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SOUTHERN CALIFORNIA FIRES

Pieces of State's History Escape Fires

November 02, 2003|Peter Y. Hong | Times Staff Writer

Shifting winds, luck and the dogged efforts of firefighters spared several remnants of California's heritage from being reduced to ashes last week.

Flames had loomed near a Ventura County ranch that inspired the 1884 "Ramona" novel, a romantic tale of Spanish aristocratic life that fueled that era's westward land rush. An inferno nearly wiped out Julian, an early gold-mining town in San Diego County's mountains. And fires ravaged the picturesque hills around Lake Arrowhead, among the early 20th century resorts that shaped Southern California's identity as a tourist destination and served as the setting for such films as the 1937 Shirley Temple classic "Heidi."

The sites "are great metaphors for Southern California," reflecting various epochs in the development -- and mythology -- of the region, said Michael Engh, a Loyola Marymount University historian.

Rancho Camulos, at the base of now-smoldering hills just off California 126 in Piru, figured prominently in the early selling of Los Angeles as a destination for Eastern settlers.

In 1882, author Helen Hunt Jackson visited the ranch, which had been owned by Ygnacio del Valle, a member of both the Los Angeles City Council and the California Assembly. She is believed to have based the location of her novel, "Ramona: A Story," at least partly on that visit.

The book depicted a fading Spanish order and the decline of the Native American tribes through the story of Ramona, an illegitimate orphan on a Spanish rancho who is an outcast for her love of the Indian Alessandro.

Jackson was acquainted with the abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe, and intended her work as an expose of the injustice suffered by Indians, along the lines of the treatment of slavery in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." The book instead became an enormous success as a romantic tragedy.

"Ramona" was made into a movie four times -- including a 1910 Mary Pickford version -- and adapted for the annual Ramona pageant in Hemet, which has been running since 1923.

The completion of the transcontinental railroad brought Southern Pacific cars loaded with tourists in the late 19th and early 20th century to Camulos and other locations believed to have been the setting for "Ramona." The rival Santa Fe Railroad carried tourists to Rancho Guajome near Oceanside, another site identified as an inspiration for the tale.

The tourists came to Camulos looking for images of idyllic ranch life filled with regal Spaniards and docile Indians, a sunny fantasy escape from dreary Eastern winters. Inundating the private residence, the throngs of Yankees and their "Boston manners" thoroughly irritated the owners, the Del Valles, who held the property from 1839 to 1924.

The ranch played an important role in the state's early agriculture industry. Some of the first California oranges grown and shipped from what is now Ventura County came from Camulos in 1876. Trees from the original rootstock still grow on the grounds, as does El Rey Nogal, a 150-year-old black walnut tree. El Rey's trunk is 27 feet around, and its branches span nearly half an acre.

The ranch dodged a much earlier disaster, in 1928, when the St. Francis Dam ruptured, sending a wall of water on a rampage of more than 50 miles.

It was a catastrophe that led to the establishment of the ranch house as a museum. The 1994 Northridge earthquake prompted the last family in residence to move out, opening the property for public use. National Historic Landmark status came in 2000. While Camulos reflects the genteel life of Spanish land barons, Julian displays a parallel but opposite heritage: one of ambitious new arrivals. The town was founded after the Civil War by displaced Confederate soldiers from Georgia, and it took off after the discovery of gold nearby in 1869.

The area's population boom and initial mining prosperity aided the growth of Los Angeles, which was the financial and commercial center for the region. The Julian Hotel, built in 1897 and now listed on the National Register of Historic Places, provides a glimpse into Southern California's multiracial heritage.

The hotel -- billed as the oldest continuously operating hotel in California -- was founded by a former slave, Albert Robinson. It would have been unusual then, if not unheard of, in much of the United States for a black man to own a business serving many prominent whites. But "on the frontier, there was greater cooperation among people who might otherwise not be cooperative than in other parts of the country," Engh said.

By the 1920s, the Los Angeles area had evolved from a frontier town to a bustling city. The development of resorts at scenic Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear Lake grew out of the urban prosperity of the period. "A metropolis has to have recreation areas for its new elite and upper-middle class ... the vacation homes and resorts were part of that achievement of the good life," Engh said.

At the San Bernardino command post Friday, the U.S. Forest Service supervisor for the area, Gene Zimmerman, was confident that the blaze would be controlled. But his assessment of the firefighting effort might as well have been a summation of what built the civilization now in jeopardy.

"There's a great air of optimism," he said.

Times staff writer Hector Becerra contributed to this report.

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