Esme Canyon Mines

Tunnel A is one of three water tunnels in Esme Canyon. Tunnel B supplies Henninger Flats with water.

Esme Canyon Mines

County: Los Angeles

Primary Mineral: Water Tunnels

Years of Operation: Tunnel B is marked 1977. This tunnel supplies water to Henninger Flats. Tunnels A and C were apparently unsuccessful tunnels that did not produce water. Both were probably dug around the same time period of Tunnel B.

Nearest City or Landmark: In Esme Canyon, Above Henninger Flats and Altadena

Depth: Tunnel A is slightly less than 20 feet deep, Tunnel B is locked and the depth is unknown, but appears to be deep. Tunnel C is only about 8 feet deep.

Tunnel B is a locked mine which supplies water to Henninger Flats. Markings indicate it was dug in 1977.

Esme Canyon 

Esme Canyon is a lesser known canyon just north of the Henninger Flats Helipad, a mountain that is terraced on the western side with three or four plateaus, used to land helicopters in the event of a fire. The canyon runs roughly west to east and drains into lower Eaton Canyon. Everything below the final waterfall is considered the lower part of Eaton Canyon. Canyoneers who rappel from upper to lower Eaton Canyon know Esme Canyon as the home of the nearly forgotten Telephone Trail, which leads to the top of the last waterfall in lower Eaton Canyon. Upstream from the Telephone Trail are three water tunnels, one of which is used to supply Henninger Flats with presumably non-potable water. The other two are shallow, and were apparently abandoned when they did not produce enough water to fulfill the needs of Henninger Flats.

A rare look inside of Tunnel B. I took this blind shot by wedging my hand through a small gap in the door.

I found these tunnels by accident one day, while on the way to an old abandoned campground called Idlehour in upper Eaton Canyon. At that time Tunnel B was locked with a single padlock, which has since been replaced by two locks and a chain. Although I will probably never have access to the inside of this tunnel I was able to take a blind photograph of the inside, due to a small gap in the door which allowed me to wedge my hand inside, while holding the camera. The photo above tells me there is a cement dam immediately inside, holding the water that supplies Henninger Flats. I have no idea how deep this tunnel goes, but echoes from water drops inside indicate that it’s quite deep.

 In front of Tunnel B there is a staircase that leads into a small side gully. Tunnel C can be found there.

Many water tunnels in the front foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains are converted from old gold mines, dating back the 1890’s. William Henninger was in fact a gold miner, however I believe these particular tunnels were dug strictly for water. Sometimes converted gold mines still have the old ore cart rails inside, but without seeing the inside of Tunnel B I’ll never know whether or not this was one of them. Fire Department personnel occasionally patrol this area. The tunnels are not on private property, but the first time I located these them I was politely asked to leave. I was told that this was for safety reasons, but I’m sure they just want to protect Tunnel B from being broken into.

 Tunnel C is the most shallow of the three mines. It did produce water, and may still be in progress.

History of Henninger Flats

These flats were originally homesteaded by a gold miner and farmer named William Henninger in 1886. From 1902-1907 the United States Forest Service maintained an experimental nursery here, growing various species of coniferous trees to bring back burned forested areas to their former state. On December 17, 1928 this area was purchased by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors with the purpose of maintaining a high altitude forestation nursery and arboretum. 

 This is a mining display at nearby Henninger Flats. The ore cart was most likely taken from a local mine.

Today Henninger Flats is operated by the Los Angeles Fire Department’s Forestry Division, which maintains the nursery and conservation center here. Three terraces of campgrounds are available for those who wish to camp overnight or picnic in the daytime. There are several points of interest here, including an old miner’s cabin from 1875 (pictured below). Several mining and fire artifacts are spread around the grounds, including the mine cart pictured above, probably taken from a local mine. 

 This is the first house built at Henninger Flats in 1875. William Henninger's cabin is pictured below.

The photo below is a rare shot of William Kimber Henninger in front of his cabin, donated to the Henninger Flats Visitor’s Center by one of his descendents, James David Aguirre, author of "Warrior With A Pen”. The photo was taken in the 1880’s. Henninger married a Native American woman from the San Diego Mission Indian “Diegueno” tribe. The woman or girl seated next to Henninger may be his wife or his daughter, Louisa Emelia Henninger “Kumeyaay”. This photo is mounted inside the Visitor’s Center beside other members of the Henninger / De La Ossa Family, dating from the 1880’s to the 1920’s.

Rare photo of William Henninger's cabin. The woman to William's left is probably his Native American wife.

Henninger Flats is also home to the old Castro Peak Lookout Tower, a fire watch station taken from the Santa Monica Mountains which operated from 1925-1971. Some of the original artifacts from the tower can be seen below. Next to the fire lookout tower is one of two sets of wheels from the original OM&M Tram. The other half can be found at the rebuilt shelter at Inspiration Point, near Mt. Lowe. OM&M stood for One Man and Mule Railway, a small tourist tramway that connected Inspiration Point to Panorama Point, overlooking Eaton Canyon. Operated by one man and his cantankerous mule Herbert, the two-foot-gauge tramway operated from 1917 to 1935. Herbert supplied the power to move the open bench car along the three mile trip. To keep dust off the passengers he pushed the car, rather than pulling it.

The Castro Peak Lookout Tower operated from 1925-1971 and was later moved to Henninger Flats.

If you visit Henninger Flats, be sure to walk into the Visitor’s Center, located on the first floor of a two story building on the grounds. There are no signs indicating that it’s there, but the door always seems to be open. Inside you will find a wide variety of old artifacts dating back to the 1800’s. Included in the center is a mammal display as well as a bird display, animal skulls, Native American artifacts, a bottle and mineral display, old telephone insulators, items from a pioneer cabin and rare Henninger and Mt. Lowe photographs. From December through March, free trees are available to the public for conservation purposes. 

Artifacts located inside Henninger Flats Visitor's Center. Some of the items in this room are ultra rare.

The Mount Wilson Toll Road

Henninger Flats is located next to the Mt. Wilson Toll Road, which begins in lower Eaton Canyon. It is approximately one third of the way up to Mt. Wilson. Between 1891 and 1936 there was actually a toll house that charged hikers to walk on it, and no motor vehicles were allowed. The first proper trail built to Mt. Wilson began in Sierra Madre through the Little Santa Anita Canyon, but a full sized road was needed to transport instruments for the Harvard telescope to the top of the peak. In 1889 Judge Benjamin Eaton convinced a group of Pasadena businessmen to contribute the capital needed to build the road.  These 18 men incorporated “The Pasadena and Mount Wilson Toll Road Company”, which was initially a failure. But within a few years five of the original investors reorganized and refinanced the project.

A Model-T Touring at the Mt. Wilson Toll House in 1914. At this time cars were still discouraged.

The original plan of a twelve foot wide road was replaced by a four foot wide trail, and within five months a usable ten mile trail was established. By July of 1891 the trail was opened to the public, with a fixed toll of 25 cents (the equivalent of $7.00 today). 50 cents was charged to ride on horseback. This trail was called the “New Mt. Wilson Trail” and soon became more popular than the old Sierra Madre Trail. Foot and animal traffic became so heavy that by 1893 the trail was widened to six feet, which allowed for two way traffic. By 1907 the trail was widened once again to ten feet. Most of the work was done by hand by Chinese laborers and mule-drawn scrapers. 

Mack truck transporting a 4.5 ton, French built 100 inch mirror in 1917. The lens took 11 years to build.

By 1917 it was widened once again to a full 12 feet, to facilitate the transportation of parts for the 100 inch Hooker Telescope. Although it was accessible to automobiles, the sharp turns and precipitous edges made for a dangerous drive. After making the first ascent in an automobile in 1907, Mr. L.L. Whitman of Pasadena said, “Not for five hundred dollars would I make that trip again." For those preferring not to drive, the popular Mt. Wilson Stage Line was available. In addition to the Toll House pictured two photos up, which was located near the modern day Pinecrest Gate, there was a second one, located near the Eaton Canyon Nature Center at the base of Eaton Canyon.

In the late 1800's the road was opened to hikers and horses, but for a price you could charter a wagon.

Beyond Esme Canyon 

As mentioned earlier, Esme Canyon is the canyon north of the road that leads to a helipad above Henninger Flats, just off the Mt. Wilson Toll Road. At that junction, looking to the left, you will see lower Eaton Canyon. Originally Eaton Canyon was called “El Precipicio” by Spanish settlers, because of its steep gorges. John Muir had a special fondness for Eaton Canyon, calling it the “Yosemite of the San Gabriels” and wrote about it extensively in his journals. In fact, he mentions talking with a man who lived near the base of the canyon whose dream was to build a water tunnel at the back of his shack and sell the water to the city.  At that time Pasadena and Altadena were mostly orange groves and vineyards, and water was in high demand. Many of the water tunnels in this area were once gold mines that later merged with water companies. 

Foggy silhouettes in the oak woodlands between Esme Canyon and upper Eaton Canyon, near Idlehour.

Benjamin Davis Wilson, also known as “Don Benito” recorded the first exploration of the mountain that would later bear his name, Mt. Wilson. Starting out as a fur trapper and trader in Tennessee, Wilson would eventually become the second mayor of Los Angeles, and the grandfather of General George S. Patton. He owned Rancho San Pasqual around 1852, and he ran a winery out of his home, called “Lake Vineyard. This area is now known as San Marino. Wilson held dual citizenships in both Mexico and the United States. In 1864, Wilson led the first white man’s expedition to a high peak that now bears his name, hoping to harvest wood for his wine vats. The route of his original hike began in Sierra Madre and became known as the Wilson Trail, a predecessor of the Mt. Wilson Toll Road. Today Mt. Wilson is a center for television and radio towers, but it was once more famous for several observatories at its peak. 

California Newt found in upper Eaton Canyon near Idlehour. I asked a girl to hold him for this photo

A Mystery Tunnel In Upper Eaton Canyon

One day while hiking from Esme Canyon to upper Eaton Canyon I noticed a mysterious cave-like opening high on a cliff wall. Since there are no "known" natural caves in the San Gabriels this was of particularly interest. It seems illogical that a gold mine or a water tunnel would be dug in such a precarious place as this, but in my travels I’ve seen even stranger things. This bright quartz veins above it may be a clue, but without climbing up there it will remain a mystery for now. A fall from this height would mean certain death.

A tunnel spotted in upper Eaton Canyon high on a cliff wall. There are no natural caves in these mountains.

Additional Photos - Esme Canyon Mines

All watermarked photos are copyrighted and cannot be used without my consent.