by Paul R. Spitzzeri
For information about the height of greater Los Angeles’ first period of significant and sustained growth, which lasted from the late 1860s through the mid 1870s, one of the best sources comes from newspapers, including the three major English-language dailies, the Star, the Herald and the Express.
The Homestead is fortunate to have a couple hundred issues of all three papers from the last few years, from 1872 to 1875, of that period and perusing them provides a panoply of material about the city and region, much of which is hard to find otherwise. Today’s featured artifact from the museum’s holdings is the 8 August 1874 edition of the Express, which offers some notable items that help us to learn more about what was taking place during the little boomlet, which included William Workman and F.P.F. Temple as among its most active investors and developers.
On the front page is a letter from a correspondent, who simply identified as “San Fernando,” and wrote extensively about, naturally, the new town of San Fernando and nearby areas. The community was established by Charles Maclay, a former state senator and wealthy businessman from San Jose, who saw an opportunity to build the town along the line of the Southern Pacific railroad, then being built north from Los Angeles to connect to the company’s main line heading south from the Bay Area on its way to the Colorado River at Yuma.
Maclay, who was a relation of the Widney brothers, Robert and Joseph, purchased the northern half of the massive 117,000-acre Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando (the other half was acquired by Isaac Lankershim several years earlier and, subsequently, he brought in his son-in-law, Isaac Van Nuys as part-owner) and sold parts of it to his partners and cousins, Benjamin F. Porter and George K. Porter—with the dividing line between the two tracts being modern Sepulveda Boulevard.
The correspondent, after gently chiding the paper for stating that past news of the fledgling town came from San Francisco rather than from “San Fernando,” began by apprising readers of happenings in the oil regions in the mountains north of the community in what is now Santa Clarita and west of today’s Interstate 5. The first oil well in California was drilled almost a decade before in Pico Canyon by the Pioneer Oil Company, this being only a half-dozen years after the American oil industry got its start in western Pennsylvania.
He noted “I have just had a conversation with Mr. Spangler, the Superintendent of the Temple claim,” this being the project of F.P.F.Temple’s Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company, which was working its pair of wells at Towsley Canyon from late spring 1873 and using a steam engine for drilling operations.
“San Fernando” gave a brief background of William Spangler’s at the aptly-named Oil City, Pennsylvania and at many other locations in that state and then recorded that Spangler “will risk his reputation as an expert in petroleum that the oil regions in San Fernando are far superior to those of Pennsylvania, and will exceed those of Pennsylvania, Kentucky and West Virginia.”
It was added that Spangler had bored down nearly 100 feet “and the indications are very good . . . and have a large volume of strong gas and oil that would justify any company in sand rock to guarantee a flow of one thousand barrels per day.” Moreover, the report continued, “he hopes to strike this sand rock at any moment, and when he does, the value of this territory will be indisputable.” Spangler provided a list of references to bolster his claim of expertise.
It turned out that, as work continued, some small amounts of oil were extracted. Temple and his Los Angeles Petroleum Refining Company colleagues completed a small brick refinery, the first in California, in April 1874 nearby at Lyon’s Station in Newhall and exported some of the refined crude to Los Angeles to be used for oil lamps and other purposes. While he was making some headway, including with another firm called the Lesina Oil Company, the boom suddenly went bust when the state economy collapsed in late August 1875 and his Temple and Workman bank failed in mid-January 1876.
After brief reference to another oil project in Castaic, further north, “San Fernando” wrote of the fact that “we expect to build up a lively little village, if not a town, or perhaps in the future a city” and added “we intend that every acre of our beautiful valley shall be utilized,” except that there was one major and obvious concern to many: water.
“San Fernando,” however, cited former governor and Los Angeles capitalist John G. Downey in advocating that the problem was not so much as a lack of water as a dearth of understanding the proper cultivation of the soil. That is, keeping an orchard free of weeds and invasive plants conserved water for the crop being raised and he cited a Santa Clara County olive orchard that didn’t require artificial irrigation and did well.
The correspondent continued that it was easier to irrigate than to hoe weeds, but advised “cultivate less ground, grow your fruit to the greatest perfection” and, if there was a problem in finding a market for ripe fruit, “I refer to the Alden Dryer, of which an old friend of mine is the agent, George B. Davis.” Davis had just come to Los Angeles to promote the device and Temple was one of those who invested in the process, though it did not produce the expected results.
Still, “San Fernando” concluded his essay with an unqualified promotion of the dryer, claiming that farmers, by banding together to buy the expensive device, would make so much money that they could “buy little elegances, make your homes pleasant, introduce music in the family circles, little games for the children, and you will also have a spare dollar to give to the wife and family, a nice little pleasure excursion occasionally, and also a little left to buy a few books.”
Speaking of olives, an editorial advised readers to “Plant Olive Trees,” noting that a refinery for processing these was to be implemented at San Fernando—elsewhere an ad by Rodolfo Carreras called for olives to be sent to him for the refinery and he convinced Temple and others his process could be used for petroleum when the Lyon’s Station refinery shut down, though that, too, proved to be a chimera.
Still, the paper advocated that “there is no experimental risk in planting olive trees in Southern California” as they were successfully raised at missions in the region, the climate of which was more than suitable and irrigation not needed. Moreover, the trees could provide shade for houses and roads, “but its most inviting advantage is in the fact that the fruit will pay for the cultivation of the tree.” At the end of the century, in fact, the raising of olives in the San Fernando area yielded the highly successful Sylmar brand of olives.
Elsewhere, there is an interesting reprint of an article from the Wilmington Enterprise,the fourth English-language paper in the area (there were also La Cronica in Spanish and a German-language paper) about the potential for the growth of Phineas Banning’s port community, named for his Delaware hometown. Much of the hope lay in the fact that:
The county is being settled up in every direction. Los Angeles is rapidly displacing the little adobe houses with spacious buildings that would grace the finest thoroughfares of a great city.
In addition to the half-dozen newspapers, there were four railroads in operation or being built (the Los Angeles and San Pedro, the first, completed in 1869, was absorbed by the Southern Pacific in an 1872 subsidy arrangement passed by county voters and the SP worked on lines south toward Anaheim, east into the San Gabriel Valley and through the Rancho La Puente, and north, as noted above). Moreover, “the educational facilities are excellent, and business in all its branches, presents a wonderful activity.”
Among suburban communities were a few older ones and a host of new examples and cited were Anaheim, El Monte, Los Nietos, San Fernando, San Gabriel, Santa Ana, Tustin and Richland, which became Orange. The large ranches from the Spanish and Mexican eras were being rapidly subdivided into small farm plots, which would aid further immigration and settlement.
This account prognosticated that “if we are correct in our anticipations, in a few years the population of this valley [Los Angeles] will have increased many fold, and the productions will be enormous.” Further railroad development, including one perhaps to San Bernardino and all the way to Inyo County—this was attempted with the formation, later in 1874, of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, which counted Temple as its first president and then treasurer, though the line only built to Santa Monica before the boom went bust—also heralded well.
There was, however, no substitute for shipping by sea, and when it came to the best spot for a harbor, man-made to be sure, there was, naturally, no better site than Wilmington. After the $60,000 dredging of a massive sand bar from the first federal dollars to flow to the harbor area and which involved the completion of a breakwater during that era and the recent establishment of the Southern California Co-operative Warehouse and Shipping Association (Temple was a director), there “is certainly ground for faith in the ultimate success of the undertaking.”
In the “Local Items” section, there are a few items of interest, including temperance lectures at the Methodist church, St. Athanasius’, located at the southwest corner of Temple and New High streets; reference to a performance by comic singer Charles Vivian, who happened to be a founder of the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, which became a major fraternal society; reporting of increased gold mining activity in San Gabriel Canyon; and another hint of the significant growth in the area:
If 800 vote[r]s have been added to the Great Register since our last election [September 1873], that would represent, under the rule adopted by statist[ician]s, an increase of population since last Fall of 4,000 souls.
While this modest in comparison with later boom periods, starting with the late 1880s and onward, this was a significant demonstration of growth for greater Los Angeles.
The last major item of note is headed “Los Cerritos” and concerns the home quarters of that 27,000-acre ranch, acquired by Jonathan Temple in 1843 from relatives of his wife, Rafaela Cota, and then sold by him for just fifty cents in acre in 1866 to Flint, Bixby and Company. The Bixby family became the sole owners and were highly successful in the operation of Los Cerritos, which encompasses much of Long Beach and nearby areas, for many decades.
The article was penned by the editor of the Santa Barbara Press during a tour of greater Los Angeles and his visit with Jotham Bixby and family includes some fascinating detail. On arrival, he wrote, “the carriage enters a gate, and we are in a large courtyard, enclosed by two very long wings of the house” of 150 feet length. The mansion, built by Temple in 1844 and improved by the Bixbys, “is one hundred feet long, and two stories high, with walls three feet thick; built of adobes.”
The account continued that “on the south side of the house is a double corridor, completely sheltering the building from heat in summer and storms in winter.” It noted that, to the south, though apparently east was meant, “is an enclosure of about two acres, filled with a great variety of flourishing trees and flowering shrubs; where also is an artesian well, with a large tank attached, to supply water for the house and garden.” The Homestead’s collection has a period stereoscopic photograph of this garden and tank.
As for home’s interior, this was left out as a matter of course, but it was noted that it possessed “modesty, worth, wit and beauty” which “lend a charm that wings the heart and lingers in the memory after a visit to this restful retreat.” Moreover, “the hospitality is in keeping with the appointments of the mansion and genial natures of the occupants.
With regard to the ranch, a thousand acres was sold, but Bixby acquired 12,000 acres “in the hill lands west of Wilmington,” this being on the Rancho Palos Verdes and peninsula of that name. On this domain of nearly 40,000 acres, Bixby had 25,000 sheep and large numbers of cattle and horses.
The piece concluded by observing that there were ten artesian wells throughout the ranch so that “by and by, when the people arrive who want farms for homes” and would pay $20 an acre (40 times what Temple sold the ranch for, but, of course, much lower than later values), “the ranch will be cut up and sold out in tracts to suit purchasers.”
The contents of this issue of the Express covered here give a good indication of elements of the boom that was nearing its peak, but would soon go bust. Always of interest in publications like these are advertisements and some of these, including the starting of the fall semester of Catholic schools, the continuing sale of the East Los Angeles subdivision, and the promotion of local businesses, are shown here.
The “Read All About It” will periodically (!) continue to highlight examples of mid 1870s Los Angeles newspapers from the Homestead’s collection, so look for future installments.