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A path to canyon's cleanup

Forest Service crews will blast apart boulders clogging part of historic site above Pasadena.

January 25, 2007|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

Those hunting for a way to restore a once-scenic canyon above Pasadena have turned to shotguns.

Work crews will break up large boulders clogging parts of historic Rubio Canyon since a 1998 avalanche by drilling holes in them and firing off shotgun shells inside to blow them apart, the U.S. Forest Service says.

After that, leftover chunks will be randomly distributed by hand throughout the canyon, which a century ago was one of Los Angeles' top tourist attractions.

The cleanup plan ends an eight-year dispute between environmentalists and forest officials over the best way to deal with the landslide, caused by a water pipe relocation project.

Remnants of the historic Mt. Lowe Railway, a pioneering hydroelectric plant and buildings constructed as a circa-1890s tourist attraction by promoter Thaddeus S.C. Lowe will be preserved and cataloged in an effort to have the canyon site included in the National Register of Historic Places, said Marty Dumpis, the acting Forest Service district ranger.

Those sites and six historic waterfalls were buried beneath 50,000 tons of boulders in the avalanche triggered by a water pipe repair project high atop the rugged canyon.

The pipeline, in use for 121 years, supplies water for the tiny Rubio Canon Land and Water Assn., which serves about 200 Altadena homes.

At the time of the slide, workers hired by the water company were using a special hammering machine and blasting to carve a 340-foot-long notch in a cliff so a section of pipe damaged in the 1994 Northridge earthquake could be rerouted.

Hiking enthusiasts and historians despaired that cleanup of the rocky debris might take years and cost $6 million, but a freak 2004 rainstorm swept away most of the mess. Emerging mostly unscathed were the six waterfalls -- Moss Grotto, Ribbon Rock, Grand Chasm, Lodged Boulder, Roaring Rift and Thalehaha.

Since then, environmentalists have pressed for removal of the remaining rocks and the ouster of the water company from the canyon. They also urged that the huge canyon wall scar created by the avalanche be camouflaged with a spray that would oxidize the rock to give it a weathered look.

Dumpis said the spray proposal was rejected because natural elements have already begun to soften the appearance of exposed rock. About 10 years from now the scar will have the same weathered look that the oxidizing chemical might have given it.

He said the water pipes will be allowed to remain in the canyon because the water company has a valid "special use authorization" from the government to draw the mountain water.

Abandoned sections of pipe will be removed, however, and the Forest Service will administer any future pipe maintenance or construction projects, Dumpis said.

Environmental activist Paul Ayers, who has led the campaign to restore Rubio Canyon, said Dumpis' plan contains "some very good features" that could lead to the rugged site's rehabilitation.

"I have decided to lay down the sword for the time being and accept Ranger Dumpis' invitation to become involved in the restoration," said Ayers, a North Hollywood lawyer. He urged other canyon enthusiasts to do the same.

His emphasis will be on rebuilding trails, said Ayers, who has described Lowe's canyon-hugging railway and mountaintop tourist attractions as "the Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm of its day." He said six 19th century trails traverse the canyon.

The Mt. Lowe Railway carried more than 3 million riders during the 41 years it operated, starting in 1893. Its narrow-gauge cars clung to the mountain along a 3 1/2 -mile route. Civil War balloonist and inventor Lowe built a hotel, tavern and wooden stairways that visitors used to view the six waterfalls. Atop Mt. Lowe he installed a 6-million-candlepower searchlight powered by the canyon's turbines that was said to have been bright enough to read a newspaper by on Catalina Island.

Fire eventually destroyed the hotel and the incline railway's trestles.

And a landslide almost wiped out the waterfalls.

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