Sierra Madre Historical Preservation Society
167 E Mira Monte Ave.
Colonel Wilbur Merritt Sturtevant 1841-1910
Wilbur Sturtevant was born in Ohio on November 2, 1841. His father was a preacher,
although he spent much of his time making matches for a living, a vocation young
Wilbur learned and practiced. Shortly after the outbreak of the Civil War, Wilbur joined
the Ohio Volunteers, fought in several minor skirmishes, and was discharged in 1864.
Following his discharge, he married Mary Jane Davis and settled down in Ohio to what
seemed destined to be an uneventful life.
Fate plays strange tricks on people however. Sturtevant (later known to friends as
“Sturde”), after fathering three daughters (one who died when very young), was for
some reason unhappy with his life. He abruptly abandoned his family and headed to
the West. For more than a decade, Sturtevant drifted from mining camp to mining
camp, always seeking but never finding a fortune. He and two companions made a
prospecting trip to Death Valley that ended in disaster; both his companions perished in
the desert heat and Sturtevant barely made it out alive. Following this adventure, he
spent several years working in a gold mine in Leadville, Colorado.
In 1882, or thereabouts, Wilbur picked up stakes and drifted to California. After pausing
for a spell at the mines near Action, he crossed the San Gabriel Mountains via an old
Indian trail “with 40 burros and a pay pack,” emerging from Millard Canyon into the San
Gabriel Valley. Sturde took a liking to these chaparral-clad mountains and decided to
settle in the new little foothill community of Sierra Madre. A lifetime of vagabonding
came to an end.
Sturte made a name for himself at once. Within a few years, his services as a mountain
guide, packer and trail builder were in constant demand. The pack stables and corrals
at the head of Mountain Trail Avenue, later known as the Mount Wilson Stables (now
Mount Wilson Trail Park next to our museums), was for many years Sturde’s main
hangout. Wilbur hauled food and supplies up the Mount Wilson Trail to various resorts.
He lived in what became known as ”The Honey House” tending bees when he was not
busy guiding and packing campers, hunters and fishermen into the mountains.
In 1892, during one of his frequent forays into the mountains, Sturtevant discovered a
beautiful retreat shaded by a grove of big cone spruce near the head of Big Santa Anita
Canyon. Here he decided to build a resort, and the first Sturtevant’s Camp, consisting
of several small tents, was opened to the public in the spring of 1893. In those early
days the only way to reach the camp was by way of the long trail over Mount Wilson.
By 1897, Sturtevant had refurbished an abandoned trail to Winter Creek, extended it
over Mt. Zion to his camp, and constructed wood-frame cabins for his visitors. (The
creation of this better and faster trail to the camp, The Sturtevant Trail, is a story for
another day. And, alas, this trail was mostly forgotten when the Chantry Flat road went
in from Arcadia.).
For many years, Sturtevant Camp was one of the most popular hostelries in the San
Gabriel’s. Families regularly spent their vacation there, and hikers made it a stopping
place on trips into the back country. Fame for Wilbur brought with it a totally unexpected
development and started him on the road to excessive drinking and decline.
Somehow the news of his popular mountain resort traveled back to Ohio and to his
family (remember them?), who had long since given him up for dead. His wife and
daughters immediately set out for California to join him. Amazing stories would be
exchanged between the family members (Wilbur had incredible stories: of his Death
Valley and mining years), as Wilbur claimed that he sent them letters, but received none
from them, and assumed they wanted nothing to do with them, and they assumed he
was dead. The family settled in Sierra Madre and proceeded to “reform” Wilbur and
convert him to their brand of Christianity. Never was a husband so hen-pecked. ”The
continued preachings of the W.C.T.U. from wife and daughters eventually turned him
into the town drunk” writes one of Sturtevant’s granddaughters.
In July of 1900, a fire that originated on the Baldwin Ranch threatened to burn through
Sturtevant Camp. Dodging walls of flames as he ran up the trail to the camp from
Sierra Madre, Sturtevant managed to help calm the camp guests, restore order, and
successfully fight the fire off from the camp.
Early in May of 1907, Wilbur was on the trail between Twin Peaks Saddle and Chilao
when he suffered a stroke. After crawling a few feet at a time to reach a cabin, he
loosened the packs on his animals, and pulled himself into a bunk inside. After waiting
two days, he managed to get to the corral where he was spotted and rescued. He was
taken on an 18 foot stretcher attached between two burros and brought down the
Sturtevant was taken to the Soldiers Home at Sawtelle in West LA (the predecessor to
the current Veteran’s Home and Hospital in Westwood). He recovered from his stroke
and returned home, only to suffer another stroke and be readmitted. He died there (of
“apoplexy”) on September 8, 1910, and is buried in the Veteran’s National Cemetery in
Westwood. His wife would die September 30, three weeks later, in Pasadena and would
be buried in Glendora.
Wilbur Merritt “Sturte” Sturtevant is today remembered by two place names in his
beloved San Gabriel Mountains: Sturtevant Falls and Sturtevant Camp, both in the Big
Santa Anita Canyon. He is also remembered for running, along with Charlie Grimes,
the Mount Wilson Stables, at the corner of Mountain Trail and Mira Monte.
His grandchildren would number several military men, including Colonel Wilbur
Sturtevant Nye – a well-medaled (including the Legion of Merit and Croix de Guerre)
West Point graduate and military historian, and an actor, Robert Carrol Nye, famous for
playing Scarlet O’Hara’s second husband, Frank Kennedy, in Gone with the Wind.
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