by Paul R. Spitzzeri
When the seventh of a series of special publications issued by the Los Angeles Herald newspaper was published in September 1887, Los Angeles and its environs was in the throes of the great Boom of the Eighties, with tremendous growth in population, real estate sales, building, business growth and other areas at levels unprecedented in the region’s history.
The Angel City’s mayor was William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William and Nicolasa Workman, and the transformations underway during the boom, which lasted for a few years, were at least partially described in this Illustrated Los Angeles Herald. There is such a wealth of information (or propaganda) in the publication, identified as the G.A.R. Edition because it promoted the 21st encampment of the Grand Army of the Republic, or the Union Army of the Civil War, held in September and October at St. Louis, that we will definitely mine the document in future parts of this posts.
For this evening, however, we’ll take a look at some notable articles and essays and what they tell us about the fevered conditions of boom-era greater Los Angeles, starting with the “Progress of a Year” which is the first piece. It noted that, in the six-and-a-half years since the first of the series was issued in May 1881, “the city of Los Angeles has increased in population nearly five hundred percent” not unlike what happened in Kansas City during its major boom during the Sixties. Moreover, the area’s “railway communications have been extended at an unheard of rate, and our productive wealth has kept pace with the quite phenomenal growth of the population of both city and county.”
The publiation contains, it was added, “the details of this wonderful progress” and “given with great minuteness,” though a summary was deemed necessary. This included the fact that, generally speaking, migrants to the area were “settlers of an exceptionally superior class” having been mainly “persons of means, intelligence, energy and business capacity” who focused on “developing water and breaking up and cultivating large areas of new land.” In some cases, these individuals “have made colossal investments,” so that, in just the ten days before the essay was written, $310,000 per day was devoted to real estate sales.
The fact that some recent months found $4 million of sales might seem surprising, but it was noted that “Los Angeles embraces an area of some three million six hundred thousand acres, at least one-half of which is adapted to raising the greatest variety of products of any region of similar extent on earth.” Not only this, “it has a climate which combines the best things that have been been said of Nice and Mentone [on the French Riviera] or any of the other famous health resorts of the world.”
It was asserted that the region “is capable of supporting, when properly developed, a population of a million souls,” which must’ve seemed reasonable given that Los Angeles County then numbered some 90,000 souls, but it is now ten times the maximum specified! It was claimed that “noting was more certain” that that, by 1897, there would be 300,000 residents in the county, though the census of 1900 recorded far fewer, about 170,000, but the reckoning may have assumed there would be no inevitable bust to follow the boom, not to mention several years of drought and a national depression in 1893. Still, it was averred that the “demand for Los Angeles real estate . . . is certain not to know diminution for many years to come.”
Railroad building was skyrocketing and it was added that “the development of the oil neasures of Los Angeles received a great impetus during the past year, the Puente section looming up remarkably” with it added that “this field promises to be still further exploited in the near future” and “it possibilities are practically illimitable.” While this was typical booster hyperbole, the Puente oil wells, developed by William R. Rowland, former county sheriff and heir of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland, and partner William Lacy, were early examples of a belt of oil development that would stretch, from the early Nineties onward, through Montebello, Whittier and into Brea.
Agriculture was also continuing expansion, though it was stated that wine and brandy joined citrus, oranges and lemons, in this, yet the onset of Pierce’s disease would ravage the region’s vineyards in short order, while the growth of orange and lemon raising would be transformative for years to come. Also highlighted was the expection that the Angel City and the county would “at last be provided with public buildings commensurate with their population and wealth.” A new city hall and county courthouse were emblematic of this phenomenon.
Yet, along with new hotels, an opera house (built by Ozro W. Childs and named for him), along with improved streets and sidewalks, the essay expressed the hope that “there is at last a prospect that Chinatown will be legally demolished” and that “this would give a great impetus to the growth and improvement [read: gentrification] of the old Spanish quarter of the city.” The clear goal, at least of the paper, was to remove vestigies of people of color and allow for the further “whitening” of Los Angeles through remaking the historic core of the city along with the recasting of the color of its population.
As it summarized, the writer noted that with “railway facilities [that] are not surpassed by those of any city in the world,” shipping to be enhanced by a proposed port at Ballona and the federal govermnet appropriating funds for the habor at Wilmington, and continued exponential growth, the Angel City was bound to be as successful as Kansas City and St. Paul in recent development. Lastly, it was reported “that 65,000 excursionists [tourists] were booked for Los Angeles” from eastern locales in the past winter, so that, “the old Florida tide of travel has turned distinctively this way, and the new fashion bids fair to be permanent.”
In “A Traveled Man’s Estimate of Los Angeles,” a passage is cited from the book From the Crescent City to the Golden Gate, written by Benjamin C. Truman, former proprietor of the Herald‘s competitor, the Los Angeles Star, the Angel City’s first newspaper and which was published from 1851-1864 and 1868-1879. It was related that travelers made their way to Los Angeles from the east, passing through such towns as Ontario, Pomona, San Gabriel and Pasadena and landmarks like Mission San Gabriel and the Sierra Madre Villa hotel.
An unnamed colonel stated that he’d stayed in Los Angeles during the Civil War and again thirty years later and that he’d visited as a civilian in 1883. He told his companions, “you will be greatly taken with the city of Los Angeles” and added that “I am fonder of it than of any place I have ever been,” so that it was “the strawberries and cream of the Golden State.” After further questioning, the retired officer went on to observe:
No beautiful pictures need be sketched of this land flowing milk and honey. Every man lives under his own vine and fig tree, and breathes the free air of America. The magnificent panorama of every-day life laughs at all allegories. Agriculture teems and Hygeia [the Roman goddess of health] reigns. The eye is charmed and the heart is filled; the soul is intoxicated with a vision of loveliness and beauty . . .
The account added that “no city of equal size in America has advanced more rapidly or more surely” and the colonel compared the pre-American part of Los Angeles, as “irregularly built of adobe,” with the newer section with “handsome private residences and pretentious business structures.” Moreover, “Los Angeles is emphatically a city of groves and gardens” where “fruits and flowers abound everywhere,” while in the suburbs, are “luxurious exhibitions of the great richnes and fruitfulness of the soil,” such as at Pasadena, which was highlighted as the most attractive.
In a piece about the area’s growth in 1886, it was noted that there were 5,000 more voters entered on the great register than two years prior, and it was statated that, for every 1,300 voters added, the growth of population was 7,000, so that those two years meant that over 25,000 new residents were in the county. The last year alone brought 10,000 new people to the Angel City and there weren’t many more than that in total when the 1880 federal census was conducted.
For 1887, it was estimated that there were some 50,000 residents and by the end of the decade it was expected that the tally would be doubled. As for tourism, it was reported that some 4,000 visitors arrived in a week in early December 1886. The rest of the article focused on reports from architects concerning new structures, with some including costs and it was noted that “for the greater part of the year the contractors and capenters had about 250 houses on hand all the time. It was common for six to ten structures to be completed every day and, aside from buildings, it was stated that the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe railroad was to “build a grand depot at the foot of First Street (La Grande Station did not open until 1893 and was at Second Street and Santa Fe Avenue.)
On those reports, the firm of Strange and Gottschalk, which launched operations only four months prior, already had over a quarter million dollars of projects through some 170 houses. R.B. Young designed 65 houses aggregating over $240,000 in value, while he also worked on the Lankershim Block, costing $50,000, the Breed Block at $22,000 a few hotels at about $40,000 in value, and churches and school buildings, as well.
C.H. Brown designed some 45 houses (including for such luminaries as Isaias M. Hellman, Andrew Glassell, George H. Smith, and George S. Patton, father of the famed World War II general) with $278,000 in value; hotels in Los Angeles, Alhambra and Puente, the latter being the Rowland (owned in the 1920s by Walter P. Temple) and aggregating some $50,000; school buildings; a Flower Festival Society Building; and churches and stores.
Finally, there was the firm of Kysor, Morgan and Walls, including quite a few commercial buildings for Ozro W. Childs; Smith, Patton and Robert M. Widney; the estate of Mathew Lanfranco; banker John Bryson, who succeeded Workman as mayor for 1888-1889; and wine and liquor dealer Henry J. Woollacott. The firm also designed the Los Angeles Milling Company warehouse and Hazard’s Pavilion, along with houses for state senator and future United States senator Stephen M. White and others, so that the residential projects were valued at just under $70,000, but commercial ones tallied almsot $400,000.
Another indicator of growth was in the “Combined Capital” section which listed incorporations ranging from the low four figures into the low millions. Among the new firms created in recent months were the California Telephone Company; Ballona Harbor Improvement Company; the Times-Mirror Company for the Herald‘s competitor, the Los Angeles Times; Los Angeles Electric Railway Company; the Citizens’ Water Company; San Bernardino and San Diego Railroad Company; San Bernardino and Los Angeles Railroad Company; Temple Street Cable Railroad Company; Pasadena Building and Loan Association; the Mexican Oil and Gas Company; Monrovia Land and Water Company (for that new town in the San Gabriel Valley); and the Azusa Land and Water Company.
A table of “Assessed Valuation of [the] County” showed that, in 1860, values were at just above $3 million, though floods and droughts that ravaged the area in the following four years took this figure down by roughly a third. Growth ensued from 1866, which a large 80% increase in 1868, when the first boom in the region began, lasting for about seven years. This meant that values leapt to about 5 million by 1870, doubled within three years and peaked at about $12 million in 1874.
Despite the economic panic of 1875-76, valuation grew to about $15 million by that latter year, though remained largely static until the early Eighties. The total was some $20 million in 1882 and then leapt 15% the next year, another 20% of more by 1884, and then 15% in the next year before another quarter so that, in 1886, the total was north of $40 million.
Elsewhere, a table of personal property showed 12,000 cattle valued at $190,000; not far under 9,000 cows at over $240,000; some 14,000 horses worth about $550,000; and over 173,000 sheep valued at $260,000. There were about three quarter of a million gallons of wine valued at nearly $75,000 and about $40,000 worth of wheat, oats, barley and corn. About a quarter of the total comprised nearly $1.5 million worth of goods, wares and merchandise, another $585,000 in furniture, $323,000 in wagons and other vehicles and above a quarter million dollars in machinery. In all, the aggregate was just a bit under $6 million.
Check back with us tomorrow and we’ll continue with part two and the discussion of more interesting and informative material from this fascinating review of conditions in boom-era Los Angeles.