by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Often confused with his uncle, William Henry Workman was born on New Year’s Day 1839 in Boonville, Missouri to David Workman (brother of William) and Nancy Hook. David migrated from his hometown of Clifton, England and arrived at what was then the western edge of the United States (as he lived near the northern extremity of England near Scotland before that). Nancy Hook was born in Virginia and emigrated to central Missouri with her family. In fact, her sister Mary was David’s first wife, but she died in 1826 in childbirth along with the baby.
After David married Nancy in 1829, they had three sons. Thomas was born in 1832, followed three years later by Elijah and then William. David Workman was originally a saddler, a trade he learned in England and passed on to his sons, but later worked as a trader and was frequently away on long absences traveling as far south as Chihuahua, Mexico on business.
William was educated in local schools and attended the Kemper Institute in Boonville, but he also learned his father’s trade of saddling. David Workman made two trips to Gold Rush California, the first in the great migration of 1849 when he tried his hand at gold digging and the second shortly afterward when he realized the best way to earn money was to sell goods to miners. David operated a store at Sacramento, but a massive fire, which torched most of the city, destroyed the business. Visiting his brother William at Rancho La Puente after the disaster, David was encouraged to go back and retrieve his family for a permanent move to the Los Angeles area.
The Workmans, with Joseph Workman (son of William) in tow, made the overland migration along the California/Oregon Trail in 1854, a journey covered in this blog before, and, after arriving in the north, then traveled down by steamer to San Pedro, where William awaited the party. Settling in at the Workman House, the family stayed for only about a year.
Tragedy struck at the end of June 1855 when David, taking stock to the gold fields for his brother, was killed when, searching for a stray animal in dark and unfamiliar territory, fell down a cliff. He was buried in El Campo Santo, the small private cemetery his brother recently established, and the funeral was also the subject of a post here.
Nancy Hook Workman and her three sons moved to Los Angeles and William took up work as a helper in the shop of local newspapers, the Southern Californian and the Star for a couple of years. When his brother Elijah set up a saddlery in 1857, William joined him and they were partners on and off for about the next fifteen years.
In the late 1860s, Los Angeles underwent its first sustained period of growth and William became an active member of the community during this period and subsequently. He was a member of the Board of Education and served several terms on the Common [City] Council. He was appointed a delegate from the county to the Democratic National Convention in Baltimore in 1872.
Also during the early part of those years of growth, William, in 1867, married Maria (pronounced Ma-rye-ah) Elizabeth Boyle, who came to Los Angeles in 1858 with her widowed father Andrew. He purchased property from the Rubio family on the east side of the Los Angeles River and took on and expanded an existing vineyard on the “flats” fronting the river, while building a brick home on the bluffs (known as Paredon Blanco [white bluffs] and by which the wine made at the property was known.)
Andrew Boyle died in 1871, leaving his property to his daughter and son-in-law. William assumed control of the vineyard, orchards and other products on the estate, but saw that, as the area grew, opportunities arose for subdividing the land for a new tract.
Following the lead of East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights), William joined forces with John Lazzarovich (who was married into the López family, owners of an extensive property near the Workmans) and banker Isaias W. Hellman (originally a partner of Workman’s uncle and his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple).
In 1875, the trio announced the opening of the Boyle Heights tract, one of many subdivisions that arose at the time (along with such examples as Artesia, Pomona and San Fernando). Just as the project was getting going, however, the economy imploded. The Temple and Workman bank collapsed and failed and Boyle Heights, like other new communities, languished for about a decade.
The arrival of the Santa Fe railroad’s transcontinental line to Los Angeles in 1885 ushered in a bigger boom than the previous one and the Boom of the Eighties gave William a significant boost in his fortunes. Always a popular, respected citizen, William also secured election as mayor of Los Angeles in the election of 1886 and, during his two-year term, presided over the city at the apex of the boom. While the Democrats once ruled the roost politically in the region, times had changed by the Eighties and Workman was a rare Democrat in winning an election. Highlights of his term included a new city charter and the building of a new city hall, among others.
After leaving office, William went into banking and further real estate endeavors, while he remained involved in politics by serving on the city’s parks commission during its busiest period of activity during the 1890s. This was when several new additions were made to the system, including Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights. Named for his close friend and neighbor, John E. Hollenbeck, who died in 1885, two-thirds of the land was donated by William (and the remainder by Hollenbeck’s widow.)
A return to elective office came at the dawn of the new century when William was elected city treasurer and served three terms from 1901 to 1907. One of the most important projects during those years was his arranging for the city’s purchase of the private water company that provided the resource to the city. He also signed the bonds used to finance the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the controversial engineering marvel that brought water to the thirsty, growing metropolis from eastern California.
When William retired from the treasurer’s post, he’d given some forty years to public service and was in his late sixties. While he continued to operate his real estate business, he also became heavily involved in the Los Angeles County Pioneer Society and contributed some written reminiscences about his fifty years in the region to the group’s publications. In 1912, he fulfilled a long-held wish to visit the birthplace of his father and uncle in England, including a walk through the Workman family home, which still stands in Clifton.
In October 1917, he and Maria celebrated their fiftieth wedding anniversary with a large and festive celebration, but William was clearly feeble and losing strength. He only lived a few months long, dying at age 79 one hundred years ago today. Because of his prominent role in politics, William’s body lay in state for three hours and his funeral was attended by a very large assemblage of his compatriots and contemporaries, as well as figures from business, politics and philanthropy.
Notably, the Los Angeles Times reported “there were also many from the humbler classes. In the line were to be seen negroes and Mexicans and some Chinese.” This seemed to indicate to the reporter that these people of color had been affected “by the sturdy and upright life of the man whose memory they came to honor.”
While “Uncle Billy,” as he was commonly called, was one of the best-known Los Anglees residents of a century ago, he is not a recognizable name now. Still, he deserves remembrance because of his role as a founder of Boyle Heights, mayor during the Boom of the 1880s, city treasurer when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was being created, and other aspects of his public service.