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9E Mount Lukens

Location: Los Angeles County, California

One of the great mysteries of our local peaks is the origin of this name. When McLain renamed it Mount Lukens, he was aware that earlier, the name of Sister Else Peak (sic) had been cited by the second Wheeler Survey (1875), but he felt that "mountains should be monuments to the men who have treasured and protected them". He added "What did Sister Elsie ever do for the mountains? Lukens was more deserving." Mount Lukens was accepted by then Forest Supervisor Charlton (1922) but the USFS hedged its bets by printing Sister Elsie as a subtitle on their next Angeles N.F. map (1925). To confuse things still further, a USGS benchmark on this summit reads "Sister Elsie" and although it seems to confer some sort of official (or at least prior historical) approval of the Elsie legend, it was not placed until 1931. The pedigree of this most puzzling name goes back to the first government survey map of the San Gabriels where Sister Else Peak was one of only six summits named. This spelling was continued but was shortened to Else Peak on J. N. Lintell's Map of California (1894). Unfortunately, the USGS has no data why it was so titled. This is partially because all early records of the Surveyor General's Office were destroyed in the "Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire" (1906). Also, the standards for accepting a given place name were once far more lax than they are today. Sister Else may have been the original Euro-American name given but this is all that can be said with any certainty. "Else" became Elsie on the GLO State of California map (1907), and similarly changed on the Forest Atlas of the National Forests of the United States (1908). This name has since become so embroidered with hearsay and conflicting dates that exactly whose sister she was may never be known. With full embroidery, it is imagined that Sister Elsie was a beloved Roman Catholic nun in charge of an idyllic and bucolic orphanage for Indian children called El Rancho de Dos Hermanas. Supposedly, this Elsie was aided in her many good works by several other nuns and by a few kind, but elderly, Indians who drew water from a well for her charges and a herd of cows. It is told that she tragically lost her life while nursing the victims of a smallpox epidemic. After her passing, the lamenting Indians extended her name to her well, and then to this peak that was directly above it This saccharine story has never been substantiated-but in fairness we should consider the difficulties in doing so. If there ever was any evidence locally, time and circumstance have hidden it well. Great uncontrolled fire storms consumed this peak and all the valley below it (1872, 1878), and others frequently occurred nearby. In those days, local citizens thought such fires to be lovely natural phenomena best left undisturbed. If there ever was any physical evidence of such an orphanage, it would definitely have been consumed in these flames.

Other records, such as GLO Township Plats of the area (1858-75) show nothing. Similarly, Monsignor Francis J. Weber, Historian of the Los Angeles Archdiocese (who wrote a monograph praising Sister Elsie], now avers he can offer no proof, but believes that at the very least, there once could have been monastic orders in the area. He adds "I wish I'd never gotten started with this thing". Further investigation, found only Sister Cecilia, Provincial Superior of the Sisters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, able to confirm that her order once owned property anywhere near this peak (ca. 1860's). However, Sister Aloysia, their national Archivist (for records 1809-1927), couldn't find mention of any Sister Elsie or Else. She admonished that this was "not a very likely name for a Catholic nun in any case". The first Los Angeles City and County Directory (1872) includes an advertisement for an "Orphan Asylum and School of the Sisters of Charity", but this doesn't stipulate that it is limited to Indian children only and it was not located in the La Cresenta, Valley. This ad also mentions the opening of a new "Los Angeles Infirmary", however the date is wrong if this was the locale where "Sister Elsie" died while nursing smallpox victims. County Records in Los Angeles show that there were smallpox epidemics in the area (1840, 1844, 1862, 1863 and 1869), but even the last one is years before surveyors began naming our local mountains. Could "Sister Else" merely have been a generous lay person whose good works were revered, but whose life was never written down? Local records are admittedly very skimpy before 1880. Alternatively, was it a private joke of Wheeler's or a reference to some other (and now equally forgotten) Elsie--or was it named out of whim for "somebody else's sister"? There are a surprising number of "Else's" on the Wheeler maps! As to the legend, could it just be a pastiche that was thrown together (after the naming) and composed of parts from many different actual events? One (or more) of these possibilities is likely to be close to the truth. While confirmation of an historical Elsie may never be achieved-the origin of the legend is known. Philip Begue is the only known source of the story so glibly accepted by Gudde and others, and he is widely presumed to be its sole author. Begue bought land below this peak (1882), and later became one of the first patrolmen in the new San Gabriel Reserve (1898). This provided his fabrication with historic touches that gave it a certain early plausibility. His reason for telling it might merely have been a senior citizen's need for attention. If so, he recognized his chance when he heard the groans that resulted when the USFS (temporarily) dropped the Elsie subtitle from its Forest map (1931). Begue, was notorious as a teller of tall tales, and this chance to embellish a vague place-name into the legend of a saint-like lady was evidently tailor-made for his talents. Begue's fable satisfied his listeners emotional needs, and so was eagerly accepted, primarily because it provided a "history" that was closer to what they wanted the past to be than what the truth often provides. As a result, a "Sister Elsie Well" was incorporated into the motif for a La Cresenta hotel (1932). Soon after, the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, Glendale Parlors (perhaps with full awareness of the financial boon that the Ramona legend has been to Hemet) attached a bronze plaque over this spot. That same year, Begue's yarn was further legitimized by being printed in Grace J. Overbeck's History of La Cresenta and La Cañada Valleys (1938). Today, such ill considered boosterism has become something of an embarrassment to some (Russ Campbell, Chair of the La Cañada Historical Society claims to have never heard of any Sister Elsie!) Yet her legend regains life each time it is repeated by those who seem to consider it a civic duty to recall the imagined grace of Old California. Carey McWilliams wrote, "fondness for the past is likely to increase as the past itself becomes more incredible."

Name first appears on Wheeler Survey Atlas Map 73 (1878).

Peak was on the original 1946 HPS Peak List. Weldon Heald climbed this peak in 1933.


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Updated 25-February-2003