by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For over thirty years, Charles Silent was a very prominent lawyer, businessman, real estate speculator and Republican Party figure in Los Angeles, but he’s forgotten now a century after his death. Tonight’s La La Landscapes post features a few photos of his country estate, Rancho Los Alisos (aliso in Spanish means alder, as in the tree in English), in what is now Glendora, but his general story is a notable and interesting one.
Born in Prussia in 1842, Silent came to America as a boy and wound up in the California gold fields, specifically Drytown, southeast of Sacramento, by 1860 where he worked as a teamster. He then lived in San Jose, where became an attorney and served as county clerk, and was invested in banking, railroads, and logging in the Santa Cruz area. He married Mary Daniels in 1864 and the couple had two sons and two daughters before her death seven years later. In 1874, Silent married Mary Tantau and the couple had a daughter and a son.
Silent’s big break came when he was appointed in 1878 by President Rutherford B. Hayes to be an associate justice of the Arizona Supreme Court. Just 36 years old, Silent’s Republican Party loyalties undoubtedly led to his receiving the position and he settled in at Prescott.
Yet, Silent’s tenure on the court was brief and marred by a controversy involving his heavy investments in mining, purportedly as a partner of territorial governor John C. Frémont, the famed “Pathfinder” whose explorations of the West in the early 1840s made him a household name and whose role in the Mexican-American War in California was filled with conflict (including his acquisition of Alcatraz Island from F.P.F. Temple in 1847 that was one reason for Frémont’s court-martial–a long series of posts appeared here earlier this year on the Workman and Temple family interests in Alcatraz.)
Silent resigned his seat in late 1880, but remained for a few years in Tucson, where he became close friends with Walter Vail, who amassed a huge property called the Empire Ranch. When Vail’s uncle, Nathan, moved to Los Angeles in 1880 and invested in real estate, Walter Vail and Silent headed to the City of Angels.
Silent, who arrived late in 1885 just after the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad to the city which ushered in the famous Boom of the Eighties, immediately opened a law practice with W.P. Wade and W.F. Fitzgerald, a former colleague on the Arizona Supreme Court. Later, Sherman O. Houghton, who was in the invading American army during the Mexican-American War and was a prominent San Jose resident and member of the House of Representatives, came to Los Angeles and joined Fitzgerald and Silent.
Silent remained an active attorney for over twenty years and was perhaps best known as the personal lawyer for the eccentric Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, who amassed a large landowning portfolio in Los Angeles. When Griffith shot his wife Mary Christina Mesmer in a drunken rage at the Arcadia Hotel in Santa Monica, Silent was one of his defense attorneys, along with John D. Works.
At a late stage in the trial, however, Silent and Works abruptly stepped aside in their representation of Griffith and later sued him for $15,000. They claimed he owed them for work related to the murder trial and other legal matters. The two only received $500, though Griffith was convicted and sent to state prison. Silent evidently assisted Griffith in making a donation of hill land north of downtown that became the massive Griffith Park.
With mining money as the root of his fortune and the boom in full flower, Silent joined partners like Walter Vail (whose Vail Ranch is very well-known in the Temecula area), Dan McFarland, and others in acquiring large tracts along the coast southwest of Los Angeles. By 1890, the communities of Inglewood and Redondo Beach grew out of these investments, though Silent did not stay involved in the latter for long, and he was an early investor in Redlands near San Bernardino.
Silent was also involved in banking, utilities, mining, irrigation and other business projects while maintaining his busy and lucrative law practice. He also served for several years in the 1890s as chairman of the Republican Party County Committee, a powerful position in local politics, then dominated by the GOP.
Shortly after coming to Los Angeles, he acquired the home and some land of Nathan Vail along Adams Boulevard west of Figueroa Street near a little-known Methodist college called the University of Southern California. A portion of Silent’s holdings were sold to the developers of St. James Park, another tony subdivision from the Boom of the Eighties.
By 1900, he created the subdivision of Chester Place, named for his youngest child, and which was probably the earliest gated community in Los Angeles. One of the purchasers of a mansion in the tract was oil tycoon Edward Doheny, who bought the home of Oliver Posey. The mansion and other parcels in the tract acquired by the Dohenys in subsequent years are now part of the Mount St. Mary’s College campus. Another occupant of the tract, completely unknown but with a name that has to be mentioned was Artemisia Vermillion.
Among Silent’s law clients was Jonathan Slauson, who had much property south of Los Angeles as well as in the Azusa and Glendora areas of the northeastern San Gabriel Valley. It was through Slauson, evidently, that Silent came to acquire the property that became Rancho Los Alisos in the foothills above Glendora.
This was about 1905 and two years later tragedy struck when Chester Silent, a student at nearby Stanford University, disappeared and was found days later floating in a lake in the hills above Palo Alto. There were rumors young Silent committed suicide, but it was determined that, while duck hunting, he accidentally shot himself in the head.
The following year, 1908, Silent retired from active work and largely dedicated the remaining decade of his life to his Los Alisos property, experimenting with a lavish horticultural landscape on the hillside ranch, to which he’d add considerable acreage after his initial acquisition.
As he’d done with his Los Angeles home, where he had a sign placed on the front fence reading “Visitors Welcome” so they could see his opulent gardens, Silent allowed guests to visit Los Alisos on Sundays. The two images give a good idea of just how beautiful the landscape was on the property.
The ranch remained in family hands after Silent’s death in late 1918 and his son Edward’s widow, Sara, sold it to the Girl Scouts in 1953. Later development transformed the area including Azusa and Glendora. Today, there is a short street, Silent Ranch Drive, above St. Lucy’s Priory High School that is a lone reminder of the magnificence of Rancho Los Alisos.