by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As greater Los Angeles grew rapidly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one of its primary economic drivers was tourism. With the completion of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe transcontinental rail line directly to the City of Angels at the end of 1885, the region not only went through a major growth boom, called the Boom of the Eighties, but also experienced a dramatic uptick in visits from tourists.
Basking in the climate, enjoying the close access to both mountains and beaches, gawking at the “antiquities” of the Spanish-era missions, and taking tours through the fragrant orange groves, among others, visitors came in droves, including in the winter when tourists fled the cold weather of other parts of the nation to enjoy the balmy weather in sunny Los Angeles.
Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a five-page letter from a tourist that has some very interesting content as well as a sharp set of concluding opinions about the Angel City. The missive was written by Henrietta (Etta) Mohr to her mother, Bertha, who lived with her husband John and younger children in Valley Stream, just outside New York City limits and the Queens borough on Long Island. Fortunately, for what was stated as just being “a few lines” Etta, who married Augustus (Gus) Voelpel in September and was, presumably, on her honeymoon, had a lot to say in her five-page travelogue about her trip to the region nearly 110 years ago.
The pair were staying in the Natick House, a venerable hotel at the southwest corner of Main and First streets which opened in 1883 just before the great boom took place. The hostelry underwent a major renovation in 1899, so, by the time Etta and Gus were there, it was still a popular place for tourists, especially as it was centrally located. The proprietors were the brothers George A. and Dwight H. Hart, who started their careers as bell hops at the Natick and went on to run it and the Rosslyn, a newer hostelry at Spring and Fifth.
The letter was penned on the hotel’s stationery with a remarkable vignette featuring its name, location and proprietors’ names in a highly stylized fashion, while at the left is a rendering of the three-story structure. Etta drew an arrow to show her mother their room at the top level near the corner. The missive started by saying that there were “just a few lines before we leave Los Angeles” after four days staying at the Natick, but the letter went on for five pages.
Actually, Etta told her mother, “we intended to go to the Rosslyn Hotel” where cousins of her husband were lodged, “but all the rooms were taken so all the people were taken to this older hotel the ‘Natick House.'” It sounds from that statement as if Etta and Gus were part of a travel group. She then stated “we took a trip starting from Los Angeles & going through many places of interest, passing through the great beet section & celery country, diary & orchards and made a stop at Santa Ana.”
It appears as if the jaunt took in areas of southeastern Los Angeles County, where truck farming, diaries and sugar beet production predominated in then-rural communities like Norwalk, Cerritos, Artesia and Paramount, before it headed into Orange County, where photos were taken at the county seat. These areas continued to be largely agricultural until the 1950s and 1960s, when another massive boom came to the region and suburbia rapidly spread to these section.
Etta observed that “the trip cost $1.00 a person but [it] was worth it and we also went to San Pedro where the government built breakwaters 2 1/4 miles long & then we passed through the town of Wilmington which has been raised 7 feet by means of dredging the waters and filling in the town.” Federal appropriations began with a small investment in breakwater construction in 1871 and turned into a massive expenditure after the so-called “Free Harbor Fight” of the 1890s.
This was when Washington decided that the San Pedro/Wilmington port would received support rather than Santa Monica, then being promoted by the Southern Pacific which acquired a port built by the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, a project launched by F.P.F. Temple and others in the Seventies. San Pedro and Wilmington were annexed to Los Angeles just three years before Etta’s letter.
She then observed that “we arrived at Long Beach and found it to be just like Coney Island use[d] to be, all small stands.” That reference to the famed New York City amusement area near where Etta and her family lived (they were in Brooklyn prior to moving to Long Island), and the Pike in rapidly growing Long Beach was the analog in her mind. The Pike, with its famous roller coasters, rides and attractions, and other elements, remained a popular place for locals and tourists for decades.
After noting that there were many incidents which she recorded in a journal or diary, Etta told her mother “the trip was made by a trolley car which looked like a parlor car and seats about 58, each seat is numbered and each ticket to correspond with the seat.” This concerned the Pacific Electric Railway system, newly created out of several streetcar lines owned by Henry E. Huntington over the course of about the previous fifteen years.
Etta then noted that she and Gus arrived in the City of the Angels at 10 p.m. “& so went right to our room but the next morning we went to a lunch room [cafeteria, perhaps?] and while Gus was getting his change, I stood at the door & recognized Mr. Richard H. Brown, the lawyer who use[d] to be in Mr. Bennett’s building.” Etta, in fact, was a stenographer in a law office prior to her marriage and later worked as a court stenographer, so likely knew Brown from that connection, though to find him in Los Angeles was quite a surprise. After this chance meeting, Etta and Gus were invited to his house “& we went so we could get a nice idea of the streets of Los Angeles.”
The day the letter was written was a Saturday so an excursion was made to Eastlake Park in East Los Angeles (soon changed to Lincoln Park in Lincoln Heights) “& [we] saw the ostrich farm . . . they have about 140 birds there and we obtained a few plumes or remnants of them that dropped from the birds of course, the fine plumes are picked up by the owners but anyone can have these laying around & so we thought we would get these & keep them for souvenirs.”
The couple also took in the adjacent alligator farm before heading to see oil fields, where “we bought a paper which contains mothing but oil news & is publish[ed] every Thursday for Papa to read.” In fact, John T. Mohr was in the oil business working as a dealer, an occupation shared by Gus, who may have met the much-younger Etta, who was eighteen years younger, through her father. As to sightseeing, Etta concluded by stating “tomorrow Sunday we are going to Pasadena to see the orange groves.”
As much as she wrote about seeing the sights, especially in the hinterlands of greater Los Angeles, though, Etta was less than complimentary of the Angel City, telling her mother, “we do not like Los Angeles because there are many, many men standing around on the sidewalks who seem to have nothing to do & who do not care to work, many of them are very desperate looking!” She added “we saw many boys who act funny & stand in front of show windows [at stores] where it is perfectly dark & keep watching other people that are looking in windows nearby. They appear as though they were pickpockets.”
With this striking impression left in Etta’s mind about alleged “Los Angeles loafers,” she concluded her missive by telling her mother that she and Gus were taking a train the next day for San Antonio and that she was again looking forward to enjoying the views from the observation car.” Letters like these, as well as photographs, from tourists can be very interesting and informative concerning what visitors felt was worthwhile (or, in the case of the alarm about all those shiftless men and boys lounging about, not so fetching) about trips to the region.
As for the Natick House, it survived until 1950, when the structure was razed for yet another downtown parking lot. Given Etta’s concern about vagrants and suspicious men hanging about, it is perhaps noteworthy that the site is now the headquarters of the Los Angeles Police Department!