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Lake Piru Recreation Area, 1956, Newly Opened

What do we know of Piru Canyon and Lake Piru?  Check the Piru Lake website for photos of water skiing, fishing, camping and more at Lake Piru Recreation Area. But what of its history?

The dam and lake sit within the Los Padres National Forest in the Topatopa Mountains of Ventura County. The dam, Santa Felicia Dam, on Piru Creek has been owned and operated by the United Water Conservation District since it was constructed in 1955.  But what came before?

The canyon where the dam and lake are located was primarily connected in the early history of the 20th Century with Juan Fustero and his family.  He was descended from the Shoshones and by extension to the Hopi and Aztec people.  His people migrated seasonally and often connected with the coastal Chumash and tended to adopt their customs.  This is how the family came to Piru Canyon.  The name Piru is a shortened form of the original Pi’idhuku, the name of a reed used to make baskets.

1921 Juan Fustero Saddletree Maker.jpg

1921 Juan Fustero Saddletree Maker

Juan and his family lived far up the canyon in Temescal Canyon. He had come by his last name during a court legal action.  When the presiding judge asked for his last name he replied that he had no last name.  The judge then asked what his family did for a living.  They had been makers of the wood framework for saddles or “saddle trees” called fustos in Spanish.   So the judge gave him the last name of Fustero “he who makes saddle trees.”

1900 Temescal School.jpg

Temescal School, c. 1900

In 1880, an early elementary school was built in the canyon about where the dam is today.  Juan’s five daughters and three sons most likely were educated there. Three of the five daughters ultimately died of measles and were buried somewhere on the Fustero Ranch.  Juan’s father and Juan himself were also buried in the same area of the ranch, an area which is now underwater.  We have been told that there is a plaque up canyon honoring their burial place but have no photo of it.

David Cook.JPG

David C. Cook

Piru Canyon at one time was destined to be “Another Eden,” at least in the mind of David C. Cook who purchased 14,000 acres of the canyon in 1886 from Señora Del Valle, of Rancho Camulos.  Cook, a devout Christian, had made a fortune publishing religious tracts in Elgin, Illinois. His health was failing and he had determined to come west to a milder climate.  His second “Garden of Eden” would include 400 acres of oranges, 300 of apricots, 200 of English Walnuts, as well as figs, grapes, chestnuts, almonds, pomegranates, persimmons and olive trees.  When the Southern Pacific railroad tracks were laid through the valley in 1887 Cook built his own depot.  Once he was well established, his wife and two sons were brought to Piru.  He built the Piru City Hotel, known later as the Round Rock hotel from the huge round rock located in the front yard, and the Piru Mansion In 1888. With his plantings producing well, he platted out the city of Piru and donated land for the building of a Methodist Episcopal Church.  Cook saw to it that eight miles or roads and 12 miles of irrigation ditches were built, intending to turn the canyon into a self-sufficient farm.  As his health improved he began to make trips back to Illinois.  An astute businessman, he watched the development of the local oil industry.  On his next trip to Illinois in 1899, with his health returned, he made arrangements to sell his property for oil development to the Piru Oil and Land Company.  He had made a profit of $433,000 on a 13 year land investment.

Piru City Hotel (Round Rock Hotel

The Round Rock Hotel 2021.JPG
Cooks's Piru Mansion Today.JPG

Cook Mansion

Cook moved back to Illinois after selling his property in Piru, dying in 1927.  His mansion remains, having been restored many years ago after a disastrous fire, and is today in use as a wedding venue.  The Round Rock Hotel is still there but no longer receives guests.  All that remains of “Another Eden” are a few olive trees on the way to the dam.  

Piru Creek looking upstream before the dam

Piru Creek looking upstream before the dam.JPG
1955  reservoir area.JPG

Santa Felicia Dam Under Construction

Construction General View 1956.JPG
Sign at vista point.JPG

Santa Felicia Dam was constructed in 1955 in Piru Canyon and has become a popular recreational location drawing people from our local valley as well as surrounding counties. 

Today, because of the drought, the lake is as low as it has been in decades.  The 3” of rain we received locally in 2020-21 was not enough to keep the lake filled. It was built to hold winter rainfall from the surrounding mountains and then release the water in summer to refill naturally occurring underground basins beneath the Santa Clara River.    Local farmers and local cities retrieve the water with deep water wells to supply the people in town and farmers’ orchards and row crops. You may not see the water in the river unless it has been raining, but it is there, underground.

2005 Lake Piru at Capacity

2005 Lake Piru Filled to the brim.jpg

Many local residents remember the extremely wet year of 2005.  Piru Lake was filled to the brim and spilling over the spillway.  The effects on the residents of Piru, Fillmore, and Bardsdale were dramatic.  Water filled the Santa Clara River from bank to bank, surrounded the equestrian center and threatened to wash away the south approach of the Bardsdale Bridge. Land was washed away on the south and north side of the river greatly impacting agricultural operations. 

Lake PIru Spilling Debris 2005

Lake PIru Spilling Debris 2005.jpg

Rain years begin each year on October 1 and end on September 30.  This doesn’t mean that rain will show up on October 1 but we hope that this year will provide the rain we need.   In the meantime we use our water carefully and look forward with hope for a wet winter.

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