by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It was a pleasure tonight to share some of our fascinating regional history with the Glendora Genealogy Group, an organization to which I’d spoken last year. Obviously, this was a virtual presentation and it concerned the remarkable life of Charles Silent (1842-1918), a forgotten figure who was involved in some notable aspects and areas of greater Los Angeles life for over thirty years in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Born in Prussia, Silent immigrated to the United States with his family while young and grew up in Ohio. By age 17, he was in the California gold country and the 1860 census (a fair amount of genealogical material like that was shared, naturally) recorded him living in Drytown, which is along today’s Highway 49 southeast of Sacramento. Silent soon moved to Santa Clara County, where he rose to a prominent figure as well as in Santa Cruz.
Among his activities were ventures in lumber and banking, while he was also an attorney and deputy county clerk. He was active in the Republican Party, as well, and that connection led him to an appointment, at just age 36, to a seat on the Arizona Territorial Supreme Court. He wasn’t there long, however, before he became embroiled in scandal over his connection to mining interests, including with the territorial governor, John C. Frémont, the famed Pathfinder, controversial figure in the American seizure of California during the Mexican-American War, and the unsuccessful candidate, the Republican Party’s first, for president in 1856.
Citing his health (it would have been family issues, otherwise), though he wasn’t yet 40, Silent resigned in 1880, but remained in Arizona and made full use of his mining connections to reap a windfall. Five years later, he followed his friend Nathan Vail, a prominent mining capitalist, to Los Angeles, arriving just in time to see the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad complete its transcontinental line to the Angel City, ushering in the Boom of the 1880s.
With connections and cash, some of it realized from billings in the law firm he formed at the end of 1885, Silent quickly dove in to the red-hot real estate market with a cadre of partners including Dan McFarland, Leonard J. Rose, Vail, Daniel Freeman and others in purchases of large swaths of land along the coast southwest of Los Anglees. Among these were the ranchos Centinela (which F.P.F. Temple and William Workman sought to develop with Freeman and others in the lesser-known boom of the mid-1870s), Sausal Redondo (another property involving Temple and Workman) and San Pedro (Temple and El Monte’s Fielding W. Gibson had a portion of that ranch that they developed into Compton).
As the boom was fully underway, Silent and his colleagues developed the towns of Inglewood and Redondo Beach, but he and other investors also created the inland community of Redlands east of San Bernardino. He was also owner of a tract formerly held by William Lacy and known as Orange Slope—this is the area in Boyle Heights where the Los Angeles County-USC Hospital and the Keck-USC Medical Center are today.
Also involved in mining, gas and water enterprises, Silent bought from Vail a prime piece of suburban real estate north of Adams Street near the recently opened University of Southern California (Silent was also an active Methodist and the university was church-affiliated in those days) and had an impressive estate, including a widely-known garden. In 1899, he developed some of this holding into the exclusive Chester Place, one of the first gated communities in the region and which was named for his son, who tragically died in a solo hunting accident soon afterward. The long-time next door neighbor of the Silent family in the subdivision was Edward L. Doheny, the oil mogul whose home is now owned by Mount St. Mary’s College.
Silent’s passion for horticulture and gardening was, apparently, self-taught and highly eclectic and unusual. While he was an attorney, one of his more famous clients was Griffith J. Griffith and Silent represented him in a criminal case involving Griffith’s shooting and wounding of his wife. Although a dispute arose between the two men during the proceedings and Silent left the case, he was involved in landscape ideas in Griffith Park. He also had a significant role in the horticultural development of Elysian Park and the remaking of Central Park, later changed to Pershing Square.
By 1905, thanks to his close ties to Jonathan R. Slauson, a founder of the city of Azusa, Silent acquired a large property in the foothills in Glendora, very close to the Azusa border and named his country place, Rancho Los Alisos (Aliso being the Spanish word for a sycamore tree.) Rapidly, he worked to transform the property into a horticultural showcase that, as with his Chester Place estate, was open for public access once a week.
The remainder of tonight’s post focuses on a lengthy article in the Covina Argus from 28 May 1910, providing some interesting detail about Los Alisos and, especially, Silent’s views on his suburban oasis. The unattributed author of the piece took the Pacific Electric Railway streetcar to just below the estate and then made his way up to the property. He or she noted that “the drone of bees in the late blossoms was as some kyrie elleson [sic] played in the depths of a cloistered monastery, and the white road gashed the green ranks of the orchards” as he made his way up the hillside.
The writer wondered at “the riot of varicolored flowers, the sturdy fruit trees, the exploring, climbing vines, seem set against a background that is a ladder to the sky.” Gazing back from the “eminence” of Silent’s elevated retreat “the valley of the Franciscans [referring to the days of the Mission San Gabriel] is a gorgeous thing of scintillating green, carpeted by thousands of acres of orange and navel [lemon?] groves, blurred by the the distance into the semblance of an emerald cloak, with the winding bed of the San Gabriel river cutting its way to the gap in the foothills [Whittier Narrows] and to the sea.”
Such florid and flowery language is on full display in this exposition of the property, which included a large bungalow with palm thatch coverings on a plateau where Silent and his family stayed when out from Los Angeles. The home had the latest in domestic innovations, while the landscape was rich with a stunning variety of trees, shrubs, bushes and other plantings fed by several large reservoirs. It was along one of the macadamized drives leading to the estate that the unidentified visitor found Silent with his “brown habit of khaki . . . stained with the sap and juice from the trimming of blossoms and trees.”
Silent wielded his pruning hook and worked as he talked. There is a remarkable passage worth quoting in full:
“Anyone with reasonable wealth may do as I have done. From the Hollywood hills near Los Angeles to the city of San Dimas, the line of the Sierra Madre [San Gabriel] mountains offers just such an opportunity for the building of beautiful resting places, and I will say that the cost is not so considerable as one might suppose. It is within the reach of those who are simply wealthy, not the man of gigantic wealth [a Doheny, perhaps?]. I have taken advantage of nature here, have assisted nature where the primeval work seemed inadequate, and have brought out into relief the natural effects made here by the ages of the mountains in the making [italics added.]
And also, I am going to make it pay. I am going to make my oranges and fruits pay on this mountain side, make the ranch self-supporting, make the ranch a profitable investment from the standpoint of the tiller of the soil. It has been a revelation to me what can be done here with the introduction of water and the application of common sense mixed with some artistic sense as well. I have had no landscape gardeners to assist me—the average landscape artist follows lines altogether too stilted—I have followed the delights and desires of my own heart in making the ranch what it is now, and will continue to do so in a leisurely, satisfactory way, until I have made what I know to be possible here, one of the most beautiful spots in all Southern California. And, as I said, it can be done almost anywhere in this line of hills.”
The writer was highly impressed by the Judge’s knowledge of so many of the plants by their Latin botanical names and talked about them as if “intimate companions, meriting a name that would be given to one of the family.” The duo passed by the “black bass basin,” shown in one of the photos accompanying the article and which was stocked with the “splendid specimens from many a stream the fishermen know.” Silent stated that he intended to build soon a million-gallon reservoir in which he would stock thousands of bass and the basin would revert to being a swimming pool, its original use.
Silent was especially passionate about yuccas an, while a member of the Los Angeles Parks Commission, led the effort to plant thousands of such plants in city parks. In wandering through the gardens, it was stated “the Judge has surrounded himself with thousands of different plants and trees, but he says he does not care for the rare plants so much as the flowers and foliage that will blend into scenic beauty.” For that vital water, tunnels were dug deep into the mountains to tap springs and send the precious fluid through “flowing and falling streams” into the reservoirs, which were also filled with rainwater caught in basins. Something of the miner appears to have been integral to this aspect of the ranch’s development, though there was also water imported from the Glendora Water Company.
It was averred that Silent “is pointing the way to the rejuvenation of the Sierra Madre foothills and his name will go down as the pioneer in the discovery of the way to loveliness in Southern California home-building.” Los Alisos was the culmination of the labors of the retired jurist, attorney and business figure who was able to “make of the great northern wall of the Sierra Madre a marvelously blossoming garden of God’s own country in the appreciative keeping men.”
Despite this prediction of Silent’s legacy for posterity, his name did soon fade, as it does for most. The family did, however, maintain the ranch for some thirty-five years after his death and it was sold in 1953 for a girl scouts camp called “Camp Aventura.” Later, however, the camp closed, the gardens and bungalows were removed and there is very little left to remind anyone of its past as the renowned Los Alisos, except for the name of Silent Ranch Drive just past the end of Grand Avenue at Sierra Madre Avenue and above St. Lucy’s Priory High School.