Victorian Fair Themes: Tourism in Greater Los Angeles, 1870s-1890s

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Just two more days until the Homestead’s Victorian Fair takes place over what looks to be a warm, but pleasant spring weekend.  Here’s another look at themes related to the Victorian era in greater Los Angeles and a selection of historic images from the Homestead collection tied to these concepts.

SV 132 Santa Monica Watering Place 2007.98.1.1
Taken by William M. Godfrey about 1870, this view shows a small tent camping resort at the base of cliffs near Santa Monica.

While there was a small tourist market here in greater Los Angeles before the mid-1880s, the situation changed dramatically with the completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway’s transcontinental line to the area in 1885.  Not only was there the famed “Boom of the Eighties,” in which large numbers of people came to live and work, but tourism became a significant local industry on its own.

Redondo Beach 1889
This 1889 cabinet card from the museum’s collection shows Redondo Beach, including its pier in the distance.

Vacationers came to enjoy the remarkable temperate climate and had myriad choices for their sightseeing.  The region’s beaches were a major attraction with places like Santa Monica, Redondo Beach and Long Beach featuring large hotels, bath houses and miles of sand and ocean to enjoy.  One of the best known of the seaside resorts was the Hotel Arcadia in Santa Monica, named for Arcadia Bandini Stearns Baker, wife of one of the town’s principal developers.

Raymond Hotel ca 1890
This circa 1890 cabinet card shows a recently completed Hotel Raymond on a knoll in today’s South Pasadena.  Note the trolley depot in the lower right corner.

There were also some well-known hostelries inland, such as Sierra Madre Villa at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains in today’s northeast Pasadena and the Raymond Hotel, which stood on a hill in what is now South Pasadena.  A number of the San Gabriel Valley resorts catered to the well-to-do from the colder climes of the east who wintered in the region, though this was certainly true of the coastal resorts.  Others were drawn to these facilities because of lung ailments like tuberculosis and before professional sanitaria came to prominence.

SV Avalon Catalina Island 2014.614.1.1
A circa 1890s stereoscopic image takes in Avalon on Santa Catalina Island from the hills at the west end of the town.  Note the steamer approaching the sole wharf in town.

Under the ownership of the children of Phineas Banning, the developer of Wilmington and a major player in the development of Los Angeles Harbor, Santa Catalina Island became a premiere destination as steamships ferried guests twenty-six miles across the sea to Avalon.  Lounging on the town’s shoreline, taking fishing trips, going on excursions by stagecoach to see the remainder of the island and other diversions were very popular.

Another remarkable venture was the Mount Lowe Railway, an audacious concept launched by Thaddeus Lowe, who first was known for his balloon corps used by the Union Army in the Civil War.  Lowe spent a fortune planning and building his project, which included a remarkably steep incline on a cable system and then a complex series of hairpin turns and curves along the slopes of the San Gabriels on an electrified platform. The Rubio Pavilion, the Alpine Tavern and Echo Mountain House provided entertainment and accommodations and there was also a Mt. Lowe Observatory for astronomical investigation.

Mt Lowe Rubio 2 1899
Passengers aboard the “Rubio” at the top of the steep incline on Mount Lowe, 1899.

Building a project that grew in complexity and cost during a national depression put Lowe in a precarious financial position.   While part of the system opened on 4 July 1893, Lowe could not emerge from the massive debt he contracted and he sold the system in 1900 to Valentine Peyton, a mining magnate fresh in Los Angeles from Spokane, Washington.  Soon, Peyton sold the venture to Henry E. Huntington and his Los Angeles Railway, which morphed into the Pacific Electric Railway.  This region-wide system was benefiting from the tourism boom.  The Pacific Electric remained the owner until the Mt. Lowe Railway closed in the late 1930s.

Church and bells SG Mission Pierce 1890s
This Pierce and Blanchard cabinet card from about 1893 shows a woman seated in front of the Mission San Gabriel church, belfry and rectory.

Another major tourist attraction were sites associated, mythically and factually, with Mexican and Spanish California.  In a noteworthy irony, given the gradual destruction and erosion of the pre-American heritage of the region, there was, by the end of the 19th century, a drive to “restore” landmarks, such as the local Roman Catholic missions, including San Juan Capistrano, San Gabriel and San Fernando.

LA Fiesta Queen and Court 1890s
A cabinet card photograph by Charles H. Shaffner of the La Fiesta de Los Angeles queen and her court from the mid-1890s.

A related phenomenon was the surface-level adaptation of pre-American imagery in “La Fiesta de Los Angeles,” which began in the mid-1890s and drew tourists and locals in what was also a promotional boost for local business interests.  Hardly anyone, however, participated in the festival who was Latino and those who did were often presented as relics of a long-gone past.  One of the few times Chinese residents of Los Angeles were acknowledged in a public setting was in the parades, though it was to highlight the “exotic” portion of the local population.

The photos here are just a sampling of some in the Homestead’s collection connected to tourism and leisure in the last few decades of the Victorian era.  Come to the Victorian Fair and see some more great images and other artifacts relating to the period on display in the Workman House, our Victorian-era historic house.


One thought

  1. I have 10 old black and white photos of the 1896-1897 “Fiesta De Los Angeles”. I am looking for a new and more appropriate home for these original photos and wanted to inquire if you knew where I could do this. They were in a batch of old photos and post cards I purchased recently, everything else totally unrelated to LA!
    Price is negotiable. Just looking to “break even” in what I spent on the lot.
    Gary Close

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