La La Landscapes: Rancho Santa Anita, late 1870s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Rancho Santa Anita, encompassing Arcadia and surrounding areas, was one of many ranches in the Mission San Gabriel’s domain from the 1770s to the 1830s, when Mexican California’s Roman Catholic missions were secularized by the Republic of Mexico.

Hugo Reid, a native of Scotland who married a prominent Gabrieleño Indian woman named Victoria Bartolomea, settled on the property within several years.  In 1845, Governor Manuel Micheltorena made a formal grant of more than 13,000 acres to Reid, who built an adobe house on the ranch as requred by the concession.

Within two years, however, Reid sold Santa Anita to British-born Henry Dalton, a Los Angeles-based merchant who had recently acquired the Rancho Azusa in the eastern San Gabriel Valley.  When the United States seized Mexican California and the question of Spanish and Mexican land grants came before Congress, a land claims act was passed in 1851, requiring possessors of these grants to submit a claim before a three-person commission, the decisions of which could be appealed in federal courts all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Dalton pursued a claim for Santa Anita in 1852, but two years later sold the ranch to Joseph Rowe.  In 1858, Albert Dibblee and William Corbitt of San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively, acquired the property.  After greater Los Angeles was deluged by floods in the winter of 1861-62 and then devastated by drought in the two years following, Santa Anita was sold to Los Angeles orange grower William Wolfskill, who acquired several ranches during the drought years.

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This stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead collection of the lake at Rancho Santa Anita was taken by Alexander C. Varela who worked in Los Angeles briefly about 1878.  Soon afterward, San Francisco photographer Isaiah W. Taber purchased and published under his own name Varela’s inventory after the latter (whose brother-in-law was famed bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa) quit the business in San Jose and returned to Washington, D.C. where he had been and became again a federal civil servant.

Wolfskill died shortly afterward, in 1866, and Santa Anita was left to his son Luis (Lewis), who happed to be Henry Dalton’s son-in-law.  Luis Wolfskill also obtained the neighboring Rancho San Francisquito from Dalton and benefitted from a boom period in the region that came in the late 1860s and first half of the 1870s.

In 1872, Wolfskill sold the ranch to Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark for $85,000, over four times what his father had paid just seven years before, so it seemed like a great windfall for the younger Wolfskill.  But, as real estate prices climbed as the boom intensified, Newmark had a suitor for Santa Anita.

Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin earned his sobriquet because he cashed out big in Virginia City, Nevada silver mines before a stock bubble burst in 1875.  Baldwin was taken with the spectacular natural beauty at Santa Anita.  Situated just below the towering Sierra Madre (later renamed San Gabriel) Mountains, and endowed with plenty of water from creeks and springs, included a stunning natural lake, the ranch was irresistible to the San Francisco mining magnate.

When Baldwin, who was as shrewd and tough a businessman as they came, dallied in his negotiations with Newmark, who proved to be steely and persistent, an earlier asking price suddenly rose to $200,000, the highest price yet paid for any property in greater Los Angeles.

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This stereoscopic view, also in the museum collection, from about the same time as Varela’ s image was taken by renowned San Francisco photographer Carlton Watkins and shows what looks like a greenhouse amid the rolling knolls, older and newly planted trees, and other landscape features of Rancho Santa Anita.

Under Baldwin’s ownership for the next thirty-four years, Santa Anita was developed into a princely estate with a picturesque Queen Anne cottage next to the natural lake, thoroughbred horses bred on the ranch, and, during the Boom of the 1880s, the establishment of the town of Arcadia.

Before much of that was done, however, stereoscopic photographs of the ranch in the late 1870s, not long after Baldwin’s purchase, showed what the Santa Anita looked like and why it was considered one of the prettiest locales in the region.

The views shown here by Alexander C. Varela and Carleton Watkins come from the late 1870s or as late as about 1880 and show the gently rolling landscape, older and newly planted trees, the backdrop of the mountains, and the lake that is now a centerpiece of the Los Angeles County Arboretum in Arcadia, where Baldwin’s cottage still stands.

Check back for more installments of “La La Landscapes” and see other notable and picturesque landscapes in greater Los Angeles from photographs in the Homestead’s collection.

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