by Paul R. Spitzzeri
The Boom of the Eighties, which was launched after the 1885 completion by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway of a direct transcontinental railroad to Los Angeles from the East, blazed brightly for a few years afterward. Tens of thousands of emigrants flocked to the region and a number of boom towns sprung up, largely along rail lines, whether the new Santa Fe route, which passed through the northern part of the San Gabriel Valley, or along the Southern Pacific, which traversed the southern section as it was completed in the mid-1870s.
One of the new towns was Puente, laid out in 1885 and placed on the market the following year. Among its founders was Abram Ehle Pomeroy (1838-1928), who is forgotten now, but, in his time, was among the most active real estate promoters in greater Los Angeles.
The new town was developed on a corner of the Rancho La Puente, granted in early 1842 to John Rowland and regranted three years later with William Workman added as an owner. After a quarter century of joint ownership, the aging rancheros decided, in 1867, to divide the nearly 50,000-acre ranch once they received a federal patent following fifteen years after filing a claim under an act of Congress.
When a surveyor was hired to draw a map showing the partition, it was determined to do so as equitably as possible, so that Rowland and Workman not only received the same number of acres, but did so for both valley land (which was more valuable) and hill land (considered less so). Moreover, the division was not “down the middle.” Rather, Workman largely took the western and central parts of the ranch, while Rowland took more of the southern, eastern, and northern sections.
Rowland died in October 1873 with a large family inheriting sections of his holdings, while Workman, who passed away not quite three years later, lost almost all of his portion as collateral for a loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin for the doomed Temple and Workman bank.
Among Rowland’s heirs was his son Albert, one of two surviving children from Rowland’s second wife, Charlotte Gray. Albert decided to proceed with subdividing a corner of his parcel and the reasons may have been several. For one, the Santa Fe line was at or near completion and it was likely perceived that this would be a good time to develop a town along the older Southern Pacific. Moreover, Albert’s step-brother, William, born to John Rowland’s first wife Encarnación Martinez and a former sheriff, found oil on his inherited land southeast of Albert’s property.
There may have been other reasons, but, whatever the case, the project became a partnership, with Pomeroy and George W. Stimson, key participants, particularly in the sale of lots in the new town. While Stimson’s name is memorialized in a street that runs south from La Puente through the City of Industry and Hacienda Heights, there is no such legacy for Pomeroy.
He was born in 1838 in Athens, Michigan, in the southwest corner of the state, south of Battle Creek (later home to the Kellogg cereal empire.) His family moved to Indiana and then, in 1853, to California, following the hordes that headed west during the ferment of the Gold Rush. The Pomeroy family settled in San Jose and became well-known there.
Pomeroy attended one of the first universities established in the Golden State, the University of the Pacific, and graduated in 1864, though he worked as a printer before that. By 1870, he was a successful hardware merchant and self-declared his property value at $43,000 in that year’s census, a handsome estate for a young man.
Pomeroy had some political involvement in San Jose, serving as deputy county clerk and then as county clerk for Santa Clara County. At the end of 1871, he married Florence Wilcox, who lived in the same city, and the couple was childless, though they adopted a young boy related through Pomeroy’s mother.
It is not known why, but Pomeroy migrated to Los Angeles in 1881, leaving his mercantile profession behind and going into real estate, loans and insurance at an office in the oldest building in the Temple Block, built in 1857 by Jonathan Temple, and situated between Main and Spring and Temple and First Streets.
After a couple of years, Pomeroy joined forces with Howard Mills and the two were a formidable partnership. One of the early projects was to acquire an interest in 4,000 acres of Rancho Los Cerritos, long owned by Jonathan Temple and then sold to the Bixby family. There was a city planned there called Willmore City, but it failed to gain traction. With Pomeroy and Mills, along with Llewelyn and Jonathan Bixby and others, a new project called Long Beach was built there.
Over many years, Pomeroy had a hand in developing all or portions of such areas as Alhambra, Burbank, Gardena, Glendale, Pismo Beach (near San Luis Obispo), Pomona, San Jacinto (near today’s Hemet), and Temecula. He sold land along the Pacific coast that was soon turned into Hermosa Beach.
Well-connected in many ways in the region and state, Pomeroy was a vice-president of the State Mutual Building and Loan Association; one of the founders of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce; a trustee of the Los Angeles State Normal School for teacher education and training; a chairman of the Los Angeles City school board; and a trustee of his alma mater, the University of Pacific, as well as the University of Southern California. He was also secretary of the Los Angeles Cemetery Association, which created the city’s first private burying ground, Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights (a community created by William H. Workman, nephew of Rancho La Puente co-owner William Workman).
With respect to Puente, he and Mills and then he and Stimson actively promoted and sold the townsite during the boom period. Articles and advertisements were regular features of newspapers like the Los Angeles Herald and Los Angeles Times in 1886 and 1887 and, as was so common with developments of the period, Puente was promoted as a virtual paradise.
The soil was incomparable, the climate unbeatable, the Rowland oil wells would mean local industry would be around the corner, and many other glowing attributes were promoted. As was also very common, the center of activity early on was the building of the Rowland Hotel, which would, as generally was the case with boom town, a very visible symbol of activity.
Whether these hotels ever had paying customers really wasn’t the point, but it was also typical to promote and advertise two other major community components: namely. a public school and a church. Puente was no exception to these general rules of development and marketing.
For example, one of the earliest mentions of the new town in the Los Angeles press was in March 1886, when the Herald reported on “A Bright Outlook” for the city and county, with a boom in real estate sales, some 200 buildings in construction, and other elements. It also observed that “Puente has also come in for its share of the real estate deal, property selling at higher prices.”
The hotel, designed by architect Carroll H. Brown and said to have cost $6,000, was being built by a syndicate including Pomeroy, Stimson, Albert and William Rowland, and Josiah W. Hudson, married to Albert’s sister, Victoria (Anglophiles will smile at these names!) and “the first payment of $1,500 was made yesterday at Pomeroy & Mills.” Incidentally, the article ended by noting that buyers of property were from “the Western States, namely Iowa, Minnesota, Kansas and Nebraska.” In fact, some observed that the Boom of the 1880s transformed greater Los Angeles into a place more Midwestern than Western.
In early April, the Herald printed another promotional piece, “Puente Enjoying a Boom,” which stated that orchards and vineyards, presumably including the 75-acre Workman Homestead including the Workman House and other structures as well as farmland and owned by Francis W. Temple, were doing very well.
The hotel was assumed to be a future draw for tourists (though why was not stated), while the Rowland oil field and other elements “are certain to create a lively business center.” Of course, the piece concluded, “Messrs. Pomeroy & Mills, the agent for the Puente tract in the city [of Los Angeles] report an active demand for lots and choice tracts.” Moreover, it was stated that speculators would see a healthy profit in a year because Puente was “the coming town.”
In mid-May, there was a humorous article titled “The New Mayor of Puente,” which poked gentle fun at an election for the upstart community, pitting William R. Rowland “the millionaire oil developer” against Harry Carroll, manager of the “metropolitan hotel . . . with 2000 rooms 15×20 feet.” The joke was that Rowland, with his wealth from an oil well said to generate $350,000 a year, won the canvass, but then graciously turned over the high office to Carroll.
From his position with “the highest seat at the new hotel,” Carroll was expected to become the leader of the church choir and head the “commencement exercises at the new college which Mr. Rowland has endowed with the proceeds of his next oil well,” an institution which never came to fruition. It was even stated Rowland would some day be in company with John Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Leland Stanford, Charles Maclay (founder of San Fernando and a college there), and, for some reason, Charlemagne.
The piece ended by noting that Howard Mills stated “that La Puente means ‘the bridge,’ and that it is growing very rapidly, but that hereafter the size of the bridge must not be confounded with ‘The Bridge of Sighs.'”
In June came “Puente Prosperous” and the assertion from the Herald that the oil wells helped with land values at the new townsite. Beyond that, the horticulture and agriculture of the surrounding area “are sufficient to support a large settlement.” This was because:
There is no finer land anywhere. The soil is deep and rich, the water supply abundant, and the location beautiful. Ten trains pass daily, thus giving easy and rapid communication with the city and also towns along the line. The more people investigate the advantages of Puente as a place for investment the better they are pleased. Unquestionably few places in the county offer equal chances for pleasant homes or for securing property which must rapidly become more valuable.
“The Puente Boom” was the headline of an October promotional piece and it blared that “without any flourish of trumpets the town moves right along with a healthful and steady growth and takes no step backward.” The Rowland Hotel was completed, three stores were about to open, and the school and church were in readiness. A mill and warehouse were also finished.
Without saying how this was known, it was claimed “the soil is about fifty feet deep and produces the largest crops of farm produce and fruits of the orchard and vineyard that can be shown in any country.” A long list of tree fruit, grapes, citrus fruit, vegetables and “all garden crops” were said to be “simply enormous” in output. While irrigation systems were being developed, it was purported that these were hardly necessary.
Because of the nearby Rowland oil wells, it was added that “the streets of the new town can be lighted” and homes provided with cheap fuel for lighting, heating, and cooking (interesting to ponder with the State of California now promoting the ban of all fossil fuels and the promotion of all electric power generation.)
The piece ended by stating that
Mr. A. E. Pomeroy . . . the manager of the settlement, is full of exultation in view of the prospects that now open on his beautiful town. No man has more cause to feel glad than he at the signs of the times, and the sure success of his most worthy and prosperous enterprise.
With a purported 100,000 acres of land surrounding Puente, it was stated that there would be “an immense commercial business” and that “such a situation is rare and possesses all the elements of a permanent success.”
Through 1887, advertisements continued to promote the promise and possibilities of Puente, many with the heading “A Flourishing Town of the Foothills” and reiterating all of the features, real or otherwise, of the community. One, from Pomeroy and his new partner Carroll W. Gates, touted the school to come, the church in process of building, a brick business building in construction and one or two more promised soon, and more.
It was asserted that the area would be “a popular health resort” protected by the foothills and having fine views of surrounding areas from Azusa to Pasadena. A new rail depot was just finished and “a tasty and well-kept hotel is open to the public,” though that description makes it sound more like a gingerbread house! Because of the nearby oil wells, the ad asked “why should we not have manufacturing done here and save transportation?”
For some reason, perhaps simply to attract the eye, Pomeroy and Gates took to using the name of the town spelled backwards: Etneup. This was something not found in the very many real estate promotion ads of the time, but whether it had any effect on improving sales is not known. In February 1887, the pair offered to sell lots in town at half-price, from $75 and up, as an incentive and pointed out that Puente “will soon be an important business center.”
By the beginning of the new year, 1888, as the boom began to wane, the ads and the promotional articles for Puente ended. Perhaps sales had been so successful that there was little to advertise and Pomeroy and Gates could move on to other projects.
In any case, tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the Homestead’s collection is a letter, financial statement and an envelope from Pomeroy’s firm, moved by then to Broadway and 1st in Los Angeles. The letter from May 1893 concerns a draft of $500 sent to the recipient and which has Pomeroy’s letterhead.
The handwritten statement, from 23 September 1893, was written at Compton (originally a tract developed in 1867 by F.P.F. Temple and Fielding W. Gibson of El Monte) and shows listings from 1889 to 1893 for income and disbursements (including for alfalfa, lumber, wire, nails and staples). These may be for the Gardena subdivision, which was adjacent to Compton.
The envelope, with a postmarked of 24 November 1893, is with the letterhead of the Providencia Land, Water and Development Company, sharing the same office as Pomeroy’s business, and which was the developer of Burbank and headed by L.T. Garnsey, with banker J.E. Plater as treasurer, and Pomeroy as secretary. All three documents were addressed to John Tretheway of Lockeford, a town in the Central Valley, just east of Lodi. The Rancho Providencia was once owned by David W. Alexander, who came to California from New Mexico with John Rowland in 1842 and was a close friend of the Workman and Temple families.
Pomeroy continued to be active in regional real estate well into the 20th century and lived to be 90, dying in his home, which still stands west of downtown Los Angeles. He was interred at Evergreen Cemetery, of which he was an officer years before, and is now forgotten, though he can justly be considered a founding figure of La Puente.
As for the Rowland Hotel, it was acquired in the 1920s by Walter P. Temple and he owned it until financial problems forced its sale by the Great Depression years. It was torn down in 1956, the year La Puente was incorporated. The following year, the City of Industry was created and took on the manufacturing and business aspect mentioned in those early ads for Puente. The Homestead is now surrounded by buildings in the City of Industry, though just a mile or so from La Puente.