Read All About It in The “Los Angeles Express,” 20 April 1874

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In spring 1874 greater Los Angeles was just about at the peak of its first significant and sustained period of growth, which was inaugurated in the late 1860s, and one of our best sources of information for what transpired during that era are newspapers published in the Angel City.

Tonight’s highlighted object from the Homestead’s collection is the 20 April 1874 edition of the Los Angeles Express, which made its debut a few years prior and of which the museum has nearly 120 issues from the 1873-74 period. Reading these along with editions of competitors, the Los Angeles Star and the Los Angeles Herald, is not only informative, but highly interesting, in reading about what was going on in the Angel City.

One of the bigger items of news reported on in the pages of the Express was found in an article titled “The Traffic of the New Railroad.” A half-decade before, the region’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro, was completed between the city and the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington. In fall 1872, Los Angeles County’s voters approved a subsidy to the Southern Pacific, which was forced by legislation passed in Congress the prior year to build its line from the Bay Area to Yuma, Arizona through this area, turning control of the local line to the powerful “Big Four” who controlled the SP.

Meanwhile, the Southern Pacific built two local lines, one extending southeast from the Los Angeles and San Pedro at Florence, in what is now the Florence-Graham area of South Los Angeles, to Anaheim, and the other east from downtown Los Angeles through the San Gabriel Valley, including through the Rancho La Puente, to what became Pomona. In fact, the Puente depot of that line was completed in April 1874.

Yet, there were local capitalists who had ideas for railroad projects and one of these was the Los Angeles and Independence, which was intended to run over 200 miles northeast to Independence, the seat of Inyo County, which was experiencing a silver mining boom at the time. One of those invested in mining at Cerro Gordo in the mountains east of Owens Lake was F.P.F. Temple, whose Cerro Gordo Water and Mining Company was launched in 1873 and which completed an 11-mile pipeline to bring water to the town.

Temple, president of the Temple and Workman bank, and other local luminaries, like ex-governor John G. Downey, whose Farmer and Merchants Bank partner, Isaias W. Hellman, was a former associate of Temple and William Workman in an earlier bank, were eager to find a way to tap into the transport of silver ore and bullion from the mines of Inyo County in a quicker way than the 40-mule teams of Remi Nadeau or other animal-powered conveyances.

As the Express stated, “the incorporators of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad have organized and elected their officers, and their subscription books [for stock] will probably soon be opened.” The immediate goal was to meet legal requirements for funds from stock sales and that “this will enable the company to make the preliminary surveys, the first step of practical necessity in the road.” Included in this work would be investigating local mountain passes to determine “the shortest exit commercially in connection with the best line of way traffic.” After that, a stock assessment would be called and “the work be vigorously be pushed ahead.”

It was anticipated that the road would be of narrow gauge, meaning that they were more like three feet in width whereas standard gauge tracks were just over four-and-a-half feet. This was considered more suitable to the terrain as well as economical, with it explained that the projected cost per mile, including the rolling stock (train elements), would be about $10,000, instead of the $25,000 for standard gauge lines.

With this as a baseline, it was stated that the total construction cost for the Los Angeles and Independence would be about $3 million. This sum would be more than justified, the Express argued, because

if we should merely count on the traffic and certain developments of the region of country which is immediately to be tapped, without taking into view the fact that a railroad from Independence would create new traffic and attract an immense trade beyond the terminus, which is now finding its way by lengthy wagon carriage to the Central Pacific [the transcontinental going through northern Nevada], we shall find that we have a basis of fair business estimate to go upon which would well reward the expenditure.

A table was presented that stated some 2,300 tons of ore and bullion were being unearthed monthly from ten mining areas in Inyo County, with Cerro Gordo and a site called Waucoba, northeast of Independence producing about three-quarters of that total. The paper calculated that revenues from charging ten cents per mile in freight charges, along with those for pasengers and other uses, and the subtracting operating costs would leave net earnings of not far under $750,000 for the year or about a quarter of the construction tally.

With respect to Cerro Gordo, it was asserted that “its production of bullion can be doubled with proper transportation facilities, but the Express also held out hope that the road could find a way to tap into the newly discovered Holcomb Valley gold mining district above what became Big Bear Lake. Regardless, it opined that “this road will open an empire and pour its treasures into our laps.”

In a short note in its “Local Items” section, the paper reported that, two days prior, the L.A. & I’s incorporators met at Farmers and Merchants Bank and elected its three principal officers. Charles E. Beane, former publisher of the Los Angeles News, was chosen as secretary, Downey tapped to be treasurer, and Temple was made president. It was added that “books will be opened at once for subscriptions to stock in this road,” with a large amount already pledged, while “the men who have this enterprise in hand propose to push things to a speedy conclusion.”

An issue of intense interest in the area was the brazen robbery just several days before by famed bandido Tiburcio Vásquez of Italian-born rancher Alessandro Repetto, whose house was on the hills in what is now Monterery Park. Vásquez, whose criminal career began in the early 1850s and whose first conviction and imprisonment at San Quentin State Prison occurred after he robbed Los Angeles County rancher Juan Francisco, was the subject of a massive statewide manhunt after a robbery and killings took place at Tres Piños in San Benito County about fifty miles south of San Jose.

Vásquez, in eluding his pursuers, came to Los Angeles County, where he committed his robbery of Repetto, during which the rancher’s young son (whose mother was from the Alvitre family of Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, where the Temple family lived) was sent to Los Angeles and to the Temple and Workman bank to withdraw $800 to give to Vásquez. Noticing the young man’s nervousness, F.P.F. Temple contacted the county sheriff, William R. Rowland, who gathered a posse to head out to the Repetto ranch, though the son got there far enough ahead to warn the bandit and his men. They rode north (stopping to rob the surveyor of the new Indiana Colony, soon called Pasadena) into the San Gabriel Mountains and escaped with a daring scamper down steep inclines.

The paper reported in its “Local Items” section that

The Vasquez hunters have all come in with two exceptions. Vasquez himself is now safe in his mountain rendezvous, when he and his “merry men” may soon make another raid upon some of the coast towns.

As to other small matters found in the pages of the paper, there was an advertisement for a sheriff’s sale by Rowland in a court matter decided in June 1873 and with an order made by District Court Judge Ygnacio Sepúlveda in the case of liquor and wine dealers Lips and Autels against Antonio Cuyas and others. The public auction, scheduled for 11 May, was for Cuyas’ interest in the Pico House hotel, completed five years before by ex-governor and compadre of the Workman and Temple families, Don Pío Pico, whose reinterment in the mausoleum built by Walter P. Temple at the Homestead’s El Campo Santo Cemetery happened a century ago this year.

Next door to the Pico House was the Merced Theatre, though both buildings still stand today, and in the issue was an ad for a performance by actor Stephen Massett (1820-1898), who was widely known at the time for his character Jeems Pipes of Pipesville, who sang comedic pieces and recited humorous poetry. Massett, who hailed from England and migrated to America in his late teens, was one of many wide-eyed fortune seekers who came to California in 1849 during the ferment of the Gold Rush. His entertainment background led him to give what was considered the first theatrical performance of note in San Francisco, when he performed at the court house in June 1849.

A half-century later, Massett was still out entertaining the “masses,” with his farewell appearance advertised for the 21st, but he also took the opportunity to appear at the Methodist Church on the 19th where he read a well-known sermon called “Nothing But Leaves based on a passage in the Gospel According to St. Mark “to the great delectation of the people assembled,” while his intonation of the Lord’s Prayer was rendered “in a manner to produce a very profound impression.”

As for that farewell appearance, the Express reported that Massett would deliver “several new, and interesting recitations, imitations, songs, and ballads” among other elements. It was added that “Massett has met with the largest success wherever he has appeared in Southern California, and at San Diego he created a furor.” It was predicted that he would draw another capacity crowd at the Merced.

Another notable performer of sorts was Dr. Jonathan S. Haskell (1820-1883), a native of Newburyport, Massachusetts, not far from where the Temples hailed and a remarkable character who was a magician known as the “Fakir of Siva [Shiva]” in Georgia in the late 1840s. In the 1850 federal census his occupation was given as “ventriloquist,” a core component of his act, which purportedly embraced mysteries of India, Persia and Egypt. According to one biographer, however, he was also “a liar, a cheat, an obtainer of money under false pretenses, a seducer of girls, a con artist, a thief, a passer of counterfeit money, and a man who skipped out on creditors whenever he could manage it.”

By 1860, he purportedly found religion, first joining the Congregationalist Church (the denomination of the Temple family) and was living in Nebraska and recorded in the census as a Methodist minister (hence his title of “doctor), though his reputation as a “fakir” caught up to him and he operated independently, though his own church failed. He then returned to his shtick as the “Fakir of Siva” later in 1860 and performed in San Francisco that year, though he developed another magician persona as “Robert Houdin” before settling for “Dr. Haskell.”

In his latest incarnation, Haskell mixed magic with a passionate promotion of temperance, or the abstention of alcohol (he was apparently a drunkard before), which was gaining steam throughout the country and would culminate, near a half century later, in national Prohibition. He published an autobiography in San Francisco in 1874 and his appearance in Los Angeles was covered in a lengthy piece in the Express, which wrote:

It would be as impossible to report on Dr. Haskell’s talk as to describe the vagaries of one of our Sierra Madre [the name at the time of the San Gabriel Mountains] storms, in which rain, hail, sunshine, tempestuous winds and sudden lulls all follow each other in such quick succession as to confuse and amaze the intellectual powers.

He was not, the paper continued, a polished orator, though “there is a diamond of fine humanitarian sentiment underneath his rough coating of declamation.” Given to frequent tangents in his torrent of words, Haskell, it was asserted, possessed “the correct appreciation of the practical requirements of Temperance reformation.”

So, while the Express claimed “we never heard a more rambling or desultory speaker in our life . . . and yet he does not weary the listener; he rather irritates you with his scattering style than tires you with his vagaries.” The piece ended with the news that “the Doctor says he will launch himself out and give some red-hot talk to-night, suggested by twenty-five years of circus life.”

Finally, with regard to the Pico House, there was an advertisement for another colorful character, Orson S. Fowler (1809-1887), a phrenologist of over a half-century, who had a New York office and publishing house with his brother and brother-in-law, later moving to Boston, and who wrote and lectured all over the country on the “science” of using the form of the skull to determine someone’s mental traits—analyses that were used by him to claim that Blacks and Jews were inherently inferior. Fowler was also a passionate opponent of drinking, a vegetarian and animal rights activist, and an enthusiastic promoter of octagon houses, a rare example of which, originally built in Pasadena in 1893, is at the Heritage Square Museum in Los Angeles.

“Professor” Fowler, having finished his consultations at San Bernardino, came to the Angel City and noted that he “can be consulted at the Pico House, as to your Phrenology, Best Business &c” for 21 hours on the 21st and 22nd, noting that this would be the “LAST CHANCE” to see him before he left the area. Fowler spent his remaining years in Massachusetts and Sharon, New York, west of the state capital of Albany.

If you enjoyed this fascinating look at aspects of Los Angeles life in spring 1874, please check back for more posts in the “Read All About It” series dealing with area newspapers from that period and later.

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