“Los Angeles—The Wonder City of America”: A Review of the Angel City in the “Engineering News-Record,” 4 October 1923, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Now known as ENR, the trade publication Engineering News-Record counts as its mission the propagation of “engineering and construction news, analysis, commentary and data that construction industry professionals need to do their jobs more effectively.” In 1917, it was formed from the merger of Engineer and Surveyor (soon to be Engineering News, which was launched in 1874 and later issued by the Hill Publishing Company, and The Plumber and Sanitary Engineer, which debuted in 1877 and morphed two more times to become the Engineering Record and eventually under the auspices by the McGraw Publishing Company. When the new publication was created in 1917, it was under the combined McGraw Hill Publishing Company.

Today, ENR comprises 26 print and digital issues, along with regional and topical newsletters, podcasts, videos, webinars and live events under the ownership of BNP Media, while McGraw Hill considers itself “a leader in educational texts, teaching tools, and innovations” since James McGraw began his publishing career in the late 1880s. Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is an article on “Los Angeles—The Wonder City” from the Engineering News-Record of 4 October 1923 by Thomas A. Rickard, a mining expert and contributing editor of the Engineering and Mining Journal-Press.

Rickard’s enthusiastic piece about the Angel City includes a precis that noted that “its growth has been phenomenal” and “its building activity has never known a drop since the [First World] war and is increasing remarkably.” In fact, 1923 was the peak year of yet another regional boom, but the author added, “to those who have not been there, the tales from Los Angeles seem to be nothing but promoters’ talk.” While it certainly was a “boom town,” he ventured that “it has matured at an astonishing rate” and become “a great industrial city” with agriculture, oil and film as the three dominant industries. Moreover, “it is becoming self-contained” and “it grows on its own needs.”

The writer covered some of the early history from the city’s 1781 founding “on the bank of a small stream [the Los Angeles River], whose fringe of verdure threaded a sunburnt valley.” He continued that “it was an arid land” with a brief period with “habiliments of tender green and short-lived flowers,” but, otherwise, “the dust-clouds of the dsert danced unhindered over the coastal plain.” As to its early settlers, they “were picturesque, but idle” so that Los Angeles “was of no consequence; it languished, it stagnated” until the Mexican period when the Californios asserted more internal control and he stated only 150 foreigners lived in California by 1837 (one of these was Jonathan Temple, who arrived in Los Angeles in 1828 after a brief stay in San Diego following several years in Hawaii.)

Migrants came in larger numbers subsequently and the small aves became “a mighty flood when the cry of ‘gold’ in 1848 lured the adventurous in every land to the hills of California.” This, he observed was “synchronized” with the end of the Mexican-American War and the ratification, by the Mexican Congress, of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo just nine days after James Marshall’s discovery of the precious metal at Coloma east of Sacramento.

To his credit, Rickard added that there was the 1842 discovery of gold “in the San Fernando hills behind Los Angeles” which included “profitable operations [that] had attracted prospectors thither from Mexico.” Also benefitting was F.P.F. Temple, Jonathan’s brother, a new arrival who sent gold dust to a brother in Massachusetts after that smaller find. Yet, the writer claimed that earlier discoveries were undeveloped “because the haciendados [rancheros] deprecated anything that might take the laborer from theie fields and gardens.” He also noted that the oil industry in Los Angeles was “vastly more profitable than the placer diggings” of decades prior, when the pueblo was “Queen of the Cow Counties” and built on a cattle-based economy.

It was “in the transition from Mexican to American control [that] the titles to the old ranches were thrown into confusion by squatters,” though there were many other factors relating to the end of the Gold Rush, a resulting glut in the cattle market, unfamiliarity among the Californios with the intricacies of the American legal system, and more. In any case, “on top of these misfortunes came a series of droughts [following terrible flooding] culminating in that of 1864, which ruined the rancheros.” This latter observation was largely, but not completely, true, as F.P.F. Temple and his father-in-law William Workman were among those who managed to survive the difficult days of the first half of the Sixties.

After the Civil War, though came a new period “introducing a diversified agriculture upon the small holdings into which the old estates were cut,” with wheat and grapes beign the main crops. Rickard asserted that the citrus industry began in 1873 with Eliza Tibbets and her introduction of the navel orange out in Riverside, but William Wolfskill planted the first commercial grove over three decades earlier, long after the missionaries introduced the fruit to California. The oil industry started, he said, in 1892 with the opening of the Los Angeles field under Edward L. Doheny and Charles Canfield, though, again, there were earlier efforts dating back a quarter century in modern Santa Clarita, including the efforts of F.P.F. Temple. He also mentioned the onset of the film industry in 1908 [1909, by most sources.]

Rickard then divided the remainder of the piece into sections, including one on climate, which, of course, was “one of its [the city’s] attactions.” It was noted that records for the prior 47 years (1877 is considered the first official year) “show that Los Angeles has an annual average of only 11 days without sun, and only 15 days with as much as a quarter of an inch of rain; it can claim 273 days when the temperature is neither about 80 deg. F. nor below 40 deg.” Most of the average of fifteen inches fell within a 40-day period so that the region “enjoys a vigorous semi-tropical climate with all varieties of healthful weather.”

Concerning with the Port of Los Angeles, which he said “was known as San Pedro until 1909, when it was embraced by the city limits,” though this was also true of neighboring Wilmington, with the two conjoined into the rapidly expanded harbor. He correctly predicted that, while the facility was far from downtown, “the time is not far distant when the entire intermediate space will be covered with homes and gardens, factories and warehouses” and noted that, in 1922, a burgeoning Angel City imported more than 1.4 billion board feet of lumber, more than any other port city on the planet. He added that in March 1921 building permits totaled just shy of $7 million, grew 30% the next March and then doubled in March 1923.

Meanwhile, it was clear that “Los Angeles is today the biggest oil-producing center in the world” with much of the product going through the Panama Canal to ports in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard. Intercoastal trade was also booming, with nearly 80% of the material shippined in the last quarter of 1922 being on the Pacific coast. Rickard added that total commerce in 1921 was near 5 million tons and it more than doubled the following year, leading him to observe that “the arid eloquence of statistics is on the side of the Angeleno when anybody sneers at his claim to having a great seaport.”

Concerning the populace of the Angel City, which rocketed from above 5,600 in 1870 to over 576,000 in a half-century, the author noted,

The streets are congested with motor traffic, the sidewalks are crowded with people, the benches in the parks are occupied all day, and the hotels are overflowing . . . [and] such a growth is too fast for accurate enumeration; any census is soon out of date.

He was told by a Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce statistician that a poster proclaiming the goal of reaching a million denizens by 1925 was out of date, saying “Oh, we’ll be a million long before 1925,” leading Rickard to conclude, “they measure time not by the swing of the pendulum but by heart beats.” It is remarkable to read the next section in which he recorded, “it is the boast of Los Angeles that it is 70 per cent Anglo-Saxon,” while adding that the city “has 50,000 Mexicans, who do most of the common labor,” but “no other large city in the United States has so small a proportion of aliens.”

This manifestation of movement into the region “is the romance of the Middle West; it represents the migration of homeseekers from the prairies and mountains to the orange groves and rose gardens.” There were about 10,000 arrivals monthly and a quarter million people came to the county in the prior two-and-a-half years. Beyond this was the inexorable flow of tourists, with 400,000 coming each year, including about an eighth by ship and close to 20% by car, while about 80,000 decided to stay as permanent residents.

In the “Her Citizens” section, Rickard opined that “while Los Angeles has been exploited by advertising on an extraordinary scale, it is aso the product of the co-ordinated energies of good citizens.” The Chamber of Commerce had cose to 10,000 members, more than like organization in the world and he thought it fit to note that “they are men of the old stock; their names are easy to pronounce.” Among the leading lights of Los Angeles were banker Henry M. Robinson; businessman Harry F. [misnamed Henry E.] Halderman, whose son H.R. became the disgraced Chief of Staff for President Nixon; the recently deceased Arthur Letts of The Broadway department store; William Mulholland, the “Father of the Los Angeles Aqueduct;” Los Angeles Times publisher Harry Chandler; and “benefactor” Henry E. Huntington. The sole woman mentioned was Susan Dorsey, superintendent of the Los Angeles city schools. Huntington’s library, “picture gallery,” and botanical garden was denoted “an event in the cultural life not of Los Angeles alone but of California,” while praise was also heaped on the California Institute of Technology “a center of scientific research for all California.”

Juxtaposed to the business elite were the common working people of Los Angeles, which, Rickard said, were “being attracted to Los Angeles by the prevailing high wages.” An experienced mining man, the writer told of meeting a worker who had come to the Angel City by way of Jerome, in Arizona, and the writer related that “even the high wages paid by James Douglas in such a rich copper mine as the United Verde Extension [U.V.X. mine] did not suffice to keep him in Arizona.” After all the writer continued, “who would not prefer to work in the sunlight, so near the seashore and the orange groves, rather than labor in the dirt and darkness underground?” and who would not prefer to drive themselves to work in their own car?

With those superior wages and the manufacturing prowess of Henry Ford and his reliable and affordable flivvers, “a workman can live anywhere within 15 miles of his job; when off work he can cruise about the adjoining country, and acquire the desire for better ways of living.” The author added that “in 1922 Los Angeles county had 275,000 out of the 840,000 motor vehicles in California, with the city of Los Angeles alone including 200,000 of those cars, almost 25% of all those in the state.

We will return tomorrow with the second and final part of Rickard’s interesting essay with discussion of the region’s torrid economy, including agriculture, oil, movies, as well as the situation with public utilities and real estate promotion, so please check back then.

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