“The Pictures on This Page Are Fine to Look At, But Don’t Come West”: Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Los Angeles, 16 July 1907

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It is a forlorn and desolate spot in the Skid Row section of downtown Los Angeles where the homeless occupy tents or attach tarps to fences as the homeless crisis continues to expand exponentially. The southwest corner of Central Avenue and Fifth Street, where Ceres Avenue intersects them at a trinagle, is a parking lot next to a wholesale liquor, beer and wine business.

In the early 20th century, the spot was the location of the Golden State Hotel, completed in 1904 as the Harrington Building, with eleven retail stores on the first floor and eighty-four rooms in the two stories above. It appears to have catered to tourists and others disembarking from the Arcade Depot, opened in fall 1888 by the Southern Pacific, and looking for quarters convenient to the station and to downtown generally. A post on this blog from last September shows the area in the late 1890s or perhaps early 1900s from about San Pedro Street looking east toward the depot.

Tonight’s highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s collection is a letter written on 16 July 1907 and on stationery showing tourist areas of note in greater Los Angeles and, while it does not have the name of the sender or the recipient, it is remarkable in that it reflects a negative view of the city. It was penned about three months before the Depression of 1907 broke out, but it seems to show that economic conditions in the Angel City were not stellar, or at least that there were too many people flocking to the area to suit the writer.

Los Angeles Times, 2 October 1904.

The letterhead consists of a sping of poinsettia flowers, perhaps indicating that it was made for Christmas holiday use and maybe for those in balmy Los Angeles to write to friends and family in chilly climes. There are three photographs, including the Mission San Gabriel, an ostrich farm (almost certainly Cawston’s in South Pasadena), and the Mt. Lowe Railway ascending the steep slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains above Pasadena.

This, however, was no tourist missive, bragging about the incredible weather and the stunning sights, though our unknown correspondent did write “This place is about 10 miles from Los Angeles” above the photo of the mission and “This is a fine Place” above the Mt. Lowe image (the ostriches were ostracized–likely the writer didn’t make it out there before sending his message!) Rather, he’d come to the Angel City to see if it was a place where he could make a go of it and it looks like not much was actually going.

The letter, to the sender’s sister, began with the typical “Don’t worrie [sic] about me for I am all right and not sick but am feeling the best, and Don’t think I will bever come back for you will see me back there by the time snow flyes [sic] all right.” He added that he would write frequently and asked her to do as much as possible, prevailing on her to not put off her replies. The reason he’d planned to be back by winter seemed explained by the next part, in which he stated:

I am not going to stay here in Los angeles [sic] very long if I can help it, I think I will go to Minasotato [Minnesota?] by and by, the pictures on this page are fine to Look at but Don’t Come West just to see them, this, is a very, Dry Country nothing, like the east, we will, ever see a drop of rain, here, untill [sic], the last of October . . .

He did suggest that, once the rainy season set in, there would be precipitation nearly each day through the winter, which was not necessarily the case, obviously. It is the case, though, that the winter of 1906-07 was the last of three successive seasons of higher than “normal,” adjudged to be just above 15 inches, so the writer may have been aware of recent wetter conditions.

The 1910 federal census enumerating the household, at 523 Ceres Avenue, of Anna (or Annie) Pitkin, where our unidentified letter writer stayed three years prior.

He then continued by stating “I will tell you all about myself,” writing “I got here in Los angeles 7:15 pm July 7, 1907. I went to the golden state Hotel [and] stayed there for three nights and now I have a Room on Ceres Street [Avenue] 523.” This latter was a lodging house owned by divorcee Annie (or Anna) Pitkin, who was nearly 60 and a native of Kentucky. She’d resided at that address since at least the early 1890s and she and husband Charles may well have been among the hordes of homeseekers who came during the famed Boom of the Eighties, which mainly took place when William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, was mayor of Los Angeles during 1887 and 1888.

The 1910 census shows that Pitkin had five male boarders, all of a mature age (40 and over), so it appears that she owned a single-family residence. This was just a lot or so away from the Golden State Hotel. By the end of the decade, it looks as if the house was occupied by Blacks, who were migrating in larger numbers to Los Angeles and were moving south from what became Little Tokyo down Central Avenue. Later, the African-American community would extend their community, forced into a narrow district by racially restrictive housing covenants, to South and then South-Central Los Angeles.

As to our correspondent, he continued that:

I had a Job on the street cars but I did not take it as you have to waite untill [sic] one of the men Die befor [sic] you get the Job so I have not got a job yet. But I think I will go to work to-morrow for a man Driving his team of horses it is very hard to get a Job here as this place is over run with people.

While it is unclear, it does look like the gent secured a position with the Los Angeles Railway, a long-standing rapid transit system acquired by Henry E. Huntington in 1898 when he was an executive with the Southern Pacific. When Huntington was forced out after a hostile takeover following the death of his uncle Collis, who had been president of the firm, he took the LARY with him as he moved to Los Angeles. Between roughly 1900 and 1910, Huntington built an empire through the LARY and acqusitions of car lines in what was consolidated in 1911 as the Pacific Electric Railway system.

Obviously, the writer did not find his prospects promising with the LARY and there were still, for a short time yet, horse-drawn teamsters playing the streets of the Angel City, though whether he found some stable employment along this line is not known. He did warn his sister “tell Dwight [a brother, perhaps?] to stay at home where he noes [sic] he is well off.” He continued that “Tonapha”, or Tonopah, Nevada, is over run with people and half of them are starveing [sic] to Death.”

Continuing on in this vein [?], he added “a young fellow Just Came here to Board where I am he is a miner and has been to a mineing [sis] place By the name of serchlight [Searchlight, Nevada, south of Las Vegas] and he and his partner have 6 or 7 Claimes [sic] out there that pay about 45 Dollars to a ton but he is poor so he came Back to get more money.”

Having filled up the available space on the front and the entirety of the reverse, the correspondent, as people were apt to do to save paper, added some marginal comments such as “Tell Every Body that nowes me to write to me,” “I soppose you are all in Bed while I am writing this 6:30 Pm here,” and “Tell Ant Mary I have so mch in my Dairy [Diary] Book that it will be some time before I can send it.” Just after this, in the upper left corner and upside down is the salutation, “This is all, Good By.”

Los Angeles Herald, 28 January 1907.

Naturally, one wishes that there was more that could be known about this fellow and his further experiences, short-lived or not, in the Angel City. Interestingly, that 1910 census listing for Annie Pitkin’s boarding house included a boarder John Cooney, a 63 year-old widower from New York of Irish parentage and whose occupation was “Miner—Gold Mine.” Given his references to Nevada mining towns, is it possible that the letter-writer was Cooney and that he was able to hang on in Los Angeles for at least a few years?

Finally, this unknown correspondent’s lament about a lack of opportunity has a notable context relating to where he spent his first few nights in Los Angeles. The Golden State Hotel, during 1907, played a part in several heartbreaking tragedies. At the end of January, 60-year old Vernon Hunt, a fifteen-year employee of the Los Angeles Railway and “familiarly known to thousands of street car passengers as ‘Old Dad,'” committed suicide in his room at the hostelry.

Hunt, “known as a man of jovial disposition, always having a merry word, and a jest for everyone” and referred to by his co-workers as “the jolliest man on the road,” had a habit of giving nicknames to the streets on this route. So, for example, Flower Street was called “Bouquet” and Olive was denoted “Green Plum.”

Times, 28 June 1907.

Yet, the hotel manager told the Los Angeles Herald, “on the day of his misfortune he confided his trouble to him, stating that his employers believed he had been dishonest in turning in his cash” collected from riders and it appeared he was more upset about the insinuation than his dismissal. Though Hunt spoke of finding other work, he turned disconsolate shortly before he shot himself in his room.

At the end of June, a Golden State guest was struck and killed while crossing the street at Figueroa and Seventh streets. On the first of December, newlyweds John and Frieda Erle came for a two-week honeymoon to the city from Phoenix, where they’d had their nuptials. After taking a stroll through downtown, with a stop at a drug store, they returned to their room and Frieda retired to the bedroom of the three-room suite they shared with her sister. A couple of hours later, John went in to check on his bride when he heard groans from the bedroom and found her in convulsions and agony on the floor. Near her were an empty four-ounce bottle, purchased from the store, of carbolic acid and two notes, one in German to her sister and the other in English to the groom.

Los Angeles Record, 2 December 1907.

The latter missive stated “Please forgive me, but I cannot be your wife—forgive me. I must die” and was signed “Your unlucky Frieda.” While she was still breathing, though heavily, and in great pain, she did not regain consciousness and was taken by her husband, who was an employee of a copper mining company, to the city’s receiving hospital, where she died after an hour. It was reported that she “was afflicted with an incurable disease” and in her despondency, took her life.

A little more than two weeks later, a man checked into the Golden State as William Simons and occupied Room 16. The 28-year old brakeman, actually William Cinnamon, came down from San Francisco and, on the evening of 16 December, walked to Central Park, now Pershing Square, wher he knelt in front of a tree and pulled out a revolver. Several men nearby saw him and rushed over, but Cinnamon fired a single bullet into his head. He was taken to the receiving hospital and lived a few hours, dying early the next morning.

Cinnamon left a note on him in which he stated “being a miserable wretch, all through my own folly, I am going to end it all. As you sow so shall you surely reap.” Apparently, he’d ruined his health through “debauchery,” perhaps drink or drugs, and the note mentioned he’d left his things at the Golden State. He added that his body could be left to a medical college, if wanted, but, otherwise, he said, there was “no need to find my friends, as I want to remain unknown.”

Herald, 18 December 1907.

For many people in the early 20th century, Los Angeles was a land of opportunity, blessed with incomparable weather, fertile soil, a booming economy for much of the time, and other attributes. This letter and the media accounts of the poor souls who took their lives at the hotel in which he stayed show that, as with any major city, there were those whose situations were not reflective of those conditions, though those stories are usually left untold. Sadly, there are so many people living in horrible conditions in the Skid Row area where this letter was penned 114 years ago and their lives are also part of the unfolding history of the Angel City.

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