Childs Play: Real Estate Speculation During Los Angeles’ First Boom, 1874-1875

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A previous post on this blog featuring a photo of the garden of early Los Angeles horticulturist and hardware merchant Ozro W. Childs gave some biographical information on this well-known resident of the city during its first forty or so years of the American era.  Born in Vermont in 1824, Childs was a teacher there and in Ohio before he joined the teeming hordes migrating to Gold Rush California.  In fall 1850, however, he and friend John D. Hicks came to Los Angeles.

The pair opened a tinware shop and, later, after Childs left to establish his pioneer nursery, his brother Marcus joined Hicks in a new tinware enterprise that included, for a couple of years, Thomas W. Temple, eldest child of Antonia Margarita Workman and F.P.F. Temple, as a partner.  Childs, meanwhile, operated his nursery for about a quarter century and also had his fine suburban residence on Main and Eleventh streets adjacent to Elijah H. Workman, nephew of William Workman.  It was there that the photo in the above-mentioned post was taken.

Feather River [Quincy, CA] Bulletin, 28 February 1874.
Childs, however, was also deeply invested in real estate, particularly during the first sustained period of growth and development in greater Los Angeles from the late 1860s through the mid 1870s.  He was among a handful of prominent Angelenos who, seemingly, had a hand in virtually every major type of business in the region.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection typifies Childs’ busy activity in the real estate world, being a deed executed by Farmers and Merchants Bank of Los Angeles to Childs and dated 16 October 1874 during the most frenzied part of the boom.

The document concerned the sale for $7,500, a handsome sum at the time, for four defined parcels on the Rancho San Antonio.  These included a 91.49 acre section of the well-known ranch, located southeast of Los Angeles and granted to and long owned by Antonio María Lugo, one of the most prominent of the Californios, and then left to his heirs after Don Antonio died in 1860; another tract on the rancho sold by Don Antonio to his son José María in 1855 and of unknown size; a quarter section of the ranch, meaning 160 acres (a full section being, of course, 640 acres); and then a simple mention of “Also the Rancho San Antonio,” as if the first three portions were somehow considered separate from the remainder of the nearly 30,000 acre rancho.

Los Angeles Herald, 27 May 1874.

The Farmers and Merchants Bank was established in 1871 by Isaias W. Hellman after he dissolved his Hellman, Temple and Company bank and bought out former partners William Workman and F.P.F. Temple, with whom he was associated for not much over two years.  Significantly, one of the founding directors of Farmers and Merchants was Childs, who invested $50,000 in the enterprise, so the sale of the Rancho San Antonio property, executed by bank president and former California governor John G. Downey and Hellman to one of their directors is obviously a reflection of the intricately connected world of the town’s early power players.

The deed was not recorded until 8 February 1875 for reasons that are not known, but during that period, Childs was active in many business endeavors in addition to his nursery.  For example, he was one of several Los Angeles-based stockholders and directors in the State Investment Insurance Company, the headquarters of which were in San Francisco.  Among the other locals involved in the enterprise were Hellman, Downey, and Temple, as well as John Jones.  When, in July 1874 a fire ravaged the Aliso Mills, which processed flour from wheat, Downey and Childs, two of the three owners, were insured with the State Investment firm and collected $4,000 on a claim.


In June 1874, Childs became a stockholder and director of the Co-operative Nursery and Fruit Company, which was headed by Thomas A. Garey, a former employee in the Childs nursery.  Other key figures and officers (along with Downey, who was treasurer) were Milton Thomas and Luther M. Holt and these two, along with Garey, were founders in 1875 of the new town of Pomona, which received most of its funding from the Temple and Workman bank.

A month later, Childs rejoined his brother Marcus in forming a business that included hardware, tin, copper, sheet-iron, stoves, plumbing, pumps, gas-fitting and agricultural implements with the firm operating under Marcus’ name.


At the end of 1874 and into the following year, Childs was a prominent figure in two major subdivisions.  One, involving land at Washington Boulevard and Figueroa Street, near the busy interchange of Interstates 10 and 110, was developed by the Los Angeles City Homestead Association.  Childs was president of the enterprise and Downey was its treasurer.

Then, there was the creation of the Centinela townsite developed on the rancho of that name further west from the other tract.  The Centinela Land Company had F.P.F. Temple as its president, with attorney Frank P. Howard as vice-president, Los Angeles County Bank president Jonathan S. Slauson as treasurer, and W.H.J. Brooks as secretary.  Directors were John M. Griffith of the prominent lumber firm of Griffith, Lynch and Company, General J.M. Shields, Centinela owner Daniel Freeman and Childs.

At the same time, December 1874, the same group of officers and directors formed, after a meeting at the Temple and Workman bank, the Los Angeles and Pacific Railroad.  This line was to run from downtown Los Angeles to Centinela, terminating on the coast at a salt works, probably near Ballona Creek and its confluence with the Pacific.


The Centinela project land sale took place in January 1875, but the proposed townsite never got very far beyond conception, though lots were sold in significant numbers.  Likewise for the railroad, which was promoted as being closer to Los Angeles than another proposed line to and from “Shoo Fly Landing” where Santa Monica was soon developed.

In fact, when Temple became president of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, to run well over 200 miles from Los Angeles to the Inyo County seat near booming silver mines, that project only gained momentum when Nevada Senator John P. Jones invested heavily and assumed the presidency, with Temple moving to treasurer, as he was in the process of developing Santa Monica.  The building of the Los Angeles and Independence line to Santa Monica removed any need for the Los Angeles and Pacific to pursue its line.

Later in 1875, the California Bank, the largest in the state, collapsed under the weight of the bursting bubble of silver mine stock speculation emanating from Virginia City, Nevada.  When word reached Los Angeles by telegraph, a panic erupted and depositors besieged Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman, the only commercial banks in town.  Downey, as president of the former, agreed to close Farmers and Merchants for a month as a favor to Temple, whose bank was much more overextended.

Herald, 2 December 1874.

When Hellman, who was on vacation in Europe, learned of Downey’s move, he immediately rushed back to Los Angeles, stopping to borrow money in New York, and quickly reopened the bank, while pushing Downey out as president.  While Farmers and Merchants recovered immediately, Temple and Workman could not reopen without a loan.

Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin provided funds but, as Temple wrote to Workman when the loan was finalized, the deal was “on rather hard terms.”  In fact, it was all but impossible to repay, but the stricken institution reopened in early December and lasted all of six weeks before depositors withdrew all the borrowed money and the bank closed, sending Temple and Workman into irremediable ruin.

Childs continued to be a wealthy and successful business and real estate figure until his death in 1890 and his Childs’ Opera House, also known as the Grand Opera House, built in 1884 on Main Street just south of First Street, was a well-known theater, including a decade as part of the Orpheum circuit.  In later years, the theater was known again as the Grand Opera House, then Clune’s Grand, the Grand Theatre and, finally, Teatro Mexico.  It closed in 1936 and was demolished.  Today a CalTrans building is on the site.

LA & Pacific RR Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__Dec_9__1874_
Herald, 9 December 1874.

This deed is a rare example of a document concerning real estate sales during the first sustained period of growth and development in Los Angeles and includes prominent names in business in the City of the Angels with Childs, Downey and Hellman.  Childs also had connections with F.P.F. Temple and, by association with Temple, William Workman, so the artifact has direct ties to the Homestead’s history and interpretation, as well.