From Point A to Point B: The Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, 1874-1877

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s “From Point A to Point B” entry highlights a stereoscopic photograph, albeit a “pirate” in which an original published version was then reissued without permission by another entity, in the Homestead’s collection of the ornate depot of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, which operated for only a few years in the mid-1870s.

The L.A. & I. was the second locally conceived and built line, following by a half-dozen years the construction of the Los Angeles and San Pedro project, which, as its name conveniently noted, ran from the rudimentary harbor at the latter to the downtown of the former.

Headed by Phineas Banning and associates, the line was then transferred to the mighty Southern Pacific along with a large subsidy of nearly $600,000 when Los Angeles County voters, in fall 1872, approved a plan to bring the SP’s planned line to Yuma, Arizona from central California through Los Angeles–a route forced upon it by congressional action.  With Los Angeles in the midst of its first development and population boom, the necessity of railroads was obvious, even if it meant subsidizing a company and handing over control of the area’s only line.

The Southern Pacific actually built local spur lines from Los Angeles east through the San Gabriel Valley and within a short distance of William Workman’s home on Rancho La Puente out to the Inland Empire and from a point on the Los Angeles and San Pedro (today’s Florence-Graham neighborhood of South Los Angeles) to Anaheim before it connected its main line from the north in September 1876, opening the city to the outside world in an entirely new fashion.

Spurred (!) on by the Southern Pacific’s work, as well as its monopoly on shipping rates for local agricultural products, Los Angeles capitalists began dreaming of their own rail projects to compete with the powerful “Octopus” (the four bigwigs of the SP [Huntington, Stanford, Crocker, and Hopkins) times 2 arms each—get it?).

SV Los Angeles And Independence Railroad Depot California 2007.4
A “pirate” [illegally reproduced] stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection shows the ornate Italianate depot of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad in Los Angeles, ca. 1875.
Stunningly, in March 1874 the state legislature approved a charter granting a right-of-way from Los Angeles to Independence, the Inyo County seat to tap into the burgeoning silver mines of that remote area of eastern California.  Among the incorporators of the act were Inyo County mining moguls Mortimer W. Belshaw, Patrick A. Chalfant, James Beady and Patrick Reddy and such Los Angeles luminaries as former governor John G. Downey, former state senator Benjamin D. Wilson, and banker F.P.F. Temple.

Two weeks after Downey returned to Los Angeles with the charter in hand, a meeting was held to incorporate a railroad based on the charter.  The result was the creation of the Los Angeles and Independence and its first president was Temple, while Downey was elected treasurer.

Temple was not only president of the Temple and Workman bank, which was a competitor of Farmers and Merchants Bank, managed by Isaias W. Hellman (former partner of Temple and Workman in an earlier institution) and with Downey as its president, but he had a major investment in Cerro Gordo, a silver boom town in the mountains near Independence.

Temple’s Cerro Gordo Water and Mining Company, financed by bank depositors and private resources, poured a significant sum into an 11-mile water pipeline to the town that promised a significant, reliable supply for mining purposes.  If the railroad could be built to haul the silver ore to Los Angeles, and do so far faster than the prevailing mule teams that were providing the transport, Temple and his partners hoped to be further enriched.

The L.A. & I. went to work quickly, hiring an experienced rail engineer, Joseph U. Crawford, to plan the construction of the line and he began his work towards the end of May.  Crawford seized upon Cajon Pass as the obvious route out of the Los Angeles region and then through the desert up to Inyo County, more or less following what decades later became U.S. 395.

LA and I line 1877
This detail of an 1877 map of railroad lines in greater Los Angeles shows the route of the Los Angeles and Independence from the city to the new coastal town of Santa Monica, including the railroad’s wharf.

Within months of the creation of the company and once Crawford laid out details of what was involved in building the line and, vitally, how much it would cost, it became obvious that Los Angeles money was not sufficient to carry out the project.  This brought in United States Senator John P. Jones of Nevada, who not only had abundant mining interests in the Inyo County area, but also was planning a new seaside resort town on the Pacific west of Los Angeles called Santa Monica.  By mid-September, it was announced Jones would subscribe to $220,000 in stock, provided Los Angeles capitalists and others would pony up the rest of the $600,000 needed to finish the product.

At the end of December, at a meeting of the company, Jones was elected president and Temple moved to treasurer, while Downey bowed out of the project, perhaps unhappy that Jones was, essentially, taking over the project.  However, Jones was able to get matters moving in a way that could not have otherwise happened and brought in partners from San Francisco to help who had experience in both mines and railroads.  Moreover, his presence stirred the Southern Pacific to move faster on its line to Los Angeles and induced the company to try and get to Cajon Pass and claim it before the L.A. & I. did.

The S.P. probably thought capturing the Cajon would be a cakewalk, but they underestimated Joseph Crawford, who managed to get his surveying crew to the pass before the bigger company’s crew in early January 1875.  Jones ordered work to begin on a wharf at Santa Monica and grading began for the line both from Los Angeles to Cajon Pass and from the city to the seaside town in the making.  Additionally, talk began to intensify about extending the line to join the transcontinental railroad at Provo, Utah as well as building a trunk line to Arizona.

By early July, the wharf at Santa Monica received the first shipment of materials for building the line, including rolling stock, iron, lumber and so forth, with two locomotives, four passenger coaches and 78 boxcars purchased from the East Coast.  Sales of lots at Santa Monica started mid-month and the official opening of the wharf for business took place on the 22nd.

As to the location of the Los Angeles depot, this took a good deal of negotiation.  To save money, the L.A. & I. wanted it south of downtown, while the city council preferred a location in the center of town.  A spot was finally selected on San Pedro Street several blocks south of downtown and architect Edward J. Weston, who worked on some of F.P.F. Temple’s commercial structures in Los Angeles, submitted the design for an Italianate structure to cost up to $10,000.

1877 Santa Monica
It’s a bit washed out, but another 1877 map of southern California, shows the line of the L.A. & I. running just south of the Santa Monica subdivision and terminating at the wharf.  Just south of that is “South Santa Monica,” later Ocean Park and part of Venice.

Just after that happened, a bombshell came from San Francisco, when a silver stock bubble involving mines in Virginia City, Nevada collapsed and the Bank of California, the largest in the state, failed.  A run on the two Los Angeles commercial banks, Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman, ensued.  While the former quickly reopened, the latter did not, as detailed in recent posts on this blog.

In September, all grading east of Los Angeles (eight miles had been completed) was suspended and the focus was on getting the line to Santa Monica up and running.  A test run was completed in mid-October from the Cienega station, west of Los Angeles, to the coast.  In November, the depot, with its striking architecture, was finished.  On 1 December 1875, the day before the Temple and Workman bank finally reopened for business with money borrowed from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin (who, in the spring, considered investing in the railroad), the 16-mile line from Los Angeles to Santa Monica opened for business.

By mid-January 1876, the Temple and Workman bank was finished and, though there were claims that the L.A. and I. was taking in more money on a daily basis to cover its expenses and loan interest and that the SP cut its passenger fares to better compete, the future was uncertain for the upstart line.

Plans were being made to raise more funds to continue the construction towards Inyo County and even to formulate alternatives to connect to the transcontinental in Utah, but the reality was that Los Angeles slid into a deep economic depression that lasted a decade.  The Southern Pacific’s completion of its line to Los Angeles in September and its opening of a wagon road that diverted Inyo County silver to Bakersfield and the railroad there also had an effect on the sustainability of the L.A. & I.

FPF Temple And Margarita Workman ca 1864
F.P.F. Temple was the first president and then treasurer of the L.A. & I., but the failure of his Temple and Workman bank ended his involvement and contributed in part of the eventual sale in May 1877 of the railroad to the Southern Pacific.

Temple’s Cerro Gordo project failed, as well, and that town experienced a devastating fire and then a drop in silver production.  In spring 1877, a flash flood destroyed the mining boom town of Panamint.  Finally, Senator Jones, realizing he needed to cover his losses, decided to sell the L.A. & I. to the SP in May for $100,000 cash, a $25,000 promissory note, and $70,000 in Southern Pacific stock.  The victorious “Octopus” expanded the Santa Monica wharf, which was later dismantled when San Pedro/Wilmington became the major port in Los Angeles.  The L.A. & I. depot was not razed until a decade or so after the sale.

Within three years of the sale of the L.A. & I., its one-time president and treasurer, F.P.F. Temple, died in April 1880 after a series of strokes.  His ambitions with the railroad, along with projects in real estate, oil and other ventures, were an important part of the first boom in Los Angeles, during the late 1860s through mid 1870s.  Yet, he is hardly remembered, perhaps because he failed, and the Los Angeles and Independence is also largely forgotten.

To read more about the L.A. & I., a certain museum director associated with this blog published an article way back in 2001 in the Southern California Quarterly, the journal of the Historical Society of Southern California.

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