Benjamin Eaton initially developed water sources from the Arroyo Seco and Eaton Canyon from the mid-1860s from his vineyard near the edge of Eaton Canyon. This made development of Altadena, Pasadena, and South Pasadena possible. He did the work for B.D. Wilson and Dr. John Griffin, who jointly owned the Mexican land grant of the Rancho San Pasqual, about 14,000 acres (57 km2) that comprised the future sites of the three communities. They hoped to develop and sell part of this in a real estate scheme called the San Pasqual Farm. It failed by 1870 despite the irrigation ditch Eaton engineered for the partners that drew water from around the site of present day JPL in the Arroyo Seco. The failure had two main causes: few believed citrus or additional crops could flourish so accurate to the mountains, and the land was relatively inaccessible.
Eaton then tried to sell the land for the partners, and in late 1873 helped broker a deal with Daniel Berry, who represented a group of investors from Indiana to buy 4,000 acres (16 km2) of the rancho. Although this built-in the land of present day Altadena, they developed the 2,500 section additional south into Pasadena. In 1881, the land that became Altadena was sold to the Woodbury brothers, John and Fred, who launched the subdivision of Altadena in 1887 just as Southern California’s fantastic land boom busted. The land remained frequently agricultural. But, numerous millionaires (mainly from Chicago) built mansions along Mariposa Road, and a small community slowly developed through the 1890s and into the new century.
In 1880, Capt. Frederick Woodbury and his brother John Woodbury of Marshalltown, Iowa, bought 937 acres (3.79 km2) known as the Woodbury Ranch. John Woodbury established the Pasadena Improvement Company in 1887 with a plot plot of residential development referred to as the Woodbury Subdivision. They contacted Byron O. Clark who established a nursery in the foothills in 1875 and had in view of the fact that stirred away. He called his nursery “Altadena Nursery”, a name he coined from the Spanish “alta” importance “upper” and “dena” from Pasadena. Woodbury questioned if he could use the name “Altadena” for his subdivision and Clark agreed.
The newly sprouted community of Altadena immediately started to attract millionaires from the East. In 1887 Andrew McNally, the printing magnate from Chicago and his excellent friend Col. G. G. Green had built mansions on what was to become Millionaire’s Row, Mariposa Road near Santa Rosa. Newspaper moguls William Armiger Scripps and William Kellogg built side by side just east of Honest Oaks Avenue. The grandson of Andrew McNally, Wallace Neff, became a legendary Southern California inventor. He started his career in Altadena with the design and construction of St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church ( parish est.1918) which was dedicated in October 1926.
Over the years Altadena has been subject to attempted annexation by Pasadena. Annexation was stopped in 1956 by community campaigns though it has been resurrected numerous times in view of the fact that by Pasadena without success. Had the annexation succeeded, Pasadena would be the 108th largest city in the United States.
While Altadena long refused wholesale annexation by neighboring Pasadena, the larger community nibbled at its edges in numerous small annexations of neighborhoods through the 1940s. With early 1960s redevelopment in Pasadena, the routing of extensions of 134 and 210 freeways, and lawsuits over the desegregation of Pasadena Unified School District, there was white flight and convulsive racial change in Altadena. In 1960, its black population was under four percent; over the next 15 years, half the Caucasian population left and was replaced by people of color — many of whom settled on the west side of town after being displaced by Pasadena’s redevelopment and freeway projects.
The name Altadena derives from the Spanish alta, importance “upper”, and dena from Pasadena; the area is adjacent to, but at a higher elevation than, Pasadena.