Through the Viewfinder: A Stereoscopic Photograph of Buena Vista Street, Los Angeles, ca. 1872

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

On first glance, today’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a Henry T. Payne stereoscopic photograph of Buena Vista Street north of Temple Street in Los Angeles, taken about 1872, doesn’t look terribly impressive in terms of its subject matter.

Standing on a slope south of Temple, Payne directed his camera up “Good View” Street, which was a dirt road of perhaps twenty feet width, as it wound its way through the area by Fort Moore Hill and Poundcake Hill towards what is today’s Chinatown.  There are several houses and a small portion of a large walled-in compound in view, but no panoramic view of the emerging city, or a detail of the historic Plaza and its remaining adobe houses, or the growing business district south of the Plaza where the Temple Block, Downey Block and other commercial structures showed recent movement in the development of Los Angeles.

It does appear that the houses in the background on either side of Buena Vista were recent additions and showing the gradual settlement of the hill areas to the west of downtown.  So, there is some interest there in terms of the westward movement of the city during Los Angeles’ first significant period of economic and population growth, which started not long after the Civil War (and a devastating period of floods and drought during that conflict) and continued until the failure of the Temple and Workman bank during a statewide economic meltdown.


Stereoview Buena Vista St 2015.397.1.1

Though not obvious to the observer, the real significance of this photo lies in the foreground, where the elements on either side of Buena Vista have a connection to one another and ties to interesting and notable aspects of 19th century Los Angeles history.

The walls at the lower right were from a lumberyard owned by a few people over the years, though actually, for many years, it was a corral behind the adobe residence of Jonathan Temple.  Temple (1796-1866) was the second American or European resident of Los Angeles, settling in the pueblo in 1828 after leaving his native Massachusetts and spending several years living in Hawaii where he was a merchant.

He became the first store-owner in sparsely populated Los Angeles and was situated at the northwest corner of where Spring Street ended at Main Street, first in partnership with fellow Massachusetts native George Rice and then on his own.  He quickly built up a successful enterprise, though there was soon competition from the likes of Abel Stearns, another Massachusetts native, and others.  Temple also acquired, in 1843, the Rancho Los Cerritos in what is now Long Beach and surrounding areas, and, the following year, built an adobe house on the east bank of the Los Angeles River the remains part of that historic site.

1850 census Bilderrain
It can be a challenge searching for Latinos in early Los Angeles federal census listings because of mangled surnames.  In this case, the Bilderrain family was listed in the 1850 census (actually taken here in January 1851) as “Veldaray” by census taker John R. Evertsen.  Moreover, the total enumeration of 1,610 Los Angeles and 3.530 county residents proved to be a vast under count and a state census taken about 1 1/2 years later tallied about 8,000 county residents.

In the early 1850s, Temple built a two-story adobe at the southern intersection of Spring and Main and then, in 1857, added a two-story brick building south of that, starting what became known as the Temple Block (or Temple Square in later decades).  He also petitioned the Los Angeles Common [City] Council successfully for a permit to build a street west of the Main/Spring intersection and leading towards the hills.  Although only about a block long initially, the thoroughfare gradually made its way up the slopes west and became known as Temple Street.

The street immediately west of Spring and then Main at the lower part of Fort Moore Hill was New High Street.  After Temple left Los Angeles in 1866 to relocate in San Francisco, where he shortly thereafter died, his former house and store property was acquired by former druggist, ex-governor, and real estate developer John G. Downey.

There, the Downey Block was built in 1871, the same year that Temple’s half-brother, F.P.F., completed the last of three brick commercial structures within the Temple Block, removing Jonathan’s two-story adobe building for the final edifice which housed his Temple and Workman bank, co-owned with father-in-law William Workman.  The other structures in the Temple Block, fronting on Main and Spring, were built in 1868 and 1870.

1860 census Bilderrain
Well, the spelling was a little closer in 1860 rendering “Baldarris,” but this makes trying to find the Bilderrain family pretty tough.  Months before the census was conducted, eldest child Jesús, later a city police officer, shot and killed a man who purportedly beat Ygnacio, Sr.

Meanwhile, behind Temple’s original house and store and where his corral was once situated, a lumberyard arose to service the growing demand for wooden buildings and other uses.  Phineas Banning, who came to the area in 1853 from his native Wilmington, Delaware, ran a stagecoach line from Los Angeles to what became New San Pedro and then Wilmington, and owned a forwarding and commission business at the new port town, operated the yard for awhile.

Brothers-in-law John J. Tomlinson and John M. Griffith then took over from Banning and had a thriving lumber business there, though Tomlinson died in 1868 and Griffith continued the operation afterward.  He found a new partner in the 1870s when the boom was at its peak, a Santa Cruz lumber magnate, Sedgwick J. Lynch.

Sadly, there was another thriving use for the lumberyard, specifically its heavy-timber beam at the entrance gate off Temple Street.  Not long after Banning sold the property, his brother-in-law. John Sanford, was murdered in a remote area of what we know as the Grapevine north of Los Angeles on the way to the San Joaquin Valley.  The admitted killer, Charles Wilkins, was captured on the way to Santa Barbara and brought to Los Angeles and jailed.  A mob then broke into the jail, seized the murderer and walked up Spring Street, turned left at Temple and stopped at the yard to hang him from the gate.


1880 census Bilderrain
The 1880 census shows the residents of Buena Vista Street, including Encarnación Martinez de Bilderrain, her son Refugio and his wife María Francisca López de Bilderrain, and herdaughter Eloisa Bilderrain and her husband Alpheus Cobler—all living in the adobe shown in the photo.

The location was used again in December 1870 when Michel Lachenais, who’d already killed at least a couple of times during his years in Los Angeles (and even fled to San Diego where he was encouraged to return to Los Angeles to face trial for his first homicide, committed in 1861—he was, remarkably, acquitted), murdered his neighbor in a property dispute.  Housed in the same jail as Wilkins, Lachenais was grabbed by a mob and promptly hustled over to the lumberyard and hanged from the same beam.

Finally, in October 1871, an inter-ethnic conflict between Chinese residents living in the Calle de los Negros, southeast of the Plaza where Los Angeles Street runs today near U.S. 101, led to a gun battle.  A police officer soon rode up on his horse, while a bystander ran up to the adobe house, the Coronel Block (owned by the state treasurer, Antonio F. Coronel).  Shots rang out and the bystander, Robert Thompson, was killed, while the police officer was wounded.

As night fell, a livid, vengeful mob of Latinos, Americans and Europeans (the grand jury called it representative of virtually every nation living in the city), stormed the block and other buildings in that first Chinatown and lynched eighteen men and a teenage boy.  Some of the victims were dragged to the lumberyard and hung from that same beam.  Afterwards, the yard was reconfigured and the beam torn down to avoid future uses for the same horrific end.

Stereoview Buena Vista St 2015.397.1.1
A detail of the photo showing the old adobe walls of the lumberyard that was a corral behind the home and store of Jonathan Temple and then a lumberyard run by Phineas Banning, John Tomlinson and John M. Griffith, and then Griffith and Sedgwick J. Lynch.  A strong cross-beam at an entrance gate was used for lynchings several times between 1863 and 1871 and was torn down to prevent that use after the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871, which began after Robert Thompson was shot and killed and police officer Jesús Bilderrain wounded.

It so happened that the well-kept adobe house across Buena Vista and in the lower left corner of the Payne photo was owned by the family of Jesús Bilderrain, the police officer who was shot and wounded by one of the Chinese holed up in the Coronel Block the night of the massacre.

According to a genealogical source, the Bilderrains were living in Mulegé, Baja California, now a town of about 4,000 on the east coast of the peninsula along the Bay of California.  Based on somewhat conflicting census records (how many of these aren’t?), it appears that Ygnacio Bilderrain and his wife María Encarnación Martinez migrated to Los Angeles about 1847 or 1848 (a 1900 census listing for their son, Jesús, recorded his arrival in the area in 1846).

In the 1850 and 1860 censuses, there is no listed occupation for Ygnacio, so, whether he came north with some means is not known, but the family occupied the adobe house shown in the photograph and there were at least seven children.  Jesús, the eldest, and brother Guillermo and sisters Eduarda and Domitia, were all born in Baja, while three boys, Andrés, Refugio and Ygnacio, and a girl, Guadalupe, were born in Los Angeles.

Stereoview Buena Vista St 2015.397.1.1
A detail of the Bilderrain adobe residence, with its broad porches on all sides, gabled roof and two chimneys that were added after the building was constructed, and a garden enclosed by an attractive fence.

In early 1860, Jesús, shot and killed a man, only named “Luis” in a surviving Justice Court file from 11 February.  The file, which was for a preliminary hearing on a charge of murder contained a statement in a deposition that the deceased killed Ygnacio, Sr., though the elder Bilderrain survived (perhaps he was thought to be near death at the time of the hearing?) to be counted in the federal census that summer.  There was no indictment for a trial at the District Court, so it may be that the incident was deemed a justifiable homicide.

A database tracking Los Angeles homicides from 1830-1874 cited the 11 February 1860 Los Angeles Star, which apparently stated that the deceased was Charles de Perrfeux (evidently a Frenchman).  Allegedly, he “caused some difficulties” with the Bilderrain family and had beaten Ygnacio, Sr., leading Jesús to go on “a mission of honor” to avenge the wrong perpetrated.  That year, Ygnacio, Sr. petitioned a court to allow for guardianship of two of this children as he claimed destitution and poor health, probably from the beating.

Jesús, who was listed as a druggist in the 1860 census and ran an “apothecary” as shown in 1864 federal tax records, then became a police officer for the city, remaining in that position through much of the 1870s.  He then resumed his work as a druggist by the end of that decade and moved to the new town of Pomona, operating a saloon as well as a drug store.  By the mid-1890s, he was widowed and moved back with some of his children to the family adobe shown in the photo, where he lived his brother Ygnacio.

Bilderrain shot Chinese Massacre The_Donaldsonville_Chief_Sat__Nov_18__1871_
Reference to the wounding of Jesús Bilderrain in wire reports printed in the Donaldson [Louisiana] Chief, 18 November 1871.
Notably, Jesús and Ygnacio, Jr. became widely-known as political power brokers within the Latino community during the latter part of the 19th century.  This could, however, have been manifested in questionable ways, if allegations made against the brothers during a spring 1887 election campaign in Los Angeles were true.  A lengthy article in the Los Angeles Times from 17 April contained affidavits from several men including Latinos and an Italian and a couple indicated they were paid a few bucks by Jesús to vote for the Democratic ticket or promised citizenship if they participated.

Then, there was their brother Refugio (1852-1938).  He was a harness maker by the early 1870s and ran a store with a partner named Serrano in the middle part of that decade.  In 1878, he married María Francisca López, whose family were the first European residents east of the Los Angeles River in the mid-1830s, and the couple moved into the Bilderrain adobe shown in the photo, living with his mother, Encarnación Martinez (who died in 1885).

Refugio then moved into local politics, specifically being elected as the Los Angeles city assessor, following by a stint as the assessor for the county, serving in both positions from the late 1870s to the mid 1880s.  A California Senate journal from 1913 had a lengthy exposition on the county assessors over the decades, including Refugio, who was described as a “Los Angeles born and bred California Spaniard” and “a good judge of character” when it came to picking his deputies.

Jesus Bilderrain voter fraud The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Apr_17__1887_
Jesús accused of buying votes among other purported election irregularities, Los Angeles Times, 18 April 1887.

There was obviously a humorous bent to this account published at taxpayer expense in an official Senate report, as stories of some of the expeditions made by deputies were related.  One, for example, claimed a deputy on an overnight excursion had to sleep outside a ranch house because the owner had just gotten married (get it?).  Another was told that all that was left to consume in the house were alcoholic beverages and cigars, so a second trip was required for the latter.

After ending his term as county assessor, Refugio engaged in a variety of enterprises over the following fifteen years or so, including selling real estate and insurance, operating with Harry Rose, son of San Gabriel Valley farmer and winemaker Leonard J. Rose, the old landmark St. Elmo (formerly the Lafayette and later the Cosmopolitan) Hotel, working in mining, and being the Los Angeles city water overseer.

He also served on the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, but resigned in May 1889 in protest of the firing of Latino officers.  In 1890, he ran again for county assessor, but lost by about 1,000 votes out of nearly 20,000 cast in a Republican-dominated environment.  Two years later, he failed to win the race for city tax collector, but was appointed the zanjero, or water overseer.

1883 City Directory Bilderrain
Members of the Bilderrain family in the 1883 Los Angeles City Directory, including Encarnación and Refugio, shows as county assessor, and two other family members.  Note that while Mrs. Bilderrain was clearly in the adobe at the corner of Temple and Buena Vista, Refugio is shown as on Temple between Buena Vista and Fort Street, renamed Broadway later.

In December 1906, Refugio was arrested for “touting”, apparently trying to convince voters who to select at a polling place, and was to face trial, though no outcome was found.  Shortly afterward, he and Francisca, who were childless, left Los Angeles.  It was stated in the Senate journal several years later that “Bilderrain is a prominent merchant and newspaperman in [the] City of Mexico,” or Mexico City and it was elsewhere stated that he was proprietor for a dozen years of the Pan-American World newspaper.

By the end of the 1910s, however, the couple returned to Los Angeles and Refugio returned to work in real estate and for the city water department warehouse.  Meanwhile, Francisca became somewhat known for her knowledge of local history.  A major example was her role in identifying the location of the first gold discovery in California, made by her relative Francisco López in the early 1840s.

The date is traditionally assigned as 9 March 1842 and the story is that López, part-owner of Rancho San Francisco in the modern Santa Clarita area north of Los Angeles, was with a couple of ranch workers when they stopped in a canyon to rest.  López allegedly napped under an oak tree and had a dream that led to his pulling up wild onions that revealed gold on the roots.

Refugio resignation police comm Los_Angeles_Herald_Tue__May_21__1889_ (2)
A portion of Refugio’s rebuking resignation letter from the Los Angeles Police Commission, Los Angeles Herald, 21 May 1889.

It is true that a gold rush of sorts erupted in what became known as Placerita Canyon, where surface placer mining took place and from which F.P.F. Temple sold gold dust through his brother Abraham at the national mint in Philadelphia.  What isn’t known is whether the gold was found in spring 1842 or the prior year or the exact location of the find.

Francisca, her relative Catalina López (whose family adobe is a historic landmark in the City of San Fernando), and Charles Prudhomme, another descendant of early local families, declared they located the oak tree under which Francisco López made his discovery and this has become enshrined in a memorial now at Placerita Canyon Park, though the date and location are up for dispute.

Francisca also wrote a 1929 reminiscence of her family’s settlement of Paredon Blanco (White Bluff), later known as Boyle Heights (founded by William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead owners William and Nicolasa Workman) and donated artifacts to the Los Angeles Museum of History, Science and Art, now the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.

1930 census Bilderrain 2141 1=2 Venice Bl
Refugio and his wife Francisca lived in Mexico for about a dozen years in the early 20th century before returning to Los Angeles in the late 1910s.  They lived into the late 1930s, residing on Venice Boulevard west of downtown when the 1930 census was taken.

As for Bilderrain adobe, it was razed as the area was reconfigured, including the removal of Buena Vista Street to make way for the rerouting of Broadway.  Meanwhile, this photograph, like so many others like it and other types of historic artifacts, has a surface content and value, but a little exploring and deeper digging can reveal much more of interest and significance.  In this case, it is the unsavory history of the lumberyard and the remarkable story of the Bilderrain family, who are otherwise long forgotten.

One thought

  1. Thank you for posting this fascintating family history of my ancestors in the Los Angeles/Baja California area.

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