“An Ingenious and Admirable Colonial Project”: The Centinela Colony, 1874-75

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As Los Angeles underwent its first significant and sustained period of growth in the late 1860s and first half of the 1870s, one of the signal features of the boom was the rapid development of the city as well as some of the earliest suburban communities.  Concerning the latter, some prominent examples were Santa Ana, Orange, Artesia, Pomona and San Fernando—all of which remain cities in our region.

Some developments, however, did not survive, though did morph into communities later.  Among there were Santa Gertrudes (areas near modern La Mirada) and Centinela, the latter launched on the lands of the ranchos Aguaje de Centinela and Sausal Redondo.  These two properties, comprising 2,219 and 22,458 acres, respectively, and at times owned by members of the prominent Avila family, passed into the possession of Robert Burnett.

Burnett (1833-1894) was the eleventh baronet of Ley in Banchory, Scotland, southwest of Aberdeen, where the Crathes Castle (built in the 16th century on land given to the Burnett family by Robert the Bruce two centuries earlier) is a National Trust of Scotland site.

Burnett 1870 census
Robert Burnett’s listing in the 1870 federal census in the Los Angeles Township, which included the Centinela area.  A few years later, he returned to his native Scotland to assume the title of baronet of a property called Leys, held by his family for some five hundred years prior.

He acquired the Centinela from attorney Joseph Lancaster Brent in 1860 and then purchased the Redondo eight years later.  In the 1870 federal census, Burnett, with his wife, New York-born Matilda Murphy (they were married in London six years prior), and possibly a brother and another relative, is listed as a farmer in the Los Angeles Township with real and personal property self-declared at just under $180,000, a substantial sum for the era.  He stocked the ranches with sheep, which were widely raised locally, planted grains and established orchards, including oranges.

Burnett, by 1873, returned to Scotland and it was said he assumed his title as baronet in 1876, though in the 1881 British census, he was living with his wife in London and was styled “Baronet of Nova Scotia and he died in early 1894 in a seaside town north of Edinburgh and far from his property at Banchory, leaving property of just over 4,500 pounds.  Before he left Los Angeles, Burnett leased the Centinela and Sausal Redondo ranches to Canadian Daniel Freeman (1837-1918).

Freeman was from a small town near London, Ontario, Canada and became a lawyer in the mid-1860s.  He married Catherine Christie, but, when she was stricken with tuberculosis, they came to Los Angeles in January 1873 for the temperate climate, though she died shortly the following year.  Having leased the Burnett ranches, Freeman then partnered with Jonathan S. Slauson of the Los Angeles County Savings Bank, nursery owner and real estate investor Ozro W. Childs and others, including F.P.F. Temple, in creating the Centinela Land Company.  Temple assumed the presidency of the new firm.

Freeman 1880 census
The listing of Daniel Freeman in the 1880 census, after the Centinela project died out and before he found new success in selling the land that became Inglewood and Redondo Beach, among other areas on the Aguaje de Centinela and Sausal de Redondo ranches.

In late 1874, the firm established a relationship with the California Immigrant Union of San Francisco, formed in the late 1860s and which in the fall launched a cooperative immigration project at Lompoc in Santa Barbara County.   The concept was that shareholders, including immigrants who wanted to live and work on the land, would buy interests in a property and then sell the tract and, hopefully, reap significant profits from the land sales which dividends could be used to fund purchases of land on the tract.

In early December, the first advertisements and articles came out in Los Angeles newspapers promoting the Centinela project and, almost immediately, a tram-type railroad project, christened the Los Angeles and Pacific, was formed by the land company’s directors.  The idea was to build the narrow gauge line, estimated to cost $100,000, from the edge of Los Angeles city limits southwest to the tract and to have it terminate at where Ballona Creek, the course of the Los Angeles River prior to 1825, empties into the ocean, where a short wharf would be built.

The Herald, which was then owned by a company of which Temple was a director and shareholder, of 2 December proclaimed that “the tract lies in a fine valley with rolling hills to temper the sea breeze, and a climate as unexceptional [?] as that of our own city.”  The land was said to be very fertile and did not need irrigation, while Centinela Creek, which came out of the Baldwin Hills and emptied into Ballona Creek at the estuary where the Playa del Rey area is now, “furnishes an abundance of pure spring water.”  It was concluded that Centinela “will offer fine opportunities to men of limited means who desire to settle in Southern California and devote themselves to farming.”

1st Centinela ad Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__Dec_2__1874_
Los Angeles Herald, 2 December 1874.

A very lengthy ad in both the Herald and its rival, the Express, devoted much ink to promoting the topography, soil, potential for raising “semi-tropical fruits,” the climate, and water, and the proposed town of a square mile with wide streets, lots 25’x140′, areas set aside for a college and a “farm school,” and lots for each religious denomination as well as those for fraternal orders, granges for farmers, and temperance (anti-alcohol) societies.

The Express added a statement from O.L. Abbott, one of the promoters of Lompoc who was also invested in Centinela, that there were substantial improvements on the ranch, presumably mainly from Burnett’s occupancy, including 13,000 orange trees, hundreds of other fruit trees, 1,500 almond trees, “and $50,000 worth of sheep and other personal property.”  With “dog cheap” land along with all the promoted amenities, Abbott proclaimed that “Centinela will sell well under the hammer” at auction.

Earlier in 1874, Edward F. Beale, owner of the massive Tejon Ranch, and his partner Robert S. Baker, who also owned a large portion of Rancho La Puente acquired from William Workman earlier in the decade, were owners of land to the north and had a plan to build a town called Truxton, names for the former’s son (this was better than the area’s previous name, “Shoo-Fly!”).  There was a plan to build a railroad from Los Angeles and have a wharf there, as well.

LA & Pacific RR Los_Angeles_Herald_Sat__Dec_12__1874_
Herald, 12 December 1874.

Later, as Beale dropped out of the picture and Baker worked with United States Senator John P. Jones of Nevada, that project was revamped into Santa Monica.  Meantime, F.P.F. Temple, ex-governor John G. Downey, and other Angelenos put forward a railroad project called the Los Angeles and Independence, intended to run from the City of Angels to the seat of Inyo County in eastern California, where silver mines in places like Cerro Gordo, where Temple was heavily invested, were booming.

Jones was a mining tycoon and had significant interests in projects in that area of the state, so he put his resources into the Los Angeles and Independence with the proviso that the first leg of the line be built to Santa Monica before any work was to proceed towards Inyo County.

So, as 1875 dawned and boom was red-hot, activities along the coast west of Los Angeles were also in full swing.  On 10 January, the Herald issued a short article of praise about Temple, who was described as “one of California’s great bankers.”  As was often stated about him in the local press, he was said to be “amiable, kind, charitable and popular” and “instances of his goodness of heart are common.”

Centinela and Temple Los_Angeles_Herald_Sun__Jan_10__1875_
Herald, 10 January 1875.

One example was when an immigrant went to the Temple and Workman bank for a loan and, when Temple “asked for his security,” the poor fellow “pointed to his wife and children in the street.”  The banker, “moved with pity,” loaned the immigrant all the money asked for and it was said that the gentleman “prospered and paid the loan.”

This incident took place two years prior and, while press notices generally lauded Temple for his charity, the Star published a comic poem called “God’s Temples” that seemed to lampoon the willingness of the banker to loan someone money without collateral.  A future post here will focus on that piece of verse.

The Centinela project was to be launched with a four-day public auction in January, but, because surveys for the tract and railroad took longer than anticipated, the sale was delayed about a month.  On 3 February, the editor of the Express took a tour out to the tract and called it “an ingenious and admirable colonial project.”

Centinela article Evening_Express_Wed__Feb_3__1875_
Express, 3 February 1875.

The alfalfa fields looked well tended and “the ranch house [of Freeman], surrounded by orange and lime trees, showed to advantage.”  A crew was busy working on an artesian well, sunk some two hundred feet, and it was expected that, with some twenty springs that fed Centinela Creek, the well would yield an abundant flow.  It was added that 7,000 or the 25,000 acres of the ranch were devoted to the tract and the piece observed that the potential was like that which “has excited wonder in Anaheim,” one of the earliest suburban communities when it was laid out in 1857.

On this date, 15 February, the auction was held “in the field” and managed by William H. Martin of the California Immigrant Union and the next few days followed including one that was moved to Los Angeles and held with an indoor auction. The event was declared a success and much was made in the press about it.  The Herald was the prime booster initially, but, once the paper was sold, its rival, the Express took on more of that role.

In its New Year sheet, the former pronounced the property to consist of “the choicest farming and fruit land in the State” and where “the climate is the finest on the coast.”  What was not stated earlier about temperance societies having lots for buildings was added here: “the sale of intoxicating liquors, and the ereccion [sic] of saloons, is forbidden by the charter of the company.”

Centinela 2nd day p3 Evening_Express_Wed__Feb_17__1875_
Express, 17 February 1875.

As for the Express, its coverage after the second day in its 17 February edition, included the statement that “in the Spanish era, lands were so little valued that, to be held in any estimation at all, they had to be granted in enormous areas.”  But, the paper claimed, “the discovery of the exceptional fertility and preciousness of the soil of Southern California has changed all that,” though it was obviously known before the American era that the soil was particularly fertile—there were other reasons why cattle ranching was dominant over farming before the early 1860s.

The paper noted that, while land was acquired at about $10 an acre, while the Herald gave a figure of $13, the average price in the auction was about $40, though the Express was careful to state that “purchasers were not oppressed by extortionate figures” and the promoters were “considerate and ever chivalric to the outside buyer” and did not apply “the ordeal of competitive bidding” on them.

Of particular interest is a section of the lengthy article about the active presence and participation of “the fair sex,” with it stated that women were “on their mental muscle, and quite frequently distinguished themselves as active and successful speculators.”  The piece then devolved into purple prose in a section titled “Centinela Sunset” with “the warm, genial day” with  the claim that “doves and quails and thrush were twittering their love-songs in the orange bushes.”  The nearby hills were in “a mass of amethystine color” while “the gateway of the Los Angeles and Independence Railway,” meaning Santa Monica Bay, “was glorified by a rich, radiant and kaleidoscopic tinting” and Los Angeles was “a thing of hope and beauty” with the snow-topped San Gabriels and San Bernardinos in the distance.

Centinela Grand Opportunity ad Los_Angeles_Herald_Sat__Apr_3__1875_
Herald, 3 April 1875.

While it was announced that a second public sale would take place in early March and then this, too, was moved back for about a month, no such auction took place, even as it was forecast the prices would double by then.  Instead, the land company continued to advertise private sales at offices located in the Temple Block, headquarters of the Temple and Workman bank, where stock subscription books were also kept.

By the end of April, however, some troubling signs appeared.  Some papers outside the area derided the project, with the Kern County Courier quoted as lamenting that “it is exasperating and sad as exasperating to see the immigrant swindled not only of his purchase money but all that he subsequently invests in cultivation and improvement” in “fraudulent colonization schemes” like Lompoc and Centinela.

The Herald vigorously defended the Centinela promoters against this invective, but, two weeks later, the paper mentioned that the San Francisco Post asserted “that the Centinela lands were not sold to the ‘poor immigrant.'”  What the Herald replied is that owners of tracts were refusing to sell subdivided ranch land to newcomers ready to buy “and it was only through schemes like Centinela and Artesia [this latter operated by those who also developed Pomona at the time] that the tracts could be broken up.”

Centinela Swindle Los_Angeles_Herald_Wed__May_12__1875_
Herald, 12 May 1875.

Moreover, while there were claims in late May that a dozen houses were readied for construction, there were delays in completing the wharf at Santa Monica and the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad was not ready to run its line (in fact, it didn’t open for several more months).  Some desperation might be reflected in statements like one from the Express on 25 May that there was plenty of water on the tract and in the region generally, provided that the means to extract ground water could be made more efficient, because, it was claimed, the local supply was “illimitable,” which was a tremendous exaggeration.

By the onset of summer, the regular advertisements in the Los Angeles press ceased.  The California Immigrant Union was no longer sustainable and soon shut its doors, while, more ominously, a silver stock speculation bubble in Virginia City, Nevada, which seemed to keep California immune from the effects of the national Depression of 1873, spectacular burst in late August.

The Temple and Workman bank, which rode the speculative wave by investing depositors’ funds in a wide array of local development projects while not keeping necessary cash reserves, was exposed by the panic that ensued.  Despite a loan from “Lucky” Baldwin, whose sale of silver stock in San Francisco helped precipitate the crisis, the bank was doomed to failure, which took place early in 1876.

Centinela title money back ad The_Evening_Express_Thu__Sep_27__1877_
Express, 27 September 1877.

As for Centinela, it, too, broke apart.  A September 1877 ad in the Express called on those who bought land at the Centinela sale more than two years prior and who “have not received title to the land purchased or received their money back for land or stock” to attend a meeting in the Temple Block, ironically where stock for the scheme was sold through the bank.

Most of the land on Centinela reverted back to Freeman, who purchased Burnett’s interests.  Whatever losses Freeman accrued due to the failure of Centinela, he was at least able to rebound significantly during the much larger boom of the 1880s.  New promoters came in with such projects as Inglewood and Redondo Beach and, this time, created lasting and viable towns, even as that boom went bust, as they all do.

This ad for the Centinela Colony, trimmed from a magazine or other publication, is from the Homestead’s collection and dates to about January 1875.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is an ad for the Centinela Colony that was trimmed from what looks to be the back cover of a magazine or pamphlet.  It looks to date to the early part of 1875 when the auction had been rescheduled to 15 February and it provides plenty of information (or propaganda) about what the tract had to offer prospective purchasers.  Those who wanted to take part in the scheme were told to “apply at the office of F.P.F. TEMPLE, President, Temple’s Bank” or to contact Martin at the San Francisco office of the the California Immigrant Union.

The story of the Centinela Colony project is an apt one for the first boom experienced in greater Los Angeles from about 1868 through 1875 in terms of the anticipation of success, the hype and promotion, the boosting by the media and the hard fall that often happens for speculators like F.P.F. Temple during these dizzying times of ambition and failure.

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