with a preservative solution and soaked the logs one at a time. When dried, the logs were carried by hand several hundred feet up a hillside where the cabin was reconstructed behind the visitors' center. It is in the Chilao public campground on Angeles Crest Highway (California 2), 25 miles northeast of where the highway originates in La Canada Flintridge.

The Forest Service marked the restoration with a dedication ceremony on Aug. 12, and among the guests were dozens of rangers and other volunteers who had worked on the project.

Mike McIntyre, an archeologist for the Forest Service, said that the few necessary replacement parts are replicas of the originals.

The floor is cement and only a few shelves and hooks adorn the barren interior. Visitors who peer in the small windows see a single room that is about 15 feet wide and 20 feet long, containing only the essentials needed for survival--canned food, a saddle, a blanket.

It stands in stark contrast to the Visitors' Center, a domed, decked, carpeted, 2,400-square-foot building that cost $700,000 when it was completed in 1981.

Sometimes, a ranger said with a grin, there is speculation about which building will last the longest.

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