“The Marvel of the Age in City Building”: Harrison Gray Otis on Los Angeles from Sunset Magazine, January 1910

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Harrison Gray Otis (1837-1917) was one of the most powerful and influential figures in Los Angeles from about the time of the famed Boom of the Eighties until his death some three decades later.  His Los Angeles Times went from a relatively new and modestly successful publication to a dominant force in the region under Otis’ forceful leadership, staunch political conservatism and consistent pro-business/anti-labor advocacy through such concepts as the “open shop” or union-free workplace.

Otis was a tireless booster of Los Angeles, or, at least, the version of it he wanted to promote and see develop.  Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s holdings is the January 1910 issue of Sunset, a magazine that now positions itself as “the West’s leading lifestyle brand, with emphases on travel, home design, landscape and gardening and food.”


When launched in 1898, however, the magazine, a production of the Southern Pacific railroad’s passenger department, included original short stories, poetry, discussion of current events, items on travel and tourism and regular features, such as a “Development Section” and “Shop Talk about Sunset.”

This issue includes some prominent names among its contributors, aside from Otis, including Sinclair Lewis, though the 25-year old was a virtual unknown in 1910 and his short story, “Polly,” was a far cry from his novels Main Street (1920), Babbitt (1922), Arrowsmith (1925), Elmer Gantry (1927), and Dodsworth (1929), a string of successes during the Roaring Twenties that earned Lewis the first Nobel Prize for Literature by an American.


The other famous contributor was Jack London, who had a dazzling run of novels, short stories and other productions in the first decade of 20th century, including The Call of the Wild (1903), The Sea-Wolf (1904), White Fang (1906), and Martin Eden (1909) among the best-known.  London’s piece in this issue of Sunset was “The Whale Tooth,” one of about a dozen published stories from 1909.  Whereas Lewis would rise to fame about a decade later, London died six years after the publication of this issue.

Otis began his piece, titled “Los Angeles—A Sketch” with the caveat that

when the Editor [Charles Sedgwick Aiken] of the Sunset Magazine drafted me to write a sketch of Los Angeles, he did not expect, I am sure, that it would be an adequate treatment of the large subject assigned.  That result is impossible within the limitations of a magazine article.  The most I can do now is to smite the elevated spots here and there.  This imperfect sketch does not purport to cover the entire south coast, which is a still broader and larger subject.

This said, Otis observed that the transformation of Los Angeles in the twenty-seven years he’d been in the city “is the marvel of the age in city building” and he did not hesitate to add “if I were capable of boasting—which possibly I am upon occasion and with an adequate effort—I would say with one of old: ‘All of which I saw and part of which I was.'”  He added that in the recent visit of President William Howard Taft, the nation’s chief executive exclaimed “You have created a great city in a desert,” though Otis was careful to note “this may not be literally true” as “Los Angeles is situated hard by a desert.”


In analyzing how Los Angeles experienced “the steadiest, the most rapid, the most healthful expansion of any city of the Union at any period,” Otis identified eight key factors in that development.

First was that the citrus industry was a great success with some $30 million in value in 1908 and it was anticipated that 1909’s crop would be comparable.  Otis wrote that there were “eight million more orange trees, old and young, waiting to produce still more thousands of carloads of this delicious fruit for the delectation of millions of consumers beyond the Rockies.”  He felt that, produce aside, the aesthetic qualities of the trees would call for its cultivation just for that reason.


Next on the list was a general statement on the economic might of the city and region, though he added that Los Angeles city and county had just surpassed its rival, San Francisco, in the number of school children.  He added statistics on bank clearings ($700 million), net tonnage carried by ships entering the harbor at San Pedro (which was just annexed to Los Angeles), oil production (valued at nearly $31 million), a Chamber of Commerce membership pushing 3,000, and more.

Third was a statement about the increasing importance of what became the Port of Los Angeles (and the Port of Long Beach was soon to become significant, as well).  Noting the significant investment of federal dollars on the improvement of the harbor, with more to come, Otis proclaimed that “it is a harbor not alone for this city, but for the great Southwest.”  Moreover, “it is to be the entrepot for a vast commerce coming westward through the Panama canal [which was a few years from completion and opening]—a commerce which the future will surely bring to this southern coast.”  Additionally, railroad lines going east without the frost and snow of northern routes coupled with the harbor’s growth boded well for the region’s importance.


Then there was the attention paid to better roads as automobiles and trucks continued to grow in use, “the object being to create a comprehensive system of first-class public highways.”  Otis noted that “its construction is now vigorously under way, and will be completed possibly within three years” and by the time both the Panama Canal and the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which was finished in 1913, were done.  The roadway system would “prove to be as good an investment” as others noted in Otis’ article.

Fifth was the rising value of property of all kinds in the city and region, as exemplified by the state Board of Equalization’s “eloquent tribute to the extent and value of her property and resources.”  As a dedicated conservative, Otis also had to add that the board did this “even if they did hit the taxpayers a sledgehammer blow” in increasing assessments as aggressively as it did.  He stated that “these zealous servants of the State” determined that Los Angeles County’s assessment was over $585 million, a shade more than that of Chicago, the country’s second-largest city.  Otis couldn’t resist closing this section by noting the mixed blessing of the region having a signal “distinction among wealthy communities . . . which serves as a partial compensation for the largely increased tax bills that we will hereafter have to pay under the state board’s ultimatum.”


Point number six was the vital importance of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, “a tremendous physical enterprise, striking in scope, conception and character, bold in execution, mighty in the results it will bring to our waiting and waterless people.”  The $23 million in bonds, a massive sum for the era, would be repaid many times over and reflected “great wisdom and profound confidence” in the future of the City of Angels.  More importantly for Otis, the project involved “a degree of nerve never, in my opinion, shown by any other community on earth of like size, under like conditions, and with a like environment.”  The publisher paid tribute to Chief Engineer William Mulholland and Lt. General Adna Chaffee, president of the Board of Public Works “whose skillful cooperation is a guarantee of ultimate success.”

The seventh point asserted that

the city has a cosmopolitan population that ranks high in intelligence, activity in good works and social attainments, and in her strong business phalanx are many men of large affairs and great material achievements.  Her “captains of industry” show themselves worthy of the title.  Her people have achieved for themselves an honest name at home and sweet fame abroad.  It is the rendezvous, so to speak, for brave men and noble women, who grace the places they have won in the community.

Not satisfied with this paean to those like himself, Otis claimed that Los Angeles had a “civil life in its higher forms . . . [and] a state of culture and philosophy such as prevailed along the classic shores of ancient Greece in her palmy days.”


The final measure of the city and region’s greatness, the publisher averred, was an obvious one for him.  It is worth quoting liberally from the consummate conservative business figure:

Among all her splendid material assets, none is so valuable, morally and materially, as her possession of that priceless boon, industrial freedom . . . we are steadily approaching that magnificent goal for which brave and free men should everywhere contend, until the entire country is free in this respect, with the right firmly established for every citizen to freely pursue, under the law, any honest avocation or employment of his choice, and to be protected in that right from disturbance, menace and maltreatment by the whole power of the law.  The championship by our people of this sound, just and constitutional doctrine has resulted in conspicuous success.  The same success, relatively, should and must follow such advocacy in any and every patriotic community in the United States.

Union representatives and the nameless and faceless workers in factory and field in the region might take issue with Otis’ characterization of so-called “industrial freedom,” his declaration of “every citizen” pursuing their work as if on an even plane with employers and how the law protects such workers without the significant transformations in labor law and other social and economic elements of early 20th century life that were often vigorously fought by Otis and his fellow travelers in the quest for “industrial freedom.”


From there, Otis went on to make a modest claim for the role of the Times as it “had some hand in the superb development of the south” growing from “an unpretentious four-page country daily to . . . the largest newspaper, according to the latest advices, published on the globe.”

He then made the strange assertion that “Los Angeles was sorry for San Francisco” after the April 1906 disaster of earthquake and fire that devastated that city, but said that “she was sorry to the amount of half a million dollars” donated to the reconstruction of the metropolis.  He went on that Los Angeles “never rejoiced in the calamity of her northern sister nor mocked when he fear came,” though it is unclear why anyone assumed that those were likely or possible.  Otis did compliment San Francisco for its impressive emergence from the ashes, but one wonders why he felt compelled to mention any of this in the article.


Much of the remainder of the article is filled with platitudes for the greatness of Los Angeles, written alternately in breathless terms (such as: “the bodies of her favored people are warmed by the sun god’s genial rays and their souls dilated by the perennial and all-pervasive solace of the kindly climate, fitting them for brave, generous and kindly deeds”) and in citation of practical elements, such as growing industrial development, copious amounts of agricultural products and more statistics attesting to the region’s economic power.


Again paying tribute to men like himself, he insisted that “all credit be given to those dauntless men who laid here the foundations of this metropolis of the present and of the future!” This seems to imply that no credit be provided at all to the workers and laborers on the region, whether this was intended or not.

He concluded with another lengthy proclamation of the greatness of the City of Angels:

Los Angeles has already made and planted unique and striking development records, and is destined to make and plant yet other telling records, so indelibly written on the imperishable tablets of time that they will never be swept away by shifting fields of ice, nor obliterated by desert sands or unleashed cyclones nor destroyed by moving accidents of field or flood.  She is in no danger of perishing by drouth, for already we can hear the sound of the fructifying flow of the Owens river aqueduct at our very borders; nor by earthquake, pestilence, famine or great catastrophe.  She is here to stay, to grow, to expand yet more in solid fact and in good fame.

Whatever one makes of Otis’ extraordinary essay, there is an excellent bonus with “Los Angeles Yesterday and Today,” a series of sixty-five photographs showing the transformation of the city from the late 1880s to date.


Panoramas, downtown street views, shots of locations of former residences and commercial buildings and their replacements being larger commercial structures, images of utility buildings, and, of course, the current Times building, which was bombed by domestic union terrorists in October 1910, are among the images.  The photos, as an explanatory paragraph notes, “show vividly the remarkable progress of this city within twenty years,” and are well worth a look at this issue of Sunset regardless of whether the essay is read.

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