by Paul R. Spitzzeri
On 8 September 1797, twenty-six years to the day that the Mission San Gabriel was established, Mission San Fernando, named for a 13th century king of Spain canonized in 1671, was founded under Father Fermin Lasuen and it was done so to close the lengthy gap between San Gabriel and the Mission San Buenaventura (Ventura). The site selected was where the indigenous village of Achoicominga existed, with those indigenous people taken into the mission system referred to as Fernandeños. As a post next week will discuss, the effects on the natives during the mission period were manifold and destructive to their culture, a situation that continued to deteriorate rapidly after secularization in the 1830s and into the American era.
In the mid-1840s, the last governor of Mexican Alta California, Pío Pico leased the mission to his brother, Andrés, while the massive Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando, of nearly 117,000 acres, almost two-and-a-half times the size of Rancho La Puente and comprising most of the San Fernando Valley, was granted in 1846 to Spaniard Eulogio de Celis. Prior to returning to Spain, de Celis sold the southern half of the ranch to Andrés Pico, retaining the northern half and leasing it out until his death in 1869.
Meanwhile, Andrés Pico, facing financial failure, transferred his section in 1862 to his brother Pío. At the time, the greater Los Angeles region had just gone through a “Noah’s Flood” in which an estimated 50 inches of rain fell the prior winter, wreaking havoc throughout the area, while the next two years featured a terrible drought, with estimates of just 4 inches of rain during 1863 and 1864 and causing more devastation to ranchers and farmers.
In 1869, Pío Pico sold his half of the rancho, about 60,000 acres, for $115,000, using the proceeds to build his Pico House hotel on the Plaza in Los Angeles, to Isaac Lankershim, who created the San Fernando Farm Homestead Association and then brought in his son James and his eventual son-in-law, Isaac Van Nuys to assume management of the ranch, largely devoted to sheep raising, and which was later under the auspices of the family’s Los Angeles Farm and Milling Company, when wheat growing accelerated in the valley.
That same year, Eulogio de Celis died in Spain and his widow and sons returned to Los Angeles and their northern half of the ranch with Eulogio, Jr. taking on the responsibility of administering his father’s estate. Being “land-rich and cash-poor,” however, the family was forced to sell the 56,000-acre ranch in 1874 to former state senator Charles Maclay of the San Jose area and his partner George K. Porter. Not long after, Porter’s brother, Benjamin, purchased a large interest in the property and this is where the Porter Ranch community is now. Maclay, meanwhile, founded, also in 1874, the town of San Fernando along the Southern Pacific railroad line built from Los Angeles to connect with a line being brought down from the Bay Area.
The San Fernando Valley, unlike the San Gabriel Valley, was not possessed of abundant water sources, so it remained largely devoted to ranching and farming throughout the 19th century and into the 20th. As the City of Los Angeles, however, aggressively moved to secure water to meet the demands of incessant growth and found its future supply in the Owens Valley in Inyo County, wealthy capitalists (including Van Nuys, Henry E. Huntington, Los Angeles Times publishers Harrison Gary Otis and his son-in-law Harry Chandler, and Moses H. Sherman) with access to information long before the public, formed the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Corporation in 1905 in anticipation of the windfall that would surely come when the Los Angeles Aqueduct was completed.
The Aqueduct was formally opened in early November 1913 and a year-and-a-half later almost 109,000 acres of the San Fernando Valley was annexed to Los Angeles by a vote of 681 to 25, showing just how sparsely populated the area was. Gradually, suburbanization made its way to the valley, with film studios, new townsites and other elements becoming more widespread during the 1920s and then especially after World War II.
Meanwhile, the mission, returned in 1862 to the Roman Catholic Church by decree of President Abraham Lincoln, despite the obvious preoccupations of the Civil War, continued to decline as maintenance lagged and adobe buildings deteriorated. The chapel, however, continued to function as a parish church and there was growing interest in the missions after the publication in the 1880s of Helen Hunt Jackson’s massively popular romantic novel, Ramona.
With this context in mind, we now turn to this evening’s featured objects from the Homestead’s collection comprising a pair of real photo postcards taken of the decaying church and the worse-for-wear convento, which included the priests’ quarters and was built in stages from 1808 to 1822. The latter was taken from San Fernando Mission Boulevard, originally Stanford Avenue in the nearby town, and shows a rock-lined dirt drive, with bare fields on either side leading to the structure with its distinctive arched colonnade. Though the image is from a few hundred yards to the south, staining from water on the outside walls and damage to the tiled roof are visible. On the reverse of the unused card is inscribed “Monastery of Franciscan fathers lived a hundred years ago” and the date.
The former is a view of the badly exposed and worn adobe church, seen from behind a pair of palm trees and an adobe wall missing a substantial section. In front of the edifice and to the right and behind it are the rounded and smooth remains of partial adobe walls. On the reverse is written “San Fernando Mission Chapel erected in 1797” and “took the trip Aug 12, 1913.” The church was completed at the end of 1806 and destroyed six years later in a massive earthquake that largely ruined the stone church at San Juan Capistrano, with the structure shown here completed in 1818.
As forlorn as much of the historic site looked in these images, there were several accounts of visitors and other items of interest reported in the local press during the summer of 1913. For example, the 2 July edition of the Los Angeles Times noted that 150 orphans from the McKinley Industrial School in Gardena and the Belle White Home in Boyle Heights, while on an all-day outing, stopped at the mission to have lunch before venturing to see where the Aqueduct was being completed, likely at the Cascades in Sylmar. A few days later, the San Pedro Pilot recorded that a local couple returned with “two interesting curios” from the mission, including a rawhide thong that held rafters together and, while tramping through the cemetery, a coin said to have the date 1782 on it.
A couple of weeks after that, the Van Nuys News reported that “fourteen young people enjoyed an outing” by taking a streetcar “and were met at San Fernando Mision by a guide and an auto bus.” The article continued that “under the leadership of the guide they made a leisurely tour of the Mission, hearing much of its history and the stories connected with the ancient buildings.” As with the orphan group, this contingent, which was supposed to have forty persons, had “a dainty but abundant picnic luncheon on the lawn” before taking the bus to the Los Angeles Reservoir, perhaps the Van Norman Reservoir, and then drove up a hill to get a commanding view of the area. After about six hours, the group returned home, with one participant stating, “I have been on many similar picnic outings, but this was the most enjoyable I ever experienced. Those who missed it certainly missed a rare treat.”
In early August, the Burbank Review included a short account about Armitage S.C. Forbes and his wife Harrye, residents of South Pasadena, who were “making new location for new bells along El Camino Real, noting the condition of present bells and signs” as well as measuring these spots along the new road (Ventura Boulevard) being built from Cahuenga Pass to the Rancho Encino. It was noted that Armitage was president of the El Camino Real Association, dedicated to preserving and marking the road spanning California during the pre-American period, while Harrye was chair of the Bell Committee. It was added that the two were leading the charge on the work for El Camino Real, including a branch that led to the mission, perhaps via Sepulveda Boulevard. It was added that forty new bells were acquired with help from Richard W. Pridham, chair of the county’s Board of Supervisors and a member of the Association’s executive board.
On the 9th, the Los Angeles Express featured artist Charles A. Rogers (1848-1916), who, after leaving San Francisco following the earthquake and fire of 1906, had a studio in the Mozart Theatre building on Grand and 7th in downtown Los Angeles. Notably, in discussing his work with rendering the San Francisco Chinatown and the California missions, the article added that
Mr. Rogers is planning to paint the San Fernando mission before it is thoroughly modernized, and will pass many of the late summer days working in and near the historic old pile of mission bricks that are yet the admiration and the despair of modern engineers.
His goal was to have paintings of the San Gabriel, San Juan Capistrano and San Fernando missions readied for a fall exhibition and, while images can be found of his works for the former two, none was found specifying the latter, though one from 1913 is identified as a “mission garden.”
With respect to the future development of the San Fernando Valley, the 22 August edition of the Van Nuys News included an article regarding plans to close a “good roads” gap between Van Nuys and San Fernando, as Tobias Miller, president of the Golden Gate Fruit Company and owner of many orchards in greater Los Angeles such as the Orchardale Ranch in the valley, and the proprietor of an adjacent grain ranch were looking to contract for a thoroughfare that may have been Sepulveda, given reference to the work going on “just this side of the San Fernando Mission.”
The piece continued that
The completion of the boulevard to San Fernando will mean much to both places. To Van Nuys it will mean that a large portion of the travel that now goes over the San Fernando road [to the east] will be diverted through Van Nuys, while to San Fernando it will mean that the crowds of people who are drawn into the valley to look at the Van Nuys-Lankershim lands [Los Angeles Suburban Homes Corporation properties] will be very apt to continue their trip up to the Mission and San Fernando.
Moreover, it will have a tendency to increase the travel to the valley, for it will place on one route two of the greatest attractions of the valley—the electric lighted boulevard of the Sherman Way and the ancient San Fernando Mission.
The article ended that the hope was that the boulevard would be completed in time for the celebration marking the completion of the Aqueduct “so that the crowds may attend by way of Van Nuys and the $500,000 boulevard.” An ad from the Angeles Mesa Land Company in the Times on 20 July for “San Fernando Mission Lands” noted that prices for ten acres in Hollywood a decade before were about $3,000, but then were $50,000-$100,000, while the price of $300 an acre could be fetched at the former. It added that “the unstemmed tide of homeskeers is pushing on towards San Fernando” and the land would double in value in a year “as sure as the sun rises and sets” and might leap three or four times.
Of course, once that water flowed through the Cascades later in the year and the vast majority of the valley was annexed to Los Angeles development, mainly in the south along the slopes of the Santa Monica Mountains, did ramp up, as noted above. As for the mission, a fundraising campaign launched a few years after these photos were taken included the sale of thousands of candles at $1 a piece.
The renovated church became operational again when the Missionary Oblates of Mary Immaculate assumed responsibility for that, though it was so severely damaged in the Sylmar earthquake of 1971 that it had to be rebuilt, with the new structure completed three years later, and it is now a chapel-of-ease (meaning not a parish church.) The remainder of the site is considered a museum, including the extensive historical materials at the Archdiocese of Los Angeles Archival Center, long under the stewardship of Monsignor Francis J. Weber, a preeminent historian in the region for many decades.