Victorian Fair Postlude: A Visit to Greater Los Angeles, November 1853, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This two-part post was intended as another in a series of entries leading up to last weekend’s Victorian Fair, but circumstances intruded, so now this is a “postlude” post!  The subject is a fascinating description of greater Los Angeles in fall 1853 by a member of the crew that was sent out under the auspices of the Department of War (later the Department of Defense) to canvass proposed routes for a transcontinental railroad.

The idea of a rail line traversing the continent was an old one, though there was the little matter of the United States having to physically expand “from sea to shining sea” through the relentless western movement and brutal conquest of native Indian territory, followed by the nation’s first imperial war, the Mexican-American War.

The title page for the fifth of eleven volumes of the explorations and surveys to find a transcontinental railroad route from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, published in 1856 and based on work conducted in 1853-54.  This edition of the report is in the Homestead’s collection.

In March 1853, Congress appropriated $150,000 for the surveys and the United States Army’s Corps of Topographical Engineers embarked on the work.  There were five surveys conducted.  One went from St. Paul, Minnesota to Puget Sound (where Seattle was later founded).  Another traveled from St. Louis to San Francisco.  A third started in what became Oklahoma and headed for San Pedro south of Los Angeles.  Then, there was a route from Texas to San Diego.  Finally, there was a survey that plied the Pacific coast from San Diego to Puget Sound.

Between 1856 and 1861, eleven large volumes of published reports from the surveys were issued by the federal government.  They included material on botany, geology, and other elements of natural history and these proved to be important to the developing knowledge of the West.  Naturally (!), the focus was on the survey work as the government slowly worked towards a decision on which route was to be the one selected for the project.

San Bernardino Valley Mormon Settlement
This drawing by Charles Koppel shows the Mormon settlement of San Bernardino.

Two volumes (the fifth and seventh, which are in the Homestead’s collection) in the series offered some material on greater Los Angeles during the survey work, the reports of which, incidentally, was given the cumbersome title of “Reports of Explorations and Surveys to Ascertain the Most Practicable and Economical Route for a Railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean.”

Today’s entry looks at information printed in Volume Five, which was published in 1856 and comprises the report of Lt. Robert S. Williamson of the Corps of Topographical Engineers, which worked on the routes to San Diego (32nd parallel of latitude) and San Pedro (35th parallel).  In his submittal letter, Williamson noted the authors of various sections, including sketches made by Assistant Civil Engineer Charles Koppel.  He also thanked the commander of the military escort, Lieutenant Stoneman, this being the George Stoneman who served in the Civil War, moved to Pasadena after that grievous conflict and then served as governor of California from 1883 to 1887.

Williamson was assisted by Lt. John G. Parke and six others, including a mineralogist/geologist; a naturalist/physician; two civil engineers; and a draftsman [Koppel], with others hired in California to outfit the expedition.  The groups started at Benicia, northeast of San Francisco, and headed for the Sierra Nevada Mountains through the San Joaquin Valley to investigate the passes in that great chain and below it to the south before heading toward San Diego.

San Gorgonio
A view of Mount San Gorgonio near the pass of that name near today’s Palm Springs and Beaumont.

While the determination of viable railroad routes was, of course, paramount, general information on the natural environment and “the character of the Indian tribes of the country” were also deemed important.  Twenty-eight men, all privates except for three non-commissioned officers, would comprise the miltary escort.  The goal was to finish the survey work and provide a basic report to Congress by early February 1854, with a fuller exposition later.  With five surveys and the $150,000 general appropriation, $30,000 was allotted to Williamson for his work.

Williamson and his party left New York on 20 May 1853, crossed the Isthmus of Panama, and arrived at San Francisco exactly a month later on 20 June.  As ordered, the expedition was outfitted at Benicia, including a spring-wagon, mule teams, field men and cooks, and more.  On 10 July, the party departed to conduct its work and headed south along the Sierras, down to Tehachapi Pass and on to Tejon.

Here, Williamson observed that at Tejon Pass, “a wagon-road has been made leading to Los Angeles, and it is one of the worst roads I ever saw.”  To the west some fifteen miles was Cañada de las Uvas [Grapevine Canyon, hence the term used for the modern route from Los Angeles to the San Joaquin Valley] “through which is a pack-trail, also leading to Los Angeles.”  Hearing that either might be suitable for a rail line, Williamson decided the latter was the best of the pair.  He then sent Parke on a reconnaissance trip down toward Los Angeles to determine which route there was best.

LA text Williamson p35
Some text describing greater Los Angeles as it was visited in November 1853.

While Williamson continued work in the Tejon area, Parke went to Los Angeles and learned of a pass to the east that seemed favorable as a railroad route to the confluence of the Gila and Colorado rivers at the modern California/Arizona border, this being San Gorgonio Pass near modern Beaumont and Palm Springs.  Stoneman took a detachment and headed south from Cañada de la Uvas and emerged in the Santa Clara Valley between today’s Santa Clarita and Ventura.

The expedition then returned to the direction of the Mojave Desert through Tehachapi Pass, exploring potential routes to the southeast and the Colorado/Gila junction.  Considerable time was spent in this region, but, finally, exploration led by civil engineer Isaac Williams Smith took the expedition into greater Los Angeles.  The report’s first mention of the area came after an encampment at Mission San Fernando:

About 21 miles southeast of San Fernando is the Pueblo de los Angeles, formrely the capital of California, when under Mexican rule.  This place is celebrated for its delightful climate and fertile soil.  Large quantities of grapes are exported to San Francisco, and considerable wine was formerly produced.

A drawing by Koppel “was taken from a hill near the city” and included in the report and this has the distinction of being the first published view of Los Angeles.  Prints from the published reports are usually “disbound” from the documents and sold individually, but this one is still in the report, though its significant damp staining explains why it was not removed for sale.


LA Koppel 1853
Koppel’s drawing of Los Angeles from Fort Moore Hill overlooking the Plaza is the first published view of the town.

The Plaza with its 1822 church, Olvera [then known as Wine] Street, and groups of adobe structures are in view, though Main Street is far too wide, the bluffs of Paredon Blanco {Boyle Heights} and nearby hills are absent, and the town was not quite as sparse or small as depicted.  What may be the ruins of the short-lived Fort Moore, erected after the American conquest of Los Angeles nearly seven years prior, but soon abandoned, may be at the bottom right.

From Los Angeles, Smith headed east with the report observing

From this place Mr. Smith passed over an interesting and fertile country [the San Gabriel Valley] to the valey of San Bernardino, and acquired much valuable topographical information.  This portion of the route, surveyed by Mr. Smith, is perfectly practicable for railroads . . .

Tomorrow, we’ll move to part two of this post and more interesting information about greater Los Angeles generated by this vital and seminal report.

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