Sharing Regional History at the Placentia Library and Eaton Canyon Nature Center

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Presentations Monday evening and this afternoon in two public facilities in our region offered the opportunity to discuss regional history in very different ways.  The first presentation was at the library in the Orange County city of Placentia, where I lived during high school and my first year and a half of college, and focused on the history of the nearby areas of Olinda and Carbon Canyon, the latter being where I’ve resided for the past fourteen years.

The discussion looked at various elements of the area’s history including the use of much of it as public land in the Spanish and Mexican periods for nearby ranchers to use for grazing their cattle and horses.  In the American era, public land was sold and, in the mid-1870s, former state surveyor general James W. Shanklin acquired several thousand acres in the vicinity.

Olinda cabinet photo
A photo of the Olinda oil field from the Homestead’s collection, ca. 1916.

During the boom of the late 1880s, a transplant named William H. Bailey arrived by way of Maui in the Hawaiian Islands, where his missionary parents settled decades before, but also owned a sugarcane plantation on the Kula highlands on the slopes below the Haleakala volcano.  The Baileys named their place Olinda, after an early Portuguese settlement in Brazil where sugarcane was raised.  After William came to this area and bought much of Shanklin’s ranch, he christened in Olinda and tried to start a town called Carlton, but the boom went bust and the town never got much beyond the laying out of streets, some of which still exist.

A decade later, however, Edward Doheny, fresh from his triumphant success developing the Los Angeles Oil Field with Charles Canfield, brought in Orange County’s first oil well at Olinda.  Doheny partnered with the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway, which completed a transcontinental railroad line to Los Angeles in 1885 that ushered in the great boom the followed and had a subsidiary, the Southern California Railway, build a line through north Orange County south of the Olinda Ranch.  The Santa Fe completed a spur line to the oil field from its main line and developed a significant chunk of the field at a time when railroads were moving to oil for the primary fuel for trains.

Olinda remained a busy field for decades and several companies had workers and their families, peaking at well over 1,000 persons, living in the area until the spread of the automobile allowed these workers to move to quieter, cleaner neighborhoods and commute to work.  Production declined by World War II and, though there are still some wells in the field, today, they are gradually giving way to housing tracts and other suburban amenities.

La Vida Mineral Springs bathhouse 1928 (3)
The La Vida Mineral Springs bath house and cafe, ca. 1928, also from the museum’s collection.

To the east, Carbon Canyon also became something of a weekend retreat, including the creation of La Vida Mineral Springs, which tapped into naturally heated mineral water to draw clientele for baths.  A local rancher, Edward F. Gaines, seems to have opened the first formal, though small, operation at La Vida.  About 1924, William N. Miller, a former oil worker and small prospector and resident of Anaheim, took over and greatly expanded the operation to include lodgings and a cafe.

Much of the clientele in those days seems to have been composed of Jews from Los Angeles who were very familiar with the prevalence of hot springs in Europe.  In fact, the Workmen’s Circle, a left-leaning Jewish organization in Los Angeles, bought land over the San Bernardino County and, in 1928, opened Camp Kinder Ring for children and youth.  The camp later took in all ages and remained in operation for three decades.  The site later housed social clubs and Ski Villa, a strange, short-lived outdoor ski slope using plastic needles as a base.  A housing project and a horse ranch occupy the site today.

Within a few years, the water was being flavored and bottled on the site and sold as a health product.  By 1930, a major campaign was launched in which La Vida water was sold throughout the west coast and bottled in expanded quarters in Fullerton, as well as in Sacramento, Alameda and Stockton up north.  The Great Depression appears to have severely affected the operation, but La Vida water continued to be bottled and sold for many years afterward.

La Vida AD SanBernardinoCountySunThuMar261931(1)
An advertisement for La Vida Mineral Water, San Bernardino Sun, 19 June 1931

In 1944, Miller’s daughter and her husband took over La Vida and operated it for three decades.  A motel was added, the cafe remodeled, the baths expanded and modernized and large hot mineral outdoor swimming pools also created.  There was a local competitor, operated by a member of the Hiltscher family of Fullerton, deeper within the canyon just over the San Bernardino County line in the aptly named hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, but it didn’t last beyond World War II.

La Vida was sold in 1974 to Leo Hayashi, a Japanese-American real estate investor who hoped to draw Japanese clientele, as hot springs are very popular in that country.  Carbon Canyon was becoming less of a destination for leisure activities, however, as suburbanization continued in the area.  In 1988, a fire destroyed the much of the facility, though the restaurant continued to operate until just after the millenium and then was razed.

Though there were other elements of the area’s history, these were among the main ones covered in Monday night’s talk.  As for today’s talk at Eaton Canyon, the focus was on the Workman and Temple families and the role in the development of the San Gabriel Valley through the 1920s.  I pointed out that Eaton Wash which passes through the nature center also runs through the western edge of Temple City, so this was an appropriate way to start the talk.

Temple Block from Main looking north 1870s
The Temple Block building where the Temple and Workman bank was located, from a circa 1872 photo in the Homestead’s collection.

The presentation noted that the 1845 marriage of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple led to a partnership between Temple and his wife’s father, William Workman, that embraced real estate, cattle ranching and farming over some thirty years.  The economic success the two enjoyed during the Gold Rush enabled them to add extensively to their landholdings, even while floods and droughts in the first half of the 1860s caused severe problems in the region.

It was during greater Los Angeles’ first significant period of growth, from the late 1860s through the mid 1870s, that the pair really expanded their business enterprises, including real estate, oil, railroads and other projects.  Much of this handled through banking, including a partnership (in Los Angeles’ second bank) with merchant Isaias W. Hellman that led to a split, after which Temple and Workman went on their own.

While from the outside, matters looked successful, cash reserves were too small while funds on deposit at the bank were used for a wide array of development projects.  When the state economy collapsed in late summer 1875 after mining speculation in Virginia City, Nevada silver tanked, nervous depositors descended on the bank to withdraw funds, only to find that the bank suspended business on 1 September to come up with a strategy of response.  That day was also election day for county offices and Temple secured a rare Republican win by winning the campaign for county treasurer.

Workman 1870
William Workman, ca. 1870, when he was a wealthy rancher and banker, but a few years from a staggering financial disaster.

He wouldn’t take office for six months and spent half that time seeking a loan to reopen the stricken bank.  Finally, in late November, a deal was made with Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, whose sale of large stock holdings at Virginia City helped precipitate the crisis that struck the state and who’d been investing in Los Angeles-area real estate starting with the purchase of Rancho Santa Anita in the spring.

The bank’s loan only staved off disaster for about six weeks, with the funds exhaused by mid-January 1876, and the bank closed.  William Workman took his life in May and, though he took office and completed his two-year term as county treasurer, Temple suffered a series of strokes and died in 1880.

Though the family mainly receded from public life for about forty years, a dramatic resurgence came in the late 1910s when Walter P. Temple, tenth of eleven children born to Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple and who was just six years old when the bank failure took place, came into sudden, significant wealth.  This was due to the discovery of oil by his 9-year old son, Thomas, on the family’s ranch near Montebello, on land formerly owned by F.P.F. Temple, lost to Baldwin and then purchased by Walter from Baldwin’s estate.

Montebello Oil Field 8
The Montebello oil field, including the Temple lease at upper left, from a 1921 state mining publication.

With Standard Oil of California, now Chevron, bringing in the first well in June 1917, followed by several dozen more wells, including several gushers, in succeeding years, the Temples enjoyed a small fortune.  Much of this went into Walter Temple’s independent oil prospecting and real estate projects.

Among the latter was the purchase and development of a block and a half in downtown Alhambra that included several buildings, a few of which survive.  In San Gabriel, across from the mission, Temple bought land that yielded three commercial buildings, all of which still stand, and he also donated the lot for the city hall.  Near the mission, Temple was also, with Henry Huntington, the largest donor to the playhouse that was headquarters for the famed Mission Play, and which is also extant.  Temple also built a movie theater and post office in El Monte and owned land in Monterey Park and Puente.

His main project, however, was the Town of Temple, which began on 285 acres formerly owned by his father and grandfather and lost to Baldwin.  Founded in 1923, the town was the source of speculation by those who bought lots and sought to “flip” them for a quick profit.  A well-intended law designed to raise money for sidewalks, lighting and other improvements, but required adjacent property owners to pay property taxes defaulted by their neighbors, led to a marked drop in the town’s prospects.  In 1928, the community was renamed Temple City, but, by then, its founder’s finances were precarious.

Temple City Blvd at Las Tunas 1926
Temple City from Sunset Avenue, now Temple City Boulevard, south of Las Tunas Drive, 1926, from a photo in the museum’s collection.

Temple took out bonds to pay for continued work at Temple City, but faced growing debts while oil revenues dropped in the last part of the decade precisely as he was spending more on his real estate work and on his mansion, La Casa Nueva, at the Homestead.  The house was finished by the end of 1927, but within two-and-a-half years, he vacated the structure and the Homestead to do what many Americans do now, live cheaply in Baja California.  He couldn’t stem the tide, however, and lost the Homestead to foreclosure in 1932.

Though Walter Temple seemed to have deliberately acquired interests in areas where his father and grandfather were involved a half-century before so that he could restore the family’s name, he was, like them, unable to forestall financial failure.  Of course, the history of the San Gabriel Valley and greater Los Angeles broadly is marked by many stories like this, where spectacular success can be succeeded by sudden and striking disaster as a recurring theme.


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