From Point A to Point B: A “Memorial of the Dedication of the Buena Vista [North Broadway] Bridge,” Los Angeles, 16 October 1911

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As noted by the Los Angeles Conservancy, the North Broadway Bridge “was the first monumental Beaux Arts bridge constructed by the City of Los Angeles” and “it was the longest and widest concrete arch bridge in California, spanning 968 feet” when it completed across the Los Angeles River in October 1911. For the people of what was then called East Los Angeles but soon renamed Lincoln Heights and others on the Eastside of the Angel City, the project was a particular point of pride.

One expression of this was the publication of the “Memorial of the Dedication of the Buena Vista Bridge,” as the span was then called because North Broadway’s previous iteration was Buena Vista Street, printed for the ceremony held on 16 October 1911 and featuring President William Howard Taft as an honored guest. The Conservancy notes that the span is one of about two dozen historic bridges crossing the water course and adds that “it design is a reflection of the City Beautiful Movement, which sought to beautify urban centers nationwide at the dawn of the twentieth century.”

Highland Park Herald, 14 October 1911.

The Conservancy web page states that the bridge was designed by architects Homer Hamlin and Alfred P. Rosenheim, who were responsible for the Hamburger’s Department Store (later May Company) building and Herman W. Hellman buildings downtown. In 2008, it was designated Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument #907 and it crosses along the eastern boundary of Los Angeles State Historic Park “where it provides a sheltered space for film screenings, concerts and other special events.”

As for the memorial, which is tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection, an opening essay observed that “seven years ago East Side people saw the necessity of providing better means of access to the city” because a single line for streetcar service on the Pasadena Avenue bridge and the double track on the Downey Avenue viaduct were “not regarded as the best and most direct” links to downtown. The result was the formation of the East Side Improvement Association, which first looked at replacing the razed San Fernando Road viaduct, but turned to a new concept.

Los Angeles Express, 16 October 1911.

This was proposed by Reuben W. Dromgold, a house and sign painting company owner who “believed [that] one great bridge to serve both Pasadena and the north and another to serve Downey avenue, and the east a true solution” and who worked with the Los Angeles Railway, which provided streetcar service and “concurred in the idea and promised to share the expense.” Dromgold, who was a prominent figure in getting the Second Street Bridge project completed (this dedicated by President Taft in 1909), was the First Ward representative on the City Council “and he succeeded in carrying it through, having been made a member of both the bridge and finance committees of that body.

Another core element of pushing the project through was that “Dromgold gained the consent of the Southern Pacific for a right of way across its web of tracks” and the dedication of a 20-foot wide easement, for which it shared costs, along North Broadway to allow for that thoroughfare to be widened as it approached the bridge. Beyond this, the SP “gave the city [a] $10,000 bonus for a slice of the hill in Elysian Park, near the bridge, to increase its track facilities at this narrow point.” The old rail yard of that company is now the aforementioned state park property.

It was summer 1909 when the arrangements were completed and that winter a contract was executed with Union Iron Works to begin work. It was added that towers 1,000 feet apart held the cable tram that transported material for the piers, while the bed of the river was mined for sand and gravel for those supports, which were set on bedrock 36 feet below the bed and 40 over it with cement filled around them. There are seven spans ranging from 105 to 119 feet in length and “the railroad spans at either end are solid wnd filled with earth.”

The span was some 70 feet wide and 50 feet at its highest, with nearly 6-foot wide sidewalks and the roadway about 56 feet and ornamentation taking up the remainder. It was noted that the road and walks were to be graveled and, after two years, paved with asphalt. The same was to be done on the Y-shaped approach on the east end once the earth fill settled “and improvement is feasible without danger.” Parts of the sidewalks “will be cemented for the same reasons, but all the remainder of the superstructure will be completed.”

The decorative work included “an artificial stone balustrade with balconies, twelve in number, and at either end pylons of artificial stone twenty-one feet high, surmounted by entablature. The pylons with pedstals and entablatures will reach a heights of thirty-seven feet and presnt an artistic effect. The balconies will be view points where the people traversing the bridge may rest or enjoy the mountain landscape.” With well over 18,000 cubic yards of concrete used, the total weight would be nearly 37,000 tons or close to 74 million pounds, based on 465 wooden piles driven to bedrock. The piece added “this furnishes some reason why settling is necessary before surface finish is added.”

The span’s cost was pegged at some $275,000, of which the Los Angeles Railway was to furnish about 30% and the City to take up the remainder. The main contract with Union was over $180,000, decorative work not quite $15,000, the filling of the Y-shaped approaches almost $50,000, while the land cost just under $20,000. Light was provided by seventeen candelabra, each having a four-light cluster.

As for supervision, there were three engineers with Hamlin, who was the city engineer, being “its earliest and ataunchest advocate.” The plans were drawn by Harry G. Parker and assistant F.W. Crocker, but, sadly, “Parker was drowned in the [Hyperion] outfall sewer” in August 1909. Crocker took over, but then went into private practice and R.W. Stewart took over and saw the project to completion.

It was added that “there was [a] unison of action by all, and with the diligence and modern methods of the Union Iron Works the bridge has been completed a shade ahead of time.” Praise was also given to Rosenheim, associated with the Municipal Art Commission, for the pylons, while the city’s civil service employees handled all the rest of the design and construction. In turn, “they point to the Buena Vista bridge as the great monument to civil service.”

The dedication exercises took place at noon on the 16th “with speeches quite out of the ordinary in their practical prophecy and promise for future development in and for East Los Angeles to harmonize in size and style with this grand, massive and enduring structure.” The presence of Presient Taft was, of course, the highlight and, “at high noon he was seen approaching in the clouds (of dust)” and ascended to the platform with Mayor George Alexander, who was running for reelection with a primary in two weeks against socialist Job Harriman and independent William C. Mushet as his major competitors.

When the President took his place “he made a brief speech in his usual good voice and impressive manner” while wielding a bottle of water of the Owens River, symbolizing the near-completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct (which was inaugurated just a little more than two years later in November 1913). After an introduction from former U.S. Senator Frank P. Flint, the chief executive told the crowd:

I am very glad to be here and take part in this interesting ceremony; to celebrate an improvement that is only one among a great many that you are making for your city. I hold in my hand Owens river water, a river that is to give you of Los Angeles life, health, comfort and great fortune, and I take pleasure in using this water to dedicate the bridge that will carry you over for many years. And we never curse the bridge that carries us over. I congratulate you on such a work; and may this bridge last as long as Los Angeles will have it last and until her population grows so that it will double itself. I dedicate this Buena Vista bridge.

The portly president then climbed back in his automobile and made his way up the Arroyo Seco for a visit and speech at Occidental College, then in Highland Park. His oration was followed by one from Councilmember George H. Stewart and then “an excellent speech” from the Rev. F.W. Carsten, who lauded “this wide-awake spirit which has constructed railroads and car systems, probably the best of any city in the United States, built bridges, reared lofty business blocks, converted raw acreage into beautiful building lots, and erected thereon beautiful modern, thoroughly up-to-date houses for the incoming thousands.”

With respect to the Angel City, he described how “her head and shoulders [are] upon the mountains to the north of us; her gigantic body covers a large part of the valley below, while her feet are bathed in the rippling waters of the blue Pacific.” Stating that the day was not far off when Los Angeles would have a million people, he turned to the span, proclaiming “this is a magnificent bridge, and is a great credit to the city.”

He called for parks and landscaping to be built at either end for further beautification, though he lamented that “this is a magnificent bridge, but it spans an ugly chasm” in the form of a “rough, ugly river bed.” Carsten also called for the Los Angeles Railway to run the line directly through the hills under or next to the North Broadway tunnel at Bunker Hill, rather than “by the way of Temple block.”

Finally, he called for the state Normal School, opened in the early 1880s on Poundcake Hill in the Bellevue Terrace section of the city and which was slated for relocation and expansion, to be moved to East Los Angeles and he praised Dromgold and the Improvement Association for its initiative with the bridge and pushed for a similar initiative to achieve the ideas he laid out in his speech.

Separately, an article promoted the idea of a “Grand Union Depot” to be placed at East Los Angeles, something mentioned by Councilmember Stewart, who suggested a station “four stories in height, with trains below a waiting room, and above a hotel, fine cafe and summer garden with ornamental towers.”

The essay specifically asked “our more progressive citizens . . . [to] push actively for a location of the new Union depot spanning the river bed at the Downey bridge.” In so doing, the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake could have its trains come in from the east, while the Southern Pacific and Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe could route its cars from the west.

Even more imaginatively, the article tated that the complex “may, in time, mean docks (smile, if you must, but think it over) for we shall here have a dam, retaining walls and a good-sized lake for pleasure, for irrigation and perhaps for traffic.” It also envisioned that “a subway . . . under Spring street [recommended by a traffic expert]” could take passengers from the depot to Pico or Washington boulevards in six minutes.

Envisioning the beauty of the area, with the Aqueduct supplying water for that series of lakes noted above, the unnamed writer added that “as to the decayed appearance of what has been politely called the ‘Latin quarter,’ [Sonoratown or what is now Chinatown] no apprehension may be felt.” That was because, once the depot was established, “these shabby structures will give way” to hotels, apartments, warehouses, factories, and so on.

It would be a boon, it was added, “if immediate surrounding of some great improvement be so shappy and poor that to sweep the cheap structures away involved little loss.” Decent structures could be repaired, but “we shall have near our grand Union dept a clean sweep of all the rubbish in the neighborhood” and new buildings “in harmony with the masive beauty of the big bridge of the bigger grand Union Station.”

Another essay noted the “Steps of Progress” coming to East Los Angeles, which “has been playing the role of Rip Van Winkle for 20 years, as compared with other parts of the city.” The new span “started the ball a-rolling” and there was now or soon would be an Odd Fellows fraternal lodge; Y.M.C.A. branch; a Carnegie library; the East Los Angeles [Lincoln] high school; $300,000 in commercial buildings and factories; $200,000 in street projects; and over $1 million in new houses in a year.

In addition to better approaches to the neighborhood from downtown, a beautified landscape, and other improvements, “the city should and will probably secure the Arroyo Seco all the way from Pasadena to the river bed,” which did soon happen through aggressive annexation. The piece also asserted as if it was given that “the Union depot is coming this way.”

There are other smaller articles in the publication in praise of Dromgold, calling for artisan’s shops in the area around the bridge, promoting a site for the new high school, using city prison labor for public works which “will enable them to get jobs away from bad city associations,” advocating for a “Good Government Machine,” calling attention to the nearby Elysian, Eastlake and Sycamore parks, and pushing the mayoral candidacy of Mushet.

On this latter, the primary of 31 October found him finishing third behind Harriman and Alexander, who faced off in the December general election with the mayor handily winning reelection, though the socialist may have done better if the domestic terrorist bombing of the Los Angeles Times in October 1910 had not happened.

As with a lot of publications, it is always interesting to peruse the advertisements and see what local busineses were promoting themselves and their products and services. There is a great deal of variety, including banks, grocers, artisans, manufacturers, stores, the Ganahl Lumber Company, and the Los Angeles Brewing Company which made the popular East Side beer. One local firm, Price, Corcoran, Pfister Co., (Inc.), makers of brass goods fro steam, water, gas and oil, was founded the prior year and is now the prominent Pfister plumbing firm.

There is no question that the completion of the Buena Vista/North Broadway bridge was a signal achievement for early 20th century East Los Angeles/Lincoln Heights and the span is still an important access point from downtown to the east and northeast sections of the rapidly growing and quickly expanding Angel City.

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