The History of the Swarthout Family
Swartwout, Swartout and Swartwood

Big Pines Recreation Camp
Swartout, California


An all year resort. Winter and Summer sports in season, Cabins, dining room, fountain and store, Elevation 6,862 feet.

Swarthout Creek feeds into Sheep Creek which feeds Mirage Lake in Los Angeles County, California.

Excerpt from "The History of Big Pines," by Terry Graham

The Swarthout Valley Lodge has been a major part of Big Pines Park since the Park’s opening on Labor Day, 1924. Immediately following the construction of the Big Pines Club House, the Swarthout Valley Lodge was built. The Lodge itself was completed in 1925-26 and over the years contained the store, restaurant, soda fountain, and genuine post office. Even though Wrightwood was a short four miles away, Big Pines had the largest number of full time residents at the time. Thus, it was the first to get its own post office. In October 1926, the post office was established and Big Pines became its own separate town. Wrightwood would get its own post office two years later.

Photo taken by HELGA WALLNER, Wrightwood Historical Museum files.

The Lodge became known as the Swarthout Valley Lodge and the origin of its name contains interesting tidbits of local history. From about 1936-1941, a Jay Swarthout worked as a Los Angeles County Park and Recreation ranger and clerk in the new Big Pines Park up near Wrightwood, Ca..

Jay Swarthout also worked as a make-shift medic in the Swarthout Valley Lodge treating snow play injuries during the 30's and early 40's and preparing the injured for transport to San Bernardino area hospitals.

The Swarthout Valley Lodge, in which Jay worked most of the time, was named for the area's original homesteaders. The Wrightwood area was first homesteaded by a George Swarthout, and according to local history, his brother Truman and Nathan Swarthout. Nathan's son, Al Swarthout, later owned and operated the renowned Heart Bar Ranch in nearby Lucerne Valley, and his property extended into West Big Bear. Al Swarthout was also a forest guard and his area of assignment extended into the lower Swarthout and upper Swarthout areas-from lower Lone Pine Canyon (where George Swarthout's old homestead now belonged to Almon Clyde) and up to present day Big Pines. Jay Swarthout, the ranger/clerk at Big Pines was no relation to these Swarthout’s.

Jay hailed from the present day Altadena area...where another George Swarthout had the first idea of building a tramway up present Mount Lowe, a route that would head precisely in the direction of Wrightwood!

Altadena’s George Swarthout was so distracted by his project of building routes of travel through the Altadena foothills in the anticipation of residential expansion into what had always been referred to by rangers as the "front country," that his idea of the tramway was put on the back burner, so to speak. As far as history was concerned, the idea was conceived and directed by David J. Mac Pherson, and engineered by Andrew S. Hallidie and headed by Thaddeus Lowe, but it was actually George Swarthout who first thought of the general idea.

(As told in Scenic Mount Lowe-published by Golden West, page 9),

in June of 1886 George Swarthout became deeply involved with the Altadena project. There seems to be a very strong possibility, if you took in consideration of the dates and times, that George Swarthout of Altadena could have been Jay Swarthout's grandfather! To top it off, another Swarthout from Altadena, whose name was Walter Samuel Swarthout, bought property in Big Pines-Mescal Canyon area on April 10, 1914. The location was SB 0080N -0120W 018-homestead no 397505. Taken in the time and record of place of residence of Altadena, he could have been Jay's father! The Big Pines area attracts many things to it. In this case it might have been two different Swarthout clans. Three Swarthout’s family members from each clan!

Big Pines Ranger Station-The Swarthout Valley Lodge in the winter.

Photo taken by HELGA WALLNER, Wrightwood Historical Museum files

Over the years, the second building in Big Pines Park provided many services, but in its last years it provided the most important one. The Swarthout Valley Lodge kept the history of Big Pines Park within her four walls.

After Los Angeles County Parks and Recreation gave complete control of Big Pines Park to the United States Forest Service in July of 1941, the Swarthout Valley Lodge served as a café of sorts but subsequently became offices for the Forest Service. The lower level was used as storage for supplies used in the area around Big Pines, while the upper level became administration and patrol offices. One of the offices belonged to Big Pines Ranger Doug Milburn, who over the years had also become a Forest Service archeologist. An archeologist is someone who studies the buildings, graves, tools, and other objects of people who lived in the past. They not only study past history, they catagorized it. This is what Ranger Milburn did at the Lodge. The Lodge was where nearly all of Big Pines history had been stored. Those items included early documents, official photographs, written records of its beginnings and the revamping of the Park after it was given back to Forest Service control. The building housed bits and pieces of southland ski history in the park and the many Indian artifacts founds within her boundaries. Swarthout Lodge preserved history for the generations to come. It was supposed to be around for a long, long time. Thanks to a black hearted arsonist, the Lodge was not going to fulfill that destiny.

It was around 4:30 A.M., February 17, 1987, when a car full of teenagers sped eastbound on Big Pines Highway, while behind them and coming from the Big Pines Ranger Station, the orange and red glow of a growing fire was an unreal sight in the pitch blackness of an early winter morning. The role that the occupants of the speeding car played in the fire behind them was unclear until a further investigation would reveal that they were only driving to Wrightwood to report the fire.

Big Pines Ranger Station-Swarthout Valley Lodge

Photo: courtesy of USFS Ranger Micheline Bradley, Bonner’s Ferry Ranger District, Idaho; Terry Graham Collection

Quickly turning into a driveway on the outskirts of Wrightwood, they begged the residents to use the phone. The fire was reported at 4:38 am. and en route was a San Bernardino Sheriff patrol car. The Los Angeles County Fire Department received the fire call at 4:45 am., and was responding from a fire station in Pearblossom, which was about twenty-eight miles away. With red lights and siren rebounding off quiet mountain sides, the deputy responded to the blaze and observed a dark colored 1976-77 El Camino speeding towards Wrightwood from Big Pines. Suddenly a roadway that is usually as dead as a graveyard had vehicles coming out of the woodwork. The car was interesting but not yet suspicious, for the cause of the fire was not yet known.

The El Camino was suspicious. Was the driver’s intention to report the fire? The only call received came from the teenagers in the first car. The fire to the Swarthout Valley Lodge was more established "after" the El Camino was seen leaving the area. Did the occupant have a dark purpose? It was later speculated by some investigators that the driver remained at the fire scene to get his last bit of excitement before he fled. To this day, the El Camino remains a mystery. Big Pines

Ranger Doug Milburn writes, "At this time, it remains only speculation that it was somehow connected to the fire event."

Immediately behind the deputy Sheriff were many volunteers and county fire fighters from Wrightwood Fire Department. The fight that the men brought to attacking the Big Pines Ranger Station was awesome. L.A. County Fire Department Chief White gave them this praise, "The Wrightwood people did an excellent job of protecting that western exposure to the location."

(photo by Chief Bob Hedden, courtesy of Barbara Van Houten Collection)

Indeed! By protecting the western part of the burning structure, the Wrightwood fire volunteers prevented the intense fire from spreading to the forest canopy and the older Big Pines Club House. Not even taking time to wipe the early morning sleepiness from their eyes, the volunteers threw everything that they had into the battle. By themselves for forty five minutes with only 3,000 gallons of water, the Wrightwood firefighters turned back the flames and controlled the blaze. Finally other firefighters arrived from nearby Pearblossom and as far away as Acton. Because there was no water source for firefighting available at the location, water from nearby Mountain High Ski resort was trucked in.

Photo by Chief Bob Hedden, courtesy of Barbara Van Houten Collection

The intense fire had finally consumed the old Swarthout ValleyLodge, and as it collapsed on itself, firefighters put all their effort in protecting surrounding buildings and the forest area. The blaze took more than seven hours to extinguish, caused an estimated $300,000 in damage-$260,000 to the building and $40,000 to its contents.

No price tag for the damage would cover what was really destroyed inside the historic Swarthout Valley Lodge. It was all the historical photos, books, papers, and records that were destroyed. Most Wrightwood Volunteer firemen and local Forest Service rangers felt sick to their stomachs.

The San Gabriel Mountains Interpretive Association was especially impacted by the arson fire. San Gabriel Mountains Interpretive Association, who at the time of the fire was based in Wrightwood, provided conservation through education. They provided U.S. Forest Service Visitors Centers with books, maps, and other interpretive materials. They planned educational events and stewardship projects that taught others about our land and natural resources. They helped people realize that public land was our land. Then, like now, they have a positive impact on the forest, natural resources and people. They raised thousands of dollars for the building’s refurbishing as well as obtained $7,700 worth of books about the area’s plants and wildlife. These books were for sell to the public. Local historian Barbara Van Houten was the person most instrumental in the formation of the original SGMIA. These items from SGMIA, among others items of historic and informational value, were destroyed in the fire of Swarthout Valley Lodge.

Throughout the arson fire investigation, although Ranger Doug Milburn was his supervisor, Ken Harp and he worked as more-or-less equal partners. They directed a Forest Service task force that also included John Bennett (Fire Prevention Technican-Law Enforcment Officer), Ed Bodenlos (Special Agent), and Gene Schmoker, Fire Prevention Technician.

The Los Angeles County Fire Department arson detail made the determination that the fire was accidental. Eye witnesses, who included fireman, saw flames coming from the roof in the area of the Swarthout Valley Lodge’s heater unit. The investigator visited the site and was reported to have walked briefly through the burnt out remains but never really did any detailed analysis -beyond saying it was the result of a faulty furnace)-. Voila! Case solved. Or was it? Forest Service resource officer Doug Milburn was a little more suspicious of the cause of the fire. Ranger Milburn’s office had been located in the late Swarthout Lodge, he was aware that even though the building was sixty years old, electrical resources such as the water heater, wiring, and heating system were in perfect working order.

The origin of the fire appeared to have started against a center wall of the upper level of the Swarthout Valley Lodge, which caused great heat to build and spread evenly through the structure. The fire appeared to have been specifically located to cause the desired result of completely destroying the whole building.

The photographs taken by local photographer Dennis Nadalin and fire Chief Bob Hedden had revealed an even burn. The center portion of the heat was precisely in the center of the building. The upper level collapsed onto the lower level as both south and north exterior walls crashed inward. Based on the behavior of the fire, Ranger Doug Milburn believed it to be the result of someone intentionally setting the fire. The California Fire Marshal’s Officer concurred with Milburn’s findings. However, the Los Angeles County Fire Department arson detail did not. No report was taken by that office.

USFS Ranger Doug Milburn wrote, "As result of his careful screening of the side door area, USFS Fire Prevention Technician (FPT) Gene Schmoker actually found a door hasp with the missing lock that first gave indications of a break-in." It was a small piece of evidence that experienced arson investigators had earlier missed. It was also proof positive that person(s) unknown unlawfully entered the location to commit larceny.

During the course of the investigation, The USFS Forest Service investigators were told by one of their informants that a person named Mark Hurst had told them he had started the fire by lighting a pile of papers against the wall. Closer observation of the crime scene revealed that the suspect tried to force open the safe in the office area in a quest to find money. The hammer and claw marks on the safe handle gave testament to his failure.

Ranger Milburn also noticed that six sets of old skis were missing, as was his personal briefcase that contained Forest Service tools like a water testing kit, a compass and surveying kit. Suspicions confirmed, he made this statement to the Antelope Valley Press, "It looks to us as arson because we’ve eliminated almost everything else." The Forest Service prevention and enforcement investigator added, "I can say it was an incendiary fire. That it was person-caused rather than accidental or mechanical fire." With the assistance of ranger Ken Harp, Doug Milburn dug into the arson investigation like a bulldog. Within less than a month, that investigation would lead to a surprising end and the arrest of the bad guy.

Big Pines Dragnet

One day prior to the arson fire at the Swarthout Lodge-Big Pines Ranger Station, an incident occurred over 35 miles away in Hesperia, Ca.. Long time Wrightwood resident Phil Odom was patrolling the street as a deputy sheriff when he observed a thick column of black smoke drifting to the sky. As Deputy Odom approached the location, a car with a single male occupant raced past him away from a van that was fully engulfed with flames! Subsequently, it was learned that Mark S. Hurst had set fire to the van that belonged to his ex-girlfriend. He had threatened to burn the family’s business, "The Sunshine Market" in nearby Phelan and kill his girlfriend and her family. At the same time Hurst had been a person of interest in several burglaries in the area, where many of the break-ins ended with a fire. Even though the fires were "interesting," they were handled as accidental fires.

The threats that Hurst made on the family tied him to activities of burglary and arson…a similar method of operation that led to the burning of the Swarthout Lodge. The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Office contacted ranger Doug Milburn and said that Mark S. Hurst might be a person of interest in the Big Pines Ranger Station fire.

If Hurst was involved with the fire at Big Pines, there was much to be concerned about. There were several burglaries in the nearby high desert and over 30 fires connected to them. Up to this point, the fires were considered to be accidental. The Big Pines incident drove the fact home that the Phelan fires might have been anything else but accident.

USFS rangers Doug Milburn and Ken Harp focused their arson investigation on Mark S. Hurst by going after his friends. Wise cop work to be sure. Since there is no honor among thieves, the quickest way to hang a bad guy is to go for his friends. They found two. Milburn used the "tragic card" on friend no. 1. "That fire burned the oldest building around Big Pines. All that history up in smoke and nothing is left to remind people of the old days," might have been the way Milburn presented the case to friend no. 1. "Friend No. 1 was a pretty hard nut, " Milburn remembers," while most people seemed to be somewhat afraid of Hurst, this guy didn’t seem to be even a little bit afraid of him." Perhaps the informant was not concerned about Mark S. Hurst, he was helpful.

Friend no.1 took the rangers out in the middle of the high desert and showed them where he, Mark Hurst , and another friend, had been stashing stolen goods in a grove of Junipers. Both rangers observed piles and piles of stolen televisions, stereos , and other electronic items that have been stolen in many burglaries in the area. "It is my recollection that it was Friend No. 1 who stated during our interview with him that Hurst may have done it "to get his rocks off." The El Camino was never tied to Hurst and it is not known if he stuck around very long after he started the fire to view his handiwork," Milburn concluded. Subsequently, it would be Friend No. 1 who later gave testimony during the preliminary hearing in Victorville

As the USFS rangers continued to concentrate on Mark S. Hurst’s friend, they found Friend no. 2. "Friend No. 2 was actually easier to sway. He seemed like a pretty good kid who had just gotten caught up into the stuff the Hurst was doing, " shared Ranger Milburn. Detective Snowball set up the polygraph and was present during its execution, as were Ken and I. It was my recollection the Friend No. 2 was probably involved in some the Phelan burglaries but didn’t seem to know a whole lot about the Big Pines Fire. He was never really considered by the DA to be a good witness for trial."

With the find of the stolen burglary items found in the desert and statements implicating Hurst was committing burglary and the arson of the Swarthout Valley Lodge at Big Pines, there was enough to go for an arrest warrant and soon law buzzards would be circling Hurst’s head.

Bringing in Mark S. Hurst’s head would come from another frontal attack as San Bernardino Deputy Chuck Willis began following foot prints from a burglary location in an unrelated burglary investigation. A day after a March 6th resident burglary in Phelan, Willis followed tracks that led to the Sheepcreek residence of Mark S. Hurst. As their investigation continued, Hurst consented to a search of the premises by Deputy Willis, who noticed six pair of skis and other items that raised his interest. Willis met with other agencies that were investigating Big Pines burglary and arson fire, including ranger Doug Milburn, and it was determined that there was sufficient reason to search the residence for more evidence. A search warrant was obtained on March 27th.

Along with men from the California Department of Forestry, detective Earl Snowball and ranger Ken Harp, deputies Chuck Willis and Mike Jones carried out the conditions of the search warrant. They found items to three separate Phelan burglaries, including the one at Big Pines. In the attic of the home they found and recovered Resource and Protection Officer Doug Milburn’s briefcase and other items that were identified by Milburn as being stolen from Big Pines Ranger Station at the time that the arson fire burned it down.

Many people then, like many people now, still wonder what type of man can burn down an obvious piece of local history. Revealing the type of man Mark S. Hurst was easy. Arsonists were known to fall in a few categories: thrill seeker, attention getting, and the ones that do it for sexual gratification. There are certain motivations to committing arson:

1. Arson for revenge (which is 41% of all arson fires) - a real or imagined affront that occurred months or years ago; their attacks were always focused on individual rivals, a business chain, schools, or some facilities connected with offender

2. Arson for excitement (30% of all arson fire) - caused by boredom, or need for attention, or worst yet as a sexual thrill cycle. The arson attack is focused on large or outdoor targets, like parks, construction sites, arenas, as well as residential areas

3. Arson to commit vandalism (7% of all arson fire) - precipitating factor is family disturbance or peer pressure; attack is usually focused on educational facilities as well as residences and outdoors

4. Arson for profit (5% of all arson fire)

5. Arson for concealing crime (17% of arson fire)

Over the course of the crime investigation that subsequently resulted in the arrest of Mark S. Hurst, it was revealed that Hurst was sicker than anyone first thought. He did not commit the arson on Swarthout Lodge for revenge; the Big Pines Ranger station had no connection with the family that he swore revenge on. It was not for vandalism, nor was it arson for profit. During the course of the case, it was implicated that Mark S. Hurst did not commit the arson to conceal the crime of burglary. That left only one motive, perhaps the sickest of them all. Hurst committed the arson for excitement; for the sheer jolly of it, something to get his "rocks" off.

On February 10, 1988, in the state of California, the County of Los Angeles, the City of Lancaster- Superior Court, Mark S. Hurst met justice. In a moment, the result of that trial......

Mark S, Hurst, 25, of Phelan, California, had pleaded no contest to one count of arson to the February 17, 1987 Swarthout Valley Lodge-Big Pines Ranger Station fire that destroyed the building and its historical contents. The sentence of four years in state prison and a $400,000 fine in restitution was handed down by Lancaster Superior Court Commissioner Victor Leichman on February 10, 1988. Hurst had become suspected in seventy other arson and/or burglaries in the San Bernardino County area............

The Swarthout Valley Lodge had been an important part of the early Big Pines Park. It later played an important role of holding both Wrightwood and Big Pines history up until the arson fire of 1987. Assistant archeologist, Ranger Douglas Milburn has been tirelessly trying to restore the history that was lost twenty years ago. He cannot do it on his own. Part of the history that was lost in the fire were many personal photograph albums donated to Big Pines by people who had memories of the Park during the 1920's thru the 1940's. If anyone would like to sent anything involving the early history of Big Pines Park, they can send any historic photo or other materials to: Angeles National Forest, Angeles Forest Heritage Resources Section, 701 N. Santa Anita Avenue, Arcadia, CA 91006-2725

Note from Author: Much history from the early Big Pines is missing. With a project motivated by local historian Barbara Van Houten, the author, Terry Graham, is assisting her in reaching out to people who may have photos, postcards, letters or documents of the past than can patch up the holes of history left by the disastrous arson fire of Swarthout Valley Lodge and complete its history. We are asking that if anyone can help in this fashion, please feel free to contact us through this email source:


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