Profile of a Boom Town: Los Angeles in “Harper’s Weekly,” 18 October 1890

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Harper’s Weekly was one of America’s best-known and most widely read national publications during the last half of the 19th century and the highlighted artifact in tonight’s post is the 18 October 1890 issue of this journal, with specific focus on an article and remarkable centerfold illustration of Los Angeles as it was at the end of the famed Boom of the 1880s.

The city had a prior growth period in the late 1860s and early 1870s, in which William Workman, founder with his wife Nicolasa of the Homestead, and his son-in-law, F.P.F. Temple, were major contributors through a range of business activities, including railroad, real estate, oil and other projects funded through the two banks in which they were owners: Hellman, Temple and Company (1868-1871) and Temple and Workman (1871-1876.)

Unfortunately, a statewide economic crisis hit in late summer 1875 and the questionable loaning policies and poor management practices of the institution were exposed.  Its failure in January 1876 was the first major business collapse in the nascent city and the resulting economic doldrums in Los Angeles lasted nearly a decade.

With the arrival of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway’s transcontinental line directly to the city in 1885, a development and growth boom that dwarfed the earlier one exploded over the next few years, transforming the region in myriad ways.  Notably, the mayor of Los Angeles during the peak years of the boom, 1887 and 1888, was William H. Workman, nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman.


The city was catapulted into national recognition as its image surged due to the effects of the boom, so its feature article in Harper’s Weekly, though it came after the boom subsided and the 1890s proved to provide challenges with the national Depression of 1893 and six years of drought, reflected Los Angeles’ rise to prominence.

Writer Clarence Pullen began by noting that “the beautiful city of Los Angeles lies within the same parallels as the south coast of the Mediterranean sea,” a nod to the region’s remarkably temperate climate.  Referencing the presence of the area on a broad plain ranging from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Pacific Ocean, Pullen added that the region was “embowered in the dark green foliage of orange groves set off with golden fruit, amid a landscape diversified by russet and purple of wide vineyard spaces.”

With a brief nod to the pre-American past, Pullen referred to the fact that “Los Angeles retains a trace of the old Spanish-American type of buildings {that is, a few remnant adobe structures] and town construction [the old Plaza], combined with a far larger proportion of streets and structures of the most modern type.”

Typically, however, he talked about the earlier period as “the strange pastoral, half-splendid, half-barbarous life of the missions and haciendas.”  He went on to write that “in those primitive times . . . the aristocracy of this unique civilization” of “mixed Spanish and Indian strain” and 20,000 Indians was controlled by military officers, priests of the Roman Catholic Church, civil officials and “the great ranch owners.”


Pullen allowed that the original plan of Los Angeles around the plaza was “an admirable plan,” though he had a strange way of discussing the early settlers of the pueblo.  He talked of the original 46 settlers [the number is now accounted to be two fewer than that] as “Spanish in nationality, but their strain of blood contained a preponderating mixture of the dark-skinned races of the country.”  But, then, he stated that “in later times a considerable Portuguese element, derived, probably, from shipwrecked sailors and deserters from whale ships” entered the mix, though there is no known corroboration for this statement, even if some Portuguese did settle in the town.

The author reviewed the early 19th century development of the pueblo as “already important among the small and scattered California towns” and he added another unusual claim that invalids from other parts of the Spanish and Mexican possession came to Los Angeles because of “its remarkable sanitary advantages.”  He was correct in noting, however, that the region “contained more cattle and sheep” than elsewhere in California, though he erroneously referred to Los Angeles as a presidio, evidently mistaking that term for a military outpost with a pueblo, or town.

Pullen quickly discussed the status of Los Angeles being upgraded to that of a city in 1835 as well as the capital of the Mexican department of Alta California.  He added that, when the Mexican-American War broke out, the population of Los Angeles and its surrounding areas was about 1,800, a number probably derived from the 1844 census (one was conducted eight years earlier.)

Notably, however, Pullen mentions the American seizure of the pueblo in August 1846, but not the revolt that followed and which returned Los Angeles to Californio control until a reconquest occurred in early January 1847.  He moved into the early American period, noting that growth was steady, but not quick increase, unlike the stratospheric development of San Francisco, and observed that the population was about 2,500 in 1851.  The writer erred in saying this is the year when the city was incorporated, when it was actually the prior year.


Pullen alluded to the importance of vineyards and orange groves in the region’s economic development and the fertility of the soil and incomparable climate were cited as crucial components.  While he noted that the center of the newly created business district of Los Angeles was around the intersection of Main and First streets, he had this to say about “Sonora,” the older portion of the city surrounding the pueblo:

About this district swarthy-skinned people sit or lean against the house sides indolently watching the tide of traffic, the scene being sometimes picturesquely enlivened by the appearance on the plaza of a reminder of the old times in the shape of a caballero (horseman) wearing a sombrero, and sporting saddle trappings of silver and huge spurs, who sits his steed with unbounded pride, and makes a fine display of equestrian dexterity.

There is here and elsewhere in the piece an odd mixture of admiration and stereotyping of the Californio population and the pre-American environment of Los Angeles, but the remainder of the small-type, four-column article is all about the modern city sprung up largely within the last few years.

The discussion then turned to such improvements as a modern sewer system, better streets and sidewalks, parks and residential gardens, and many other elements.  Noting that the population leapt from about 11,000 to over 50,000 people during the Eighties, Pullen lauded the “exceptionally intelligent rural population.”


It was the city, though, the retained the lion’s share of the author’s attention, including the “luxuriant growth of semi-tropical trees and plants” and the presence of palms, including at the locally famed Longstreet estate on Adams Street south of downtown.  He lauded the architectural variety of the city’s finer homes as “of a character suitable to the climate and surroundings,” though how exactly was not stated, and stated “the city presents an unusual and attractive appearance.”

After a brief diversion into Spanish street names and the romance of the Plaza Church, Pullen returned to recent improvements, such as the new City Hall and Library, completed in 1888 on Fort Street, soon renamed Broadway, as well as the new county courthouse, said to cost a half million dollars and a federal building, which was to be erected at just a little under that sum.

Pullen reviewed the number of churches, hospitals and newspapers and touched upon fine places for amusement like the Grand Opera House (built by Ozro W. Childs, who was featured in a recent post here) and other venues, and the good public schools and local branch of the Normal School for teacher education (where the Central Public Library is now.)

Business development, street railways, the National Soldiers Home, and water delivery systems were also touched upon and the writer returned to the fact that “the climate of Los Angeles is among the most favored on earth” and observed that “in this marvelous climate nearly every tree and plant of the temperate and of the semi-tropical zones finds a congenial home.”


Strangely, Pullen bounded from one topic to another toward the latter part of the article, fleeting from favored plants in the landscape to house construction growth to the number of banks to the prominence of fruit and the importance of the Los Angeles River for the local water supply (though inadequacy of that supply would soon lead to the remarkable feat of the Los Angeles Aqueduct).

The writer turned then to the beauty of the suburbs referencing Boyle Heights and the San Gabriel Valley, especially noting the Sunny Slope property of Leonard J. Rose in modern Rosemead.  Here, Pullen wrote, the “vast orange groves and vineyards” were worked mainly by “Mexicans and Chinamen, who display a marked aptitude for this class of work.”  Just several years later, however, Rose, beset with financial difficulties, committed sucide.  The writer also referenced Pasadena and San Gabriel, with the latter a beautiful newer suburb and the latter a romantic relic the surviving examples of which “survive as memorials of the early days.”

Other local places of note to Pullen was “the lovely sea-side resort” of Santa Monica, the port at Wilmington, and the new town of Long Beach which was “a Pacific Chautauqua” with literary societies and other elements of culture.  In more outyling regions were Riverside, San Diego and Santa Barbara and he noted that, on the way, to this last was the scene of Helen Hunt Jackson’s widely popular novel Ramona, published several years prior.

The article then suddenly and abruptly concluded with mention of the Sierra Madre Villa hotel, nestled at the foot of the San Gabriels in what is now northeast Pasadena.  So, while Pullen’s article did not have a smooth flowing structure or order to it, it does represent an early example of an in-depth report on Los Angeles as it emerged from the Boom of the 1880s and was poised to supplant San Francisco as the major metropolis of California and the Pacific coast.


Included here is the remarkable centerfold illustration of Los Angeles with a striking collage showing a range of elements discussed in Pullen’s piece.  These include the new City Hall, a downtown street scene, a panorama from a hill, the Plaza Church, and several residential scenes with details of these also shown here.

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