by Paul R. Spitzzeri
In the Homestead’s fairly substantial collection of portrait photographs from greater Los Angeles dating from about 1870 to 1930, there are a very few that show the subject’s vocation, but tonight’s highlighted artifacts from the museum’s holdings include one such view.
It is a striking studio image of Harry Fritsch Stafford (1864-1906), posed with his surveyor’s instrument and tripod, while in his left hand he holds what appears to be a notebook for recording his readings. There are two other portraits that came with this image, one of Stafford and another of his future wife, Charlotte Grouard, both dated 1886, three years before the couple were married.
These images are of a young man embarking on his new career and, over the next two decades, he built up quite a resume and reputation in surveying and engineering. He was born at Petaluma in Sonoma County to Mary Nall Pearl and Nelson O. Stafford and was the third of four children, with two older brothers and a younger sister. When Harry was about five years old, his mother died in childbirth and his father remarried soon after.to Jennie Harmon.
Nelson Stafford, a native of Vermont, reportedly migrated from Missouri to California in 1849 as the Gold Rush burst forth and lived in Hangtown (named for the reason you’re probably thinking), later called Placerville, and mined for gold for three years. He then returned to Missouri and wedded Mary Pearl. He was a carriage manufacturer in Petaluma and had a few partners including John Fritsch, honored with Harry’s middle name, and Columbus Tustin.
In 1868, as greater Los Angeles was entering its first period of significant and sustained growth, lasting through the middle of the following decade, Stafford and Tustin ventured to the area and acquired for $5,000 1,359 acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, owned for years by the Yorba and Peralta families and then acquired by Jose Andrés Sepulveda in the mid-1850s.
After the terrible flood and drought that wracked the region in the first half of the Sixties, Sepulveda lost the ranch. The same year that Stafford and Tustin came south, William Spurgeon and another man bought some of the ranch and established the town of Santa Ana, laid out in 1869.
Meanwhile, Stafford and Tustin quickly partitioned their new holdings, with the latter taking a majority, some 840 acres, and creating Tustin City (later just plain Tustin) in 1870. Stafford’s property was later absorbed into a growing Santa Ana and there is a Stafford Street that is bisected by Interstate 5 and Grand Avenue, but he returned to Petaluma for a few years, coming back to settle permanently on his property in 1873.
Harry was about nine years old and received local schooling, but then attended a college in Napa, near his birthplace, and then the University of California, where he studied “scientific civil engineering.” In 1886, when two of the photo here was taken, he returned to Santa Ana and worked as a topographical engineer and surveyor, hence the photo with his equipment and handbook.
At just 24, he was elected Los Angeles County Surveyor and held this position even as the new county of Orange, including Santa Ana, was created from the southeastern portion of Los Angeles County. He was also said to be a dyed-in-the-wool Republican as that party, once almost completely powerless in regional politics became, by the Boom of the 1880s that burst forth about the time he took office, dominant.
For a short time, he had a private practice with an office in the Temple Block in Los Angeles and resided in East Los Angeles, which later was renamed Lincoln Heights. One of his homes there was situated on Workman Street. There was also a brief period in the mid-1890s when he returned to live in Santa Ana with Charlotte.
Returning to Los Angeles at the end of 19th century, he was employed as a deputy in the city engineer’s office and, in 1900, secured election as the head of that department, being part of another dominant Republican ticket. In fact, one of the few Democrats to win elected office in the Angel City at the time was William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, who served three terms of city treasurer from 1901-1907.
Stafford also was poised to serve three full terms as city engineer at the same time and was highly respected for his devotion to his work and his innovative approaches to designing road, bridge, and tunnel projects, among many. Bridges across the Los Angeles River and tunnels through the hills west of downtown were among his accomplishments along with some of the early planning for the Los Angeles Aqueduct, but none could match the scale and scope of his most significant work, the development of a much improved and enlarged outfall sewer system.
This was hardly a project that garnered much public attention, but few public works were as important, especially as the city grew dramatically in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The first public sewers were crude ones developed in 1873 during that first boom in the city.
When the great Boom of the Eighties ensued, city surveyor Frederick Eaton developed a comprehensive plan for a citywide sewer system. Eaton went on to become one of the city’s principal figures, being a city engineer; superintendent of the private Los Angeles Water Company; chief engineer of the Los Angeles Railway streetcar line; mayor of Los Angeles from 1898 to 1900; and, finally, the recognized “Father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct” for his instrumental work with city water engineer William Mulholland.
Eaton’s plan was to direct all sewage with 160 miles of pipe to an outfall at Hyperion on the coast near today’s Los Angeles International Airport, and the system was designed for a capacity of 200,000 persons. Impressive as it was, the massive growth of the region, even during some economic downturns and drought years during the Nineties, meant that the system needed significant enhancements and improvements when Stafford took office in 1901.
Even as he worked on so many other projects, some noted above, Stafford devoted himself with tireless energy to the outfall sewer upgrades, while collecting just $3,000 as his salary. He was making strides in the planning and execution of the project, when some irregularities came to light in summer 1906.
That July, for example, it was discovered that several brick companies, supply material for Stafford’s office, were paid twice for the same billings. Because there were other scandals with city administration at the time, a great deal of media scrutiny followed this revelation, which put Stafford under an uncomfortable spotlight. While he immediately set about to recover the funds, the Board of Public Works, while praising him highly, ordered him to implement policies and procedures to prevent such an occurrence from happening again and embarrassing the board and the city.
The money involved was slight, a matter of a few thousand dollars, but, it was a shock to many when in early August, Stafford was found unconscious in his bathroom, overcome with asphyxiation from a gas heater. He was dragged out to the lawn of his residence and then taken to a close friend’s home nearby, while his wife and daughters, who were vacationing on Santa Catalina Island, were summoned home.
Stafford lived about a day and then succumbed. He was just 41 years old. Rumor was afoot that the incident involving the double payments to the brick firms led the city engineer, accustomed to a sterling reputation, to have committed suicide by turning on the gas and keeping the window and doors to the bathroom tightly closed as he breathed in the poisonous fumes.
An investigation, which required published statements in the press by two physicians, determined, however, that the incident was a terrible accident. The heating system, which had recently caused problems and was determined to be fixed, blew up and the force knocked Stafford unconscious as he fell to the bathroom floor with abrasions, cuts and bruises to his head.
The tragedy was lamented by city officials from his department colleagues to the Board of Public Works and up to the City Council and Mayor. His funeral was covered extensively in the press and Stafford’s good name was repeatedly emphasized. Other problems, however, soon surfaced.
One was that, as Stafford lay dying, his nephew was instructed by Charlotte to go to the office and retrieve personal papers kept in a locked desk. Although it was determined that nothing untoward took place, the timing and circumstances struck many initially as suspicious.
Then, though, it was learned that there was another over-payment, this time to the general contractor doing the outfall sewer work and that the amount was in the hundreds of thousands. It was discovered that Stafford calculated that some 80% of the current phase was completed and the contractor paid accordingly, but his assistant, adamant that his estimates were much closer to the truth, determined that the work was less than 60% finished.
Stafford, it was also learned, was planning on resigning before the end of his third term and going into private business. One of the main issues was the salary for the position, which was established by the city’s charter, and the first person offered the job refused it because he had his eye on a state position that would pay double.
It may have been that Stafford was so busy managing a major workload of projects that the over-payment was not due to any intent of wrongdoing, so much as carelessness in tracking the the expenditure of funds and in insisting on verbal agreements and other questionable practices. He certainly wasn’t seeking to line his pockets—when Charlotte presented his estate for administration at the probate court, the declared value of the estate was only $5,000.
The outfall sewer project was finally completed in 1908. Stafford was able to see the replacement of the outfall pipe with a larger and longer extension at Hyperion a couple of years before his death. An even larger one, however, was part of the finished project and had a capacity for directing the sewage of 750,000 people.
By the 1920s, it was recognized that, not only was additional capacity and a second outfall needed, but there had to be treatment of the sewage at Hyperion before the material was allowed in the ocean because of rising pollution, especially as that area began to develop further. Attempts to get bonds approved failed several times before success was achieved in 1922.
A temporary outfall was built to the north near Ballona Creek, a sensitive habitat area, but the new north outfall was built near the Del Rey Hills in what became Westchester and was opened in 1924. From there, the relentless expansion of the region called for more expansion and enhancement of systems of sewage carrying, treatment and release and the average resident of greater Los Angeles remains unaware of just how complicated and complex this vital work entails.
These photos are notable for their connection to regional public surveying and engineering as these fields rapidly developed and matured in the last two decades of the 19th century and the first few of the resulting century and, while Harry F. Stafford is all but forgotten today, his role was significant in these areas.