Taking a Trip Through Late Victorian Era Los Angeles With the Los Angeles County Library

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Today’s third presentation for the Los Angeles County Library system attracted about 250 people, an excellent turnout for a trip back in time to the late Victorian era, basically 1880-1900, in greater Los Angeles. A lot of ground was covered from the explosive growth in the Angel City to developments in the suburbs, as well as a summary of what the Workman and Temple families were up during that period. Here’s a brief recap with images used in the talk to illustrate the main points of discussion.

We started with the acknowledgement of the first “boom,” or sustained and significant period of growth in the region, which roughly lasted from the end of the 1860s through the middle of the subsequent decade. Los Angeles expanded south from downtown along the parallel main thoroughfares of Main and Spring streets, with the business district centered in and around the Temple Block, where these two avenues intersected with Temple Street while residential areas moved south and west, as well as across the Los Angeles River to East Los Angeles (Lincoln Heights) and Boyle Heights.

Spring Street in 1880s Los Angeles. All photos shown here are from the Homestead’s collection.

A national depression and a statewide panic erupting after the collapse of California’s largest bank, headquartered in San Francisco, after a Virginia City, Nevada silver mine stock bubble burst, sent Angelenos flocking to the two commercial banks in town—Farmers and Merchants and Temple and Workman—to withdraw their deposits. While the first was able to survive the frenzy, the latter, despite a loan from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin (lucky, because he sold his Virginia City stock just before the bubble burst), could not. The city’s first major business failure was followed by about a decade of relative stagnation.

In late 1885, however, the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway brought a direct transcontinental rail connection to the region (its own dedicated line through the northern San Gabriel Valley followed in spring 1887) and the famed Boom of the Eighties ensued. This meant many migrants from elsewhere in the United States, increasing numbers of tourists basking in the sunshine and curious about the area’s heavily romanticized “Spanish” past, and greater investment in the economy, especially agriculture for those coming to the hinterlands and establishing orange groves and the like.

A different portion of Spring Street in the 1890s.

The mayor during the maelstrom of the great boom in 1887 and 1888 was William Henry Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and he continued his public service (established in the prior boom with several terms on the Common [City] Council) with a tenure during the Nineties on the Parks Commission, during which time a major push for parks was pursued.

Images were shared of bustling downtown streets with their horse-drawn vehicles competing with cable and electric streetcars, business buildings filled with real estate speculators, lawyers, doctors and other professionals, small manufacturing enterprises (and a few that were tilting toward larger-scale production like breweries and iron works), electricity and telephone wires and people making their way to and from work, shopping and other activities. The economics of the city and region were dramatically enhanced in the early Nineties when Charles Canfield and Edward Doheny, lately mining in New Mexico, utilized modest funds and an even more primitive apparatus and discovered the Los Angeles oil field, which was the basis for their later staggering wealth in the industry.

An 1880s stereoscopic image of the Crown Hill district west of downtown.

Another important development to assist in the dramatic rise in greater Los Angeles’ economic sphere was the intensive development, aided greatly by expansive federal funding, of the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington. This was made possible by the so-called “Free Harbor Fight,” pitting supporters of this historic port, which had little to recommend it decades before, against the Southern Pacific’s Long Wharf at Santa Monica, which followed the original built by the Los Angeles and Independence (which had F.P.F. Temple as its first president and then as treasurer) in the 1870s. The huge growth at the Port of Los Angeles facilitated that of the region broadly.

It is pretty fun and interesting to look at these stereoscopic and cabinet card photographs of Spring, Main, Fort (Broadway) and other business-centered streets reflecting the dramatic growth taking place in the Angel City. Other images took in the expanding residential districts, some of them quite upscale, including those in the hills flanking the city to the west, especially Bunker Hill and its often-exuberant Queen Anne mansions, and Crown Hill, as well as the district around Central (or Sixth Street) Park, later renamed Pershing Square, and the far-flung district near Agricultural, soon renamed Exposition, Park.

The Temple Block looking from the Downey Block across Temple Street and where Spring and Main then merged, from the 1890s.

Facilitating the horizontal growth in all directions, but especially west and south, during the last part of the century was the intensive development of mass transit. From the first streetcar system, the modest Spring and Sixth Street Railway (F.P.F. Temple was its inaugural treasurer in 1874), came cable and then electric systems. One prominent example was the Los Angeles Cable Railway, connecting downtown with Boyle Heights, while the Los Angeles Railway was purchased, at the end of the 1890s, by the Southern Pacific through the offices of Henry E. Huntington. When he was cut loose after the SP was acquired by a hostile takeover, Huntington came to Los Angeles in 1900 and quickly built his Pacific Electric empire along with massive real estate investments (followed, in retirement, by his prominent library, art gallery and botanical gardens at San Marino, next to Pasadena.)

The herald of a new era came in 1897, when E.L. Erie built the first automobile in Los Angeles and its maiden trip took place in Boyle Heights, where Erie lived, with the honored passenger being William H. Workman. It would not be long before these “horseless carriages” not only supplanted equine-drawn vehicles, but signalted the long, slow decline of mass transit.

An 1880s cabinet photo of an adobe house, of which there were few left by the end of the Victorian era.

Other examples of recent additions to the city included views of institutions of higher learning, such as the Methodist-affiliated University of Southern California, Occidental College and the state Normal School for teacher education, all established in the 1880s. Also highlighted was the growth of places of leisure, whether it was concerts of so-called “serious,” or classical, music, live theater and the rapid development of city parks, including such new ones as Westlake (now MacArthur), Eastlake (now Lincoln). Hollenbeck and Elysian.

Other elements of leisure, made possible by greater general wealth and more free time for more citizens, were pageants and parades, including the rise of La Fiesta de Los Angeles, which followed the onset of Pasadena’s Tournament of Roses, both beginning in the first half of the Nineties. Long before the Los Angeles Zoo, its predecessors included Cawston’s Ostrich Farm, just over the city line in South Pasadena, and J.Y. Johnson’s Los Angeles Pigeon Farm, situated where the Arroyo Seco met the Los Angeles River near the northeast corner of Elysian Park.

The Los Angeles County Courthouse, completed in 1889, just as the Boom of the Eighties ended.

Also discussed were a spate of new public buildings, reflective of the pride embodied in the growth of the burgeoning city. Among these was a new City Hall, opened on Broadway between 2nd and 3rd streets, a federal courthouse, and the impressive Romanesque Revival County Courthouse, replacing the one that existed for more than a quarter century in Jonathan Temple’s Market House.

As we covered all that was new and exciting, however, we paused to remind ourselves of how much was disappearing, and rapidly, during those years. Adobe houses from the Mexican and, in a few cases, the Spanish period, for example, were being razed even from the 1860s and 1870s, but nearly all of them were demolished by the end of the century.

An 1890s cabinet card photo of Westlake Park with some adjoining residential development in the background.

While the Plaza did see some impressive landscaping work done during the period, it was no longer the center of activity it had been before, while Sonoratown, to the north, remained the working-class center of the city, with its access to the rail yards and manufacturing sections of downtown. Even then, however, the ethnic mix there was changing rapidly, with Italians, Eastern Europeans and others joining the predominant Latinx population of long-standing there.

The presentation then shifted to the hinterlands, noting that the San Fernando Valley remained largely farmland, including expansive wheat fields, while the water-rich San Gabriel Valley experienced far greater development. In the late 19th century, this was focused on the farthest western portions closest to Los Angeles, including Pasadena, Alhambra and the newer foothill towns, connected to the new Santa Fe line, including Monrovia and Sierra Madre.

William H. Workman, former Los Angeles mayor and nephew of the Homestead’s founders, as the special guest of E.L. Erie on Los Angeles’ first automobile, 1897.

Further east, farming and ranching continued, while the famous “orange belt” extended along the mountain foothills from the valley out to what became the Inland Empire as far as Redlands. In fact, the orange was the veritable symbol of greater Los Angeles and was the dominant high-value crop in the region’s agriculture, though lemons, walnuts and others were also prominent. Edwin T. Earl, only in his mid-twenties, developed a refrigerated box car that revolutionized rail shipment of fresh produce and he went on to become the publisher of the Los Angeles Express newspaper.

It was also noted that, while vineyards had once been prominent in Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley and in the German-founded town of Anaheim, in what became Orange County in 1889 after a long-desired secession from Los Angeles County, the onset of a horrific disease destroyed almost all of the vines in the region, save at Rancho Cucamonga, where, somehow, wine grapes continued to be grown for decades thereafter.

Hay bailing at an unidentified location, perhaps the San Fernando Valley.

It was noted that Canfield and Doheny opened the Los Angeles Oil Field early in the Nineties and the latter also became the pioneer of the industry in Orange County, when he partnered with the Santa Fe on a project at the Olinda Ranch in the northeastern corner of the county. In 1897, the first well came in and the Fullerton Field was launched, followed in subsequent decades by such suburban sites as Huntington Beach, Long Beach/Signal Hill, and Santa Fe Springs, among others. Lesser known, though, is that William R. Rowland, son of the grantee of Rancho La Puente and a former two-term county sheriff, hit it big when oil was found in 1885 high atop the Puente Hills where Rowland Heights is now.

Also in the suburban regions were some of the most popular attractions in the area, the natural environments of the mountains and beaches. With the latter, “surf bathing” was still somewhat new, but, when it took off, people flocked to such locales as Santa Monica, Redondo Beach and Long Beach, where indoor salt-water plunges, fine hotels and, later, amusement parks added to the options. In the San Gabriel Mountain range, the “Great Hiking Era” was launched by the end of the Victorian period and resorts and camps sprung up, while growing numbers of people hiked, fished and hunted the range.

A crowd at a subdivision sale at Monrovia, a boom town established in 1887.

As the talk approached its end, mention was made of those people whose stories are typically not told as often or fully, including ethnic and racial minorities. The Spanish-speaking Californios, for example, who were the majority until the Seventies, were almost never in positions of power and authority, save for an exception like politician Reginaldo del Valle, while Don Pío Pico, the last governor of California under Mexico, was swindled of his ranch near modern Whittier and Pico Rivera and who, in his last years living with a daughter in Los Angeles, was said to have been pointed out to tourists as a relic of pre-American California.

Latinos, Asians and Blacks are rarely to be found in photos of the day, though the Homestead has some examples. They vary considerably in representation, with examples shown of a Latinx family in front of their, and a “cholo camp,” as inscribed, showing tents of migrant laborers; images of the Chinese in their neighborhood where Union Station now stands and where tourists would often go to see and photograph the “exotic” inhabitants; and a very interesting view of Black women on a float, apparently for La Fiesta de Los Angeles, though it is not known if they represented a church group or a woman’s club or some other organization.

A cabinet card image of Martin’s Camp at Mount Wilson.

The stories of women, too, can often be somewhat difficult to see photographically, though some examples of women at work, whether as teachers, nurses or in charity work, such as the Salvation Army were shown, as were images of a woman’s club house and the Women’s Christian Temperance Union’s Temperance Temple, which was headquarters for a strong anti-alcohol movement that culminated in national Prohibition in the late Teens.

Finally, elements of the story of the Workman and Temple family was brought in, including more detail about Mayor Workman and his children, Boyle and Mary Julia, who went on to civic prominence in the early 20th century. Out at the Workman Homestead, reduced to 75 acres from over 24,000 after the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, the successive ownership of the brothers, Francis and John Temple, was discussed.

A camping group from Santa Ana on the coast, perhaps at Corona del Mar or Laguna Beach.

This included the former’s successful cultivation of wine grapes and the manufacture of wine and brandy until his death in 1888 just as the disease mentioned above struck, while the latter was dogged by several years of drought and the national depression of 1893, during which he borrowed money from a bank. Unable to repay the loan, a circumstance that happened to his cousin, Joseph Workman, who lost his nearby 825-acre ranch, John lost the Homestead to foreclosure in 1899, as the era was nearing its end.

With this, our trip came to an end, but with the news that another excursion, taking us back to the earlier Victorian period from the 1840s to the 1870s, would soon be booked. We’re looking at a date in March, so stay tuned for more on that!

Leave a Reply