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First Person Experience: Route 39’s history continues to fascinate

Amanda Larsh
Assistant News Editor

It may be easy to forget our past as our cities race to modernize, but on Route 39 in Azusa many things have remained the same for almost 100 years ago.

The plethora of possible hikes and scenic views on 39 keep visitors coming back for more. But few know of the rich history of the area.

“I can remember, years ago, when they had programs in the amphitheater,” said Bob Gollihugh, Monrovia resident and my neighbor.

“It’s just exciting to think of all the things they’ve had, I mean the stars that went up there, the bands that they had and the people that would go up there to hear the bands.”

The area’s close proximity to Hollywood make it perfect to shoot scenes for movies like “Mission: Impossible II” and “The Hunger Games.”

Winding up the 39, you pass the San Gabriel Dam and Morris Reservoir. The reservoir, completed in May 1934, was used as a naval weapons testing facility during World War II until it was transferred to the Department of Public Works in 1995.

Caltech utilized the body of water to develop submarine-based warfare systems such as submarine-launched missiles like the Polaris rocket, the first ballistic missile that could be launched from a submerged submarine.

Atop the mountain sits the quaint Crystal Lake Café, a building originally constructed as a tent store in 1934.

Its current, and fifth, proprietor, Adam Samrah, continues to feed weary hikers. Prior owners of the establishment include relatives of Eleanor Roosevelt.

Samrah explained the rise in the store’s popularity after being closed for 10 years due to the fire that ravaged the area in 2002, nearly destroying his home and almost killing him. He and his friend were able to survive the blaze by seeking refuge in a pond.

The solid stone house still retains its original charm, including an original walk-in fridge and river rock walls.

Since only the more serious hikers drive to the top of 39, he sometimes receives fewer customers on weekdays.

“I pay triple for everything to be taken up the mountain,” Samrah said of some of the difficulties of owning the store.

Despite difficulties in receiving supplies, he still manages to make amazing brownies.

Not far down the road from the café lies Crystal Lake, the only naturally occurring lake in the San Gabriel Mountains. It was named by then Pasadena Judge Benjamin Eaton after he claimed “the water is as clear as crystal.”

While many fish in the lake, its sparse stocking can make for poor fishing, causing fishermen like to practice the catch and release method in order to preserve the lake.

“It’s pretty fun here in the sense that it’s quiet, and it’s probably the closest you can get to from the,” said Pasadena resident Byron Lee.

“It’s kind of really like nature without going that far.”

The passing of the New Deal by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933 lead to a series of public works projects that built the amphitheater and dance hall in the Crystal Lake Recreation Center.

Despite its peaceful demeanor, grizzly bears wreaked havoc on the area. Earlier settlers in the 1900s almost succeeded in wiping-out the bear population after numerous children were mauled, but public works construction put men back into the territory.

The night of Sept. 19, 1934, Stephen and Heather Major tucked their children into bed and took a stroll through the forest. Upon returning, the couple found a grizzly bear tearing at their tent as their children screamed inside. Without thinking of the consequences, the couple ran to their children’s aide, only to be mauled to death as well before other workers could reach them.

Whether you are an avid hiker or just looking for a quaint day trip, the wide range of activities and sights to be seen can make for a unique adventure every time you visit.

Amanda Larsh can be reached at

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