Throwback Thursday | When There Was Nothing

Only three centuries ago, everything we know in San Gabriel Valley did not exist – not even the San Gabriel Mission

PHOTO: California State Library | News | Just a train’s ride away to California! (1885)

The San Gabriel Valley (Spanish: Valle de San Gabriel) derives its name from the San Gabriel River which got its name from the Spanish Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (est. 1771).

In 1886, Pasadena became the first independent incorporated city. Today, the valley has thirty-one cities with a population of well over 1.5 million. The population of San Gabriel Valley is greater now than the entire population of California at the turn of the century (1900).

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | Mission San Gabriel Arcángel (1886)

Going back in time a mere three centuries, and everything we associate with our valley vanishes. No major structures. No motorized vehicles or paved roads. No Victorian ranch houses, craftsman bungalows, Spanish-style or mid-century homes – no neighborhood tree-lined streets.

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Only small villages inhabited by the Tongva Indians existed back then.

Imagine that for a moment: all we know is missing. Electricity. Computer games, television, radio, and internet. Modern conveniences such as air conditioning, microwave ovens, and iPhones. Motion pictures. Netflix, Google, and Amazon Prime. Lakers and Clippers basketball. Lambs (in mean, Rams football). Angeles and Dodgers baseball. No Vince Scully?!

PHOTO: Rick Thomas Collection | News | The Raymond is the first resort hotel in San Gabriel Valley, South Pasadena (1888)

The first Europeans to visit California entered San Diego Bay on September 28, 1542 (Juan Rodriguez Cabrillo).

Today, if you stood next to South Pasadena’s water tower, you will see a rather striking visual feature that has endured for thousands of years. It predates our arrival and the massive urban terraform that followed.

PHOTO: Library of Congress | News | Mission San Gabriel Arcángel with San Gabriel Mountains

Once named Sierra Madres, it stands tall and proud as a timeless sentinel of the valley. The San Gabriel Mountains is witness to nearly two million humans moving in and will remain long after the Zombie Apocalypse has moved them out (which I reckon is just around the bend).

Throwback Thursday is written and produced by Rick Thomas


Author Rick Thomas is the former museum curator and vice-chair of education for the South Pasadena Preservation Foundation. He served on the South Pasadena Natural Resources Commission, helping to maintain a strict policy protecting the city’s great old-growth trees. Using touchstone photographs from his own collection—one of the San Gabriel Valley’s largest accumulations of historical images and artifacts—as well as national, state, and local historical archives, Thomas provides a window to his city’s past and an understanding of why its preservation is so important.