by Paul R. Spitzzeri
One of the many signs of the growing importance of Los Angeles as a major American metropolis was the attraction the city had for organizations holding national conventions. An early example of this was in mid-may 1897 for the 26th Session of the Grand Division of the Order of Railway Conductors, a fraternal order established at the end of 1868 and which dissolved almost exactly a century later on the first day of 1969.
Formed specifically to represent train conductors, who were at the highest ranks of railway workers, the ORC was first named the “Conductors Brotherhood,” before adopting a new name in 1878. It was incorporated nine years later and its headquarters established at Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
At that time, it was stipulated that the Order existed for the support and assistance of members, including death and disability insurance, but other workers were admitted to the organization, such as ticket collectors, brakemen, flagmen, baggage handlers and yard workers, provided they were white. Until 1890, members were expressly prohibited from going on strike and were to be expelled for doing so, so a Brotherhood of Railway Conductors was established in 1885 as a labor union.
But, in 1890, an abrupt change took place within the organization with newer, younger leadership moving from a solely fraternal and beneficial perspective to one that took on labor issues. A merger with the Brotherhood of Railway Conductors was effected shortly afterward. The organization underwent many changes over the years, including a formal name change involving railroad brakemen and then folded in 1969 when the United Transportation Union, a broader union for transportation workers was created.
The convention in Los Angeles drew over 3,000 conductors from around the country, most of whom traveled in stage delegations to the City of the Angels. One, from Pennsylvania, was stranded at El Paso when a flooding Rio Grande destroyed a railroad bridge. The party remained in that city for several days until a workaround could be developed to get the group to Los Angeles at the very end of the session, which lasted from 11-17 May.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a souvenir program published for the convention. The 40-page artifact is full of interesting material, including an homage to the railroad conductor and to the safety of trains, said to be more pronounced that transportation by foot, wagon or horseback. The statement added, “few realize how much of this is due to the untiring diligence of the conductor.”
Whereas riders assumed the conductor was mainly concerned with “having his accounts come out straight,” the essay claimed “no man has a more continuous mental strain with so many points to think of” and continued “how he keeps such an even temper under such a strain is known only to those who endure it.” If this was known, the summary ended, the public at large “would place the railway conductor at the head of all captains of the human race.”
In a strange essay placed next to leaders of the Ladies’ Auxiliary of the order and called “The Ladies of California,” the writer tried to claim that “the men take more of a business view of its attractions and advantages, while the ladies are enthralled by the charts of the climate,” as well as the flowers “and everything that makes the outside of the home a pleasure.”
That said, it was asserted that “the ladies of the Auxiliary Association of the Conductors’ Association of the United States feel no surprise at this feeling on the part of their more fortunate sisters” and hoped “that some day they may be able to join them in the enjoyment of the nearest approach to ease with comfort that they have yet seen on this earth.”
The hyperbole kept going with an essay about Southern California which “is the land of surprises, and it surprises none more than its oldest settlers.” Undoubtedly meant to refer to the “oldest white settlers,” the statement could be looked at with irony if it meant the native Indians or the Mexicans who were still living in 1897, exactly a half-century after the American seizure of California.
In any case, the statement went on to argue that the region “combines within the smallest compass all the unique features of this strange land in the highest perfection.” This included the steepness of the mountains from the foothills of the valleys and the striking climate. It averred that “there is probably no other place in the world where one can as quickly run form the finest of gardens to deep snow banks, and back again for dinner, as on the electric railroad that leads up Mt. Lowe.” The Mt. Lowe railway, a spectacular trip up the steep slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena and Altadena, opened just a few years prior.
The regional summary noted that ice could be obtained in these mountains not far from where bananas grow and that one could swim in the ocean and see snow on the tops of those mountains. It added “most of the climates of the United States are thus joined together and varied by elevation and distance from the coast,” though humidity was conspicuously not mentioned.
Agriculture, too, represented this unusual diversity, with barely, oranges, corn, strawberries and others all raised in the region and “all these make such rapid changes in the appearance of the country as you go along that you hardly know where you are.” The landscape was so striking, moreover, that “riding among the miles of orchards and lovely places with evidence on every hand of lavish wealth that cares not whether there is any return for the investment or not, we are yet amazed at the extent of what is left.”
Strangely, this unusual statement is followed by one that claimed that, with all that was being done in the region and the vast changes experienced in recent years, “we cannot but wonder whether those who know this land best really understand it yet or not. And the more we study the question the more we feel compelled to answer, ‘No.'”
More commentary stretched the imagination, as it was asserted “California combines the flavor of antiquity with the highest development of modern rush and bustle.” This seems to mean that remnants of the Spanish and Mexican periods seamlessly blended with the new, though it was clear that whatever was preserved of the pre-American era was looked at generally in terms of its primitiveness and marketed as such to tourists who were growing in numbers, thanks to the introduction of a direct transcontinental route to Los Angeles in 1885.
So, it was considered reasonable to claim,
You can see the old houses and gardens and in them many of the old natives of the land, who enjoyed life as none do today, yet knew nothing of the money standards and cared still less whether there was any money or not. But fifty years ago Arcadian simplicity and content such has the world has rarely seen reigned from coast to mountain top, the soft climate making few wants, the great herds and little garden beside the creek, with the olive orchard and the game that played on almost every plain and hill, supplying the few they had.
Elsewhere, it was noted, “the whole [of the region] is a land of peace, a land that tolerates nothing of the wild or riotous except in nature, and never did [italics added] . . . and no more law-abiding people every lived than the old settlers of the country and the new that are taking their places.” Clearly, the writer was not in Los Angeles in the 1850s when violence was extraordinarily high and tension between Spanish-speaking Californios and Americans and Europeans often at a boiling point, nor in 1871 when a Latino and Anglo mob lynched 19 Chinese males in an evening of horrific violence.
The breathless hyperbole continued on as Los Angeles was virtually described as a perfect city of flowers, fruit and innovation and “as the most progressive of modern cities” including “more fine streets, modern improvements and fewer shanties than any city in the Union.” It was argued that the city was even immune from harsh economic times: Los Angeles “has known less of the depression than any other in the land” and had its greatest growth since the Depression of 1893.
There were descriptions of Catalina Island, then owned by the powerful Banning family; the Mt. Lowe Railway; and the harbor at San Pedro, recently chosen after the “Free Harbor Fight” pitting it with Santa Monica as the principal port by the federal government, which was poised to spend $3 million in improvements.
The official program included an opening night band concert at Hazard’s Pavilion, followed by a public reception; a special day of entertainment at La Fiesta Park at Grand Avenue and 12th Street with “a pictorial illustration of Spanish or Mexican life [both seen as interchangeable terms] in the days of the Mission” as well as music, fireworks and pony and chariot races; a day spent in Pasadena and Cawston’s Ostrich Farm where South Pasadena and Los Angeles city limits met; a grand ball at Hazard’s; a “General Day” where members were free to travel where they desired (but with suggestions for trips added); a day at Catalina; and a final day on the “Kite Shaped Track” of the Southern California Railway east to Pomona, Riverside and Redlands and back through the “orange belt,” including much of the San Gabriel Valley.
A selection of half-tone photos of locales in greater Los Angeles and images of the local executive committee for the convention, the committee for the Ladies Auxiliary, and the Grand Officers of the ORC were also included in the program. Media coverage was also extensive, given the fact that national conventions were still a novelty for the area and samples of articles from the Los Angeles Times and Los Angeles Herald are also provided here.