by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As greater Los Angeles began its phenomenal growth with an initial burst in the late 1860s and early 1870s, followed by the famed Boom of the Eighties in the latter half of that decade, another major period of intense development took place in the first years of the 20th century. By then, the City of Angels was fast approaching San Francisco in population and economic and political power and it had vast hinterlands for suburban growth to boot.
The region’s reputation grew larger in other parts of the United States and abroad, as well, and one way to see this is through media coverage, including tonight’s featured object from the museum’s collection: the 22 March 1906 issue of Leslie’s Weekly. A couple of posts on this blog featured material from the publication’s predecessor, Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, founded in 1855 by the British-born Henry Carter, who was an innovative wood engraver and worked with the Illustrated London News before he came to America in 1848 and found employment with Gleason’s Pictorial, a pioneer in the field.
In 1853, he went to work for the short-lived Illustrated News, published by P.T. Barnum before he found fame in live entertainment through circuses. After that venture failed and using the name “Frank Leslie,” Carter launched a couple of his own periodicals before finding success with his illustrated weekly newspaper.
The paper grew to be a sixteen-page publication with a well-honed mix of material on politics, wars. science, travel and exploration, art and other subjects and usually illustrated with at least one, and often two, images per page on average. It did well and Leslie’s second wife, Miriam, edited Frank Leslie’s Lady Magazine. The couple, however, lived a lavish lifestyle, including a costly transcontinental train trip from their home base in New York to San Francisco in 1877 that came during a national depression that broke out four years prior.
In 1880, Leslie died, but his widow continued to operate the journal and even had her name legally changed to his, while she worked tirelessly to combat $300,000 in debt and a contested will, eventually making the newspaper profitable. An ardent feminist and woman suffrage advocate and writer, Miriam Leslie was briefly married to the brother of notorious British writer Oscar Wilde and sold her interest in what became “Leslie’s Weekly” in 1902, a dozen years before her death.
When this issue was published, the weekly was published by the Judge Company, which had been producing Judge magazine for about a quarter century. The front cover contained several images of a disastrous tornado swarm that hit Mississippi, ravaging the city of Meridian and killing over fifty people.
Among the sections found in the contents are digests of the activities of notable people, including American politicians and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II and his generals (this less than a decade before that country precipitated the First World War); a woman’s page called “The Home and the Household” and which, among other material, called for women to get more outdoor exercise; a fascinating piece on Chinese envoys visiting the United States to learn about modern government just a few years before the world’s longest-standing empire collapsed; the scourge of New York race track gambling, an issue in greater Los Angeles, including “Lucky” Baldwin’s notorious Santa Anita track at Arcadia, which soon closed; and a piece about a major art sale as American capitalists were making their mark in that field.
The piece on the City of Angels is titled “Is Los Angeles the New York of the Pacific Coast?” and it wasn’t long before Los Angeles approached Chicago and the Big Apple in population and broad regional influence with comparisons between the coastal metropolises frequently made, competition made stronger, and, often, denizens of the great Eastern city casting aspersions on the alleged shallowness and insubstantial character of Los Angeles.
Leslie’s Weekly associate editor, Henry Shedd Beardsley, penned the piece and, when he arrived in Los Angeles a month prior and took a room at the Hotel Alexandria, he was briefly profiled in the 18 February edition of the Los Angeles Herald. That paper observed that Beardsley believed “that there is a great future in store for the City of Angels and foresees an enormous population within the next two decades.”
Echoing the thought of many that the region boasted the finest climate in the world, Beardsley was impressed by the scale of improvements in the area compared to in the east and prophesied that “there is no reason why this city should not become the most desirable place in the United States and its population more than doubled in twenty years.” Said to be “a man of keen insight and a deep thinker” as well as a “delightful story teller and entertainer,” Beardsley intoned that “too much cannot be said of the future of Los Angeles.” He was said to be staying in town for some weeks and “from time to time his stories of Southern California will appear in Leslie’s Weekly.”
The next day the Herald ran an article detailing a conversation between Beardsley and the manager of the hotel, who told the editor about “buttons” that would take the journalist to “paradise” if he wished to try an experiment in his room. Beardsley ingested a trio of the “buttons” and was quoted about the effects on his mental alertness, a sense of revelation, although he was so engrossed with this that he did not recognize that he was becoming faint and had to lay on a divan.
There he was transfixed by the colors and movement of the flames in the fireplace and of the electric lights in the room, the latter of which appeared like jewels. With these baubles taking on all manner of textures and appearances, the scene transformed into a sylvan one of fields, woods, streams, mountains and “the glories of a sunset sky” bringing vast contentment and peace. Harmonious music followed, but was then followed by a maelstrom of intense sound so powerful that “the winds and the sea, and the thunders of heaven roared about me in a frenzy of sublime, overwhelming music.”
When Beardsley opened his eyes, he beheld the electric lights and heard the playing of the hotel orchestra down below and the effect of the “buttons” lasted for several hours “during which time I passed from one scene to another—all delightful, all filled with wonder and strangeness.” What the editor took was peyote, with the mescaline giving him a “trip” like those taken by many six decades later in the Age of Aquarius! On 3 March, Beardsley continued his trip; that is, his journey through the west, by going to Arizona, where he was to stay a few weeks before returning home to New York City.
As for his article, Beardsley began it by stating, “cities have distinct and peculiar personalities, just as men have. In the life of any man who amounts to anything there are sure to features of extraordinary dramatic interest. The same is true of any city that amounts of anything.”
“Amounting to anything,” of course, meant financial success and he added “the momentum of Los Angeles has made fortunes for all her business men, merchants, bankers, manufacturers, property owners, [and] operators in real estate.” He gave an example of a Spanish Basque man who bought, twenty years before at the beginning of the 1880s boom, land for $1,500 and sold it for ten times that amount. Another who purchased property at the same time for $500 turned down a recent offer of $180,000 for it. Several other anecdotal examples were cited along these lines.
Moreover, Beardsley continued, “in a few months even suburban lands that are reached by trolley [the Henry E. Huntington system later consolidated into the Pacific Electric Railway] have multiplied in value,” though it was the downtown business district of Los Angeles that saw the most dynamic growth. He gave the example of an unnamed syndicate, in which individuals, for $500 minimum, participated in the purchase of land for which a trust company was established. Income from the land was collected and distributed by that company on a pro rata basis and, when the property was sold as the value rose, the profit, sometimes at 100%, was divided the same way.
Beardsley discussed the city as the center of a flourishing agricultural region, as well as the financial hub of a mining region extending into Nevada and Arizona, as well as eastern California. He added,
It is the most rapidly growing city in the United States, not for any internal reasons, but because no section of North America is undergoing such extensive development as the territory tributary to Los Angeles.
This included four major railroad lines (two of the Southern Pacific, along with the Santa Fe and the Salt Lake lines) and “a street-car system that is not surpassed in the United States—and that means the world.” Moreover, the building boom in Los Angeles meant that it “leads all cities of its size” in the erection of stores, commercial structures, hotels, and homes, to the tune of nearly $15.5 million in 1905, fifteen percent higher than the prior year.
He argued that this boom was sustainable because those coming to Los Angeles had the financial means to maintain the growth beyond any bubble in the real estate market. Beardsley also noted the thriving tourist trade, while manufacturing output in dollars doubled since the start of the century. Moreover, there was “the improvement of the Los Angeles harbor, at San Pedro, at the cost of much money, to provide for increasing Oriental commerce and that which will come with the completion of the Panama Canal [finished eight years later.]”
The editor also observed the importance of “the capturing of a whole river, the Owensk,” which was not a Russian watercourse, but the misspelled “Owens” River! This, of course, was in preparation for the building of an engineering marvel of its time, the Los Angeles Aqueduct, the bonds of which were sold by city treasurer William Henry Workman, mayor during the 1880s boom and nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman. Beardsley also noted the extensive electric street lighting in the city.
He attributed the phenomenal growth of the city and region to natural advantages and “to the progressive character of its leading men.” While most communities in America, he argued, were “doomed to eternal insignificance by the niggardly, timid, short-sighted policy of their principal property holders,” those in the City of Angels were anything but. Specifically named were Huntington; developer Robert A. Rowan; fruit shipper and Los Angeles Express publisher Edwin T. Earl; Isaac Van Nuys and his son-in-law, James B. Lankershim; and, not surprisingly, Hotel Alexandria owner A.C. Bilicke. Almost in passing, Beardsley added that “Mr. [Isaias W.] Hellman erected one of the largest buildings in the city,” but, beyond that, Hellman was the city’s chief financier and his lack of attention in the article may, perhaps, be due to his being Jewish.
The article ended with extensive quotes from Rowan, who was one of the main real estate developers in the city and of whose business there are several items in the Homestead’s collection. Rowan informed Beardsley that “a large proportion of the business property of the city is held as a permanent investment,” meaning that a ground-lease arrangement provided that the property owners leased to the developers of the building and, after the end of the term, the building became the owner. Walter P. Temple, for example, did this years later in leasing an Alhambra property for his Edison Building, finished in spring 1927 on a 99-year lease. If he hadn’t shortly gone into financial distress and had, along with his heirs or assigns, been able to keep the lease, they would have owned the property outright six years from now.
Rowan also stated that there was considerable investment in local real estate by eastern capitalists as well as those from San Francisco (which, incidentally, would undergo a catastrophic earthquake and fire a little under a month later.) The developer noted that
those who have substantial interests in the city disapprove of any efforts to produce excitement or hysteria in real estate. There is none now and there will be none. We are building here for permanency . . . we want no setbacks or periods of reaction which surely follow a condition not warranted by the substantial facts. If you are writing about Los Angeles please be careful not to create the impression that there is extraordinary or feverish activity here. We have grown steadily and solidly in the past, and we want our progress to continue in the same sure path.
This article is a remarkable one in describing a Los Angeles that was entering into a new phase of growth and development marked by supreme confidence in the future, as expressed both by the author and by Rowan, and a belief in assumed unique qualities about the city and region presumed to set it apart from other American cities.
Broadly speaking, this was an attitude displayed throughout a United States that was also continue a rapid ascent of economic, political and military power globally. Well over a century later, it is interesting and instructive to look back at examples like this article and compare it to the attitudes and beliefs of Angelenos, the city’s observers, and Americans more generally.