Walter P. Temple’s Monument to the Original Site of Mission San Gabriel, July 1921

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today is the anniversary date of the founding of Mission San Gabriel, established on 8 September 1771, and it is not commonly known that the current site is not the original one.  In fact, padres Angel Somero and Pedro Gambón, acting on the orders of Father Junipero Serra, founded the mission in the Whittier Narrows along the banks of what we now call the Rio Hondo, but what was the older channel of the San Gabriel River (the new channel was created in winter flooding in 1867-68).

While the location made great sense because of its proximity to the river for access to water for farming, livestock, and domestic uses, it also made terrible sense because it was too close to a river prone to overflowing its banks during heavy rains.  By 1775, the site was abandoned, undoubtedly to flooding, and moved to higher, dryer ground at the mission’s current locale.

Still, the region surrounding the original site was known for many years thereafter as Misión Vieja, or Old Mission.  A small rancho, occupied by the mission and then granted in 1844 to the Valenzuela and Alvitre families, was known as Potrero Chico o la Misión Vieja.

Just to the south was Rancho La Merced, granted in 1845 to Casilda Soto de Lobo, but, after being unable to repay a loan to William Workman, he foreclosed in 1850 and took possession of the ranch.  He then, the following year, conveyed it to his Rancho La Puente forman Juan Matias Sanchez, who took the southern portion, and his daughter Antonia Margarita and her husband, F.P.F. Temple, who occupied the northern part.

On La Merced in June 1869 Walter P. Temple was born and his early years were spent on the Temple Homestead during a time when his father and grandfather were among the wealthiest citizens in Los Angeles County, with banking, real estate, oil, and other ventures among their business endeavors.  However, when the Temple and Workman bank failed in 1876, among the many landholdings mortgaged for a loan provided by Elias J. “Lucky”Baldwin, was Rancho La Merced.

Original Mission San Gabriel monument
This granite marker commemorating the founding of the Mission San Gabriel was established by Walter P. Temple on the corner of San Gabriel Boulevard and Lincoln Avenue in Montebello, where his oil lease property was then located.  The mission site, existing from the 1771 founding for a few years, was actually a little to the north.

In 1881, after Baldwin foreclosed, he sold 50 acres and the Temple family homes (there were two of them) to Walter’s mother.  A little over a decade later, she died, leaving the Temple Homestead to Walter and his younger brother Charles, who later relinquished his interest to Walter.

Walter married Old Mission native Laura Gonzalez, who worked at the Workman House for Walter’s brother Francis during the 1880s, in 1903 and they had five children, four of which lived to adulthood.  Working as a farmer, teamster and insurance agent over the years, Walter’s friendship with merchant and real estate investor Milton Kauffman, led him to propose to the estate of “Lucky” Baldwin that he be allowed to purchase 60 acres to the west of the Temple Homestead.

Remarkably, the deal was consummated in 1912, even though Temple had to borrow from the Baldwin estate to purchase the property, while he sold the Temple Homestead.  The Temples moved into an adobe house on the new landholding and their 9-year old son, Thomas, made a remarkably lucky find of oil that came along within a couple of years.  A lease with Standard Oil Company of California led, in June 1917, to the first of many successful oil wells on the Temple lease.

The family moved to Monterey Park and then Alhambra, while they also bought the 75-acre Workman Homestead, where our museum is today, but Walter Temple decided that, to commemorate the sesquicentennial (150th anniversary) of the mission, he would erect a granite monument on a corner of his property where San Gabriel Boulevard intersects with Lincoln Avenue just within the city limits of Montebello.

This was done in July 1921, in tandem with a major pageant held at the mission in San Gabriel.  The Temples participated in the pageant, which, typical of the era, celebrated the Spanish settlement of California and the conversion of the native Indians to Christianity.  The story and views of the aboriginal peoples were not presented, however–the view was entirely from the European perspective.

Los Angeles Times article covering the dedication and unveiling of the mission monument, 31 July 1921.

In any case, while the pageant was held on Sunday the 30th, the unveiling and dedication of the tablet was the prior day.  As recounted in the Alhambra Advocate newspaper of 5 August,

the monument was unveiled by the two young sons [Walter, Jr., age 12, and Edgar, 10] of Mr. Temple and was blessed by Bishop [John J.] Cantwell, who was accompanied by a number of priests to assist him . . .

Speakers included the brother-in-law of Walter’s brother, John, attorney and Spanish consul in Los Angeles, Antonio Orfila, who addressed the crowd in Spanish, and Luther Ingersoll, best known for a collection of California history at the Los Angeles Public Library.

Ingersoll delivered a lengthy oration and revealed a prevalent attitude towards native peoples, claiming “all authorities agree that of all human beings on the earth, the Southern California Indian was the lowest in the scale of humanity” and describing their appearance, social practices and other lifeways with barely concealed disdain.

Praising the missionaries and damning the military, Ingersoll extolled the work of the padres at the so-called “Queen of the Missions,” going into great detail about the efforts to convert the natives into productive citizens, with particular attention given to Eulalia Perez, the key-keeper for females at the mission.

Mission SG Plaque site 1940s
A snapshot of the Mission San Gabriel marker, hidden behind the shrubs surrounding it and with the state historical landmark sign in front, near oil wells from the Temple lease, ca. 1940s or 1950s.  Photo donated by Tim Poyorena-Miguel.

Concluding his speech, Ingersoll lavished praise on Walter Temple for recognizing the noble spirit of the missionaries

that has prompted him to see that this, an enduring granite tablet permanently locating the sacred spot where first stood old San Gabriel Mission the hallowed name of which is music and inspiration in the human heart.  We all appreciate Mr. Temple’s lofty purpose in doing this most appropriate and most desirable act for the information and uplift of our people and the millions who are to visit this Shrine of History for generations to come.

Regardless of the expansive extolling of Temple’s donation of the monument, there was another factual issue in Ingersoll’s remark relating to the exact placement of the marker.  When he said that the tablet identified “the sacred spot where first stood old San Gabriel Mission,” this wasn’t true.  Temple happened to own the corner where the marker was installed, but the site was at the base of very steep hillsides where it just wasn’t feasible to have a mission.

Instead, the site of the mission was across San Gabriel Boulevard to the north and next to the Rio Hondo where the flatter terrain and easy access to water would draw the attention of the founding fathers of the mission.  Still, the State of California recognized Temple’s monument as State Historic Landmark #161 and a sign still stands near the marker in what remains an isolated and barely visited location—hardly a place where “millions who are to visit this Shrine of History for generations to come”!

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