The History of Adams’ Pack Station

Our story indirectly begins in 1905 with the arrival of Iowa-born Charley Chantry to Sierra Madre. He prospected his way here from the Black Hills of the Dakotas by way of the San Gabriel back country. He erected a sturdy tent cabin in Little Santa Anita Canyon from which he rented riding donkeys to kids staying at nearby Carter’s Camp. Soon his stock was packing into any and all of the mountain resorts from his Mt. Wilson Stables.

While packing to Sturtevant’s Camp, Charley passed through an oak-studded bench 600 feet above Big Santa Anita Canyon’s bottom at the San Olene Gap. With a reliable spring in adjoining San Olene Canyon (a corruption of the original Santa Oline) and the relatively flat land of an ancient slide, Chantry imagined this to be an ideal site for a small ranch. The details of his official occupation of the “flat” are a little fuzzy, even from reading John Robinson’s The San Gabriels. The 1977 printing suggests that his plans for a home and orchard were thwarted by the 1906 passing of the Forest Homestead Act which forbade such development. The 1991 copy reports that he was granted a permit for twenty acres in 1907, that he failed to act on his plans and that he allowed the permit to lapse, returning control to the Forest Service. Glen Owens, author of The Heritage of the Big Santa Anita believes the latter to be true and substantiates his claim with the witness of a Forest Service agricultural permit in Charley’s name. Whatever happened when and whether he was permitted, Charley and his dog, Patch, did occasionally occupy a tent here, grazed his stock here, and spent enough time here to have his name permanently attached to the area now known as Chantry Flat (formerly Poison Oak Flat).

Charley died in 1936, one year after LA County paved a road to his old stomping grounds from the top of Santa Anita Ave. The road in was originally planned as a highway to join the Angeles Crest (Hwy 2) at Shortcut Canyon. Thankfully the Forest Service never allowed it. It would have been a largely unwelcome introduction of modern civilization and would have obliterated the charm and beauty of both the Big Santa Anita and the West Fork of the San Gabriel River. Los Angeles county was permitted, however, to build a road into Winter Creek. They stopped short with a more logical and less intrusive terminus at Chantry Flat. The Civilian Conservation Corps built a campground here which was later remodeled by the Forest Service in 1958 (again in 2004-06) and designated a picnic area. It was at that time that they installed a 315,000 gallon water system, drawn from a lateral well, and built the existing firehouse w/ barracks and information center, as well as the two 3-bedroom houses used as employee housing. The original entrepreneur who set out to capitalize on the road to Chantry Flat was J.P. Steele of Sierra Madre.

At the time of the road’s completion, Steele owned First Water Camp, directly below the flat in the streambed. Also around that time, Cora Corum, who had taken charge of her husband, Bill’s, pack station in Sierra Madre after his death in 1931, was looking to retire. She sold the animals, tack and all other gear to Steele, who had obtained a special use permit in late ’36 for a pack station, store and parking lot at Chantry. He was one of a very few canyon dwellers who welcomed the road. He saw an economic advantage in being able to truck supplies to within 3/4 mile of his camp and then using his own pack train to carry them down the switchbacks; not to mention all the packing business in supplying 3 other active resorts and over 200 cabins. In addition, the family would now live in canyon-relative comfort in their new 2-story, drive-in home. The house was roughly located where the public flush-toilet facility sits today. The barn he built still stands virtually unchanged and he built a 2-room bunkhouse (now the backbone of today’s pack station home/store) at the southern-most end of the flat. All went well for a year until the great flood of March, 1938. Their Chantry Flat compound sat well above and away from any high water threats, but their private cabin, no. 23, and the main lodge/dining room of the camp were washed away. This loss along with the loss of 68 cabins and extensive trail damage convinced the Steeles that the future was not long for the canyon, at least not in a lucrative sense. They moved the 2-story house to Monrovia, parceled out the remaining cabins of the resort and sold the pack animals (Click Here for the story of their move). Now all they needed was a buyer for the pack station.

A young man named Frank Adams, who worked nights at the Supreme Dairy and sometimes helped out at Santa Anita Racetrack with his brother, Bill, was familiar with the managers of Orchard Camp in Little Santa Anita Canyon, Wayne Buck and a girl named May. Word was out that the Steeles wanted to sell and Wayne talked Frank into buying the pack station in the fall of ’38 with the promise that he and May would run it for him during the day. In his enthusiasm, Frank neglected to realize that his new acquisition came sans animals. He contacted the man who bought the equine from Steele and was able to bring home long-time, canyon-working mule, Jada. Things were up and running when, just a few months into the venture, Wayne left town for good. Not one to leave his customers hanging, Frank employed the help of his brother and his sister, Katie, and soon the business was expanded in the spring of ’39 with the addition of two donkeys and a lead horse. In spite of ever increasing business, Frank lost interest and sold the business to Bill.

Four years later, packing services were still much in demand, but, in order to help out with the World War II efforts, Bill took a night shift at a rubber plant. He accidentally caught his right hand in the rollers of an extruder which flattened and stretched the hand. Feeling the need to nurse his hand and his more severely damaged ego and self-worth as a packer, he sold out to Ross Macrae Axling, owner of cabin no. 9 in the First Water section, for 500 dollars. Word has it that Axling ran the pack station into the ground and frequently failed to deliver on time. Bill had come back part-time to help Ross and noticed a marked cruelty to the animals. In the fall of 1949, a recovered Bill Adams came to the rescue and bought back the station, for which he had to pay 1,500 dollars. Three and a half years later he married the diminutive Lila and together they packed supplies, delivered mail, brought out garbage, sold ice cream and soda, greeted visitors and generally took care of the canyon for 35 years straight.

In 1984, the Adams’ sold the station to Bill’s nephew, Dennis Lonergan and his wife, Jody, and together they ran it for 15 years. Bill and Lila semi-retired to a home in southwest Arcadia, but kept a cabin in the main section, no. 61 near the East Fork. Dennis had worked with Bill since he was 12 years old and both he and Jody operated the business as professionally as ever. He knew the canyon inside and out and she fit in perfectly, often packing, cleaning the campgrounds, patrolling, etc. on her own. Many times they could be found side by side repairing trails, putting new roofs on cabins,building retaining walls, installing water systems, cleaning outhouse vaults by hand, etc.

But times were changing for the small family-owned and operated pack station. Mother Nature was making it difficult to keep things running smoothly, financially speaking, and Jody took a full-time job in the city in 1999. The decision to sell this unique business and lifestyle was not an easy one. Dennis and Jody both realized that it would take a special person, or persons, to carry on in the traditional manner as much as possible. In 2000, after entertaining several offers, the pack station was sold to Kim Kelley, a recent divorcee and mother of three teenaged boys. After five difficult years, the cabin owners, the Forest Service, and Ms. Kelley all agreed that a new pack station owner is what this little community needed.

Deb and FredEscrow closed once again on the station April of 2006 for Deb Burgess, owner of cabin 70 at Fern Lodge, and her mother Sue Burgess. They put the Adams name back on the station; not only to honor Bill & Lila, but also to signify a return the Adams’ business model. They have infused an unprecedented amount of energy into the pack station and have the wherewithal to make it everything that former owners only dreamed about; and much, MUCH more!