by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the frantic ferment of the famed Boom of the 1880s, speculators and developers were fervent in their efforts to make hay while the sun shone, whether this was with businesses, real estate projects, and a variety of other enterprises. Key in greater Los Angeles during that period in the last half the decade was the further push for local railroads.
Among them was the San Gabriel Valley Rapid Transit Railway (SGVRTR), a narrow-gauge electric line that was somewhat akin to what the Gold Line system is today as it moves through the northern part of the valley. It wasn’t a standard-gauge line for heavy locomotives and rail cars, but would be similar to the elevated rapid transit systems of New York and Chicago.
The railway, though, wasn’t just about providing convenient and quick transportation; it was also about maximizing land values for promoters of new towns. So, it was hardly a surprise, for example, that the first president and then general manager of the railway was William N. Monroe, the founder of Monrovia; that its secretary, Hiram A. Unruh was the nephew and business manager of Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who established the town of Arcadia on his Rancho Santa Anita; and that its treasurer was Francis Q. Story, a major figure in Alhambra. Of course, the SGVRTR passed through all three towns, terminating in Monrovia.
Today’s featured object from the museum’s collection is a stock certificate from the SGVRTR, dated 23 May 1888 and made out to Miss E.H. Draper for ten shares or $1,000. The signatures of Monroe and Unruh are at the bottom of the document, while there is a note at the left side indicating “Paid up in full” and signed by “F.Q. Story, Treas.”
The railway was incorporated in late July 1887 as the boom was in its full flowering. Earlier that month, the Los Angeles Herald reported on the second meeting about the formation of the company noting that among the attendees were Monroe, Unruh, James de Barth Shorb (who inherited his father-in-law Benjamin D. Wilson’s development of Alhambra), and Los Angeles Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa and whose two-year term in 1887 and 1888 were during the peak years of the boom.
Among those were who were committing to stock subscriptions before incorporation and the actual issue of the securities were promoters of Monrovia, Alhambra, East San Gabriel and Arcadia, as well as businesses like Los Angeles merchants Hellman, Haas and Company.
There was talk about whether to run the line through Boyle Heights and Workman, who was the main founder and developer of that neighborhood of Los Angeles, “said he would take the matter under consideration.” Discussion also concerned getting the line to terminate in the center of downtown Los Angeles, not on the outskirts, though it might involve an elevated line.
Shorb reported that surveying was already completed in Arcadia and Monrovia, while a representative from a new line called the Alhambra and Ramona Street Car Company would be happy to merge with the SGVRTR. A vote was held to elect seven directors and to establish capital stock of $250,000 through 2500 shares of $100 each, the amounts printed on the certificate.
The San Gabriel Valley Rapid Transit Railway was also officially adopted and the directors chosen including Monroe, Shorb, Unruh, Story, J.R. Dobbins, J.J. Gosper, and Henry H. Markham, who went to serve as California’s governor from 1891 to 1895. As noted above, Monroe became president, with Unruh as secretary and Story as treasurer.
In mid-October, a contract was signed with two of Monroe’s brothers, Felix and Campbell, to build the line, except for bridges, which were bid out separately. The agreement required work to be completed by the end of 1887, though, as all too often, proved to be wildly optimistic. Grading started in Monrovia and moved through Arcadia and was heading towards San Gabriel. Within a few weeks, Unruh made the first call for subscribers to pay for their stock.
As noted above, the line was intended to spark interest and raise property values in the towns along the route and there were promotional articles for Monrovia and Arcadia in the final months of 1887 with the obligatory descriptions of unparalleled attributes of both. Not long afterward, the townsite of Ramona was established in the area of what is now the west end of Alhambra bordering El Sereno and Cal State Los Angeles and it, too, promoted its place along the line by telling potential residents that “the cheap home question has been solved at last by the San Gabriel Rapid Transit Railway and the cheap offering of lots and acre property at Ramona.”
A core challenge to rail projects is the securing of rights-of way and easements and this was certainly the case with the SGVRTR, especially when it came to trying to get the Los Angeles terminus established, but also with a proposed spur line to Pasadena from Alhambra.
In the former case, it took a while for the Los Angeles City Council to pass an ordinance allowing for an elevated line from Mission Road, crossing Aliso and Macy streets about where César Chávez Avenue crosses the Los Angeles River and to Alameda Street—this is basically where Union Station was built a half-century later. In fact, the depot would up being built on Arcadia Street at Alameda just north of the route of U.S. 101.
For the latter, it meant fighting property owners who resisted Pasadena city officials’ willingness to grant a right-of-way to the downtown area so that lawsuits were instituted to try and block the effort. Though some preliminary work was done on the branch line, it was never completed.
With all of the delays, construction took months longer than originally planned, but at the end of August 1888, a private excursion was offered by the company to “representative citizens.” The line was not completed from Mission Road to the depot, so, while riders gathered at the latter, they were driven in omnibuses to where the trains stood ready.
Among the prominent political passengers were Mayor Workman, his wife Maria (pronounced Mah-rye-ah) Boyle and their son Boyle (who was his father’s secretary); all of the members of the City Council; James Kays, the county sheriff; the president of the Board of Supervisors and future mayor Thomas E. Rowan; City Treasurer Oscar Macy; and many other city and county officials. Bankers, railroad men, the president of the Los Angeles Gas Company, and journalists from the Times, Express, and Herald were among others riding along. When the cars stopped at Alhambra, a party of Pasadena notables climbed on board, while Monroe and another Monrovia town leader were the welcoming and entertainment committee.
The account of the Express noted that “the track is in remarkably good order for a new line” and stated that “the cars are exactly like those on the elevated roads of New York city, and are exceedingly comfortable and clean.” The paper also observed that “from Alhambra to Arcadia (Baldwin’s) the road runs through some of the finest orange groves and vineyards in Southern California” and terminated at the edge of Monrovia.
Once the cars stopped there, the passengers were driven to Monroe’s home, where “on the green lawn beneath the spreading oaks which surround the house, were assembled a large number of the charming ladies of the place.” There, the Express continued, “each of the bashful excursionists was presented with a buttonhole bouquet” and, after the visit to Monroe’s gardens and groves, the party went to the estate of his associate, General William A. Pile.
Pile was a Union Army general from Missouri (others of note who settled in postwar greater Los Angeles were William Rosecrans and George Stoneman) who served in the House of Representatives for one term before being appointed the governor of the New Mexico territory for two years and then serving as the ambassador to Venezuela for three years. He moved to Monrovia in 1886 and had a 50-acre estate he named Idlewild (the same is built on to the front of his Queen Anne home). He was mayor for a year, but died of pneumonia in 1889, less than a year after the SGVRTR was completed.
After the excursion left Pile’s Idlewild, they passed the home of Edward F. Spence, a prominent Los Angeles banker, and had lunch at the Grand View Hotel, where Spence was the master of ceremonies and Pile and Monroe sat at the respective heads of the table. Among the attending ladies were members of Monroe’s family as well as the wife of Nathaniel C. Carter, the founder of neighboring Sierra Madre.
Pile was asked to give a speech and he made an interesting remark about “the present age as one of great improvement” and opined that “the cry that the rich were growing richer and the poor poorer, was only partially true.” Instead, he offered the view that, while the wealthy were increasing their estates, “the condition and opportunities of the poor were, especially in America, constantly improving.”
Mayor Workman then rose and briefly addressed the assemblage, congratulating the citizens of Monrovia for the rapid advance and growth of their town “and upon the direct connection of their city with Los Angeles by rail” while he also paid homage to Monroe for his foresight and vision in pursuing the SGVRTR project.
Spence asked Henry Zenas Osborne, the editor of the Express to speak and he referred to the building of a railroad from Pasadena to Los Angeles three years before and how dramatically the environment transformed since then. He also made the modest claim that the press had a role in the remarkable growth in the region during the boom. Naturally, much of Osborne’s speech was reproduced in his paper’s account, including the observation that, while many were enriched by the boom, journalists were not, despite their untiring promotional efforts as boosters. The Homestead has some of Osborne’s papers in its collection, mainly regarding his later political career, including as a member of Congress.
The ride back to Los Angeles was completed in under an hour, including a ten minute stop at the Arcadia Hotel, where the group was met by Unruh and given a brief welcome. The article ended by noting the roster of officers and directors, with Spence as president, while Monroe moved to general manager. John Bryson, who succeeded Workman as mayor of Los Angeles, was vice-president, while Unruh and Story maintained their offices. Shorb and J.M. Studebaker rounded out the directorate.
Public excursion trains began Sunday service in early September, leaving Los Angeles at 8:40 a.m. and returning at 5:40 p.m. with the fare to Alhambra and back being 25 cents, while 50 cents was the round–trip price to and from Monrovia. By the end of the year, there were four daily trains to and from the Angel City and two such excursions on Sundays.
Signal stops included Soto Street between Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles (later Lincoln Heights), Batz (the former Rancho Rosa de Castilla where Cal State Los Angeles and the surrounding area is today), Ramona, San Marino (the Shorb estate had that moniker after the land was left to his wife by her father, Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to Los Angeles with William Workman and John Rowland in 1841), East San Gabriel, Chapman (the ranch of Los Angeles lawyer Alfred B. Chapman, also a founder of Orange with his law partner Andrew Glassell), Sunny Slope (the Leonard J. Rose estate), Baldwin (his estate on Rancho Santa Anita. and Arcadia.
The company’s articles of incorporation were amended in spring 1889 with the stock amount remaining the same, and all subscribed at the time, and a slight change in that the number of directors grew to nine, including a Los Angeles capitalist with the fabulous name of George H. Bonebrake (perhaps an ancestor of drummer D.J. Bonebrake of legendary local band X), F.C. Howes, and William G. Kerckhoff, a lumberman, utility company owner and real estate developer, including in Beverly Hills.
A wet winter in 1889-90 caused washouts of the track that were so severe that the line could not function from Shorb into Los Angeles, but an expensive reconstruction was undertaken, while plans continued to build that branch line into Pasadena and to extend the eastern terminus to the new town of Duarte. But, there were much bigger problems.
The main issue was that the great boom inevitably went bust. The expense of rebuilding the flood-damaged portions of the line came at a particularly bad time and efforts to call in stock starting in the spring of 1891 was a major indications that the situation was becoming financially dire.
On 6 May, the Los Angeles Herald reported that work on refashioning the road to a standard gauge was held up, even as the material was ordered, “until after is ascertained how the last assessment will pan out.” The delinquency date was a little under three weeks away and the paper noted “it is hoped a good portion of it will be paid, amounting to somewheres [sic] about one hundred thousand dollars, in which event work will be at once commenced.” The article concluded that “the business of the road is increasing all the time” and if the widening of the gauge could be finished “the line will become excellent property,”
Just three days later, though, a pair of Los Angeles brokers advertised the sale of a first mortgage bond stating they were “fooled . . . by the failure of the San Gabriel Valley Rapid Transit railway company now in the hands of a receiver.” That summer a number of stockholders were delinquent on their stock assessments, including officers and directors like Bryson, Bonebrake, Howes, Kerckhoff, Spence, Shorb, Story and Unruh and prominent capitalists such as Baldwin, Hellman, Haas and Company, merchant Hans Jevne and Abram E. Pomeroy (a founder of the townsite of Puente in the 1880s). Nonpayment was a strategy as the firm entered receivership.
Yet, by early October, receivership ended and it was Kerckhoff who served in that capacity. The Express reported that the business went into his hands in late February “owing to an accumulation of indebtedness and an inability to pay them.” He was able to sell seven of ten receiver’s certificates at $500 each to raise funds to pay employees, but over the following eight months Kerckhoff collected passenger fares, freight fees, and other funds totaling just over $14,000 and sold an engine from the rolling stock for $2,000 more. This was able to cover most expenses, totaling about $17,000, so that the debt was about $10,000. A judge, therefore, felt comfortable enough with Kerckhoff’s efforts that he terminated the receivership.
By the following spring, a deal was made to have the SGVRTR operate within the Los Angeles Terminal Railway, which formed in 1888 as a local line in Pasadena. Soon, it joined with other lines that connected it with Los Angeles and then to San Pedro (hence the word “Terminal” for the terminus at the island of that name at the harbor.) There were plans by the Los Angeles Terminal Railway, which included William H. Workman as a director, to continue the line to Salt Lake City.
Montana mining magnate and later U.S. Senator from that state, William Andrews Clark, acquired the line in 1900, reorganized it as the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railroad, and found another route through the southern part of the San Gabriel Valley, including just south of the Homestead (with the Southern Pacific line opened in the 1870s to the north) to get to Utah. The company was renamed the Los Angeles and Salt Lake and, in 1921, was acquired by the Union Pacific, which now owns both lines running on either side of the Homestead now.
The SGVRTR operated within the Terminal Railway system for a brief time, starting in June 1892, but rumors were rampant by fall that the Southern Pacific, led by Collis P. Huntington and assisted by his then-unknown nephew, Henry, purchased the Los Angeles Terminal Railway.
Despite denials by the two Huntingtons, that transfer did take place in mid-October 1893, at which time it was revealed that “the Southern Pacific has been operating the road under a verbal contract for some time.” About a year later, a sheriff’s sale was recorded showing that the right to the franchise of the SGVRTR was sold to the SP for just north of $25,000. The railroad soon vanished from the scene as it was likely profitable to shut it down and sell the assets.
Notably, after Collis Huntington’s death in 1900, Edward H. Harriman, who assumed control of the Union Pacific a couple of years prior, engineered a takeover of the Southern Pacific. Henry Huntington was cut loose, but took his company stock and the Los Angeles Railway streetcar line he’d picked up for the SP, and moved to Los Angeles. He built the impressive system that became known as the Pacific Electric Railway, became a powerful real estate developer, and purchased Shorb’s estate and refashioned it into what became the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Garden.
The San Gabriel Valley Rapid Transit Railway was an important, though short-lived, part of the region’s transportation development during the Boom of the 1880s and the stock certificate is a tangible artifact representative of the line and the railroad industry in greater Los Angeles and the San Gabriel Valley at the end of the 19th century.