Death in the Snow

If you look at a topographic map of the Chilao area, you may see a notation for the Loomis Cemetery. Visitors to the Ranch often notice the small ten by twenty foot cemetery with its two headstones bearing the names of Wilbur Place and Ben Mustain. In 1923, Captain and Grace Loomis sold the small plot of land to the Place family as a permanent resting place for their son and his friend.

The story of the death of these two young boys near the Ranch in the winter of 1922 has been told many times by many people, but never quite so poignantly as in the following account. This story is taken directly from the Captain's journal with only minor editing.

Winter of 1922

by Lester Loomis

As years passed and our place became known more and more hikers and campers would come in, even in wintertime. Those who did come back to us were of a high class – hardy hikers – none of the riff-raff of the cities. Shortly after New Year two boys, Ben Mustain and Wilbur Place – both students, came through on a hike thru the backcountry. It was a perfect day when they came in, a regular Indian Summer day.

Place had been in often and we treated him like one of our own children - the other was a stranger to us. They stayed over night; the next day they went to Mt. Pacifico. That afternoon after their return it started to rain here and next morning the tops of the mountains around were white – only a sprinkling on the ranch however. We tried to get the boys to stay until the storm was over, but we couldn't persuade them. They thought they had to get back.

They had come in by way of Barley Flats and Tejunga. They knew the risk was too great to go back that way, so they decided to go out by way of Chilao and Pine Flats. There were two cabins between here and Pine, while going back the way they had come they would not have had any shelter whatsoever. Mother gave them all the lunch they could carry to see them thru, and they left early next morning.

About the time they must have reached Chilao it settled down for a good heavy snow. We figured that they would get through and to the Upper Tejunga before the snow got too deep for travel. We had neither telephone nor radio at that time. The storm lasted 3 days after they left …

We heard no more of the boys until ten days afterwards. On the tenth day about 4:30 PM I saw John Opid and six other men coming in thru the gate. I went out and met them. John Opid asked me about where Wilbur Place was. I explained to him when and how they had left.

John told me then that they had found Ben just a mile below the ranch – frozen to death. As they followed the trail down into Cow Canyon he saw a blue jumper, which the boy used to wear. Wilbur had spread the jumper between two branches as a shelter – and the other boy had laid under it.

John and I went back that night to look for Wilbur but it got so dark that we had to give up the search. We went back the next morning. Where Ben lay we found pieces of flashlight they seemingly had tried to repair but failed. We tried to track but it was rather difficult due to the snow lying only in patches. The creek was running very high and we had a time getting across.

We found Wilbur’s pocket book after a while. Kept on looking and found the holster to his 6 shooter – then we found a necktie and all of a sudden I ran right on to the spot where he was lying, face down in a patch of snow. It was a terrible thing for me to see the boy in this fashion again.

We went back to the house and rigged up a packsaddle with a frame on top and put it on Johnny and went back, packing up one at a time. We brought them up and then buried them at the lower end of the upper field. I made their coffins out of lumber which I had hewn myself. There was no way of getting them out – since the snow was still 5 and 6 feet on top.

Some time later the parents of the boys sent in markers, which I packed in on burros and placed at the head of each grave. The following day I sent Hugh Murdock up to Chilao to see where they had gone. He found that the boys had gotten to Billie Wright’s cabin on Chilao, that they had broken in and left a note thanking the owner for the use of the cabin and leaving their address. They stayed in the cabin for two days, eating what little food they found.

They started to come back to our place, but had left the trail after about a 1/4 mile and gone straight down the mountainside – breaking their way through high snow and often walking on top of brush. They broke through often which accounted for why their clothes were in ribbons when we found them. They had no matches or anything in the way of food when we found them.

It is hard to realize the horror of their last hours. It took my wife and me a long time to get over this tragedy. During that winter five persons lost their lives in these mountains.

A short time afterwards we had a telephone put in here by the Flood Control Dept of L.A. County …

[Source: Lester Loomis Journals - Wandalee Thompson Collection (2002.1.23)]