G. M. Anderson, manager of the Essanay Film Co., arrived in Redlands in January 1911. He sought out film locations for the Chicago-based film company to produce one 10-minute to 15-minute film western per day.
He heard that Redlands was a western town with a downtown that offered realistic locations for Westerns. He was disappointed with the electric streetcars, telephone poles and fancy hotels that did not fit his film plans. The city was too modern in 1911.
John B. O’Brian, business manager of Essanay, was more optimistic. He immediately bought a large barn on Lugonia Avenue just west of Texas Street. O’Brian found a Chamber of Commerce representative that offered tours of the eastern valley for him and Anderson. Downtown Mentone fit the bill for a downtown without modern conveniences and a Santa Fe Depot. Most residents were still riding horses and the sparse downtown had store fronts built in the 1890s.
O’Brian and Anderson found their company film cowboy and Indian location in the nearby Santa Ana Canyon just north of the present Seven Oaks Dam. The road was primitive and two cabins used by Edison employees would suffice for a stagecoach stop. The Santa Ana River in February flowed swiftly with alder, sycamore and cottonwood trees lining the waterway. Steep cliffs of the canyon gave a dramatic background for the intended scripts.
Two Concord stage coaches arrived in February via Santa Fe, 60 horses, 30 cowboys and 30 Indians. The cowboys came from New Mexico, Arizona and Nevada. Some of the “Indians” were local Native Americans from reservations at San Manuel, Soboba and Morongo. At least half of the natives were disguised cowboys, requiring daily make-up artist work.
Each weekday for six weeks the film caravan crossed the Santa Ana wash to create shoot-outs, stagecoach robberies, Indian raids and exciting battles. Horses remained corralled in the canyon but received evening hay and grain from the Pony Stables crew from Redlands. The management, director and trained New York and Chicago stage actors stayed at the Hillcrest Inn on Orange Street while the cowboys and Indians roomed at the old Winsor Hotel on West State.
Bruised and battered actors had nightly attention for accidents during the filming. Falling from a galloping horse or stagecoach upon the canyon floor created broken bones in the period before stuntman activity.
Bison Film Co. found the same location as Essanay in July. They used the Santa Ana Canyon and Big Bear Valley for filming. The actors stayed at Fisher Point in mountain cabin luxury. Unfortunately, the film trust did not allow viewing of Bison Films in Redlands.
Federal Photo Plays Co. of California filmed “The Sagebrusher” in 1919 in the Santa Ana Canyon near powerhouse No. 2. The film followed the Col. Emerson Hough’s “Sagebrusher” book with Noel Berry starring in the title role. The most dramatic scene had a dam blowing up on the river and the Sagebrusher saving the damsel in distress from the onslaught of the raging water. The dam blowing up was all accomplished in one take since both Bear Valley Mutual Water Co. and Edison would not allow further use of their water. Federal actors all stayed at the renamed Casa Loma Hotel now called “Nichewaug.”
Redlands remained high on the list for Hollywood movies with the classic “Eyes of the World” filmed in Mill Creek Canyon in 1917 by the Clune Film Co.
Early western films all followed the Buffalo Bill stereotypes created during the staging of the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show. “Indians” had to wear heavily feathered headdresses and chase the stagecoach while dodging repeating firing rifles. Director John Ford did little to reduce the stereotypes when he filmed “Stagecoach” decades later.
Tom Atchley is a longtime Redlands historian and former history teacher and newspaper adviser at Redlands High School.