By: Sabrina B.
Date: February 05, 2021
Altadena, founded in 1887 as an unincorporated area of Los Angeles County, is sometimes overlooked in the shadow of its surrounding neighborhoods but, like most communities, Altadena has its own rich history and interesting characters who birthed it, developed it, and set it on its course to becoming the beautiful and diverse community it is today.

When Spanish settlers first came to the area, it was already inhabited by the Hahamongna (or Hahamog’na) tribe of the Tongva people. The Spaniards built the San Gabriel Mission a little to the southeast of Altadena’s current location in 1771 and then established Los Angeles in 1781. Other small agricultural communities began springing up all around Los Angeles soon after, many of which started as land grants given out by the Spanish, and later, Mexican governments. The Spanish government wanted to encourage their soldiers in the New World to continue living there as ranchers and farmers, a strategy the Mexican government continued to use after it gained independence from Spain in 1821. Altadena started out as a part of one of these Mexican land grants, a 14,403-acre area called Rancho San Pascual* that was given to Mexican citizen Juan Maríne in 1834. The rancho (which covered parts of modern-day Pasadena, South Pasadena, Alhambra, San Gabriel, San Marino, and San Pasqual in addition to Altadena) changed hands a few times over the next few decades, until the entire region came into the possession of the US in 1848.

Non-Hispanic emigrants from the East and Midwest began to move into the area in the latter half of the 19th century. They took note of this beautiful farmland sitting in the shadow of the San Gabriel Mountains and began to purchase and break up what had once been a part of the great rancho. This is when we get a few of the unique characters remembered in the annals of Altadena history.
We begin with Benjamin Davis Wilson who came to California seeking passage to China but decided to stay after being unexpectedly detained there. He got into politics, eventually becoming a Justice of the Peace, and was put in charge of Native American affairs. He was given the nickname “Don Benito” because of his benevolent treatment of those he worked with. Don Benito became the 2nd mayor of Los Angeles in 1851 and acquired part of Rancho San Pascual* in 1859. Today, he is remembered for these dealings in Los Angeles history as well as the San Gabriel Mountains expeditions he led, which partly inspired the naming of his eponym, Mount Wilson.

While his name may not be known to many beyond Mount Wilson fame, Benjamin Wilson went on to have a very famous descendant. His second marriage produced his daughter, Ruth, who married attorney and first mayor of San Marino George Patton Sr. and had George Patton Jr., who became a decorated WWII general.

Dr. John S. Griffin was another early settler in Altadena before it was known as such. He was a surgeon in the Army and put in charge of military hospitals in San Diego & Los Angeles in 1846. After his resignation from the Army, he decided to settle down in California. It was then he hired Bridget "Biddy” Mason, a famous figure in LA lore, as a midwife & nurse. Biddy was a former slave who had been set free in a successful lawsuit in 1856. The judge who ruled in her favor was Dr. Griffin’s brother-in-law, Benjamin Hayes. Dr. Griffin bought land in East Los Angeles and is known for developing that area, but he also bought part of Rancho San Pascual* in 1863.
Before becoming a judge later in life, another famous Altadena figure named Benjamin S. Eaton worked as a civil engineer, lawyer, and newspaper editor. He came to California seeking his fortune during the Gold Rush and moved to LA in 1851 and then purchased part of Rancho San Pascual* in 1858. Nearby Eaton Canyon is named after him.

In 1867, Eaton, Wilson, and Griffin developed the land further by building Wilson’s Ditch, an irrigation site which brought water from the Arroyo Seco to western Altadena Eaton’s irrigation techniques made it possible to live and grow crops in the area. They then sold part of the land to George Stoneman, who would later become governor of California. In 1873, they sold another part of the land to settlers from Indiana who called themselves the “San Gabriel Orange Growers Association”--AKA the Indiana Colony. This land was later developed into Pasadena and a portion of Altadena.
Then came the Woodbury brothers, John and Frederick, today thought of as the “Fathers of Altadena.” They moved to California from Iowa in 1880 and bought much of the land that would become Altadena. A friend of theirs, Byron O. Clark, had started the Altadena Nursery years before, coining the name “Altadena” from Spanish “alta”, meaning upper, and “dena”, a Chippewa word meaning “crown of the valley”. This was also a reference to the fact that Altadena was in higher elevation or north of Pasadena, which was founded years earlier. Clark gave them permission to use the name for their new subdivision. In 1887, they formed the Altadena Improvement Company in order to develop the land in accordance with their “Altadena Plan,” which called for a hotel, train station, and other developments. The brothers named many of the streets, built the railroad, and managed to draw the attention of other settlers to this “new” area called Altadena.

This is only the start to the history of Altadena. We have a lot more to uncover such as the Mt. Lowe Railway, the Cobb Estate, and the well-known Christmas Tree Lane. Join our tours to learn more about Altadena or wait for upcoming Stories.

* Land grant has sometimes been referred to as Rancho San Pasqual.