by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has been noted here on many occasions, there was a period of a few years at the end of the 1880s when a growth boom hit greater Los Angeles and transformed the city in numerous ways. The Boom of the Eighties was brought about by many factors, with a direct transcontinental railroad link by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad being paramount among them.
As many thousands of immigrants arrived in the area, land sales skyrocketed, subdivisions sprung up (many along the region’s railroad lines), and business development surged. For most of that period, from December 1886 to December 1888, the city’s mayor (its 18th since the American era began in 1850) was William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman.
During Workman’s tenure, important projects like the construction of the first city hall expressly built for that purpose and the writing and adoption of a city charter were completed. Workman benefited tremendously from the boom as the founder and main developer of the Boyle Heights subdivision across the Los Angeles River east of the city’s downtown.
Another of Boyle Heights’ developers was Isaias W. Hellman, whose remarkable career began in the late 1850s when he arrived in Los Angeles from what later became Germany. He worked as a merchant with a thriving store in which he conducted informal banking until 1868. That year, he opened a formal bank, Hellman, Temple and Company, with William Workman and F.P.F. Temple.
While Hellman, Temple and Company had all the earmarks of success, with Hellman’s business acumen, Temple’s well-known reputation as a booster of Los Angeles, and Workman’s wealth and reputation, the enterprise lasted just over two years. Differences in philosophy between Hellman and Temple led the former to buy out his partners at the end of January 1871.
Hellman then joined forces with ex-governor John G. Downey (who opened the first bank in Los Angeles in 1868 with a partner named Hayward—the Bay Area city was named for Hayward’s father) to open Farmers and Merchants Bank. Unfazed, Temple and Workman followed later in 1871 with their own namesake bank. Poor business practices and management were revealed during an economic collapse in late summer 1875 and, within several months, Temple and Workman closed. Hellman, meanwhile, survived and prospered.
So, when a traveler arrived in Los Angeles in spring 1889 and saw the booming city, he honed in on one of its leading lights: Hellman. The visitor, only known as “D.J.K.,” wrote a fascinating article in the 13 April 1889 issue (which is in the Homestead’s collection) of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, a popular mainstream periodical of the era, promoting Los Angeles and giving particular attention to Hellman.
The author pinpointed something notable about the Boom of the 1880s in the growing metropolis, stating “Los Angeles is an Eastern city, with Eastern methods and a majority of Eastern people,” among his estimate of 85,000 residents. By “Eastern,” it was likely meant east of the Mississippi River and, though, it was not explicitly stated, this also implied a significant ethnic shift in the population.
Going on to say that Los Angeles lacked “the peculiarities of a Western city,” without stating what those conditions entailed, the writer added, “considering its age, no other large city in America is so well cleaned, so well paved, so brilliantly lighted.” Keep in mind that electrification was still relatively new in the nation’s urban areas. He mentioned that factories roared with machinery, so that nearly 600 manufacturers produced some $10 million in goods.
Yet, he went on, Los Angeles was more commercial than industrial and added that it was “adorned by broad and well-built streets, and by many graceful and stately buildings worthy to stand on Broadway [in New York] itself.” Anything found in eastern cities was not lacking in the City of Angels, including those aforementioned streets, ample sidewalks, streetcars and cable cars, electric lights and gas lamps, schools, charities and benevolent associations.
With the doubling of population in two years (during the Workman administration), Los Angeles was a far cry from thirty years prior when young I.W. Hellman arrived in town. The writer stated that the city “was one of the most unpromising villages in this country—a village of mud (adobe) houses, with here and there a few dilapidated two-story frame buildings.”
This wasn’t quite true—in fact, there were some recently built brick business buildings, including two built by Jonathan Temple, the half-brother of Hellman’s former banking partner. But, the author employed a variation on a well-worn theme: the sleepy, indolent pueblo transformed into a modern American city within a few decades.
Still, the author continued
Nothing at that time indicated its future greatness. Yet there was one man who then joined its almost Mexican population of mixed Mexicans and Americans, and believed she had a future. That man was Isaias W. Hellman, now the President of the Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank. A member of the Hebrew persuasion, and with that sound, practical sense that has so distinguished members of his race all over the world . . . he has, by his unwavering honesty and manly courage, acquired the distinction of being the wealthiest citizen of Los Angeles. A history of the rise and progress of Mr. Hellman would be a history of the rise and progress of Los Angeles.
Obviously, this paean is interesting in many ways, including the description of the existing population in the late 1850s and the assertion that Hellman stood alone in his belief and contribution to the growth of the city. There were, of course, many others who played signal parts in the development of Los Angeles, though it is true that Hellman was a key player.
Interesting “D.J.K.” then talked about what Hellman had “seen” in his three decades in the city with respect to infrastructure, amenities and other improvements, as well as the significant growth in railroad freight handling and a quintupling of assessed property values. He added that Hellman “experienced the great ‘boom’ that crippled so many and made fortunes for some.” Yet, “seeing” is an interesting word choice, rather than stating with the banker and business leader had actually “done.”
Yet, the author returned to lionize Hellman, adding that he was “like most men of talent, modest to a degree” and that “his charities are many but unknown.” Cited as an example was a $5,000 gift to a Protestant home for orphans, though Hellman was known as a founding benefactor in 1880 of a Methodist college called the University of Southern California and other endeavors.
“D.J.K.” went on to write about the phenomenal mild climate of greater Los Angeles, the variety of trees and plants (though, curiously, there was no specific mention of the ubiquitous orange and other major crops), and to note “the land is well cultivated, the cattle are numerous, the neighborhood is well wooded.” Mention was made of mansions and villas and picturesque spots, adding
This country is enriched by industry, embellished by taste, and pleasing even to eyes accustomed to the well-tilled fields and stately manor-houses of England. Wherever one turns from Los Angeles toward the country the scene presents a vast expanse of rolling hills with their villas, orchards, trim flower-beds, and, in the distance, mountains ranging from 6,000 to 12,000 feet in height.
A good amount of space in the article was devoted to Pasadena, near which were “panoramas of beauty unexcelled in the world” as well as areas that were “a hive of industry.” Observing that the town was reached by a railroad four years prior (the Santa Fe in 1885) and that growth skyrocketed, the writer added that Pasadena featured “elegant homes and residences, generally surrounded by groves and vineyards.
The population of 12-15,000 persons, the author offered, were “mainly people of the highest culture and intelligence.” A crowning glory of the area was the Raymond Hotel, which featured landscaping “of the highest perfection” and stated to be “more comfortable, home-like and entirely social” as any hostelry anywhere. In fact, he went on to state that the service and management were also perfection and claimed “the guest who leaves the Raymond leaves it with a mental reservation that he will surely come again.” One wonders if “D.J.K.” got a free night or several for his starry-eyed review of the hotel.
Allowing for the enthusiasm the writer had for Hellman as a sole dominant figure in the development of Los Angeles and the thrice-stated perfection of the Raymond as good advertising for the hostelry, the article is an interesting look at the region at the tail end of the famed boom.
In fact, the inevitable bust was just around the corner, though future periods of immense growth were to come in waves in succeeding decades and glowing description like that penned by “D.J.K.” were hardly unique or in short supply.