THE LIFE OF WILLIAM K. HENNINGER
It was around 1880 that Henninger first settled the small hanging basin above Altadena that would eventually become Henninger Flats, but his story begins much earlier. Henninger was instrumental in the discovery of the first major gold strike is the San Gabriel Mountains. Major Ben C. Truman writes in his book Semi-Tropical California (1874):
...the gravel claims in San Gabriel Canyon... were first discovered in 1854 by Captain Hannager (sic) and party of Los Angeles County. These men, however, possessed no experience whatever in mining, and made but five or six dollars per day. At about this time, there were exciting discoveries in the northern counties, and early in the year 1855 Hannager and party abandoned the San Gabriel claims and went to El Dorado. In 1858, a portion of the party returned; and, having had additional experience in the mines of the northern counties . . . went into placer mining, and took out from seven to ten dollars per day on an average.
Captain Henninger probably was among the earliest returnees because he found time away from his mining interests to become involved in local government. The August 22, 1857 issue of the Los Angeles Star newspaper lists Captain Hannegan (sic) of San Gabriel as one of five delegates from that community chosen to attend the Democratic County Convention held the day before. Two weeks later, the Star reported that the San Gabriel Township elected to office as justices Felipe Duarte and W. R. Henninger (sic). The appellation, Captain, for miners, was given to persons by virtue of rank or as a mark of respect. Henninger, no doubt, had both. About that time, Henninger married a Baja California Indian known to us only as Teresa. Their first born, Natividad, was baptized at the San Gabriel Mission on December 1858.
However, even family and political responsibilities did not prevent him from seeking riches in the placer mines near the Colorado River in Arizona. Truman relates in his book that: In the month of February, 1865, the great Colorado River and Arizona Territory excitement sprung up, and at least 500 out of the 700 men at San Gabriel (Canyon) packed up their traps and left for the newly-reported placers.
By the fall of 1865, he was once again involved in the political arena. He was elected by the gold-boom town of La Paz to the House of Representatives of the Second Arizona Legislative Assembly as one of the two Yuma County representatives. This assemblage convened in Prescott on December 6, 1865 and adjourned 24 days later. La Paz, located about six miles north of Ehrenberg, was soon abandoned and most residents moved on. Henninger probably followed suit, for he returned to San Gabriel in time to be enumerated in the 1870 Federal Census.
The 1870 census listed Henninger as a resident of the San Gabriel Township, age 52, born in Virginia, and with three daughters, each born in California: Louisa, Susana and Jesefa. Interestingly, wife Teresa is not listed, though she did appear (without Henninger) on the 1860 census in the San Gabriel Township with two-year old daughter Nativida and three-month old daughter Luisa Emilia (sic). The fate of his wife Teresa and eldest daughter Natividad is unknown.
Other historians credit Henninger as being the first Sheriff of Santa Clara County. Research has failed to substantiate this allegation. It is likely, however, that he was actively involved in fighting the warring Yuma Indians while in La Paz, Arizona Territory.
Later, Henninger's urge to travel again reared up and he returned to the Arizona goldfields at least once more, for the Pasadena Weekly Star reported in its July 8, 1891 issue that Henninger "...came from Arizona seven years ago." Dr. Hiram Reid stated in his book History of Pasadena (1895) that Henninger squatted the hanging basin above Eaton Canyon in 1880 or 1881, but was soon driven away by drought and that he returned to the flats in 1884 after copious rains replenished his water supply.
Deciding that the flats were indeed the place for him to spend his remaining years, Henninger built a house and cistern for water storage. After clearing the chaparral he planted hay, melons, vegetables, and fruit and nut trees, carrying the produce to town down the steep mile and a half trail he built. The trail terminated in Eaton Canyon about one quarter mile above the present day nature center. He claimed water rights in 1886 for domestic and irrigation use from the first canyon north of the flats, Laurel Canyon.
On August 24, 1893 squatter Henninger purchased the 120 acre flats property from restaurateur Peter Stiel. Steil also owned and operated the Mt. Wilson Trail resort located on the north shoulder of Harvard peak, a mile below Wilson's Peak. Henninger called the flats Clara Basin in honor of a grandchild, but the appellation died with his death in 1894, and ever since it has been known as Henninger Flats.
His last years were spent in ill health, yet he still entertained visitors with tales of the goldfields of California and Arizona and he could still shoot with the best even though beset with palsy. His life of miner, Indian fighter, politician and settler exemplifies the pioneering spirit of those who tamed the West. Gravely ill, Henninger made his last will and testament on May 3, 1894, leaving his earthly possessions to his daughters, Louisa Francisco of San Gabriel and Susana Griljava of San Bernardino. The following day Henninger died and on May 8, 1894 he was buried in Altadena's Mountain View Cemetery in an unmarked grave. Henninger's grave site was marked with a head stone by the Altadena Historical Society on April 1983.