|This tunnel used to go all the way through the mountain. I estimate it was was about 600-700 feet long.|
County: Los Angeles
Primary Mineral: All of the tunnels found in Eaton Canyon are water tunnels. Although there was placer mining for gold recorded in the wash near the base of the canyon, there was no known hard rock gold mining conducted here.
Years of Operation: At least one of the tunnels dates back to the late 1890s or early 1900s. The duration of water operations is unknown.
Nearest City or Landmark: Lower Eaton Canyon, above the Mt. Wilson Toll Road bridge, Altadena
Depth: The main water tunnel was between 600 and 700 feet. I know this because I used to walk through it as a teenager. Both sides of that tunnel were blown up around 1980. There were other water tunnels in the canyon, depths are unknown.
|The water tunnel was blasted around 1980. The missing section of rock wall was blown away as well.|
Was there gold mining in Eaton Canyon? The answer is yes. In fact, this was the site of some of the oldest mining ventures in the San Gabriel foothills. However this was all placer mining, and there was no known hard rock mining conducted here.
"In 1853-1854 gold was found in the foot-hills of the Santa Anita ranch, in the San Gabriel Canyon, and in our own Eaton, Rubio and Arroyo Seco Canyons. In crossing the old flood-plain of the Eaton Canyon outwash above Lamanda Park, many mysterious-looking deep pits in the sand will be noticed. These were made by the gold-hunters of that period and later time. These were all placer diggings. A quartz mill was put in far up the San Gabriel Canyon some years later. And statistics show that during a period of eighteen years over $2,000,000 worth of gold dust was sold from these San Gabriel, Santa Anita and Eaton Canyon diggings."
~ Thompson and West’s History of Los Angeles County, 1879
|I dug up this photo from 1978 of my buddy Phil at the front side of the tunnel. The inside was about 6 feet tall.|
The Precipice Canyon Water Company
In March of 1887 the Precipice Canyon Water Company was incorporated, to mine for water in Eaton Canyon. The company’s title was taken from the old Spanish name for Eaton Canyon, which was Precipio Canyon, or El Precipio. Each of the canyons in this area had their own water company, but Eaton Canyon was one of the bigger producers. According to Dr. Hiram Reid, who wrote extensively about this area in his “History of Pasadena” book, published in 1895, there were a total of 50 water tunnels that supplied water to the Pasadena area, then referred to as Pasadenaland.
|A shallow tunnel (about 15 feet deep) next to the second falls. There are probably others in side gullies.|
In those days water was measured in miner’s inches. A miner’s inch was equal to nine gallons of water per minute. According to a report published on Oct. 14, 1891 in the Star, Eaton Canyon produced 40 miner’s inches on average, while Rubio Canyon produced 15, Las Flores Canyon produced 10 and Millard Canyon produced 7. In addition to these canyons there were three other water sources; Painter’s System, Sheep Corral Springs and Ivy, Thibbet & Flutterwheel Springs, which produced a combined amount of 170 miner’s inches.
|When I was a kid the old timers told me this was once a deep water tunnel, with a metal door on the front.|
In order to remember the Tunnel Trail you would need to be at least in your mid to late fifties, as I am. Eaton Canyon was my playground as a kid, and I used to hike this amazing trail regularly. The trail was built sometime around 1902, or possibly even earlier by the Precipice Water Company. It was never intended to be available to the public, but was discovered by a few hikers, and word spread like wildfire.
As I remember it, the beginning of the trail was well hidden, about sixty feet above the canyon floor. Some people called it the Ladder Trail or the Staircase Trail. Embedded in the rock were a series of upright rails, with a thick steel cable that ran between them, acting as a safety line that allowed hikers to pull themselves up at the steeper areas. It's possible that these rails were originally used to haul rock out of the inside of a tunnel bored through the mountain high above, then salvaged and later used to provide safety to the workers along the way.
There were four well built staircases along the way, which eventually dead-ended into a 20 foot rock wall. Sometimes there would be a rope hanging down, sometimes not, but either way you would need to scale the cliff to reach the small entrance to a water tunnel, which went all the way through the mountain. After crawling through the small hole you would be able to easily stand up, and straddle a few water pipes on the way to the other side. The tunnel was nearly straight, which allowed enough light in so that you could almost make it to the middle before things went pitch black. From there you would have to feel your way around for twenty or thirty feet, until light became visible from the other side.
|A remnant of the old tunnel trail. Originally there was a thick safety cable that ran through the top hole.|
"A few rods below the falls the mountain wall spreads and rises in a vast amphitheater, near the top of which a tunnel is cut through to an upper canyon and second falls, and water piped out from that high point. There is a narrow foot trail leading up to the tunnel and the crest, where those who want to try a little bit of dizzy mountain climbing can make the venture.”
~ Dr. H.A. Reid’s Pasadena Handbook, 1905
|Some of the Tunnel Trail's rails are stamped with WVARAILCO. They were manufactured here, around 1902.|
Closing this route forced hikers to look for a new way to reach the upper falls, so they devised a far more dangerous way on the opposite side of the canyon, dubbed Razorback Ridge. At first, few were brave enough to try it, but as the internet came into existence, this route grew increasingly popular. A few people fell to their deaths, but these incidents were only occasional. Then came YouTube and other video sites. Hikers would post videos of themselves, sliding off the top of the second falls. These proved to be irresistible to many. Deaths and serious injuries skyrocketed, as did rescues. The photo of Razorback Ridge seen below was taken fairly recently from just above the old tunnel entrance.
|After the Tunnel Trail was destroyed, hikers looked for a new route. This is known as Razorback Ridge.|
Eaton Canyon's Red Zone
Rescues before the internet were rare, but once videos of the second falls began to surface, inexperienced climbers often got stuck on the side of the cliff or behind the first falls. As this problem continued to grow, the forest service was in a quandary about how to handle the situation. They had debated building a safe trail, but reasoned (wrongly) that it was impractical, too expensive, and would be impossible to maintain. By the way, that trail already exists. I know, because I built it, in secret. It took me 12 months to complete by myself, but now I've allowed it to go back to nature, after I started seeing trash on it from some hikers who had discovered it. Don't ask me where it is, I won't tell you.
|A closure order was enacted in January of 2016, which slowed the number of rescues tremendously.|
On January 26, 2016 the area above the falls was officially closed to hikers, multiple signs were posted, and for a few weeks the Sheriff's Dept. patrolled the area. Threats of fines and arrests were posted, but is this enforceable? Not likely. Virtually all of the warning signs have since been removed or painted over, but the well publicized threats seem to have slowed the traffic tremendously. Interestingly, if you read the original closure order, it expired on January 25, 2017. In addition, you can get a special permit to access the area behind the first falls by request. To read the entire closure order, click here. The Channel 2 News video above was taken two days before the closure. It's a badly edited segment of a cell phone video that doesn't show how far this girl would have fallen if her leg hadn't hooked a tree branch. To view the full video on YouTube, click here.
|A marker for one of the many fatalities on and around Razorback Ridge. Countless others have been hurt.|
What's Behind The First Falls?
The main magnet for hikers who braved Razorback Ridge was the second falls, approximately the same height as the first, but with a "sometimes" deep pool that allowed for sliding off the top. And if that wasn't enough, an even higher platform was squared off about 20 feet higher for those seeking a bigger thrill. I used to slide off these falls all the time. Back then the pool below was about 15 feet deep, but I eventually stopped when my feet started hitting the bottom. Nowadays the pool is practically non-existent, at least in the summer months. This area and the area above it inevitably became inundated with graffiti, but fortunately a large group of canyoneers received special permission to clean up most of it, just after the closure. You can view a video of the slide off the top of the second falls by scrolling down this page.
|Originally the first fall was called the LaBelle Cascade, named after Benjamin Eaton's daughter.|
|Top of the falls. Notice the water pipe on the left. The light area was once the location of the Tunnel Trail.|
|The second fall has a deep pool that allows for sliding off the top or jumping from an even higher platform.|
Muir's Mention of Water Tunnels
In one of John Muir’s many books and journals, he briefly mentions Eaton Canyon’s water tunnels. On the first day of his hike, he was wearing a new pair of shoes that were blistering his feet, and the heat was oppressive. So, he only made it as far at the mouth of the canyon. I take that to mean the area that is now above the bridge. At that point he came across a man who invited Muir to camp with him in his small hut. The man was out of candles, so they sat in the dark, and the man unfolded his plans for the future.
|Although it is dry in this photo, I consider this the third falls. None of the huge logs were here two years ago.|
“He was going to settle among these canyon boulders, and make money, and marry a Spanish woman. People mine for irrigating water along the foothills as for gold. He is now driving a prospecting tunnel into a spur of the mountains back of his cabin. "My prospect is good," he said, "and if I strike a strong flow, I shall soon be worth five or ten thousand dollars. That flat out there, " he continued, referring to a small, irregular patch of gravelly detritus that had been sorted out and deposited by Eaton Creek during some flood season, "is large enough for a nice orange grove, and, after watering my own trees, I can sell water down the valley; and then the hillside back of the cabin will do for vines, and I can keep bees, for the white sage and black sage up the mountains is full of honey. You see, I've got a good thing."
|This was a key part of the water system. From here water was pumped though the tunnel to the other side.|
In his later years, Muir went to live with his sister in Daggett, CA when he became too ill to care for himself. Daggett was a small borax mining town, founded in 1883 and closely associated with Calico, located in the Mojave Desert. Originally the town was to be named Calico Junction, but this would have been confusing, since it was right next to Calico. Daggett became quite a big city in the 1890s, boasting to have three stores, two restaurants, three saloons, three hotels, a lumberyard, and even a Chinese eating place. But after 1911 when richer borax deposits were discovered to the north in Death Valley, all the mining operations moved, which caused Daggett to go into a steady decline. Today it’s considered a ghost town, but there are still around 200 people living there.
|An huge log suspended above the canyon. Imagine the height and power of the flood that lodged it up there.|
Does The Main Water Tunnel Still Exist?
Around 1980, Eaton Canyon's main water tunnel was destroyed, either by the forest service or an outside agency they contracted. It was blown up on both ends, but was promptly dug out by furious hikers. The second time there were major explosives placed, which thoroughly sealed the tunnel. But it does still exist, and you can see proof of that in the first three photos on this page. The tunnel went all the way through the mountain, and was actually not a water tunnel per se. Rather it was a diversion tunnel that created a shortcut to bring water down from high up in the canyon. The first two photos at the top of this page show the back side and the third photo, taken in 1978, shows what the front of it used to look like.
|In order to reach the top of this fall you need to climb up the logs and through a hole between the boulders.|
Originally there was only a small hole at either end that you would descend into before being able to stand up. But after the tunnel was blown up the rock wall that surrounded a metal door on the back side collapsed. I have tried to get to the front side, but that area is very dangerous and hard to access, so as of yet I have been unsuccessful. Looking into the back side of the tunnel it would appear to only go in for about 20 feet, however if you climb down into the hole, something interesting has happened. Over the last 40 years the earth inside has settled, leaving a two foot high gap below the tunnel's ceiling, and it goes in deep.
|Sometimes you'll see these terrestrial garter snakes in ponds below the waterfalls, as well as small trout.|
|I call this one Froggy Falls, because of the frogs along the walls. It's a great swimming hole in the summer.|
A Brief History of Eaton Canyon
Eaton Canyon was originally called “El Precipicio" by Spanish settlers, because of its steep gorges, it was later re-named after Judge Benjamin Eaton, who built the first Fair Oaks Ranch House in 1865, not far from Eaton Creek. Judge Eaton was the first person to use irrigation from the creek to grow grapes and was instrumental in the development of the Mount Wilson Toll Road in 1891. He also proposed a tramway to Mount Wilson which was eventually built to Mount Lowe instead.
|Some parts of the canyon are as narrow as ten feet across. Eaton Canyon was once known as El Precipio.|
|Two of the farthest falls in the canyon, taken in 1978. That's my buddy Phil on the left and me on the right.|
Additional Photos - Eaton Canyon
All watermarked photos are copyrighted and cannot be used without my consent.