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Our Unmatchable Mountains

December 08, 1985

These are mornings made for our mountains--that extraordinary Transverse Range, as the geologists call it, stretching 300 miles from the Channel Islands and Point Arguello eastward almost to the Colorado River. There is only one other major east-west mountain system in the nation--the Uintas in northeast Utah--Ed Kiessling, a geologist with the California Division of Mines and geology, told us.

In the clarity of the dawn, before pollution or the haze of the region screens the view, the mountains form a backdrop for the lives of 10 million people. The range helps makes our weather benign, a barrier to the assault of northern storms, even as it stands as witness to the violence of the lethal faults that lie beneath the peaks.

These are young mountains in geological terms--"still going up," Robert P. Sharp, professor emeritus of geology at Caltech, reminded us. They started to grow 12 to 15 million years ago. The 1971 earthquake alone added three feet to elevations along its path. The rocks in the range are as varied as the peaks and the islands--the oldest, in the structures east of the Ridge Route, dating back 1.7 billion years, according to Sharp.

The complexity of geological formations is evident in the surf-eroded shores of the islands, the sedimentary ridges rising 8,800 feet in the Santa Ynez and Topatopa mountains and, the most dramatic portion of all, the bold scarp of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains.

There are two summits in this system: Mount San Antonio, 10,064 feet, queen of the San Gabriels, and San Gorgonio, 11,502 feet, queen of the San Bernardinos and the highest point in Southern California. Of the summits, San Antonio is the more celebrated. Its broad-shouldered, snow-capped peak, towering above now-non-existent orange groves, adorned post cards before its foothills were "developed" in the years after World War II. And, almost alone among the geographic points of the nation, it bears two names--evidence of the longstanding controversy over what to call it.

Donald Johnson, a geographer with the U.S. Board on Geographic Names in Reston, Va., did some research for us the other day. The peak was officially designated Mount San Antonio by the board in 1891, but a handwritten notation on the old records adds: "Locally known as Baldy." In 1961 the Coast and Geodetic Survey petitioned the board to change the name to Mount Baldy. The board wisely refused. There were already at least 100 other versions of "baldy" in California, according to a study by Erwin G. Gudde. But the board compromised. The index now reads: Mount San Antonio (Mt. Baldy). "We try not to do that anymore," Johnson said.

He found that the official name has deep historic roots, traced to Antonio Maria Lugo and his 29,513-acre ranchero granted by the government of Spain in 1810. When a community college was opened in Walnut in 1946, they named it Mt. San Antonio College, avoiding the perils inherent in a school called Old Baldy College. That is one of the few celebrations of the mountain's real and lovely name. The village of 1,000 that nestles 4,200 feet up the great mountain clings tenaciously to "Mt. Baldy" as the name for both village and mountain. "Everybody calls it Mt. Baldy," Patricia Batchelor, the Mt. Baldy postmaster, told us. "The only people who call it Mount San Antonio are from another country or another state."

The snowline on San Antonio was down to 8,500 feet the other day as we glimpsed it from a downtown street, framed by a palm tree--perhaps as Don Antonio saw it as he made his way to El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora La Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula.

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