by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, the controversial and colorful capitalist whose eight years were filled with remarkable events, evidently earned his nickname when he left San Francisco during a rapidly rising bubble in Virginia City, Nevada silver mine stock. The story goes that he’d left instructions to sell the stock when it reached a certain level, but took the key with him so his directions went unfulfilled. When Baldwin returned, however, the stock climbed even higher and, when he then sold, he reaped millions. His actions also led to a rush by other investors to sell their stock, the bubble burst, and a panic gripped San Francisco in late August 1875.
The news reached Los Angeles by telegraph and thunderstruck depositors descended on the town’s two commercial banks, Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman. F.P.F. Temple, president of the latter, prevailed on John G. Downey, his counterpart in the former, to agree to a month-long suspension to end the bank run and then was elected, the same day, as Los Angeles County Treasurer. When Farmers and Merchants’ managing cashier, Isaias W. Hellman, on vacation in Europe, heard of Downey’s decision, he rushed home, reopened his bank armed with cash he borrowed in New York, and removed Downey from the presidency of the institution.
As for Temple and Workman, it remained closed for over three months, as F.P.F. Temple and his managing cashier, Henry S. Ledyard, spent weeks in San Francisco seeking a loan to reopen the stricken institution. In mid-October, Baldwin acquired the western two-thirds of Rancho San Francisquito from Temple, Workman and Luis Wolfskill for $75,000. This property adjoined Rancho Santa Anita, which Baldwin bought from Los Angeles merchant Harris Newmark (who purchased it from Wolfskill three years before for $60,000) for $200,000, a record in Los Angeles County.
Undoubtedly seeing a golden opportunity to expand his real estate holdings in greater Los Angeles which began with his spring 1875 purchase of Rancho Santa Anita, Baldwin offered a deal to the desperate bankers. As Temple wrote his father-in-law, William Workman, in late November, a loan was agreed upon, but “on rather hard terms.” For $310,225, Baldwin was to have a blanket mortgage on an enormous amount of property possessed by Temple and Workman, and set terms of interest that were daunting at best.
In early December, the bank finally reopened, but the long layoff and concerns about the institution’s viability led depositors to quietly but quickly close their accounts, taking the borrowed funds with them. A last-gasp advance of an additional $30,000 failed to stem the tide. On 13 January 1876, a placard placed on the door of the bank’s quarters in the Temple Block announced a permanent closure.
Assignees were selected to conduct an inventory, which revealed pervasive mismanagement, and attempts were made to institute legal proceedings against the bank’s debtors to help pay large sums to creditors. The process continued for several years, but the panic led to an economic downturn that, combined with a national depression that erupted in 1873, made recovering funds problematic.
William Workman, having been visited by a court receiver as part of the proceedings dealing with the bank’s failure and the future adjudication of his estate and devastated by the disaster which was not of his doing, committed suicide that May. F.P.F. Temple, who was allowed to take office as county treasurer in March despite the circumstances and who served his two-year term, albeit with a deputy doing the day-to-day business of the office, suffered a series of strokes and died in April 1880.
Baldwin, meanwhile, waited three years before filing foreclosure proceedings, apparently to allow the interest on the loan to accumulate to a point that it couldn’t be paid off. In 1879, the foreclosure was completed and Baldwin assumed control of such properties as most of Workman’s portion of Rancho La Puente, including the Homestead; most or all of the ranchos Potrero Grande, Potrero de Felipe Lugo, La Merced (including the Temple Homestead and the half-share of Juan Matias Sánchez which was included in the bank loan—a remarkable overture by Sánchez to his compadres, Temple and Workman); land on Rancho La Cienega, now including the Baldwin Hills and surrounding areas; and more.
Though often depicted as a ruthless and thoughtless robber baron, Baldwin did sell the Workman and Temple homesteads back to the family, though there is an account that claims that Francis W. Temple, who’d taken possession of the Workman Homestead by paying $5,000 for the Workman House, outbuildings and 75 surrounding acres, rushed to San Francisco to coerce Baldwin into selling the Temple Homestead to Francis’ newly widowed mother, Margarita Workman. William W. Temple, Francis’ brother and a lawyer who spent years trying to help his family through the legal morass that descended after the bank’s collapse, wrote Baldwin a letter requesting him to sell the Temple property to his mother.
In subsequent years, however, Baldwin and the Temples frequently locked horns in court and the tangled story is too much to go into here, other than to say that it often involved quieting title to properties the tycoon took over or Temple family attempts to invalidate elements of the foreclosure that led to the loss of so much of their once-princely domains. The legal jousting continued even after Baldwin died on 1 March 1909, including further suits filed by the Temples and which were left to Baldwin’s business manager and then executor, Hiram A. Unruh, to handle from the estate’s side.
Unruh, born in Indiana in 1845, enlisted while just fifteen in the Union Army when the Civil War erupted, fought in an Indiana volunteer regiment and was captured by the Confederates. He spent several months in the notorious Libby prisoner of war camp and then was paroled. He later joined another Union regiment, this time with an artillery unit with the Marines, and was mustered out in 1864.
He trained to be a telegraph operator and worked for Western Union for a period. Coming to California in 1866, he was an agent with Wells Fargo in northern California for a brief period and then was on a crew building telegraph lines in the Sierra Nevada Mountains along the transcontinental railroad line built by the Central Pacific Railroad. He remained with the company for about five years and then had a tobacco wholesale partnership in San Francisco for three years.
From 1877 to 1879, he worked for a railroad line in Nevada and this is apparently how he came to come into Baldwin’s orbit. He left the railroad company’s employ to become Baldwin’s bookkeeper, residing in the tycoon’s lavish Baldwin Hotel in San Francisco. He rose to not only be business manager, but was a rare confidant, and his sure judgment and steady hand, it was said, saved Baldwin from financial disaster on a number of occasions. In handling the estate, Unruh reportedly managed matters so well that the expected inheritance jumped from $1 million to twenty times that much, an enormous boon for the heirs.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a 20 December 1909 letter written by Unruh to Walter P. Temple. In the missive, Unruh refers to “the McClain case” and a “delay in survey.” This had to do with one of those very confusing legal battles that went on for over twenty years. Basically, it involved Walter’s brother, John H. Temple, who was given land by their mother and on which he settled in 1876 and farmed for a dozen years when he moved to the Homestead after his brother Francis died.
Baldwin was trying to quiet title to the various properties he’d acquired in the bank foreclosure action and sued John H. Temple in 1887 over ownership of ten acres of a larger tract of 75 acres stradding the boundary of the ranchos La Merced and Potrero de Felipe Lugo (and which is both within and adjacent to today’s Whittier Narrows Nature Center in South El Monte.) Baldwin secured a Superior Court judgment and John H. Temple did not appeal and then moved to the Homestead, selling his interest in the entire 75 acres to others.
Susan McLean was one of these later purchasers and filed suit against Baldwin over the disputed 10 acres. Her attorneys noticed that there was a survey done in 1874 at the behest of F.P.F. Temple that established a boundary line between the two ranchos. When Baldwin, however, won his case thirteen years later, he hired a surveyor who determined a different line. McLean’s attorneys claimed that the first surveyed line should’ve have been determined as the true one and the original case overturned.
On McLean’s appeal to the state Supreme Court in 1907, that body observed that it was clear that the 1874 survey line should be understood to be the correct one. It ordered a new trial and opined that “it is to be hoped that upon another trial the line between the parties may be definitely fixed, not merely by the name of the survey, but by an actual line traced on the ground, which will end all litigation on the subject.”
Apparently, Baldwin was not going to give any ground (!) on the issue, even if it was only 10 acres out of tens of thousands he owned, but McLean evidently prevailed in the retrial, as Unruh’s letter referred to “trying to settle up the judgement” in the case through the survey to definitively establish that boundary.
Either not having John H. Temple’s address (he then lived in Los Angeles after losing the Homestead to foreclosure a decade prior) or because Walter Temple was acting as his brother’s agent, Unruh added
I enclose herewith a quit-claim deed from John H. Temple to myself as Executor to Ranchos Merced and Felipe Lugo, if you will get this signed for me promptly I will allow you $250.00 on account of your purchase.
He went on to say that, if Walter Temple could get this handled immediately, “it will require some time and expense to clear up the matter in a legal way,” and it was preferable to “allow you the amount” that would be expended in court. Obviously, Unruh’s role as executor of the Baldwin estate was to as expeditiously handle all matters to the benefit of the beneficiaries and clearing up situations like the McLean case were part of his responsibility.
Less than three years later, Walter Temple approached Unruh with an unusual request: the purchase of about 60 acres of La Merced, once owned by F.P.F. Temple and lost to Baldwin in the foreclosure. Walter was then living just to the east as the owner of the 50-acre Temple Homestead. Why he wanted to acquire the 60 acres was not stated, nor is it known why Unruh agreed—he even basically loaned Walter the money to acquire the property. Did the two men establish a relationship, with this letter as a possible indicator, that led Unruh to make a deal to both benefit Temple and the Baldwin estate?
This was October 1912. Temple sold the Temple Homestead to Christian Walter (this was covered in a recent post) and he, his wife Laura Gonzalez, and their four surviving children (a fifth died as an infant several years before) then moved to the new property and took up residence in an adobe house built in the late 1860s.
In April 1914, Thomas W. Temple II, the eldest of the family’s children, discovered indications of oil on the hillsides above the family home, which led to a lease being executed with Standard Oil Company of California the following year. Not long after, a similar arrangement was made in the rest of the Montebello Hills, which was owned by Baldwin’s heirs, daughters Anita Baldwin and Clara Stocker.
In December 1916, a test well was drilled on the Baldwin portion of the hills and which was brought into production the following spring. Unruh, however, did not live to see this latest remarkable circumstance for the properties under his prudent management and oil revenues at Montebello and at the Baldwin Hills, another highly productive field, added even more to the coffers to Baldwin’s heirs.
On 16 December 1916, Unruh, who was 71, traveled with a companion to Arcadia, the town he essentially laid out for Baldwin on Rancho Santa Anita, to look at some estate land there. As he climbed into the car for the return trip to Los Angeles, Unruh remarked that he felt short of breath. A half-hour later, as the vehicle made it way west, he collapsed and died. Unruh, who was buried in Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, left his widow, Jane Dunn, who he married in 1868 and two sons, David, a civil engineer and architect, and Joseph, an orange grower in Arcadia.
Despite his remarkable success in managing Baldwin’s business affairs and significantly growing the estate after the tycoon’s death, Unruh is forgotten. There is, however, in almost a direct line north of the boundary of the Workman Homestead sold by Baldwin to Francis W. Temple and just past Valley Boulevard a short street called Unruh Avenue in La Puente. It remains the sole public recognition for a remarkable, but low-key, individual who played a key part in what might be called the second iteration of giving Baldwin his nickname of “Lucky.”