Oliver Justice's Lost Claim

I found this site through the used of a hand drawn plat map, dated 1872, and hand drawn by Col. David Buel.
I found this mine site by studying an old plat map, hand drawn by Colonel David Buel in 1872.

County: Los Angeles

Primary Minerals: Gold

Years of Operation: The claim was established in the early 1870s. The duration of the mining is unknown.

Nearest City or Landmark: Near the confluence of San Gabriel Dam and the East Fork headwaters

Depth: The mine on the first plateau is 43 feet deep. On a second plateau there is evidence of another mine that has been covered by a collapsed wall above it. Above that is a third plateau, which as of yet has not been explored. And a possible second mine sight has been spotted from a distance to the south.

At the back wall of this prospect there are multiple blasting holes. In all there were over a dozen.
An abandoned exploratory prospect. Inside there are multiple blasting holes.

This mine site was discovered by way of an old plat map on a hand drawn mining claim filed by Col. David Buel dating back to 1872. The map did not give an exact location of Oliver Justice's mine, but a rough diagram helped me to locate it. This mine is in the main branch of the San Gabriel River, near a junction with the East Fork, and can only be reached during the dry season. Since finding this claim I have discovered one or more possible mines, further south, but that will have to wait until the summer. I nearly drowned getting stuck in quicksand while trying to reach it after a rainstorm in 2019. It also appears that there was at least one more mine located above the prospect seen above, but the mountain wall behind it apparently collapsed and blocked the portal.

Could this read OJ? It's hard to tell. These hand painted initials are located 50 feet above the lower mine.
High above the lower mine are two hand painted initials. They may actually read "O.J."

This is a well developed mine site, laid out of three distinctive plateaus. And at one time there was at least one road on site, to transport ore. I am positive that there is at least one more mine, buried under a collapsed mountainside on the second level, probably the main one. This was not a one man job. Either Justice leased out the mine site to others or he hired a number of men to work it. Justice was a rather well off man, and had the finances available to do so. It's also probable that he sold this claim before moving northward into the Narrows, where he spend the last few decades of his life.

These small brass markers survey key points on the Earth's surface. This one was found in brush above the mine.
Boundary marker, found in the brush. These markers are found throughout the San Gabriels.

Hiking with Pharroah

Yeah, I know, Pharroah is spelled wrong, but that's the way he spells it on his YouTube channel. There's probably nobody who knows the East Fork better than Pharroah (real name, Alan). He's been hiking this area for well over 20 years and so far he's produced over 500 videos. But even so, he hasn't seen it all. No one has. So I thought he might be interested in doing a mine swap. Usually I hike alone, but this guy was good company. He's got a great sense of humor and he's up for just about anything. He also has a keen eye for finding mines, and thinks differently than most people I've come across. We had planned on doing a video together on the History of the East Fork, but things fell apart when it came to planning. Nevertheless, it was great to finally meet him. And perhaps that video will still come together at a later time.

I generally hike solo, but for this one I asked Pharroah of YouTube fame to come along.
I mostly hike solo, but I thought that Pharraoh of YouTube fame would want to see this one.

Who Was Oliver Justice? 

Oliver P. Justice was born in 1848, one year before the official start of the California Gold Rush. He died in 1929, the same year as Wyatt Earp. Justice was 81, Earp was 80. Most newspapers report Justice lived as a hermit in the Narrows for the last 25 years of his life, however Will Thrall photographed his cabin way back in 1895, so by my calculations Justice may have lived in the Narrows for 34 years. His friends knew him as Old Hickory Justice. Others simply knew him as the Hermit of the East Fork

Oliver Justice was Azusa's first City Clerk, organized the first school board and became its first Postmaster in 1874.
Justice's appointment as Azusa's first Postmaster - Los Angeles Herald June 30, 1874.

Justice was the first postmaster of Azusa, and prior to that he was Azusa's first City Clerk. He organized and served on Azusa's first school board, as its president. In that day. postmasters of larger cities who made over a certain salary had to be directly appointed by the President of the United States, and by consent of the Senate. Oliver Justice may have been appointed to his post by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1874. By this time Justice had already caught gold fever. He owned one of the best claims in the lower canyon, near the junction of the East Fork and the main branch of San Gabriel Canyon. He may or may not have leased it out to different miners or hired a team to help him mine there. There are no known records of this mine, or how much gold the site produced.

After Justice abandoned or sold his first mining claim, he moved to the Narrows, where he live as a hermit for the remainder of his life.
Oliver Justice, Azusa's first Postmaster, possibly appointed by President Ulysses S Grant in 1874.

Somewhere along the way Justice grew tired of city living. Azusa had been proclaimed a dry town (long before Prohibition) because of alcohol fueled violence, and some have theorized that he had grown tired of people altogether. He decided to move to the remote region of the East Fork narrows, where he lived for at least 25 years as a hermit. The true reason for his decision to live alone would not be revealed until after his death in 1929. 

It was thought that he had outlived all of his friends and family members, but he was survived by a sister named Mrs. A.R. Courtwright of Sawtelle, and two nieces,
Mrs. Jesse Merry and Mrs. Susie Thompson, whom he had never met. Upon learning about their uncle's death the nieces unfolded the sad story of why he chose to isolate himself, which I will discuss further down on this page. Only once did Justice leave the canyon, when he was subpoenaed to testify in the shooting trial of John Knox Portwood in 1918, and that was not by choice.

Oliver Justice's cabin in the very early 1900s. In 1929 he was found dead on a cot outside the door.
Justice moved to the Narrows and lived as a hermit for 25 years. His cabin was built in 1895.

In the photo above you can see what Justice's cabin in the narrows once looked like. In the rafters he stored a hand-made coffin, which he was eventually buried in when his body was found by Ranger Trout, dead on a cot outside of the cabin in 1929. He was 81 when he died, and it is said he was unaware that the car had been perfected, or that man had flown across the ocean, or even that WWI had happened. Rangers had been looking out for him, bringing him provisions in his later years, and it is said that he was a collector of many cats. 

How Justice's pets survived in the narrows without being eaten is amazing. In that day grizzly bears, Ursus horribilis ("terrifying bear") still roamed the San Gabriels, although most were killed off by the 1920s. The black bears which live in the range today are not native to these mountains. Eleven problem bears from Yosemite that rangers were unwilling to kill were moved to these mountains in the 1930s and multiplied astronomically. In 2014, the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service received and rejected a petition to reintroduce grizzly bears to California, thankfully.

While it's true that Justice lived alone, he was not a true hermit. His cabin was built on a ranch owned by John Hibach, the son-in-law of George Trogden, where several other miners lived, many of whom were his friends. It was a remote place to say the least, especially in those days, before the East Fork Road existed, nearly 15 miles upstream from Camp Bonita. Justice was said to have have worked and owned one of the two richest claims in the narrows.

Not much remains of Justice's cabin today. Most of the stones were used to but the hut in the photo below.
Remains of Justice's cabin. It survived floods, but was destroyed by a modern day prospector.

When Justice was found in 1929 he had been dead for three or four days, partially eaten by animals. Ranger Trout found the body on a cot outside the cabin, and later Deputy Sheriffs Waybright and Brewster, along with Wallace Tiper from White's funeral home came to retrieve it. It was their intention to bring his remains back down into the city, to bury him in a cemetery. But upon seeing how decomposed the body was they decided to bury him near his friends in the narrows. Some say he is buried on a plateau in back of the cabin ruins, others say his grave lies on a mesa overlooking his old cabin above nearby Iron Fork.

This is the Hobo Hut, built by a prospector named Backpacker Dave. It was built with stones from Oliver Justice's cabin.
The stones and door from Oliver Justice's cabin were used to build Backpacker Dave's hut.

What Became of Justice's Cabin? 

The photo you see above is known as Backpacker Dave's cabin, or as many have called it "The Hobo Hut". Backpacker Dave was a modern day prospector who lived in the narrows for four years. He needed a place to stay, so he built this amazing structure out of pieces of flat slate. Unfortunately these rocks all came from Justice's cabin. The cabin had survived the great flood of 1938, only to be dismantled by Backpacker Dave. In fact, the door you see was the original door on Oliver Justice's cabin. Around the hut there's a huge slab of slate suspended by wires that was built as a swing, with two more swings nearby, made from wooden logs. The artifacts strewn around most likely came from the Stanley-Miller Mine, 1200 feet above the narrows on Iron Mountain's steep western side. The construction is amazing. There's even a small fireplace inside, but unfortunately a historic landmark was destroyed in its making. 

A photo of the Stanley-Miller cabin, taken in 1933, located 1200 feet above Justice's cabin.
Gordon Stanley at the Stanley-Miller cabin in 1933. The mine is 1200 feet above Justice's cabin.

The Bizarre Case of John Knox Portwood 

After Oliver Justice became a hermit, he only returned to civilization once, That was in 1918, when he was subpoenaed to testify at the murder trial of John Knox Portwood. John Knox had long been known as the badman of the canyon. He boasted of the six men he had killed, in Virginia, Texas, Arizona and California. His six-shooter even featured notches carved in the handle to celebrate his deadly deeds. Knox originally came to the East Fork in 1895 to mine, and to escape the law. He sometimes worked as a packer, moving supplies up and down the canyon, from camp to camp, and he built a crude cabin in Cattle Canyon. He was known to be a card shark, claim jumper, drunk, and generally someone most people were wary of.

On Christmas night of 1917 Knox was involved in a poker game at George Trogden’s cabin in the Iron Fork. After leaving the cabin a fight erupted between Knox and Herman Miller (his actual name was Herman Jakobasch), at Miller's cabin. Jakobasch was a German immigrant who lived in a small side canyon with his brother. Both men were drunk, and for whatever reason a heated argument ensued. Later that evening, Knox showed up at Oliver Justice’s door, bleeding profusely from the hand and the head. According to Justice, Knox claimed that two robbers had broken into Herman Miller’s cabin, and that Knox claimed he had tripped on rocks several times looking for help. The truth was, Knox had been shot through the hand and a bullet had grazed his left ear.

Justice told Knox to stay with him till daylight, when they would go back to investigate, after resting for awhile. Sometime during the night, Knox disappeared, and returned at daylight. He claimed that during the night he had gone back to the cabin to see if Miller was OK, and found him in the doorway, beckoning him as he approached. According to Knox, Miller said to tell his brother he forgave everything, took out a gun, and shot himself in the head.  Those familiar with the case theorized that after the first shooting, Portwood had returned to the scene of the gunfight and found that Herman Miller (Jacobasch) was still alive. He then put the second bullet into Miller's head, causing instant death. Knox would be arrested for murder a week later, by a Sheriff's posse.

An interesting side note: Ben Miller, partner of Gordon Stanley in the Stanley-Miller Mine was the first person to find a shallow grave that John Knox Portwood had dug to bury Herman Miller’s body. He showed it to his partner and they eventually pointed it out to the Sheriff. Apparently Knox had a change of plans, and for whatever reason, never followed through. The tale Portwood weaved after his arrest was nothing short of bizarre.

John Knox Portwood was a fugitive who murdered at least six men in several states. Oliver Justice testified in his murder trial.
Justice only left the Narrows once, to testify at John Knox's Portwood's trial in 1918.

Oliver Justice Called As A Witness

A great crowd assembled at an inquest at Reincke's undertaking establishment, over the body of Herman Miller (Jakobasch). The witnesses were Oliver Justice, M.H. Lovelace, Deputy Sheriff Nolan, C.E. Gauldin, City Marshall of Azusa; Dr. A.F. Wagner, the autopsy surgeon, and Fritz Jacobasch, brother of the deceased. The jury's verdict was that Miller came to his death from a gunshot wound to the head, inflicted by Portwood with the intent to murder.

Before his trial, Knox offered up a fantastic yarn that Miller was actually a German spy and that the Kaiser’s secret service had an espionage ring in the canyon. At that time, World War I was still raging, and anti-German sentiment had reached its peak in the America. Portwood pictured himself as a patriotic citizen defending the cause of liberty. He told federal officers that Miller’s cabin on the East Fork was often used as a rendezvous by one Fritz Schulenberg, who was then under arrest in San Francisco as a German spy. According to the Azusa Pomotropic (Jan 4, 1918) the federal officers searched the Miller cabin and combed the East Fork, but found no evidence to back up Portwood’s allegations

Although the spy story was not used at Portwood’s trial, it was widely played out in the court of public opinion, fueled by newspapers nationwide. Portwood's stated reason for the killing was self defense, but oddly, at least some of his bizarre spy story may have had a basis in truth.

After John Knox murdered Herman Miller, he wove a tall tale of a German spy ring in the canyon. The jury ate it up.
After Knox faced hanging by the state or possibly murder by German spies if he was set free.

Strange stories arose that a mysterious young woman known only as Madame H, an alleged spy who, along with Franz Schulenberg, a spy master already under arrest in San Francisco were both seen frequently in the canyon. And this story was even backed up by Charles Novatny, the deputy forest ranger who eventually ended Knox's life, with a bullet to the head. Novartny swore that he had seen Schulenberg in the canyon several times. A woman named Mrs. Frieda Sodern, who worked a concession stand at Camp Rincon was interviewed in hopes of identifying Madame H. At one time government investigators had even entertained the idea that both Miller and Knox were shot by German spies who broke into Miller's cabin, less than 24 hours after Schulenberg's arrest in San Francisco, for knowing too much about the spy ring. 

A 15 year old boy testified that he had seen an airplane flying over the East Fork at night, an unusual sight for 1917, and indeed, an aviator's outfit and 50 pounds of dynamite were found in Herman Miller's cabin.  There were stories of Germans employed as waiters and waitresses taking the treacherous PL&P Trail at night, for secret rendezvous in the the Narrows.  Newpapers even claimed that German spies were plotting to kill Portwood if and when he was released from prison.

John Knox Portwood's cabin in Cattle Canyon was the site of the shootout that ended his life. Benjamin Heaton moved in after Knox was gone.
Photo of Knox's cabin (left). After his death, Billy Heaton's son Ben (right) claimed it as his own.

This bizarre story was played out in the media, and the badman was acquitted. But this was not the end of the story. Shortly after, the skeleton of yet another man Knox was suspected of killing was found in Coldwater Canyon. His involvement could not be proven. Then, on June 12 of 1920, Knox made a fatal mistake. He had threatened two women who lived in Graveyard canyon after seeing them talking with rangers. After the threat was reported, two rangers went to Knox's cabin in Cattle Canyon to question him. Knox, drunk as usual pulled out his revolver and aimed it at Ranger Jack Dunne. The rangers ducked for cover and a gunfight ensued. When the smoke cleared, John Knox Portwood was dead, shot in the head by Ranger Charles Novatny. Other sources report he was shot in the back, but in either case, the self proclaimed "King of the Canyon" was dead.

This is George Trogden's second cabin. A friendly poker game here led to murder on Christmas Day of 1917.
George Trogden's cabin was somewhat close to Oliver Justice's, in a side canyon called Iron Fork.

Why Justice Became A Hermit 

In 1929, Oliver Justice died, at the age of 81. It was thought that he had no kin, but later that month it was revealed that he had two surviving nieces, Mrs. Jesse Merry and Mrs. Susie Thompson, both of Ontario. Justice had outlived all of his friends and family, save these two, who revealed to the L.A. Herald the true reason for his self banishment. Mrs. Merry said that after Justice disappeared, several attempts were made to bring about a reconciliation, but none were successful. 

Justice's true reason for choosing to live as a hermit was to get away from his family, after the death of his father. Apparently his father owned quite a sum of land, and Justice was either cut out of the will by his father or “in his opinion” cheated out of it by his family members. When his mother was still alive she said that if only she had been able to talk with him, the whole matter could have been straightened out. But after he left, he was never seen again by any of his relatives. The family claimed that he had never declared himself, and they did not exactly know what he felt was unfair about the settlement of his father’s affairs.

After Justice left civilization his family tried to reach out to him unsuccessfully. His dispute with them was over an inheritance.
L.A. Herald article, June of 1929, shortly after Justice's death. He was 81 years old.