“The Great Imponderables That Make Men Worthy Citizens of a Democratic Commonwealth”: A Review of the Angel City in the “Engineering News-Record,” 4 October 1923, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In this final of two parts covering Thomas A. Rickard’s overview of “the wonder city of America” that was post-World War I Los Angeles, undergoing another of its many boom periods with a peak in the real estate market coming that year, we look at the 1923 article from Engineering News-Record, now known as ENR, from the standpoint of the region’s economy.

With “Agricultural Development,” the author, having discused the inhabitants (70% of whom were “Anglo-Saxon,” a fact Rickard said was of great pride to the city, the growth of which was “the romance of the Middle West”), he said that Los Angeles “is not a community of tourists, valetudinarians [had to look this one up: it means those of poor health—he meant the health-seekers who flooded the region in past decades to seek remedies for tuberculosis and other maladies], and idlers; it is a city of many industrial activities.”

The oldest was agriculture and the writer stated that:

On the surrounding plains where fifty years ago gaunt herds of cattle scraped a vare existence from the hard soil, where starving sheep wandered disconsolate amid clouds of dust, today is one of the pleasure gardens of the world.

Actually, conditions in 1873 were hardly that bad. If he’d said sixty years previously, then, yes, greater Los Angeles was devastated by a debilitating drought following a horrible flood that virtually wiped out the cattle industry, the backbone of the region’s economy since it was settled in the late 18th century.

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After the Civil War and through the mid-Seventies, however, the sheep industry grew dramatically and agriculture, specifically the raising of wheat and grapes, which Rickard mentioned earlier in his article, was growing by leaps and bounds as the area underwent its first sustained and significant period of growth, lasting until the panic of 1875-76 hit (including the failure of the Temple and Workman bank.)

Even after a decade of limited expansion, the Boom of the Eighties, taking place largely during the administration of William H. Workman as the Angel City’s mayor in 1887 and 1888, also brought a burgeoning boost in the citrus industry, which he reckoned dated to the 1873 introduction of the navel orange by Eliza Tibbets of Riverside though William Wolfskill (using descendants of the trees planted by missionaries in days of yore) planted the state’s first commercial grove in Los Angeles more than thirty years prior.

Rickard touted the fact that “this arid land has been touched by the fairy wand of irrigation, which has first made use of the subterranean supply of water, tapped by wells and distributed by ditches, and later of the water brought on a large scale from distant fountains,” this latter meaning the great Los Angeles Aqueduct projects, superintended by William Mulholland and completed a decade prior.

After noting that the city had some 370 square miles of land and the county just above 4,000, the author noted that the latter “is the most productive county in the United States, and it has enjoyed that distinction for more than a decade. For example, in 1919, total farm output was peged at just shy of $62 million, with Fresno and Aroostook County in Maine the next two highest counties at near $52 million or so each. The next year, the orange crop alone generated some $19 million of value, or about 30% of all agricultural yields, while the state’s gold production was about $17.4 million.

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In 1922, though, a rare frost caused terrible damage to the region’s citrus output, so that the declared value dropped to under $18 million and total agricultural production was not far south of $60 million. About a fifth of the orange crop were lemons, with others between $3.3 and $3.8 million being walnuts (a major focus on Walter P. Temple’s Workman Homestead at the time), alfalfa and strawberries. The next five crops, ranging from $1.7 to 2.5 million in value were, in descending order, lettuce, beans, sugar beets, grapes and potatoes.

The next section is “Oil Resources” and the terrible situation now with the massive oil spill off the coast of Huntington Beach is a reminder of the dangers associated with this industry, which has been pursued in greater Los Angeles for over 150 years. Rickard identified the beginnings with the development of the Los Angeles, or Salt Lake, though he wrote that it was so called because it was “discovered by miners from Salt Lake City” in 1892.

This was in error, though, as Edward L. Doheny and Charles Canfield, late of New Mexico mining ventures, brought in the Los Angeles City Oil Field at that time. Moreover, oil was being successfully prospected in the region since the 1870s, with F.P.F. Temple one of those diligently drilling in the San Fernando Field of modern Santa Clarita, while William R. Rowland, son of Rancho La Puente co-owner John, brought in the Puente field in the Eighties.

Yet, the discovery by Doheny and Canfield galvanized investment and exploration on a large scale, coinciding with the move by railroads to petroleum for fuel for locomotives while the automobile was soon on the horizon. New fields were developed at Olinda in northeastern Orange County, Whittier, Montebello (including the lease owned by Walter P. Temple, which brought him a fortune), and elsewhere in greater Los Angeles. Rickard noted that, “the industry has grown enormously during the last three years.

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By 1920, the yields of wells in Los Angeles and Orange counties generated just a smidgen (there’s a word we don’t hear much anymore) over 30 million barrels. After a modest increase of just over 15% the following year, output exploded to about double, or nearly 70 million barrels in 1922, about half of all California’s production. This was thanks to the bonanza realized at such new fields as Santa Fe Springs, Signal Hill/Long Beach, and Huntington Beach and the value of the crude approached $100,000,000, some 40% more than agriculture.

The former field went, during tht year from just three to almost 150 wells and the yield skyrocketed from 3,000 to well over 200,000 barrels per day. At the second, ther were just five producing wells when the year started, but nearly 240 at the end of the year and output went from 1,100 to 144,000 barrels per day. Huntington Beach was much further along with above 70 wells and about 14,000 barrels per day, but, within a year-and-a-half, there were nearly 250 wells pumping out 114,000 barrels. This trio alone created about two-thirds of the state’s oil output and he added that, in 1921, average daily production in all of California was less than 75% of the total of over 460,000 barrels generated at those three fields the following year.

Rickard ended this portion of his essay by noting that “the activities of the oil promoter sometimes conflict with those of the dealer in real-estate, but usually they supplement one another amicably.” He added that mining rights were included with a tract of land and offered that an owner could raise crops on their property while owning any oil several thousand feet beow the surface.

In Walter Temple’s case, though, the one-eighth royalties from leasing his Montebello-area ranch to Standard Oil of California, now Chevron, allowed him to both prospect for oil on his own and turn to real estate development, including the founding the prior spring of the Town of Temple. What he eventually experienced, however, was the eternal boomtime problem of investing too much too soon and which led, by the end of the decade, to financial ruin, and his ties of oil and real estate provided a twist on the tale told by Rickard in his piece.

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Next, the writer turned to “Industrial Development” and Rickard observed that

A community that is growing fast creates the need for new industries; it also becomes rich enough to start indusries that will serve the surrounding region.

He wrote that manufacturing in the Angel City was about $15 million in 1900 and, more than two decades later, the level was approaching a trillion dollars, while bank deposits in five years from 1917 to 1922 leapt from $285 million to $620 million. Beyond this, he noted “conditions are highly favorable to manufacturing on a big scale” and this was helped by the fact that “the costs of power and water are low.”

Other core factors were the climate and its allowance for year-round work with the attraction of “the best type of workman, while “labor troubles are infrequent” and “strikes are non-existent, because los Angeles is an open-shop center.” This meant, however, that unions called the Angel City a “scab” metropolis, but “its citizens accept that opprobious epithet as a compliment” as the situation, to Rickard, meant “liberty under the law.” He added that the domestic terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times building, which he said occurred in 1909 rather than in October 1910, “outraged public opinion so thoroughly that the truculence of the unions wsa checked effectively.” In fact, Socialist Job Harriman may well have won the race for mayor in 1911 if not for the after-effects of the horrific bombing.

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Rickard noted that Los Angeles, in a little more than a decade, rose from beging the 37th largest industrial city in the nation to 7th and some 130,000 workers were involved in industrial labor. Credit went to the capitalists, of whom he wrote:

The leadership of the community is in the hands of a group of men with the ability to take advantage of the remarkable natural resources of Los Angeles, and sufficiently big-minded to work together harmoniously for what they deem to be the common interest.

That last phrase is notable, in terms of what was “deemed” to be for the good of the collective, even as collaboration did not mean working with labor for the “common interest. Rather, the provided example of cooperation meant that the powerful bankers of the Angel City loaned $5 million to banks operating in the cotton-producing areas of the Imperial Valley of southeastern California and the Salt River Valley of the Phoenix, Arizona area.

No mention was made about provisions made to farm workers, most of whom were undoubtedly Latinos, including recent migrants from México, recently ravaged by revolution, though it was added that “Los Angeles bankers imported experenced men from other cotton regions (in Texas and the South),” and we can assume this was primarily Black labor, though this benign explanation, of course, sanitizes the brutal work done, whoever the laborer, in cotton fields. So, what is left out is important as Rickard ends this discussion with the statement that “the people of the two cotton districts are bound by ties of friendship to Los Angeles, which is accepted as their metropolis,” as “the people” are the farmers and their bankers, not the workers.

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So, in his conclusion of this section, he noted that “Los Angeles is establishing good relations with the mining districts of the Southwest,” including in areas of Arizona, Nevada, Utah, and northern Mexico which “are being taught to look upon Los Angeles as their metropolis, as the source of capital, as the market for supplies, as the resort for a holiday.”

This led to Rickard stating a common interpretation, which was that “for those living in the Pacific [American] Southwest, the harbor of Los Angeles is becoming recognized as the ‘front door,’ through which their products can be moved to market most economically.” In turn, capital from the Angel City was funding projects more broadly in the region and he added that the development of good paved roads helped with the interconnection of the coastal hum with its growing hinterland.

As to the film industry, another major economic element, Rickard did not have as much to say, though he noted “notorious cinema actors . . . disreputable or not as some of them may be” were partly responsible for the city’s financial well-being. Inveted capital was some $20 million, with over fifty studios employing 15,000 full-time persons and another 20,000 “extra helpers,” actors comprising just 10% of the labor force, in making movies that were worth some $170 million per year.

Turning to “Public Utilities,” the writer observed that, as rapidly as the Angel City was developing, it “suffers from growing pains,” with inadequate sewers, lags in telephone installation and street-car system additions, and overcrowded schools, though it had “a superb supply of good water,” enough for 2.5 million people, something we’ll be increasingly grappling with a century on with a poulation of over 4 million and with worsening climate change.


William Mulholland was lauded for his work in “one of the romances of public utility” with the Aqueduct, without which the previous supply could only have supported some 300,000 persons. Rickard claimed that “to take this water would rob nobody,” though soon there would be increasing anger by Inyo County residents leading to attacks against the system.

After going into some technical detail about the system’s production of hydroelectric power, Rickard also praised “the enterprise of the Southern California Edison Co.” and its work on tapping the output of the San Joaquin River for electricity production at a cost of $300 million with “this power . . . to be transmitted at the unprecedented pressure of 220,000 volts.” For a company that had a budget of just $50,000 in 1900, its outlays of $265 million in 1923 was quite impressive, as was its prouction of a half million horsepower compared to just 12,000 over the same period.

Finally, when it came to “Real Estate Promotion,” and the great boom underway meant that “the dreams of the realtor of yesterday have become the actualities of the householder of today given “the tremendous activity in house-building and the hectic conditions of the real estate market (now, of course, there is a stunning change in conditions with housing prices beyond affordability and a lack of inventory–though the question of future water supply, provision of schools and other aspects are, of course, vital policy considerations, as well.)

Rickard noted that, in the year ending 5 March 1923, over 100,000 new buildings were built in Los Angeles and the county’s assessment value of over $1.5 billion was a third of the entire property value of California. As an illustration of the nature of the current boom “all of which [previous versions] have run their course to an exuberance that brought its own natural corrective in a temporary collapse,” the author mentioned being given a handbill for “an excursion de luxe to Verdugo Woodlands,” a development in Glendale, which was, at one point during that period, said to be the fastest-growing city in the nation.

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He quoted the flyer as describing the tract, between Glendale Community College and Oakmont Country Club as “the California Switzerland with its memories of Spain,” while the “Iberian illusion” was fortified through “a dainty Spanish luncheon” at a spot where “the breezes, whispering through the old rose vines will tell you of the historic happenings of a bygone century.” This was hardly unique, as subdivisions throughout the region traded off superficial romanticized portrayals of the pre-American past to promote their product.

Rickard noted that realtors and oil prospectors used the same techniques to attract customers with free excursions in a bus to a tract or a drilling site. In some cases, the potential purchaser,

hears a lecture on oil or oranges or the climate of Los Angeles from a person of the preacher type, a spellbinder to whom the promoters pay a fabulous salary, comparable with that of a ‘movie’ actor. The supposition that the average man grasps at something for nothing is based on good psychology, likewise the anticipation that he will be lured by the chance of making ten dollars by risking one.

As Rickard closed his essay, he provided the admonition that “man does not live by bread alone neither on oil, nor even on oranges” and he opined that “the leaders of Los Angeles are awake to the fact that if their community is to hold its proper place it must provide for more than the material needs of its people.” That is, he went on, “it must not count only on its tons of oranges or its barrels of oil, but on the great imponderables that make men worthy citizens of a democratic commonwealth.”


This followed his enumeration of the leading lights of Los Angeles, who were the creme de la creme of the 70% dominant class of “Anglo Saxons” of which Rickard said the city was proud to boast. He also mentioned “two benefactors of great wealth” in Henry E. Huntington and Norman Bridge, the latter a surgeon and oil investor, whose endowments of the Huntington Library, Art Galleries and Botanical Gardens and the California Instiute of Technology, respectively, must have constituted some of those “great imponderables,” though Rickard ended his piece rather abruptly without elucidating more on what those were supposed to constitute.

Still, his article is a very interesting examination of early 1920s greater Los Angeles and, just about a century later, there is much to consider in comparisons and contrasts with our own time. This is especially so as the seemingly unlimited possibilities expressed about the era and the exuberance of the promotion behind the boom mentality are examined in light of the frequently articulated caution and concern of our Twenties.

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