It was Halloween, 1936. A group of graduate students and unofficial researchers from Caltech headed by the brilliant aeronautical engineer Frank Malina and the infamous John “Jack” Parsons, self-taught chemist and master of the dark arts, huddled together at Devil’s Gate Dam in Pasadena. In the still of the otherworldly wasteland of the Arroyo at the foot of the San Gabriel Mountains, they launched their latest invention.
It was a primitive rocket motor fueled by oxygen and methyl alcohol, secured on a stand. But the combustion they’d hoped for didn’t happen. Instead, the oxygen hose ignited on the ground, causing a mini firestorm that filled the canyon as the men scattered toward safety.
This would be the men’s first foray into rocket propulsion. Nicknamed the “Suicide Squad” for their dangerous experiments, the ragtag team’s test on Halloween would lead to the construction of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), now a major NASA research center, towering above the dam.
It would also lead to rumors that Parsons (who believed his work was guided by Sex Magick, a ritualistic practice contrived by the leader of the Ordo Templi Orientis) had opened a portal to hell at the Devil’s Gate Dam.
“The place is really creepy,” said M.G. Lord, an associate professor of English at USC and host of the new LAist podcast LA Made: Blood, Sweat & Rockets. “And Parsons was really creepy.”
Devil’s Gate has always been a spooky place of foreboding. Legend has it that Indigenous people believed it was the portal to the afterlife. The area is supposedly named after a craggy rock (which now sits atop a locked tunnel, which some claim is the legendary “portal to hell”) which looks suspiciously like a horned devil.
In the 20th century, a string of child deaths and disappearances would fuel the rumors of supposed hauntings caused by the “negative energy portal” opened by Parsons and O.T.O. It’s now become a popular spot for ghost hunters and paranormal investigators.
Construction Of The Dam
In 1914, catastrophic flooding swept through the L.A. area, leaving death and $10 million in destruction. As a result, a flood control dam was constructed at Devil’s Gate, and until then, a remote wasteland of brush and rocks.
The riverbed below was often dry, making it the perfect place 16 years later for the innovative group of Caltech students to test their wares.
Parsons may have had another reason besides its open, remote location. “I think the main attraction of the Arroyo in general and the Devil's Gate Dam in particular, was just a tip of the hat to theatricality and Halloween, because of his flirtation with satanism,” Lord said.
Shenanigans At Caltech
The group had already been exploding dangerous, volatile chemicals on the pristine nearby campus at Caltech, much to the chagrin of Theodore von Kármán, who was then the director of the Guggenheim Aeronautical Laboratory at Caltech.
“They were shooed off campus, or rusticated, one of my favorite words,” Lord said. “They were rusticated when one of their experiments left a surface of rust all over the interior of the buildings at Caltech. Even though von Kármán was sympathetic to them, it's like, ‘You guys have to go.’”
Though the test on Halloween night was a failure, it did catch von Kármán’s attention. “It was scary and dangerous, but it was an important proof of concept that allowed them to move forward and allowed von Kármán to sign off on their experiments,” Lord said.
Why You Should Know About JATO
“The Suicide Squad developed these things called JATO, an acronym for jet-assisted takeoff, these rockets that were latched to the wings of traditional propellor planes so that they could take off on very short runways like on an aircraft carrier,” Lord said.
However, there was still a problem, which Parsons would find the answer to.
“The initial design of the JATO was just great, and it worked, and the Army bought a bunch of them. But one of the problems with liquid fuels — plural — was that there was instability with variations in temperature, which was why the Army wanted a stable fuel,” Lord said.
“Parsons, whether it was through magic or just because he had an epiphany, allegedly watching people put down asphalt on a roof, had the idea of using asphalt as a fuel,” Lord added.
“It came to him, whether the devil inspired it, or he just had a bright idea. He wasn't a math guy, but he had this extraordinarily important idea that made producing JATOs stable for the Army possible."
The group’s discoveries would significantly advance the field of rocket science, just in time for World War II.
The Motley Crew That Included L. Ron Hubbard
While Parsons did make real contributions in the world of science, he became infamous as the leader of the Agape Lodge of the Church of Thelema, the California chapter of Aleister Crowley's Ordo Templi Orientis (OTO). At his mansion on the legendary Orange Grove Avenue in Pasadena, Parsons and a motley crew that included the future Scientology founder L. Ron Hubbard, practiced Thelema, an esoteric philosophy that included satanic masses and dark orgies.
The philosophy was, ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.’
“I would argue the really malignant thing about everything that he was doing, and maybe the thing that led to his own destruction, was Aleister Crowley's philosophy; a philosophy he embodied aggressively… and a philosophy that was the absolute opposite of Frank Malina,” Lord said.
“The philosophy was, ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.’ Now, doesn't that sound like Elon Musk or something a cult leader would have tattooed on his neck?”
The group’s strange practices may have been nefarious, but to Parsons’ monied neighbors on Orange Grove Avenue, they were more of an annoyance.
“Lilian Wanderman, the one who narrated the happenings at a satanic mass in Los Angeles in the late 1930s, said that the thing that really bugged the neighbors wasn't all the weird rituals; it was the fact that he kept goats and they smelled,” Lord said.
The ceremonies at Parsons’ mansion would lead to rumors of similar OTO rituals occurring at the Devil’s Gate Dam. But more importantly, the Halloween night experiment would lead the Army and Caltech to establish JPL in the Arroyo Seco. According to the NASA website:
"After the Caltech group's successful rocket experiments, the Army helped Caltech acquire land in the Arroyo Seco for test pits and temporary workshops. Airplane tests at nearby air bases proved the concept and tested the designs for new 'jet-assisted takeoff rockets.'
During World War II, the GALCIT Rocket Research Project developed solid- and liquid-propellant units to assist the takeoff of heavily loaded aircraft and began work on high-altitude rockets."
In 1944, it was reorganized and renamed Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and moved from Army control to the new NASA space agency's jurisdiction in 1958.
The Legacy Of Tragic Deaths
In 1942, seven-year-old Thomas A. Hogar of Altadena drowned at the dam, after going for a swim with a neighbor named Joseph Schneider. Before he had left, Thomas had been warned by his father to beware of swimming at Devil’s Gate. “But the temptation to try floating on a log was too great for the youth. He was lying on the log with his clothes on, splashing joyously, when young Schneider last observed him,” The Los Angeles Times reported.
But it was another tragedy that would further enhance the Devil’s Gate Dam’s haunted reputation. On March 23, 1957, 8-year-old Tommy Bowman was hiking with his family. “The boy disappeared after telling his father he was going to “run ahead” of the party to try to be “first” in the car the hikers drove to the canyon,” the Los Angeles Times reported.
According to the Pasadena Star-News, “two sisters reported they saw Tommy around 5:30 that evening. He was crying and standing at the entrance to the ranger station.” Other witnesses claimed they had seen the boy walking with a man shortly before his disappearance.
A man named Clinton F. Hartwick was quickly targeted as a suspect. “A description of a man reportedly seen with missing Redondo Beach boy an hour after the disappearance closely fit Hartwick…the “ruddy faced” man seen loitering in the wash above the dam Saturday,” the Los Angeles Times reported. However, he was soon released, and Tommy’s disappearance remains a mystery.
Many believe that Tommy was the victim of serial killer Mack Ray Edwards, a heavy-equipment operator who killed and kidnapped children in the Pasadena area. This suspicion has led to false reports that other children who Edwards had admitted to killing disappeared at Devil’s Gate.
Edwards, who died by suicide in his cell in 1971, said he’d buried children amongst highway construction, leading some to theorize that Tommy’s body could be buried under the 110 Freeway which runs directly next to Devil’s Gate.
Nature also had its way of claiming lives at Devil’s Gate. By the 1970s, the dam was almost always dry, and it was deemed to be an earthquake hazard. But this didn’t stop the 1978 drowning death of 2 ½ year-old Virgil Black, who had disappeared from his home in Altadena. Scuba divers eventually found his body in a pool basin south of Devil’s Gate.
In 1998, Occidental College student Nathan Cook was found in a stream near JPL after setting off on a bike ride during heavy rains.
Today, the Devil’s Gate Reservoir is a rustic, quiet, dusty recreational area. Recent projects have removed 1.7 million cubic yards of sediment, constructed new access points, and restored more than 70 acres of native habitat.
However, rumors of hauntings continue.
"I came home from the dam one night, and there were three long scratch marks on my leg,” Pasadena Supernatural Investigation Unit founder Adam Knoedler told the Pasadena Star News in 2013.
“In the paranormal field that's supposed to be a demonic attack.”