Cable Channels: Night Lettergrams from Henry Z. Osborne, President of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, About a National Good Roads Congress in the Angel City, 24 and 28 September 1912

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

He was one of the more prominent public figures in late 19th century and early 20th century Los Angeles, though another of those largely, if not completely, forgotten today, and Henry Zenas Osborne is the subject of tonight’s featured objects from the Homestead’s collection, these being a pair of night lettergrams he sent from Boston to the Angel City on 24 and 28 September 1912.

Osborne was born in October 1848 in New Lebanon, New York, a town near the border with Massachusetts, southeast of the state capital of Albany. His father, Zenas, was a pastor and his mother was Juliette Bristol. By this early teens, he resided near Buffalo and, at 14, was apprenticed as a printer with a newspaper in that city. Shortly afterward, he worked for a newspaper in Cazenovia, a town near Syracuse where he met his wife Helene Annas.

A card showing Henry Z. Osborne’s service in the final months of the Civil War when he was just 16 years old (he passed himself off as 18 as shown on the document.)

The Civil War was underway and the young man sought to be a bugler with the Union Army, but his parents refused to allow him to join until he was 16 (though he claimed he was 18) and enlisted in February 1865 with a New York volunteer regiment at Schenectady, closer to his hometown. The war ended just a couple of months later as his unit took part in a campaign in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia. He mustered out in August and he returned to New York to work for a newspaper in Utica.

Osborne, as was often the case for printers and journalists, spent much of the next decade or so after the war moving throughout the country, working in Titusville, Pennsylvania; Cincinnati; Memphis; New York; Austin, Texas;and New Orleans, where he worked for three newspapers for a substantial stint. In 1872, he married Helene and the couple had four sons and a daughter over the following dozen years. Osborne was vice-president of the national typographer’s union and a reporter for the Associated Press syndicate and correspondent from the Crescent City for the Chicago Tribune.

An early reference to Osborne in Los Angeles as a vice-president of a Republican Party meeting, Los Angeles Herald, 8 June 1884.

In 1878, he came to California and settled in Bodie, a recently revived silver boom town now a ghost town and California State Park site in Mono County near the Nevada border, where, with Edward R. Cleveland, he established the Bodie Free Press, which the pair operated for about a half-dozen years. The two men, who were loyal Republicans, also garnered federal sinecures to supplement their incomes, with Osborne, a receiver of public funds. He also began to develop interests in mining that carried on long after he left, as Bodie began a decline within a couple of years of his arrival.

Osborne and Cleveland then came south in 1884 to the Angel City, where they took over the Los Angeles Republican followed soon by the acquisition of the Los Angeles Express, which was founded in the early Seventies. Though greater Los Angeles had long been in an economically stunted period, since a panic nearly a decade before that included the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, the pair arrived a couple of years before the famous Boom of the Eighties burst forth.

Departing president James Slauson (son of the street’s namesake Jonathan) greets his successor Osborne as chief executive of the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, Los Angeles Express (which Osborne once owned), 23 February 1912.

When the Los Angeles Board of Trade morphed into the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce in 1888, Osborne, a delegate to the national G.O.P. convention in Chicago that year, became a charter member and a very active one, especially at the helm of the Express. He continued receiving federal patronage, as well, becoming the customs collector at the Port of Los Angeles in 1890 and holding that post for the next four years. Just after he sold his interest in the paper, he was appointed the federal marshal for the Southern District of California, holding that position from 1898 to 1906.

He was also a captain with the California National Guard, serving as aide-de-camp of the brigadier general commanding the first brigade from 1889 to 1895, and was heavily involved with the Grand Army of the Republic (G.A.R.), comprising former Union Army soldiers from the Civil War, and was executive director of the 46th national encampment of that organization when it was held in Los Angeles in 1912.

Express, 18 September 1912.

All along, he continued to be intimately involved with the activities of the Chamber of Commerce, which became a very powerful promoter and booster of Angel City business and of the city and region generally, with Osborne closely associated with the chamber’s dynamic secretary, Frank Wiggins. He rose in the ranks of officers and this was capped off in early 1912 with his election as president. Among his early major efforts was getting Los Angeles in the spotlight as the Panama Canal project was moving towards completion—it opened in August 1914 and was a major boon for the region’s economy.

Another significant area of growth was with the rapid rise in the use of the automobile and Los Angeles’ suburban sprawl, mild climate and other factors quickly led to the Angel City being a car-centric one. in the absence of state and federal regulation of such aspects as highway building, the Chamber of Commerce, along with the Automobile Club of Southern California and other organizations were part of a “good roads” consortium seeking improvements of all kinds, including road surfacing, signage, safety and others, for the region.

The 24 September 1912 night lettergram from Osborne, who was in Boston, to the Chamber at Los Angeles.

Across America, the movement led to the holding of an annual “National Good Roads Congress” and Osborne, along with Wiggins, took the opportunity, in September to make a pitch to hold the 1913 confab in Los Angeles, Wiggins was in Atlantic City, New Jersey, for that year’s congress, while Osborne traveled to Boston to attend the International Congress of Chambers of Commerce. While at the Congress, Osborne sent this part of night lettergrams to the Chamber, with the one dated the 24th, stating,

Reached her[e] all right today & Congress is most representative of commerce of [the] world ever held. Frank and I yesterday conferred about inviting [the] National Road Convention to meet [in] Los Angeles next year and I find that [T. Cary] Friedlander [son of “Wheat King” Isaac] is going [to] Atlantic City to write [the] same body to meet [in] San Francisco [in] nineteen fifteen. Would like Board’s opinion whether we had better put in [an] invitation under [the] circumstances.

Obviously, there was growing competition between the two largest California cities and, with San Francisco hosting the massive Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE) in 1915, Osborne, Wiggins and others were eager to do what they could to get as much attention to Los Angeles as possible, including trying to secure the National Good Roads Congress for 1913. The chamber president concluded this first lettergram by saying that it was likely better to wait until he’d spoken further with Wiggins, but wanted a pulse on the organization’s views as soon as possible.

Times, 26 September 1912.

In the meantime, on the 25th as reported by the Los Angeles Times, Osborne presented to the chambers of commerce convention an invitation that was included in the journal of the congress’ proceedings, in which he wrote, “the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce desires cordially to join the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce in an invitation to the delegates from abroad, after they have completed their scheduled visits to the eastern and middle western cities, to visit California and other Pacific Coast States before returning to their distant homes.”

Because, he continued, the completion of the canal would bring California closer to Europe and other nations, this was an opportune time for delegates to see the west coast, especially considering “the growth of Los Angeles within thirty years from a village of 10,000 people to an exceptionally beautiful modern city of more than 400,000 population.” Beyond this, Osborne added, there were the “excellent deep sea harbor at municipal cost of several millions” at San Pedro/Wilmington (both annexed to the Angel City three years prior) “and an aqueduct across and through the mountains, 250 miles in length” and which would open the next year.

The follow-up cable to the Chamber’s secretary from Osborne, 28 September 1912.

These, along with “hundreds of miles of smooth-surfaced and most substantial roads in the United States, are examples of healthy municipal phenomena most interesting and well deserving of personal observation.” Adding that, in addition to the PPIE, there would be a California-Panama Exposition in 1915 held for two years (and which led to beautiful buildings and other transformations of what was renamed, from City Park, Balboa Park), Osborne concluded with the request that “such delegates as may go to California . . . communicate with this body and they will receive a most cordial welcome at Los Angeles and San Diego” with the invitation subscribed by the Chamber.

That objective realized, Osborne returned to the 1913 good roads confab and sent a lettergram on the 28th, specifically communicating to the organization’s secretary that

[We’d] better frame[a] strong invitation [for the] National Good Roads Convention [sic] and have it signed by Mayor [George] Alexander, [Pike’s Peak] Ocean [to Ocean] HIghway Association, Southern California Automobile Club [Automobile Club of Southern California], [Los Angeles] Convention League, [and the] Chamber of Commerce and wire me care Atlantic City about Monday, after consultations with Wiggins. If San Francisco were not asking, [I] think we would have [a] good chance; but two cities [from the] same state asking so nearly together [1913 for Los Angeles and two years later for san Francisco] is [a] handicap to both.

It took a few days, but, on 1 October, the Express reported “a formal invitation to the American road congress, now in sesion at Atlantic City, to hold its 1913 convention in Los Angeles today was sent that organization.” The paper added that a telegram signed by Mayor Alexander “and other associations” as suggested by the Chamber president was remitted to Osborne to present to the congress.

The report of the invitation for the National Good Roads Congress from Osborne and the Chamber, Express, 1 October 1912.

The invitation read, in part, that “we are completing a system of good roads in this county at an expense of $3,500,000. We are actively working on the ocean-to-ocean highway [also called “The Appian Way of America” and slated to come into the region from Las Vegas, Barstow, Victorville, San Bernardino and Pasadena before terminating at Los Angeles] and in addition the state of Califonria is about to expend $18,000,000 in permanent highways.”

The missive concluded with the statement that “we believe that a meeting in this city will be of great interest to your congress,” while assuring that “you will find every convenience and facility for holding conventions and we shall take great pleasure in welcoming you in 1913.” While it was decided to hold the confab in Detroit instead, Los Angeles and its environs was defintely in the vanguard of highway building and other infrastructure devoted to the automobile and was well on its way to becoming the “car capital of the world.”

A pasport photo of Representative Osborne for a Congressional fact-finding junket to Asia, 1920.

As for Osborne, he completed his term as chamber president and then entered into the final phase of his long career in business and public service in Los Angeles by serving on the Board of Public Works in 1914-1915 before winning a seat in the House of Representatives in the fall 1916 elections. He secured just under half the vote, with almost double the tally of his nearest competitor, and represented what was then the 10th District, comprising much of the city from downtown Los Angeles and westward.

In 1918, with only a socialist opponent, Osborne garnered 88% of the vote to win reelection, and followed that, in 1920, with only a slightly reduced vote total, as he defeated Upton Sinclair, the author of the famous 1906 novel, The Jungle and running as a socialist, with almost 83% of the ballots cast.

Osborne’s obituary, Times, 9 February 1923.

He secured another victory for a fourth term in fall 1922 with the distinction of having no opponents, but, died on 8 February 1923, less than a month before the 68th Congress convened. Osborne was 74 and left a long legacy of deep involvement in business and politics in the Angel City and, with the Homestead having several other artifacts connected to him, we’ll perhaps encounter him again in a future post.

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