“At the Head of All the Captains of the Human Race”: The Souvenir Program of the Order of Railroad Conductors National Convention, Los Angeles, 11-17 May 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is hard to overestimate the importance of the railroad to not just transportation, but business, leisure and even our concept of time-keeping, in 19th century American life.  Moreover, where earlier towns and cities were generally determined by their placement on water courses like oceans and rivers because of transport by ships and boats, it was access to rail lines that determined whether most larger communities had a viable future.

In Los Angeles, which was situated inland and next to a river that hardly qualified as such much of the time, the importance of a railroad link was essential.  This was true commercially because of the region’s growing agricultural importance, but it also was increasingly essential as tourism took on a greater role in the area’s economy.

Los Angeles Express, 1 May 1897.

While the first rail line was a local one between Los Angeles and the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro and was completed in 1869, the year the transcontinental railroad was finished between the Bay Area and the Midwest, the city was dependent on a connection to the dominant Southern Pacific as it planned and built a line south from Oakland to connect to Yuma at the border with Arizona and then eastward.

It literally took an act of Congress, however, to force the SP to direct its line to the City of Angels rather than hang a left at Tehachapi Pass and bypass the region and even this required a subsidy approved by Los Angeles County voters in fall 1872.  One of the main negotiators in the preparation of this deal to give 5% of the assessed valuation of county property and control of that Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad was F.P.F. Temple.

Express, 11 May 1897.

Shortly afterward, he and other locals tried to build a line to silver mining regions of eastern California and had to compete with the SP for access to Cajon Pass.  While this was successful and there was a line built to Santa Monica, because its promoter, Nevada Senator John P. Jones, took a majority ownership, the Los Angeles and Independence did not long survive the economic crash that included the failure of Temple’s Los Angeles bank and the railroad was purchased by the SP, which continued its regional monopoly for about a decade.

At the end of 1885, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe completed its direct transcontinental route to Los Angeles, which not only broke the SP monopoly, but opened the floodgates of settlers and tourists to the region and ushered in the Boom of the Eighties.  While the boom inevitably went bust, the greater Los Angeles area was transformed and took our greater prominence as a hub of the American Southwest.

Los Angeles Times, 12 May 1897.

By the end of the century, Los Angeles was becoming a destination, albeit still a somewhat remote one, for national conventions, with these becoming more common by the end of the Homestead’s interpretive era of 1830 to 1930.  Tonight’s highlighted object from the Museum’s holdings is representative of the early stages of the city’s popularity as a convention destination being a souvenir program for the 26th annual session of the
Grand Division of the Order of Railway Conductors, a union founded in the late 1860s and which existed for a century until it merged into a larger union.

Los Angeles Herald, 12 May 1897.

The document is fascinating for its discussion of conductors and the week-long convention, but mainly for its breathless evocation of the wonders and attractions of the city and its outlying area.  This post’s title comes from a brief, but remarkable description of “The Railroad Conductor” in which the writer, identified only as C.M.H. observed that

The number of miles traveled and the number of people carried show the railroad to be the safest of all modes of locomotion . . . Few realize how much of this is due to the untiring diligence of the conductor.  To the traveler he seems a good easy soul bent only on having his accounts come out straight.  But no man has a more continuous mental strain with so many points to think of, any one of which may be a matter of life or death to half the people under his charge.  How he keeps such an even temper under such a strain is known only to those who endure it.  But if the world could realize it they would place the railway conductor at the head of all the captains of the human race.

The rest of the text, however, concerns the abundant charms and opportunities of the Angel City and environs and an essay on “The Ladies in California” claims that “stranger than anything else about this strange land is the fact that the ladies love it even better than the men.”  This was because men were concerned with “a business view of its attractions and advantages,” while women “are enthralled by the charms of the climate, the ease with which they can surround themselves with flowers and everything that makes the outside of the home a pleasure.”


Not only that, but “there is so little struggle with the elements, where it is so easy at any time of the year to step out of doors without any preparation” that California women, who could sleep among flowers on their porches 90% of the year, could easily put up with the separation of so many miles “from the friends of early days.”  The ladies auxiliary of the ORC were said to “live in the hope that some day they may be able to join” their California sisters “in the enjoyment of the nearest approach to ease with comfort that they have yet seen on this earth.”

The lengthy essay on “Southern California” is filled with rapturous descriptions of the region, including an opening statement that “that portion lying south of the mountains of Tehachepi combines within the smallest compass all the unique features of this strange land in the highest perfection.”  A refrain that became increasingly more common over the years was that “there is probably no other place in the world where one can as quickly run from the finest of gardens to deep snow banks, and back again for dinner, as on the electric railroad that leads up Mt. Lowe” above Pasadena.


Ice an inch thick cut from the mountains and swimming in the ocean could both happen in winter and all manner of crops could be grown in a proximity not found anywhere else in the country so that “you would think every little while that you were in an entirely different land” as you moved through the varied elements of the region.  It was averred that there was so much fertility and prosperity and so much done in such a short period that “we cannot but wonder whether those who know this land best really understand it yet or not,” with this rhetorical question answered in the negative.


An interesting take on regional history is offered, as well:

More than any other part of the Union, the land of romance whose takes are not half told, California combines the flavor of antiquity with the highest development of modern rush and bustle.  You can find a mission in no time and something there to study by the hour if you have time.  You can find men who ridden down and lassoed the grizzly bear [by 1924 these were extinct] in his mountain home . . . you can see the old houses and gardens and in them many of the old natives [Latinos, that is, not the indigenous people] of the land, who enjoyed life as none do today, yet knew nothing of the money standards and cared still less whether there was any money or not.  But fifty years ago Arcadian simplicity and content such as the world has rarely seen reigned from coast to mountain top , . .

The breathless narrative offers plenty more, including this sample: “the whole is a land of peace, a land that tolerates nothing of the wild or riotous except in nature, and never did.  There never was an hour when the cowboy . . . could exist here, though the world nowhere equaled the vaqueros of California, and no more law-abiding people ever lived than the old settlers of the country and the new that are taking their places.”  Obviously, C.M.H. knew nothing of the extraordinary levels of violence that rocked the region in the 1850s or of the Chinese Massacre of 1871, or, at least, chose to ignore that part of the history.


In discussing the abundance of the area, it was claimed that the orchards, vineyards and small farms were “more like living in town and raising flowers for rich snobs to show at their parties” than ranching or the kind of farming done further east.  Local cultivators of the land, it was claimed, incurred less debt and lived better than their cousins from other parts of the nation.

The suburban sprawl of greater Los Angeles was in its infancy still, but a notable statement came out of that: “the most vital question in America today, which is pressing upon us for a speedy solution, is how we shall free the cities from that surplus population which is the danger of a republic.”  The increasing urbanization of America, however, only intensified with the growth of industrialization and improvements in technology for farming, much less in other areas.


For those that avowed that farming was not a profitable occupation, it was claimed that “you can see in California the only possible answer” because the local environment yielded far greater profits for the effort put in on smaller tracts than elsewhere in America.  Notably, it was added, soil fertility was not that important (though, of course, it was); rather, it was irrigation and the climate that made this abundance possible and this was before the massive water-delivery projects of the next century.

Yet, in subsequent decades, acreage devoted to agriculture would drop significantly, giving way to suburban development and this only accelerated dramatically after World War II and the enormous influx of population that took place.  Somewhat paradoxically, the city of Los Angeles was lionized as “one of the most progressive of cities . . . with more fine streets, modern improvements and fewer shanties than any city in the Union.”  It was precisely this element, largely transplanted into the suburbs that defied the prediction of more farmers, not fewer.

Of course, this couldn’t have been “early life” because it was an 1890s photo, but it was clearly intended to show the “sleepy” era of Spanish and Mexican California.

While the essay stated that Los Angeles was “a city whose growth has never stopped,” there was some stagnation for short periods, including the end of the Boom of the 1880s and after the Depression of 1893.  It was essentially true, though, that “for over twenty years it has at all times been the most lively city of its size in the Union” in terms of growth and development, a process that continued into the new century.

There was more along the same theme of untapped potential for the region’s growth and development and C.M.H. rhapsodized that:

no one can study Southern California without seeing that water and sunshine have built up the most remarkable civilization the world has ever seen, and that the soil, to which so much of the fertility is ascribed, has little to do with it.  It is a wonderful country, settled and developed by a wonderful people, but its greatest wonder is an object lesson to a country that even now seems to have run its race and drawn from the soil almost the last dollar that can be drawn.  The last of the public land that can be farmed upon the rainfall is almost gone, and the rainfall is supporting very nearly all it can support in the American style of living.  But when you see this country, you will say your own is far from finished, and will feel grateful to California for the instruction as well as the pleasure her broad plains and valleys and rolling table lands have given you.

There are sections promoting Santa Catalina Island, then owned by the descendants of Phineas Banning, the father of the harbor at Wilmington that combined with San Pedro to create the Port of Los Angeles, the Mount Lowe Railway, and San Pedro.  The program of the week followed, including the opening afternoon meeting on the 11th and an open-air concert at Hazard’s Pavilion at which a reception was also to take place.


On the 12th was a series of entertainments offered by the Chamber of Commerce, the Merchants and Manufacturers’ Association (which held the La Fiesta de Los Angeles from 1894) and others at Fiesta Park, located between Grand Avenue and Hope Street and Pico and Twelfth streets and which was the La Fiesta venue.

The theme of the event was “a pictorial illustration of Spanish or Mexican life in the days of the Mission” with “Caballeros, Cow Boys, Paloma Dancers, Mandolin Players” and more.  Also offered were “illustrated patriotic scenes” with singing and pony and chariot races.  Finally, there was a fireworks display including “appropriate Railway Scenes” (one wonders what an inappropriate representation would be) and other effects.


The 13th featured morning tours of Pasadena, the Cawston Ostrich Farm on the border of Los Angeles and South Pasadena, before the assemblage met at the convention hall for proceedings.  The following day included a grand ball at Hazard’s Pavilion.  Then came the weekend of the 15th and 16th with free time on the first day for touring the area, including rail tours of such places as Santa Monica, Long Beach, Pomona, Riverside, Redlands, and Mt. Lowe, while the second was a convention trip to Catalina.  The final day, the 17th, included another all-day regional rail tour east to Pomona, Riverside and Redlands.

Being an early national convention, the ORC meeting received extensive coverage in the major newspapers, the Times, the Herald, and the Express and examples of these are shown here.  The souvenir program is a remarkable document of one of the first of its kind in the region as well as for its descriptive content, overwrought as it may be, because it shows the animated ambition boosters had for greater Los Angeles as it was in the midst of a period of growth and development with few parallels in American history.

2 thoughts

  1. Paul, You are really a very fine blog writer!

    I read everything you write and always get new info and new understanding of the material I was familiar with. Thanks for the time you spend doing this, and may your pen never run dry!

    Eldon Dunn

  2. Thank you, Eldon, appreciate your following along with these posts. We’ll keep these going and there shouldn’t be any issue “running dry” for quite some time!

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