Black Star Canyon

Black Star Canyon

Black Star Canyon is a remote mountain canyon in the Santa Ana Mountains, located in eastern Orange County, California. It is a popular destination for mountain bikers due to its wild scenery and the fact that its main access road is closed to automobile traffic.


Black Star Canyon is perhaps best known to historians as an important archaeological site as much information concerning the daily lives of the Gabrielino or Tongva people has been uncovered through studies of artifacts found in the canyon. It is known that many of the native Tongva people fled to the mountains in the summer, searching not only for relief from the heat, but acorns, their main source of food, which were easy to find among the canyon's many mature oak trees. It is very likely that the settlement, located in the upper part of the canyon (just past the top of the last switchback) was inhabited for only part of the year. The site of the settlement is now California Historical Landmark #217. As Jim Sleeper asserts in his 1976 book "A Grizzly Introduction to the Santa Ana Mountains", Indian settlements were very sporatic, as the grizzly bear population of the Santa Anas was comparatively very high for such a small mountain range. Signs of Indian habitatation, such as the "pothole rocks," are found only in canyons, such as Black Star or Bell canyons, where grizzly populations were known to have been low. The canyon to the north, Fremont, has just as many oak trees and forage sources as Black Star, with no archaeological traces of any human habitation, likely because the canyon was home to many bears.

The canyon is celebrated in local lore for a fabled “Indian massacre,” said to have been perpetrated by a company of Spanish conquistadors. In truth, the actual historical event, according to oral history, involved an armed conflict between early American fur trappers and a group of Gabrielino Indians in the year 1831. Below is a recounting of the story from the book "Shadows of Old Saddleback" by Terry E. Stephenson (1930):

"The story of the battle, the bloodiest in the history of the mountains [Santa Ana Mountains] , was told seventy years ago by William Wolfskill to J. E. Pleasants, and was repeated to us by Mr. Pleasants. The Indians were very fond of horseflesh…Ranchos were lacking in means of defense in the days when the missions were breaking up and Indians from the mountains and desert used to have no trouble in stealing herds of horses from the Spaniards. A party of trappers came across from New Mexico in 1831. Their long rifles and evident daring offered to the troubled dons a solution to their horse-stealing difficulties. Americans were not any too welcome in the Mexican pueblo of Los Angeles, and it was with a desire to please the Spaniards [Mexicans] in this foreign land a long way from the United States that the American trappers agreed to run down the Indian horsethieves. The trail of the stolen band of horses was followed across the Santa Ana river, eastward through what is now Villa Park and up the Santiago canyon to the mouth of Canyon de los Indios... Here, the trail turned into mountain fastnesses, into the unknown mountains, covered heavily with brush…The trail took the men up a steep mountainside, and, after two or three hours of climbing there was laid out before them a little valley with grassy slopes and hillsides [today called Hidden Ranch] , upon which horses were quietly grazing. Smoke was coming from fires in the age-old campground of the Indians at the lower end of the valley. The Indians were feasting on juicy horseflesh. Perhaps it was the crack of a long rifle, the staggering of a mortally wounded Indian that gave the natives their first warning of the presence of an enemy. Among the oaks and boulders an unequal battle was fought. There were no better marksmen on earth than these trappers…The Indians were armed with a few old Spanish blunderbusses [muskets] and with bows and arrows. The battle was soon over. Leaving their dead behind them, the Indians who escaped the bullets of the trappers scrambled down the side of the gorge and disappeared in the oaks and brush. Of those who had begun the fight, but a few got away. The stolen horses were quickly rounded up. Some of them were animals stolen months before. The herd was driven down the trail to the Santiago and a day or two later, the horses were delivered to their owners. In the battle, not one of the frontiersmen was wounded."

This was not the only time the canyon will find itself the scene of a murder. In 1899, long after the canyon had been settled by both Anglo-American and Mexican homesteaders, a shooting occurred at hidden ranch that would forever change Orange County’s early political scene. The following passage is taken from Stephenson’s "Shadows of Old Saddleback" (1930):

"Perhaps no death by violence touched the public career of any man in the county so much as did the killing of James Gregg on June 9 1899, affect the career of its superior court judge, the late J. W. Ballard. The Hidden Ranch at that time was in the hands of Henry Hungerford of Norwalk and George M. Howard of Anaheim. At the ranch with them was Hungerford’s brother, Thomas L. Hungerford. On the evening of June 8, James M. Gregg of Centralia and his brother-in-law, Decatur Harris, and a 13-year-old boy, Clinton Hunt, arrived for the purpose of driving out some stock that Gregg owned. Gregg and Henry Hungerford quarreled. It seems that Howard owed Gregg $10 on a horse trade, and Gregg insisted that Hungerford and Howard accept $7.50 in settlement of their pasturage bill of $17.50.That night, Gregg, Harris and the boy slept on the ground in front of the house. When Gregg was rolling up his blankets the next morning, Henry Hungerford came out and the dispute resumed. It ended in shooting. The Hungerfords, each armed with a shotgun, and Gregg, with a revolver, fought it out. When the shooting ceased, Gregg was on the ground with charges of birdshot and buckshot through him. The Hungerfords hitched up a horse and drove down Black Star and on into Santa Ana, where they gave themselves up to Sheriff Theo Lacy. In the meantime, Gregg was laid in a spring wagon by Harris and the boy and was being taken to a doctor when, near the Irvine Park in Santiago canyon, the wagon was met by Sheriff Lacy and District Attorney R. Y. Williams. A doctor was found at El Modena and it was at a house in El Modena that Gregg died. The trial before Judge Ballard resulted in the conviction of Henry Hungerford. In those days killings were infrequent and a trial of this kind created an interest that was widespread and intense. Public sentiment was against the defendants. Following conviction, a new trial was sought, and unexpectedly Judge Ballard granted the motion on the ground that not enough evidence had been produced to warrant the verdict. Having presented all the evidence available there was nothing for the district attorney to do but ask for the dismissal of the case. Soon afterward, Judge Ballard came up for re-election, with Z. B. West as his opponent. Judge Ballard’s decision in the Hungerford case was the outstanding issue of the campaign, which was vigorous and which resulted in the defeat of Judge Ballard."

Under Spanish, and later Mexican rule, the canyon was called "Canada de los Indios." Much of grassy foothill terrain to the west (across Irvine Lake) was part of the expansive Mexican land grant of "Rancho Lomas de Santiago (Ranch of Saint James' Hills)". The rancho later fell into the hands of the pioneer and horticulturalist William Wolfskill, and finally James Irvine, before becoming part of the Cleveland National Forest in the late 1880s. In the late 19th Century, it was the site of a short-lived coal mining operation called Black Star Coal Mining Company in 1879, which gave the canyon its current name. The coal was originally dug from a shallow pit on the hill just east of the canyon mouth, and sold by the wagonload as early as 1876 by canyon residents. While the operation lasted, six to ten tons of medium to low grade coal were extraced each day from the mine's 900 feet of tunnel. From there, mule teams hauled the cargo to Anaheim or Los Angeles by wagon. Unfortunately, a survey was run of the mine in the late 1870s, previously thought to be operating on government land, and it was found that the land actually belonged to the Irvine Ranch. Promptly losing interest in the mine, James Irvine sold the operation back to its former owners, destroying any possibility of profit. The Black Star mining operation was later replaced by the Santa Clara Mine, a more successful enterprise that sustained the town of Carbondale (once existed at the mouth of Silverado canyon), before it was taken over by AT&SF railroad. Traces of the Black Star mining operation can still be found, including rusted mining equipment, abandoned shafts, and piles of low-grade coal scattered about the floor of the canyon (similar to those found in Fremont Canyon to the north). Today, public access to the canyon's upper reaches in the Cleveland National Forest is currently allowed via a county easement through the lower section of the canyon (mostly private property), though County officials do not maintain the road.

tories & Legends

Black Star Canyon's mysterious nature and its colorful, often dark history has given rise to a whole host of urban legends and ghost stories throughout the Orange County area. The air of mystery surrounding the canyon is further enhanced by its eerie silence and being prone to sudden gusts of wind (both due to its unique geography). Though historically innacurate, one of the most popular ghost tales, which originally appeared on the Internet in 1995 and later published in the book "Weird California", tells of a group of friends who witnessed the ghosts of the Spanish conquistadors marching down the hill in the form of small, black shadowy figures ( [ Read here] ). Many of the more popular legends have sprung from the fact that Black Star Canyon was, allegedly, the meeting place of a Satanic cult in the 1980s, which is often misstated as having been the Ku Klux Klan due to the numerous hikers' reports of seeing distant bonfires in the canyon. Other stories include the canyon being haunted by a demon called "Black Star", being home to extraterrestrials and/or a secret military installation, and being guarded by Indian spirits. The oldest ghost story involving the canyon came from the Spanish, and involved the canyon being haunted by a banshee called "La Llorona" "(The Wailer)", who was said to live in a well and have the head of a horse. The following excepts, illustrating the rich urban legends and stories surrounding the canyon's history, is from the paranormal website, [ The Shadowlands] :

"The site of multiple Indian massacres dating back to the time of Spanish occupation, Blackstar Canyon is home to many strange phenomena. Indians said to have been spotted both roaming the ridges on horseback and walking the creek for a few steps before disappearing completely. Many night hikers report the feeling of being watched, and the sounds of an invisible presence pacing them shortly off the trail. Screams and howls haunt the night along with the faint chants of an age and people long past. Note: If you are planning an expedition to Blackstar Canyon, travel in groups as it is a very dangerous place, and pay no mind to the homemade "Private Property" signs. The Orange County Sheriffs Office has confirmed that all of the trail is in fact open to the public, and those signs were hung some time ago by squatters attempting to keep people off the land.""It's located behind Irvine park and the signs that say "no authorities will help you beyond this point" is a main reason why people don't go in. It's supposed to be home of the "KKK" and strange sightings and noises are heard such as running and screaming. Also lion type figures are said to be walking on the mountain tops. "Warning" If you do plan to go take flashlights because it's is freakishly dark (a sort of weapon would also be a good idea).""The spectral inhabitant located in Black Star Canyon is dubbed “The Blue Lady” by the few individuals who have been able to catch a glimpse. Though she has been reported as having been seen in Black Star Canyon the primary information on her stems from sightings at the El Toro Memorial Park."

According to visitors, there is a group of eccentric individuals living in the canyon who attempt to guard the area as if it were private property (they have been known to threaten hikers and mountain bikers by brandishing shotguns), but the canyon is still considered open to the public and all legal recreational activities. The beginning of the canyon is marked with signs which declare the road as private, which is half-true since the lower part of the road is privately maintained, although the county and, therefore the forest service, have an easement of public right-of-passage on the road, and have had that right for many decades. As is true with all wilderness areas, it is recommended that those exploring the canyon do not travel alone, especially at night.

External links

* [ The Nature Conservancy: Santa Ana Mountains]
* [ Santa Ana Mountains Wild Heritage Project]
* [ Naturalist For You]
* [ Cleveland National Forest]
* [ Center For Biological Diversity]
* [ Santa Ana Mountains Natural History Association]

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