Take It On Faith From Point A to Point B with a Pacific Electric Railway Pamphlet With A Spiritualism Connection, April 1928

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

From the inauguration of rapid transit service in Los Angeles with the formation of the horse-drawn Sixth and Spring Street Railway, of which F.P.F. Temple was the first treasurer, in 1874, the expansion of mass transit in the City of Angels was rapid and wide-spread.  The horse-drawn systems were replaced with cable lines, which then gave way to electric railways, among the most prominent of which was the Los Angeles Railway, which operated with city limits.

The Southern Pacific railroad, through the efforts of Henry E. Huntington, acquired the Los Angeles Railway in the late 1890s and, after Huntington’s uncle and company president, Collis, died shortly afterward, a hostile takeover of the Southern Pacific led to Huntington’s removal, though he was allowed to take the Pacific Electric with him.

Huntington promptly moved to Los Angeles, which he’d visited earlier in the Nineties while on his way from Cincinnati, where he’d worked for several years, to San Francisco, and embarked on investments in rapid transit and real estate ventures as another regional boom emerged in the first decade of the 20th century.  One of the striking results was the creation of a vast network of electric streetcar lines throughout greater Los Angeles, comprising the nation’s largest rapid transit system in terms of track mileage.


In 1911, the Pacific Electric Railway system was formed to manage this impressive network and, as the regional population grew by leaps and bounds, so did the system.  There was, however, a growing problem for streetcars, which was the growing affordability and popularity of the automobile, which posed an existential threat to the Pacific Electric.  Through the 1920s, ridership decreased and profits dropped and today’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection reflects the challenging conditions the company faced.

The pamphlet concerned “New Local Zone Fares Within The City of Los Angeles” and which were made effective on 27 April 1928.  The Los Angeles Express of 9 April published a summary of why this came about for streetcars and motor coach (bus) lines, explaining

Sweeping modifications involving both increases and decreases as ordered by the State Railroad Commission will go into effect throughout the Pacific Electric system . . . outstanding in effect on residents of Los Angeles and its nearest suburbs are certain provisions for the establishment of new small zones for the minimum fare districts.

The state Railroad Commission was formed with the passage of California’s second constitution, ratified in 1879, but the immense power of the Southern Pacific and its “Big Four” (or, if you prefer, the “Octopus”) led to its far-reaching control of the commission’s regulatory powers.  Foundational changes to the state’s electoral and regulatory functions, pushed through by Progressive forces in 1911, meant that the commission was given more “teeth” in dealing with transportation issues, including the oversight of streetcar lines like the Pacific Electric here in greater Los Angeles, which increasingly pleaded with the commission to allow it to restructure fares to deal with the challenges mentioned above.


The piece went on to state that “while the minimum fare has been reduced to 5 cents by the order the new zoning system reduces the length of rides to be allowed for this fare.”  This meant that “passengers  who ride through all or part of any two adjoining zones will be charged two fares.”  It was added that the existed system for zones was kept but individual ones were moved or made smaller.  Users were to pony up their nickel for rides within a single zone but pay ten cents for rides within up to three adjacent zones and fifteen to travel in four.  Round-trip travel through four zones was twenty-five cents.

The pamphlet gave additional information included the fact that free transfers were to be given to those who would change cars as they traveled through two to four zones.  These transfers also applied for those who paid a nickel fare for one-zone travel, but were to switch “to or from other lines in order to reach any destination within such first zone.”  While “identification checks,” replacing tickets, would not be issued for singe-zone travel, they were “for all fares in excess of 5c” and passengers were to keep these “until called for by the conductor” and shown on request.

The change was applicable seven streetcar and four motor coach lines, with the former including ones going to Hollywood and Sherman; Semi-Tropic Park; Echo Park; Vineyard; Watts; and Sierra Vista.  Some of these place names are unfamiliar to most of us now, but Sherman is now West Hollywood, Semi-Tropic Park is a locale in Silver Lake, Vineyard is an area where Venice and San Vicente boulevards meet, and Sierra Vista is El Sereno.


A few other stops are also largely unrecognizable places names to many, as Valley Junction was near Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights; Rose Hill Park is between Lincoln Heights and El Sereno, though a city park still bears that name just north of Huntington Drive; and Amoco (short for the American Olive Company, which had a factory there) was at East Adams/25th Street and Long Beach Boulevard in South Los Angeles.  The West 16th Street line refers to a street that no longer exists, in that West 16th was renamed Venice Boulevard, although east of Main in downtown there is still East 16th.

A color-coded map comprising the interior panels of the pamphlet shows the various lines, including the four short motor coach ones denoted by hash marks.  Areas in red were zone 1 in proximity to the “Central Station” at Main and 6th streets, zone 2 is in yellow, green demarcates the third zone, and zone 4 is in blue.  A chart of circles denoting these zones indicates the various fares as they radiate outward from downtown and “arrow lines show fares between and through zones.”

When doing some searching for the archaic place names listed in the pamphlet, one, concerning Semi Tropic Park, led to a fascinating element of early 20th century Los Angeles.  The name came from the formation in July 1905 of the Semi-Tropic Spiritualists’ Association, referred to here as the STSA, organized by five persons with $25,000 in stock, though only $110 was subscribed at the time of incorporation.

Los Angeles Herald, 22 July 1905.

In the first years of the century, greater Los Angeles was awash with an array of alternative religious groups, spiritual organizations, individual healers, and others, which was a major reason why some wags referred to the Angels City as one comprised of fruits (oranges, lemons and the like) and nuts (meaning perceived fringe people and groups).

The STSA purchased land just outside city limits, though it was soon absorbed during the aggressive annexation era that greatly expanded the boundaries of Los Angeles, and members began to settle on the property, which also included Semi-Tropic Park.  At the time the area was known as Edendale and it is now at the northern end of the Silver Lake neighborhood.

The area is on the east side of Alessandro Street, which parallels the southern extremity of the Glendale Freeway (State Route 2) as it terminates in Silver Lake, and south of Riverside Drive.  Not far to the south is where many of the region’s first film studios were established, including some from which Princess Mona Darkfeather (Josephine M. Workman, granddaughter of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman) worked.  Princess Mona also lived just south of the STSA tract.

Los Angeles Times, 9 December 1907.

By summer 1906, the STSA was advertising for events held at what was referred to as a “camp.”  The presence of the spiritualists and their otherworldly ideas obviously angered and scared nearby residents.  In late 1907, the Los Angeles Times thought to have a little fun at rural Edendale’s expense in reporting what was said to be theft of twenty-five pounds of dynamite, acquired by the STSA to remove tree trunks as it cleared its property when then included “an auditorium, meeting house, and several small tents.”

The piece continued that the dynamite was placed in a hay stack in a small barn and “the neighbors saw the explosive arrive, and they watched the storing of it with fear and trembling.”  it was added that a complaint was filed with the county district attorney, who ordered it removed, but John Thorne, the paper stated, downplayed the risk and “offered to put the dynamite in his mattress for safe keeping,” while laughing at the fear of his neighbors.

The Times mocked John North, who appears to have filed the complaint and sought the help of the city police chief, and said he “is a timid man” who “says the dynamite would blow Edendale off the map if allowed to explode” and queried what would happen if a rock in the hilly region rolled down and hit Thorne’s house: “Horrors! it would blow Mr. North off the earth.”

Los Angeles Express, 1 June 1908.

In 1908, with the county having an ordinance requiring license fees of $30 a month for spiritualists, palm readers, mediums and clairvoyants, the STSA lobbied aggressively for an exemption.  It argued that it would generate revenue to the county through its activities, but there was opposition to this effort from the State Spiritualists’ Association, which formed in 1898, and a group called the Anti-Fakers’ Association, of whom little can be found other than some references in local papers.

In June, Robert Hale, who lived in what is now the Fashion District downtown, appeared before the Board of Supervisors stating he was a resident of the Anti-Fakers Association and a member of the state and national spiritualists’ associations and protesting the proposed exemption, stating that the STSA’s members should be properly “ordained” by those groups.

A couple of weeks later, the STSA went before the board and denied “that their meeting place at Semi-Tropic Park has been the scene of disorder” or that it was rented out for dances and other events by outside groups not under their direct supervision.

Times, 12 June 1908.

A month later, the Los Angeles Herald reported that a deputy sheriff responding to complaints about activity at Semi-Tropic Park was assaulted by five men and a justice of the peace issued warrants for the “John Does” alleged to have committed the crime.

A month-long Spiritualists’ Camp Meeting for June 1909 started off very inauspiciously, according to the Herald, as it reported that John Slater “the noted and wonderful medium” as expressed in ads, was allegedly downcast as “few spooks were in evidence” and he supposedly muttered, “never mind, it will cost them 10 cents to get in, anyhow.”  Still, George Warne, president of the national spiritualists association, spoke on “Spiritualism as a Religion,” and it was stated that “great excitement was caused at one time by a serious of mysterious rappings from the rear of the auditorium, accompanied by the word ‘go’ at brief intervals” as well as the utterances of numbers.

The paper then observed that “when the stampede for the door had subsided it was explained that a quiet game of cribbage was in progress.”  Then, a book fell from a piano “and nearly created a panic, until it was discovered that a strong wind was blowing through the side windows.”  As for Slater, the Herald stated that, for a mere $50 an hour, a very large sum at the time, he would “tell the name, age, nationality, place of birth, and color of socks” as well as “answer any and all questions when placed in a sealed envelope.”  There was also a dance and a seance and message circle led by “Professor Norris” at which two men claimed to have spoken with spirits of the deceased.

Herald, 20 June 1909.

On 19 June, however, district attorney investigators raided the camp and other locations and hauled off six persons, including Slater and Norris, and charged them with violating the county license ordinance mentioned above.  One of those arrested said she was 81 years old, was the oldest medium in America, and had given a reading to Abraham Lincoln.  She decried her treatment, telling a detective,

Los Angeles has fallen on hard times when we must be hauled into court for practicing our belief.  Young man, I fear for the future of this city.

Professor Norris claimed that his services were offered for free, although he accepted donations, while P.A.B. Kennedy, head of the STSA, alleged “that the arrests were inspired by prejudice against Spiritualism.”  Mrs. Nettie Howell, another arrestee, was the manager of Semi-Tropic Park and it was averred that “at one time she controlled practically all the meeting halls in Los Angeles outside of the theaters” and was worth $75,000.

Times, 24 May 1913.

As for the gathering, it was claimed that Sunday sessions of the camp meeting drew 1,000 people and the STSA had, on its eighteen acres, “a large auditorium, water works, numerous cottages, and other improvements acquired within three years.”  Meanwhile, the Association told the paper it was continuing with the meeting.  An accompanying photo showed two women being escorted off the property and taken to jail by men with suits and straw hats.

There were other problems internal to the Association as it sued Peter Johnson because “part of the land was to be subdivided and sold as lots and the sale was entrusted to Johnson.”  The suit claimed he collected $4,000, keeping 9% for himself, but that he also filed a mechanic’s lien on the STSA’s “tabernacle” for $500, these liens applied in lieu of unpaid bills for work performed on a property.  That case, won by the Association, was appealed to the state supreme court, where it appears the STSA prevailed, but, presumably, at great legal expense.

After the 1909 raid, Semi-Tropic Park continued to be used for events, though it looks like most were by rental.  There was one spiritualist event in May 1913 as the Spiritualist Relief Association had a picnic with speeches, music and “messages” and all “proceeds [were] for charity.”

Times, 20 July 1918.

In September 1910, members of the Socialist Party, which mounted a serious campaign for mayor of Los Angeles before the bombing of the Los Angeles Times building the following month, held a rally there and the party had another one eight years later.  Two years later, a confederation of German, English and Norwegian Lutheran churches had a “mission festival” there.  In 1914, a ladies auxiliary of the Orthodox Jewish Congregation Poale Zedek had their second annual picnic at the park.  The connection to the local film industry was reflected by a call in June 1917 from Pathe West Coast Studio, based down the street from the park, for “500 girls for motion picture work.”

After 1918, however, the name “Semi-Tropic Park” is not found in newspaper searches until the above article concerning the Pacific Electric rate change and it appears the STSA vanished from the scene about 1912.  In mid-May 1928, the Pacific Electric modified its local zone fare program by allowing users to purchase books of twenty tickets, so that the five-cent fares would extend through the first two zones, which would cost ten cents by individual purchase.  For the Hollywood, Santa Monica Boulevard and South Pasadena Local lines, twenty ticket books for $2 would allow users to go to the end of the lines in zones 4, also amounting to a 50% savings.

Again, the problem for the Pacific Electric was declining ridership in the advance of auto usage, but the Great Depression followed by World War II, with the economic hardships and the rationing of war materiel involved, kept the system operating far longer than it would have otherwise.

Los_Angeles_Evening_Express_Mon__Apr_9__1928_ (1)
Express, 9 April 1928.

With the postwar boom, rising middle class, and the income to buy more cars, the demise of the streetcar system was so easy to foresee—a medium was not required to divine it!  The last of the “Red Cars” ran its route in 1961, though we now see mass transit gradually increasing, including the Metro Blue line on the route of the “Watts Local” and the Gold Line on the “South Pasadena Local” on the map.


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