by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today’s print edition (and yesterday’s digital version) of the Los Angeles Times included an article on the ongoing investigation into the fire that destroyed a large portion of the old stone church, built early in the 19th century, at Mission San Gabriel not quite two weeks ago.
According to the report, it was four days before the investigation could begin in earnest because of concerns over further structural damage and, while some media outlets stated that there was an arrest of a potential suspect in Alhambra. The City of San Gabriel, however, corrected these assertions by noting that the arrest was for an unrelated arson. A statement from the city noted that the investigation is ongoing and a definite cause sought.
Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is a “Souvenir of the San Gabriel Mission taken on the Tilton’s Trolley Trip, Los Angeles California,” a photograph pasted down in a brown paper folder showing about sixty well-dressed tourists posed in front of the belfry, adobe rectory and a small portion of the west end of the church. At the bottom left of the image is in the inscription “1st Car, July 23 09, 04,” though it is not known what the last two numbers represent.
As to the assemblage, it appears all of the men wear suits and ties, with a couple of the young fellows sporting snap-brim cap, while the others have more formal head gear, ranging from straw hats to derbys and, in a couple of cases, what look like stetsons. The clothing of the women varies, as to be expected, with some wearing jackets and others foregoing these in favor of long-sleeved blouses (some with high collars) and long skirts and others wearing dresses. The diversity of hats is also notable, with quite a few sporting elaborate floral arrangements or feathers, while others are simpler and less showy. There appear to only be two children, standing on the front of a streetcar and include a toddler in a white dress (both sexes often wore these gowns as very little ones) and a boy of perhaps six or seven wearing what may be another common place garment, the sailor’s suit.
At the left is the front end of the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar, the sign of which reads “Tilton Trolley Tours / From the Sea to the Orange Groves.” The conductor stood in the back row at the right end and may well be the proprietor of the tour company, George F. Tilton. Behind the group are two large sago palm trees, the much bigger one being at the center, while another palm emerges from behind the trolley. It is also worth noting that the belfry only has four of the six bells, with two others later returned by Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, owner of the nearby Rancho Santa Anita. It was oft stated that Baldwin claimed that the bells fell into one of his horse-drawn conveyances during an earthquake!
Speaking of conveyances, the meteoric rise of tourism in greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries went hand-in-hand in tandem with major improvements in transportation. Obvious among these was the development of rail lines to the region, especially the direct transcontinental route opened to Los Angeles by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe in late 1885 and which resulted in the famed Boom of the Eighties.
Contemporaneously, the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s novel, Ramona, fueled an interest, albeit heavily romanticized, in pre-American California, including the California missions. While Jackson’s novel was meant to bring attention to the plight of the indigenous people of the region and, instead, most readers fixated on the romance of the titular character and her lover Alessando, interest in the missions glossed over the treatment of the natives and, rather, glorified the work of the Roman Catholic missionaries.
Mission San Gabriel, being in a better preserved state than most and in close proximity to Los Angeles in the San Gabriel Valley near such tourist havens as Pasadena and Sierra Madre, drew the lion’s share of attention compared to its regional siblings, San Fernando and San Juan Capistrano. The building of the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar system from Los Angeles greatly enhanced the exposure of the historic site to droves of tourists flocking to the region in larger and larger numbers.
George F. Tilton, born in 1870, was a native of and grew up in Salem, Massachusetts, the town famed for its 17th century witch trials. In the mid-nineties, he married and had three children with Mabel Hutchins and Tilton worked for a local railroad. Why he and his family relocated to Los Angeles in the early years of the 20th century is not known, but it may be that his experience in the railroad business got him some contacts with the Pacific Electric as he developed his Tilton Trolley Tours concept.
In early 1908, the project was launched to some local media fanfare and one of its mottos was “100 miles for 100 cents,” as the excursions cost a dollar. The Los Angeles Express of 25 January noted that “‘Tilton’s Trolley Trip’ To Be Inaugurated” as “a preliminary trip was made by officials of the Pacific Electric and guests of the route of ‘Tilton’s Trolley Trip,’ over which daily excursions will be inaugurated Monday [the 27th.]”
The paper added that “”the tour is somewhat over 100 miles in length, including twenty-eight miles along the beaches and thirty miles through orange groves” and it was an all-day experience, lasting from 9:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Among the stops were Cawston’s Ostrich Farm on the border of South Pasadena and Los Angeles; Alhambra; the mission; Pasadena; Huntington Beach [named for the owner of the PE, Henry E. Huntington]; and Long Beach.
The Los Angeles Herald added that the party stopped at the Inlet Inn at Los Alamitos near modern Seal Beach and Long Beach for dinner. In addition to officials from the PERY, there were guests from the Peck and Judah Information Bureau, which supplied much information for the tourist trade, a representative from Sunset, formed a decade before by the passenger department of the Southern Pacific railroad company, members of the prominent Jonathan and Union social clubs, and others.
By May, Tilton produced “a handsome souvenir containing pictures in colors of a number of the places of interest to which tourists are taken on Tilton’s trolley trips.” Images included Long Beach and the Naples community later incorporated within that city, Pasadena, Cawston’s, and the “San Gabriel Mission and its enormous grapevine,” the latter said to be the source for grapes planted at the Homestead by both the Workman and Temple families for their respective houses.
After a year, Tilton decided to add another excursion, “Tilton’s Tally-Ho Trip,” which debuted on 18 January 1909 and was made both by trolley and the “tally-ho” horse-driven conveyance. The experience included two hours on Baldwin’s Santa Anita ranch, a visit to an orange packing house, and a seven-mile jaunt “along the foothills and through the largest orange and lemon groves in Southern California.”
Yet, by 1910, his association with the Pacific Electric was ended, with the company taking responsibility for the trips, and Tilton took a position as the manager of the Foothill Inn, a hotel in Azusa, and which likely was one of the stops for his tours, perhaps the Tally-Ho trip. That, too, did not last long and, by the following year, he and his family moved back to Los Angeles. Tilton, his wife, Los Angeles political boss Kent Parrott and a fourth figure formed a company in late 1912, though nothing could be located about it and its purpose.
In late September 1913, however, it was widely reported in the media locally and elsewhere of the shocking suicide of George Tilton. The Express reported on the 24th that, the previous evening, he left his home near Westlake [now MacArthur] Park and went to the South Los Angeles home of an aunt. Not long after he arrived, he was found dead in a room with a bottle of poison at his side. The cause was said to be “worry because of financial difficulties.”
Additional coverage by the Times included the statement that he drunk cyanide and that “he was dead before he could drain the vial.” The paper added that “for several months, since he severed connections with the railroad and sought new work, he had been despondent over his financial condition.”
Evidently, the account continued, “he feared that he would never be able to earn a competence again and prepared for his death.” Unlike the Express account, however, it was reported that, once at his aunt’s residence, “he loitered about the house for several hours, walked quietly into a side room and drank the poison.”
Although Tilton’s Trolley Trips did not operate for very long, it is representative of how tourism and transportation joined forces as greater Los Angeles became an increasingly popular destination for out-of-town visitors. The Mission San Gabriel, romanticized as it was (this would only increase with the launching of the Mission Play in 1912 and which was seen by large crowds for nearly two decades), was a featured destination for the trip and for visitation by tourists in general. This photograph is an interesting tangible artifact connected to these two elements.