Victorian Fair Themes: Growth in Los Angeles through Photographs, 1870s-1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we get closer to next weekend’s Victorian Fair, here’s another post that looks at themes connected to the Victorian Era in greater Los Angeles.  Today, we look at photographs from the Homestead’s collection that show the dramatic change in the city from the 1870s to the 1890s.

First, as has often been stated here before, the first significant period of growth in Los Angeles took place in the late 1860s and the first half of the 1870s.  The conclusion of the Civil War, increased migration west, the subdivision of Spanish and Mexican era cattle ranches for smaller parcels for farming, and other factors were important during that period.

The city of Los Angeles grew markedly and there was some action in the hinterlands, too, as the Southern Pacific railroad built a few local lines and new towns sprung up in San Fernando, Artesia, Santa Ana and Pomona, among others.  The population of Los Angeles more than doubled from about 6,000 to up to 15,000 by the mid-Seventies.  The county had some 15,000 persons in 1870 and probably jumped well into the twenties within a few years.

Temple Block Spring St Los Angeles 2004.311.1.1
This 1870s stereoscopic photograph was taken from the west side of Spring Street just south of Temple and across from the courthouse and city hall.  Part of the Temple Block is at the upper right, including the three-story addition which housed the Temple and Workman bank (that area is now City Hall).  The date is before 1874, when the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, the first public transit system in the city, was built.  All three photos shown here are from the Homestead’s collection.

After the collapse of the state’s economy and the failure, locally, of the Temple and Workman bank in 1875-76, Los Angeles was in a moribund state for about a decade.  But, the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad line, built by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, to Los Angeles in 1885 ushered in a much bigger period of growth than the earlier one.

Often called the “Boom of the Eighties,” the dramatic spike in population growth and business activity peaked during the years 1887 and 1888, when William Workman’s nephew, William Henry Workman, was the mayor of Los Angeles.  The frenzy wasn’t limited to the city.

Growth in the county, especially in the San Gabriel Valley, was pronounced and towns like Pasadena, Monrovia, Covina, and the little burg of Puente either began or took on new life during the boom.  From 1880 to 1890, Los Angeles went from about 11,000 to some 50,000 persons and most of that was during those last few boom years.  The county skyrocketed from 33,000 to over 100,000.

SV North On Spring St Los Angeles 2005.389.1.4
This detail from an 1880s stereoscopic view looks up Spring from about 1st.  The courthouse and city hall, mentioned earlier is at the right, with the clock tower just behind the building housing the store of Hans Jevne.  The Temple Block is at the right, where the white two-story and then a three-story building are.  In the distance is the distinctive tower of the Arcadia Block on Main Street, where the 101 Freeway runs through now.  Note the Spring and Sixth Street streetcar in front of the Temple Block.

Once again, booms go bust and the 1890s was another period of economic uncertainty, punctuated by prolonged drought, though there was still growth in the city, especially to the west and south, in areas like Westlake Park, University Park (near the University of Southern California) and expansion to earlier parts of the city like East Los Angeles (later Lincoln Heights) and Boyle Heights.

In the outlying areas, the new county of Orange separated from Los Angeles, while the seaside resort town of Santa Monica was growing, as well.  In fact, Santa Monica, as the site of a Southern Pacific wharf called Port Los Angeles, was competing with Wilmington and San Pedro, the location of the older harbor and port facilities in the so-called “harbor wars,” which ended by the close of the decade with the earlier harbor winning out.

By 1900, Los Angeles had surpassed 100,000 in population, while the county contained about 170,000 residents.  The first few decades of the 20th century included more stunning explosive growth with occasional slowdowns due to economic recessions and depressions, but, by 1930, Los Angeles had over a million residents and the county topped 2.2 million.  In a little more than a half-century, the remote frontier region was significantly urbanized, though there was still a strong agricultural economy in the county.

Spring And 1st St Los Angeles Cal 20103.379.1.1
Taken further south than the other two images, this circa 1890s cabinet card photograph is from Spring near 1st.  The old courthouse and city hall were razed and replaced by the Bullard Block, which is at the right and has the rounded projecting bay and tower.  The main tower of the Arcadia Block is straight in the distance.  Double tracks for bigger streetcars replaced the earlier Spring and Sixth system.

Some of the city’s earliest photographers documented the changes that took place with a variety of views.  Many of these focus on the principal streets in town, Main and Spring, and the development that took place south of the early focus of the city’s development at the Plaza.

Accompanying this post is a sampling of three photographs centered on Spring Street and all look north. The earliest, from the 1870s, was taken from between Temple and 1st streets across from the courthouse and city hall built as a commercial building in 1859 by Jonathan Temple and very close to the Temple Block, which is on the right.  The fact that the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, which debuted in 1874, is not built yet dates the photo.  The view looks toward the triple intersection of Main, Spring and Temple (changed in the 1920s) and the Plaza.

The second view, from probably the mid to late 1880s, is further south, from 1st, and shows significant change in terms of the number and size of commercial buildings in the area.  The street doesn’t look that much more crowded, though there are certainly many more parked vehicles.  There are newer, taller commercial structures southward towards 1st Street.  Also note the grand tower of the Arcadia Block, former location of the Abel Stearns adobe mansion, El Palacio, on the east side of Main Street.  The 101 Freeway runs through that area today.

Finally, the 1890s view is from a bit further south than the view from the previous decade.  The transformation of Spring, the commercial core of the growing city, is obvious and the street is certainly a lot busier.  The former courthouse and city hall were torn down for the Bullard Block, which sports the rounded bay and tower on the right, with the Temple Block just beyond.  The Arcadia Block tower is also visible straight ahead in the distance.

More posts relating to the Victorian period in greater Los Angeles are coming, so check back again soon!

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