Johnston’s Lake, 1888. Photo courtesy of the USC Digital Archives.
Awhile back, I was re-reading Charles J. Fisher’s book on Highland Park which is brimming with old photos of the Northeast LA area. One photo that caught my attention was of a flock of sheep gathered around a small “natural” lake in the San Rafael neighborhood just north of Highland Park. I figured it was lake that had been filled in and forgotten because if it still existed, we’d know about it, right?
By coincidence, a few days later, I read an article in the Los Angeles Times about a garden in the San Rafael neighborhood which was said to be across the street from a lake. Could this be the lake in the photo? The article provided some geographical clues and with the aid of Google maps I was able to locate the general area of the mystery body of water. Time for a visit to the San Rafael Hills!
After a bit of driving around, we came across the street “Laguna” and behold, a lake! We didn’t behold all that much because the lake is surrounded by a chain-link fence and a green tarp so you can’t see it from the street. Unfortunately for us, the lake is owned by a private association of eighteen homeowners who have exclusive rights to the enjoyment of this tranquil body of water. There is a large gate guarding the private shoreline road and many signs reminding the passerby of no trespassing or public access. By the glances we received from some of the residents out walking their dogs, I take it this exclusivity is to keep the urban chusma such as ourselves away from the area. Well, no matter, my prying eyes looked and took it all in and the ducks seemed not to mind one bit! And luckily for you all, my friend was tall enough to hold his camera above the fence to snap a few photos.
History of Johnston’s Lake aka Mirror Lake
According to Within the Vale of Annandale by Donald W. Crocker, ex-Mayor of Los Angeles Prudent Beaudry (who lived on the property with his long-time aide and companion) created the lake around 1876 by using earth from a tunneling project on Burleigh Drive to block the San Rafael creek that flows through the area. Before this, the lake was the site of a natural pond fed by not only the creek but artesian springs as well. In fact this creek continues a somewhat natural flow as it winds it’s way through the San Rafael neighborhood. Many of the homes in the area have the good fortune of having the little brook run through their backyards. It is said the small waterfalls can sometimes be heard from the street. The creek makes a meandering journey to eventually meet up with the Arroyo Seco further south.
The San Rafael Winery was a vineyard located near the banks of Mirror Lake, as Johnston’s Lake was known in 1901. Amazingly, the building in the photo still exists. It was made into a residence in 1949 by a Pasadena city worker named Milt Winston.
After the death of Beaudry, a series of title holders took turns of the property. Eventually, an Englishman named Alexander Campbell-Johnston purchased the Beaudry Tract, as an end-of-life retirement refuge. The Campbell-Johnstons made the most of their Rancho San Rafael. Besides the winery, the land was used for pasturage and recreation.
After the passing of the elder Campbell-Johnston, the rest of his family became quite industrious. His wife built the magnificent Church of Angels on Ave 64 as an everlasting tribute to her husband. The Campbell-Johnson sons also were instrumental in the creation of the Annandale Line, a Los Angeles to Pasadena shortline train which made the crossing of the Arroyo Seco near what is now La Loma street. This route continues to be a pleasant way to get from Pasadena to Highland Park.
During my research I came across a funny article from 1905 about the road construction of Mountain Ave, a thoroughfare that runs right near the lake area (I’m not sure if this is now Ave 64 or La Loma). The article states the construction crew included a “gang of swarthy Greeks.” Since the company undertaking the construction brought their families with them, they couldn’t allow the swarthy Greeks to camp near their wives.
Nestled underneath the trees on the borders of the lake are several picturesque groups of tents: while on the farther side of the hill the Greeks have taken up their headquarters.
This road construction provided more earth for the lake’s dam which eventually quadrupled the size of Johnston’s Lake. The writer of the article could not help but remark on the natural beauty of the surrounding area:
The northerly end of the cut opens out with a full view of the lake, lying at it’s foot, fringed with trees and on either side of the roadway the hills stretch out with native timber, probably as heavy a natural growth as can be found within miles of Los Angeles.
The lake has also been home to some unfortunate and suspicious drownings: Frank W. Harris in 1901 and young Rule Bailey in 1903. One of the sadder cases was the murder/suicide of Mrs. Frederick C. Baker and her daughter Alvina in 1907. A suicide note lead authorities to the lake where they found their bodies washed up on the shore.
Then there was the mysterious case of 25 year old Helen Crawford of Alhambra in 1922. After being missing for four weeks, her semi-nude body was found hidden under sycamore trees near the shore of the lake. Police immediately suspected foul play and her family insisted she was under the spell of some kind of hypnotism. A psychic and his crystal ball were consulted. Despite the many clues pointing to a murder, the coroner eventually declared her death to be due to starvation.
Interestingly, this same article quotes residents referring to the area around the lake as a kind of lover’s lane and a place for “spooning parties” which I assume refers to certain types of amorous activities.
In the early 1900s, the lake shore was also a popular picnic spot for the Garvanza and Annandale chapters of The Audubon Society. Birds said to frequent the body of water in include: comorants, great blue heron, American and blue gray bittern, mallards, wood ducks and coots. Some of the domestic fowl that have been known to live on the lake: Muscovy ducks, Peking ducks, geese and even a swan! Many catfish were said to live in the lake and in the late 1800s, mountain lions were known to frequent the streams on hot days.
Many Indian artifacts have been found in the area along with ancient animal remains.
The San Rafael neighborhood experienced a flurry of homebuilding in the 1950s. In 1953, the Brookmere Assn came into being, limiting the lake’s use to the surrounding wealthy homeowners.
In the 1960s, the lake became polluted with run-off from flood control channels, emptying litter and debris into the exclusive waters. Despite the prestige of the residents and the funds to pressure with litigation, the association had a hard time persuading the County Flood Control District to clean up the lake. Finally after many years of persistence, in 1972, the CFCD agreed to create a pipeline diversion so dirty city water would bypass the lake and go somewhere else. Perhaps, a place where people don’t complain as much.
I would love to see Los Angeles’ waterways be open to everyone for recreation and for educational purposes. After my excursion to the lake and my furtive peeks through the hedges, the tranquilness of the lake infused me with a sense of calm and connectedness. Urban chusma need a little nature too…
For more on the San Rafael Creek, please see this post by LA Creek Freak.
A humorous tour of the San Rafael/Garvanza neighborhood and lots of other interesting information regarding Johnston’s Lake, including a video of the San Rafael Creek at this fun site: Pasadena Adjacent.
Sources for this post: Los Angeles Times, LA Creek Freak, Pasadena Adjacent, USC Digital Library, Bob Taylor Properties and Within the Vale of Annandale by Donald W. Crocker.