From Point A to Point B: The Completion of the Los Angeles Cable Railway to Boyle Heights, August 1889

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The late David A. Workman, grandson of Los Angeles mayor and city treasurer, as well as founder of Boyle Heights, William Henry Workman, was a valued supporter and contributor to the Homestead for many years.  The retired Superior Court judge, who died in March just shy of his 90th birthday, gave, as a couple of examples, presentations on family history to our docent training classes and made available photographs and documents from the Workman Family Collection, for which David was long responsible.

Today’s featured historic artifacts are from that collection and were made available by David for Homestead educational programs, including exhibits and presentations, and are a trio of remarkable cabinet card photographs documenting the completion of the Los Angeles Cable Railway to Boyle Heights in early August 1889.

The community was established nearly fifteen years prior, in 1875, during greater Los Angeles’ first boom, which started in the late Sixties and peaked when William H. Workman, John Lazzarovich, and Isaias W. Hellman banded together to create Boyle Heights.  The prior year brought the area’s first rapid transit system, the modest Spring and Sixth Street Railway, founded by a group of investors headed by Robert M. Widney and whose treasurer was F.P.F. Temple.  The line consisted of a single car pulled by a lone horse through a portion of the city, but it was a start.

Headline The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_4__1889_
All images following this one until the photos are from the Los Angeles Times, 4 August 1899.

In succeeding years, cable systems were introduced, much like those in San Francisco, and then electric railroads revolutionized mass transit in the rapidly growing city.  After the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad brought a transcontinental line directly to Los Angeles at the end of 1885, the region underwent a much larger boom that the first, felled by a state-wide economic collapse including the failure of the Temple and Workman Bank.

The Boom of the Eighties, peaking during Workman’s mayoral term of 1887-1888, was a boon to Boyle Heights, which was just getting off the ground when the panic of 1875-1876 ground development to a virtual halt for a time.  There was some modest growth before the new boom, but those few frenetic years yielded enormous returns for the neighborhood along with the rest of the city.

By the time the cable system arrived in Boyle Heights, though, the boom had gone bust, though the community still wildly celebrated the achievement as the photographs and the extensive coverage of the Sunday edition of the Los Angeles Times of 4 August 1889, the day after the event, showed.  That paper, which was launched at the beginning of the decade, was one of the biggest boosters of the city and region and it certainly “went to town” with its celebration of the line’s completion.

Streetcar image and text The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_4__1889_

The article spanned two full pages of seven columns and an additional pair on a third page and didn’t just sport a headline (simply “THE HEIGHTS”) and a subheading or two, but ten of them, including “Elevateth Her Horn of Rejoicing;” “The Cable Line Opened With Great Eclat;” “And All Los Angeles is Happy;” “No Boogle or Accident;” and “But Everything Runs Like Melted Wax.”

Not content with these exclamations, Harrison Gray Otis, the paper’s powerful publisher, enlisted his wife, Eliza, to contribute some lines of verse of praise for the project.  While it might seem that this was mere journalistic nepotism, Eliza Otis was first published as a poet as a teenager in her native New Hampshire.  As her husband pursued a newspaper publishing career in Ohio and Santa Barbara before coming to Los Angeles and joining (then taking over) the Times, Eliza was a contributor to these enterprises and her columns on women and the home and children were widely read.

Workman home winery etc The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_4__1889_

Her versification for the cable railway celebration included these lines:

How the world moves! and on these sunset shores,

Beneath the mighty uplift of Sierra wall,

Where erst the weary horses once did crawl

With cars o’er loaded on their lingering way,

The unloosed giant Steam doth now hold sway

The long, strong cable stretches past our doors—

The mighty sinew of a mighty arm,

Breaking the rest of unprogressive calm.

The piece began by noting that the first leg of the cable line stretched from Grand Avenue and Seventh Street, just beyond Central Park (later Pershing Square) and terminated a mile-and-a-half later at Main and Arcadia streets, where U.S. 101 passes through downtown and just south of the Plaza.  This second portion actually began at First and Spring streets and crossed over the Los Angeles River on a specially constructed viaduct along First Street and ended at the company’s powerhouse, with the segment twice as long as the first.

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Soon to come, it was stated, was a third route to East Los Angeles, now Lincoln Heights, and extensions along Downey Avenue in that neighborhood, as well as on Seventh, Grand and Aliso—the entire system slated to be over 20 miles within city limits  This, it was averred, “will undoubtedly make Los Angeles the best served city of its size in the world, in the matter of street transportation.”

For the celebration, decorations of evergreens, bunting and flags festooned the route from Grand and Seventh to the powerhouse, while the cars were decorated with the latter two items.  The first cars made the run to Spring and First in ten minutes and invited guests were there at 1 p.m. to begin the inaugural ride, “made slowly, but safely,” which lasted a half-hour.

Upon arrival at the powerhouse, the first of the cars “was greeted by the cheers and applause of several thousand citizens of the heights.  A dummy car, containing the steam engine, had a band aboard to provide entertainment as the crowds invited to a barbecue in the powerhouse lined up and filed in.  The building was also decorated with evergreens and flowers and there were seven long rows of tables and a long head table for railway officers, city officials and members of the Boyle Heights Board of Trade, with a capacity of 1,800 persons for the banquet.

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Notably, the feast was not by invitation only or limited to one group, but several thousand people “made a rush for the doors” when they were opened just prior to 2:30.  But, “as fast as one crowd had disposed of their quantum of lunch they made their way out and gave the outsiders a chance to get in.”  The band had a small stage in a corner and performed during the meal.  A variety of meats, sandwiches, salads, fruit and other “viands” were served, “washed down with a copious supply of W.H. Workman’s excellent Blaue Elben white wine.”

Then, after a little more than an hour, it was time for the speechifying and Workman, who ended his second one-year term as mayor the previous December, mounted the platform for his oration, proclaiming that “only a resident of Boyle Heights can give full appreciation to the event of this day for he alone has learned its entire significance from the long months of anticipation when the opening of the cable system was associated with his brightest dreams of the future, as something almost beyond reality.”

Workman continued that “at last those long-cherished hopes are realized and today, with mingled pleasure and pride, we see our suburb bound by bands of steel to the very heart of the beautiful City of Los Angeles.”  He congratulated the company and its “indefatigable workers” for their success and noted that, not long ago, there was but a one-horse car line and he called the cable company “a fairy godmother of the olden time” for its transformation of transportation for Boyle Heights and the city at large.

Homes at top 2nd page The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_4__1889_ (1)

He added that “Los Angeles cannot know a greater benefit than the result of this trust in her, for her cable system is synonymous with progress.”  He also noted the importance of the viaduct, because “to us the river is a thing of the past; for who among us deigns to look down from the viaduct upon the sandy waste that for so many years separated us from the city proper?”  With the span allowing for the railway to pass over the watercourse, “danger is now a thing unknown even to the most cautious.”

Workman ended by offering a Boyle Heights welcome to those from outside the community and stated that

your presence is most fitting on the day of her triumph, and it is not by any means the least of the factors that contribute to make this day one ever to be cherished in the hearts of the people as the grandest in her annals.

As he finished, three cheers for “Uncle Billy,” the widely-known nickname for the popular former mayor, were offered and other speakers.  Judge R.H.F. Variel, a prominent Boyle Heights figure, offered a very lengthy oration, opining that this was the third most-important day in the history of the city behind the opening of the Southern Pacific railroad line from the north in July 1876 and the aforementioned completion of the Santa Fe’s transcontinental route not quite four years prior (as if only transportation-related events could be the most important dates in the city!)

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Variel had a notable way of describing the great boom, calling it “that feverish, visionary, excitable, speculative, almost-maniacal period, that delusive Protean condition of the social and financial body politic, which all men know and understand about, but which no man can well describe . . . it rose like a great tide and spread it broad, heaving waters over all of Southern California . . . [but] it came not with destructive force or energy . . .”  He ended his simile by observing that, while many did not realize their ambitions, a good number did and “”it brought a degree of prosperity and improvement which place her [Los Angeles] in the front rank of growing, progressive cities.”

The judge also noted that the locals who founded the railroad, including Hellman, former mayor Edward F. Spence, Stephen C. Hubbell (also of Boyle Heights and a former council member), and, especially, James F. Crank, were able, through the direct actions of the last-named, to secure investment from capitalists in Chicago to see the cable project through, even during “the darkest and most anxious period of our depression” following the end of the boom.

He asked those present to recall when “a trip to Boyle Heights from Main Street, through the bogs and morasses of First Street, was considerably more than a full Sabbath day’s journey?”  Now was the miracle of the ten-minute jaunt over the latest in streetcar technology, brought by the combination of “California pluck and Chicago enterprise that, to Variel’s mind, would help lift Los Angeles out of its current economic morass and back to great prosperity.

Workman bio The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_4__1889_ (1)

J.C. Robinson, vice-president and superintendent of the LACR, spoke and offered some details about the construction of the line, including the unusual features of the two routes running along the same conduit for a short distance, the number of right-angle curves in navigating through downtown, and the viaduct, which Robinson stated “is probably the longest span and most imposing structure over which is operated a cable road, outside of the world-renowned Brooklyn Bridge.”  Changes in grade made for a more complex system of pulleys for the cabling and the smooth operation of the cars.

The superintendent also made a notable comment about the importance of transportation and housing in a rapidly growing city:

the difficulty of providing cheap and elegant homes for the increasing masses of Southern California is so overwhelming that the advent of this section of our rapid transit cable system is at least as welcome as a factor in helping to solve the problem, as by its agency opportunity is now offered of easily reaching homes the healthy and delightful homes.

Concluding that Boyle Heights was “isolated and unattractive as any ordinary suburb” with “little or no touch or sympathy with the nervous and forceful life of the present day,” Robinson offered that it was now “an integral part of the great city of Los Angeles.”

Businesses 3rd page The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_4__1889_ (2)

There were other remarks made by such figures as Henry T. Hazard, Workman’s successor as mayor; Judge L.N. Breed, another Boyle Heights denizen; Burdette Chandler, an oilman and resident of the community, who spoke on early streetcars; and Spence and Widney who commented on “City Street Car Roads.”  The band played musical selections between these talks.  A letter from Otis of the Times was read, sending his regrets for not attending because of illness, but congratulating all concerned for the success of the project.

Among those in attendance and not mentioned previously were former governor George Stoneman; ex-mayor John Bryson; Mamie Perry-Davis, whose father William H. was a prominent lumber dealer, and whose residence and that of her father were both in Boyle Heights; future mayor Meredith P. Snyder; San Gabriel Valley orchardist and vineyardist Leonard J. Rose; city engineer Fred Eaton; city council member Robert M. Wirsching, another Boyle Heights resident; future mayor and previous county treasurer Thomas Rowan; Elizabeth Hollenbeck, whose late husband, John, was a major figure in Boyle Heights and Los Angeles and who owned a large portion of the Rowland half of Rancho La Puente; James S, Slauson; Charles Ducommun; George Cummings “and wife,” she being Sacramenta Lopez of the family that first settled what became Boyle Heights in the 1830s and he builder of the recently-restored Cummings Block; and many other prominent personages.

JM Workman and top 3rd page The_Los_Angeles_Times_Sun__Aug_4__1889_ (2)

A discussion of the line included mention that it was begun in December 1888 and, as indicated above, posed many challenges, especially in navigating grades to get to the bluff, the paredon blanco which was the area’s name previously.  It was reported that First Street was closed for a year for the construction, which included Robinson redoing large sections.  There was also a biographical sketch of C.B. Holmes of Chicago, who assumed the presidency from Crank when Windy City capital was secured for the project and another of Robinson, a native of England who began work with street railways in his home country and in Scotland prior to coming to America.

Much of the second page was devoted to Boyle Heights and many of its prominent figures, beginning with Workman, though it was stated that he and his father-in-law, Andrew Boyle, came to that section in 1867.  Boyle, however, acquired land in Paredon Blanco nearly a decade before and it was when Workman married Boyle’s only child, Maria (pronounced MAH-RYE-AH) that he moved there.  Moreover, it was alleged that there were only “a number of shanties” in that section, but the Lopez and Rubio families had well-established residences and farms there, not at all “shanties.”

As far as the isolation of Boyle Heights from the rest of town, there was reference to the “old covered bridge,” the only such span built in the region and which crossed the river at Aliso Street.  Workman and others built a horse-drawn streetcar line on that route into the neighborhood, but, as a banner for the celebration highlighted, it was a major jump in technology to go from the horse-drawn system of the late Seventies to the cable system of a decade later.  From the time the first system went into operation, the account continued, Boyle Heights began to develop and “put on the airs of a flourishing suburb.”

0819186 1st Cable Car Crossing 1st Street Bridge To Boyle Heights 2000.217.1.27
The three images here were loaned by David Workman, grandson of Boyle Heights founder William H. Workman, and this one show cars stopped on the First Street Viaduct over the Los Angeles River for the Los Angeles Cable Railway.

After some boosting that promoted the views, climate and other favorable elements that made Boyle Heights so desirable, there was more on Workman (his portrait and renderings of his house and winery are also included) and his estate and public service.  Other figures given treatment in the piece, extending to the third page, included Elizabeth Hollenbeck; Wirsching; Chandler; Cummings; Fidel Ganahl of the hardware store family and owner of the Perry-Davis mansion that was well-known at the time; William H. Perry; Hubbell, who then owned Perry’s former residence; and Joseph Workman.

Joseph, son of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa, was described as “one of the best-known ranchers in the county, and boasts of owning one of the handsomest places on Boiyle avenue.”  Joseph, who married Josephine Belt of Stockton in 1870 and came south, was given over 800 acres of La Puente by his father and farmed and raised livestock on it for over a decade.

In the early Eighties, he acquired an acre next door to his cousin, William Henry, and built his fine home, designed by Kysor and Morgan, a prominent architectural firm (Ezra F. Kysor, the city’s first practicing architect, is said to have designed the remodel of the Workman House at the Homestead.)  The article noted that “he has spent a great deal of money and time in improving his grounds” adding that “his lawns are covered with choice plants and shrubs, which are arranged in a most tasteful manner.”

0819185 1st Cable Car Arrives At Boyle Heights 2000.217.1.26
The cars passed up First Street and, just west of Boyle Avenue, stopped at this remarkable banner with caricatures of the slow and often halting service of horse-drawn line that came to Boyle Heights in 1879 and showing William H. Workman talking to Burdette Chandler “after the opera” and of the smoothly operating cable car system of a decade later.  Below the left banner in the distance is the distinctive conical tower of the Cummings Block, recently restored at the northwest corner of First and Boyle.

After discussions of certain sections of Boyle Heights, including “Soto Park” along the street of that name at the northwest corner of the community, and “Euclid Hill,” a section of that thoroughfare running between 4th and 8th streets, there is a listing of some of the businesses in the neighborhood, including grocers, a bakery, a dry goods store, butchers, a tailor, a blacksmith, a hardware store and photographers Cromwell and Westervelt, among others.

As for the photos loaned by David Workman, they show decorated cars stopped on the viaduct, the scene as the first cars reached the terminus and the remarkable banner with the cartoons showing the dramatic change in streetcar technology in a decade (the 1879 banner at left, titled “After the Opera” shows caricatures of Workman talking to Chandler and William H. Perry chatting with J.J. Warner as horses behave erratically and slow the service of the car, while the 1889 portion is titled “Merrily We Roll Along” and shows a placid and calm scene as passengers glide along the cable route)  and a view of part of the set-up for the banquet in the powerhouse.

0819187 Dining Hall For Party Welcoming Cable Railway To Boyle Heights 2000.217.1.28
Part of the scene of the massive banquet in the interior of the LACR powerhouse.

The images and the illustrations from the Times are excellent representations of what was then a watershed moment both for Boyle Heights and for rapid transit in a rapidly expanding Los Angeles.  It was not very long at all, however, before cable railways were replaced by electric systems and, within a decade, Henry E. Huntington came down from San Francisco and effected a very quick and stunning transformation of streetcars throughout the greater Los Angeles region in ways those present in Boyle Heights in August 1889 could not have conceived.





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