by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As we return to the Illustrated Los Angeles Herald from September 1887, published as William H. Workman was mayor of Los Angeles and when the region was in the full frenzy of the so-called Boom of the Eighties and as boosterism and promotion of the area was at its most prominent, one of the feature articles was titled “Great Growth: The Highest Civilization of the World” by Robert M. Widney.
The lawyer, judge and real estate speculator (and accused vigilante!) arrived in the Angel City in the late Sixties, as the town was undergoing its first significant and sustained period of growth and became one of its most fervent advocates, even as he allegedly participated in the lynching of Michel Lachenais in December 1870 (for which his name has been recently removed from public prominence at the University of Southern California, of which he was a core founder a decade later.) The next year, however, he attempted to dissuade rioters from lynching innocent men during the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871 and, being appointed district court judge shortly afterward, presided over criminal trials of those indicted for their involvement in the death of Dr. Gene Tong.
Widney was also, in 1874, the founding president of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, the first streetcar system (albeit a single one horse-pulled car) in the city and of which F.P.F. Temple was the first treasurer. With his uncle, Charles Maclay, purchasing a large property in the eastern San Fernando Valley that same year and founding the city of San Fernando, Widney became a principal in that enterprise. So, he had about two decades of experience with Los Angeles’ business and real estate community when he penned his essay for this publication.
He asserted that “the astonishing growth of Southern California generally, and of Los Angeles cojunty and city in particular, has attracted the attention of the press and of the public throughout the United States, and the fame thereof has gone far beyond, into other nations.” He cited a now-obscure work, The Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation, published anonymously in 1844 with the author only revealed four decades later, long after his death, to have been Scottish-born Robert Chambers, who advanced a theory that would be considered a version of evolution. Widney noted that Chambers stated that the United States could not be sufficiently a civilized nation until it was “fully peopled to the Pacific” and that, when this was accomplished, “the greatest civiliation of the territory will be found in the peninsula of California and the narrow strip of country beyond the Rocky Mountains.”
Widney, whose physician brother Joseph had grandiose theories of racial development, though had moderate views of Latinos and Blakcs considering the time, and later wrote the Race Life of the Aryan Peoples to suggest that Aryans made their way from central Asia to Europe and then to North America and culminated in the settling of the continent to the Pacific, added that there was a “selected stock of the race in America” that “has reached the Pacific slope.” This development, he continued, meant that “the highest civilization will be on the western slope of the continent” and that it would be comprised of “the choicest race elements of America’s energy and power.” Moreover, Widney speculated:
The grandeur of this Pacific civilization has been seen from afar, by the light of reason,and the western horizon is already aglow with the rays of the coming glory.
Those coming here are largely coming from the cold regions of the north . . . Coming to the mild climate of Southern California, this enery will not be consumed in a struggle for existence, bu it will expend itself in works of literature, science and art . . .
Those coming to Los Angeles and Southern California are mainly from the educated and wealthy classes. They come bringing their civilization and refinement with them . . .
Here the capitalist of the near future will make his home, amid luxurious elgance, mbowred with fruits, flowers, and semi-tropical vegetation. Here he will at his ease, fanned by the cooling, exhilirating breezes of summer, and breathed upon by the salubrious air of winter, loaded with the perfume of the orange blossoms and of myriads of flowers, plan his financial campaigns for the continent . . .
Freed from the “miserable climates” of the east and north, these drivers of American civilization would find their paradise because they would be healthier and, therefore, happier. So, too, would be the tourist, the invlid and those of “all grades of society” who would “realize each in its department [class] the fitness of things for success.” Bank statements, railroad development, higher education (preeminently, of course, USC), churches and other indicators showed what was underway in “this western Eden.”
Widney waxed eloquently as he observed that “This Christmas day (1886) I look out from my sitting room window, over hills and valleys of semi-topical land. The bright sunshine pours down from a cloudless sky, rays warm and invigorating, filling the whole area of vision with the most delightful conditions of existence.” He cited another authority, Southern Pacific railroad President Charles Crocker,” who averred that “the class of such people which you have to draw upon [for growth] is so large, that I see no reason why this ‘boom,’ as it is called, should not continue indefinitely” especially as wealthy retired Easterners poured in.
Widney warned, however, that “I do not advise people to sell out and move here. I only say come and see, then act on your own judgment.” Despite this caveat, he concluded that “they are not a few who believe that the Queen City of the Pacific will be Los Angeles and that in population it will outnumber any other city on the coast. The future of Southern California is as bright and permanent as its sunshine and its climate.”
A separate paean to the Angel City, “The Queen City of the Pacific,” portended that Los Angels “will soon be the most remarkable city in the United States” because of its myriad advantages and that “such another location is unknown in history.” Aside from fertile soil, the claim was that “the beautiful [San Gabriel and other ranges] mountains [are] inlaid with oil, gold and silver, iron and plumbago,” though why the latter was deemed vital was not explained. Still, with railroad development, street railways, educational institutions, the climate, and other factors, “no parallel exists to this, the Queen of the Pacific.”
A brief “Our Products” essay, offered that “Los Angeles has neither superior, peer nor rival on the earth in the way of variety of products, and of profits of husbandry.” Some quarter million acres of farmland were under cultivation, with 60% in barley and the remainder in wheat, with most of the latter exported to Europe, while the former remained local or sent “to the territories,” presumably in western America. Among the locales cited was that “there will be 15,000 to 20,000 acres put in on the [Rancho La] Puente” while Santa Ana and San Fernando were also mentioned. Oats, rye, and corn were also mentioned as future staples, along with alfalfa and pumpkin, ideal for fodder.
Separately, there was a lengthy exposition on “The Wines of California,” reprinted from the New York Times by Benjamin C. Truman, its correspondent reporting from San Francisco and who was quoted at length in yesterday’s post for his article about a traveler’s impressions of greater Los Angeles. Mention was made of local vintages from Cucamonga and the Angelica sweet fortified wine made from the Mission grape so dominant in greater Los Angeles and mentioned as “the source of all California brandies and wines” through the mid-Fifties. Also noted was that “the port wine from Los Angeles County is undoubtedly the best, purest and truest port used in the country,” this being another sweet fortified wine. In all, southern California was best suited, it was observed, for “sweet and heavy wines” including sherry and madeira in addition to port and Angelica.
After reviewing some history, production statistics and methods, the correspondent mentioned speaking to James De Barth Shorb, son-in-law of Benjamin D. Wilson, who came to Los Angeles with the Rowland and Workman Expedition of 1841 and whose Lake Vineyard estate in present San Marino and Alhambra was taken over by Shorb after Wilson’s death nearly a decade prior. Deemed “an extensive and very intelligent wine maker,” Shorb told the journalist that there were only two “natural wines” on the planet, these being “the white and the red,” though, really, the former was a matter of removing the skins that gave the latter its color.
Following a lengthy description of the process of wine manufacturing, the writer observed that “there is no doubt that at present the California winemakers are on the right road to success in many respects” and that “the coming California wines will be the blended ones, which shall soon give perfect results of tannin, color, aroma and bouquet.” Viniculturists were commonly using three to five varieties and quite recently becoming more sophisticated in the kinds of blends they were producing. It was observed that the Sainsevain brothers, Jean Louis and Pierre, tried to make a good sparkling wine with the Mission grape, but could not do so. Also noted, however, were problems with pests and, especially, phylloxera, an insect that wiped out nearly all regional vineyards, save Cucamonga and a few others within just a few years.
Another interesting general article is “Climatology and Diseases of Southern California,” which drew heavily on a paper given by Dr. Henry S. Orme, president of the State Board of Health at its ninth biennial conference and a longtime Los Angels physician. Orme spent most of the early part of his presentation outlining the geographical element of the region, noting that annual rainfall in the Angel City was some 17.6 inches and that, regionally, precipitation was such as “is sufficient to produce as much as the soil will stand without ‘wearing out.'”
With respect to humidity, it was stated that “the seasons of dry air and moist air are well marked,” then considered an important point for determinations of the effect on humidity on health. So, the theory went, the damp and chilly weather more often found in the coast for longer periods of the year were offset by the drier and earmer environment inland so that “the atmosphere is so pure and free from organic germs” that, farther inland, “meat exposed to the air cures or ‘jerks,” but does not putrify. It was added that were there was too much irrigation or drainage was poor, “the atmosphere is liable to be unwholesome, and malarial diseases might prevail.” Interestingly, the notorious Santa Ana winds were considered “health-giving, but extremely disagreeable.”
As for diseases, rheumatism was stated to be frequent in areas like sections of Los Angeles exposed to the west and to damp winds from the ocean though there was also “irregular mode of life and exhausted vitality” for which to account. With respect to malarial or typhoidal types of afflictions, one location cited was Compton, apparently because of the swampy conditions that were found in the South Bay prior to drainage and development.
Because of the abundance of fruit, and the “probably indiscreet use” of it, intenstinal problems were expected, but not found to be windespread, excepting that “diarrhea is reported frequent at San Pedro and at Azusa, perhaps because of “open ditches where decayed vegetation is allowed to remain, and the water, though sparkling and bright, becomes infected and finds its way into cisterns.” There were evidently some reports of “infantile convulsions” attributed “to the indigestion of unripe oranges,” though this was deemed to be rare.
Orme noted that commonplace migration of “health seekers” to the region because of respiratory ailments, though he stated that for many, “the mildness of these cases seldom demands medical treatment” so much as “the progress of acclimatization” to the region’s weather. It was noted, though, that many new arrivals planted themselves too close “to the raw westerly sea breeze” in winter and needed reminding to wear woolen clothing during the rainy season.
Reporting that croup, bronchitis (except at San Pedro), and pneumonia were infrequently reported, Orme addressed asthma, saying homegrown cases were uncommon, while those who came here to deal with the malady “demonstrate the obstinate and as yet incomprehensible eccentricities of the affection [affliction].” When it came, however, to recovery, the doctor noted that those would do so who are “willing to submit to the tyranny of the climate-hungry neurosis.” He added that “the environments demanded in the majority of instances” for those with the malady were Colton near San Bernardino and the Ventura County town of Nordhoff, better known to us as Ojai.
Those suffering from tuberculosis comprised the majority of deaths in the area, “but the vast majorty of these deaths occur among persons who have come here already infected, in hope of restoration” and usually within a year. Orme noted that, while whites were not likely to contract TB, it was
common among the Spanish portion of residents, and this is ascribed to close intermarriage through a long series of years and to change of habits since the coming of the Anglo-Americans; the natives living more in their adobe houses and not so much out of doors as formerly. They are poorer—perhaps not well nourished; and in many ways are not hygenically so favorably situated as in times past. Thirty or forty years ago, tubercular disease was rare among them; now each year it becomes more common.
This “race deterioration” implied that “the rapid increase of the white races has steadily placed the Spanish at [a] disadvantage” and to the point that “the near future will probably witness the extinction of these earlier occupants and phthisis [tuberculosis] will have not a little to do with the finale.” It was suggested, however, that living indoors and in insufficient houses, either adobe or wood frame, and little or no exercise “must eventually do for the rich American what similar conduct is effecting for the poor Spaniard.”
After noting that most kidney diseases were due “to the abuse of food and dram drinking [hard liquor]” and to general “intemperance,” Orme wrote that “from the foregoing, it may be inferred, that whatever may be the commercial importance of Southern California or its future as the center of the great industries which are even now developing in our midst, its excellence as a health resort cannot be exaggerated.” He claimed that “no epidemics have ever visited this part of the State, and contagious diseases which have been brought here have never obtained a foot hold.” This last statement obviously belies what was experienced in the 1918-19 flu pandemic or our own COVID-19 pandemic.
The article turned to mortality statistics provided by the Los Angeles health officer for the period from November 1885 through October 1886 and it was reported that “mortaility from consumptin was exceptionally large” because of those with TB who came to the area seeking relief,” but came in their final stages “with recovery an impossibility and death the only possible result.” Yet, there were many who did benefit from the climate and had their lives extended by living in the area.
There were 120 deaths from consumption and the second leading cause was stillbirths at 23, followed by 16 cases of spinal meningitis and dentition (infection from young children teething), 15 of scarlet fever, 14 of penumonia, 13 of meningitis, and 12 each of heart disease and premature births. In all, there were 454 deaths out of a population thought to be at 30,000 at the most conservative level and as high as 45,000 “by the sanguine” estimator. The conclusion was that “if there are any deaths at all recorded in this favorite region [it] is largely ascribed to the fact that everybody must die.”
There is much more of interest in this very informative publication, especially as concerns specific areas of the region and certain industries, so we’ll return on Thursday with part three of this post.