by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As a reflection of a burgeoning middle class with more disposable income, leisure time and able to acquire automobiles used for vacations as well as everyday use, Los Angeles increasingly was a tourist destination by car during the first decades of the 20th century and, of course, the Angel City was already a motor car mecca with far more registrations per capita than anywhere else in the nation (and, therefore, the world) during the period.
Responding to the growing influx of tourists flocking to the city and region, the Automobile Club of Southern California and the City of Los Angeles worked together to develop the Elysian Park Auto Camp, which existed for roughly a decade during the Roaring Twenties and, perhaps, slightly beyond.
Tonight’s featured object from the Homestead’s collection is a press photograph of the facility from Acme Newspictures and formerly in the files of the Newspaper Enterprise Association, with a date stamp from the latter of 11 February 1928. The caption reads “cars from all states in the Union visit Los Angeles, the mecca of the tourist traveling westward. Here is a glimpse of the municipal auto camp in Elysian Park, Los Angeles, showing parking spaces and cabins provided for the tourists [be]neath the shade of pepper and eucalyptus trees.”
At the end of 1918, the Long Beach Telegram reported that “at the request of the Automobile Club of Southern California, the City of Los Angeles is considering the establishment of a public camping ground for motor parties.” The City Council and the Parks Commission were said to be deliberating on the matter and a site at Elysian Park was identified by Auto Club staff. The paper added that “for many years the lack of camping accommodations has reflected on the hospitality of the ‘Capital of Motoring'” and it was stated that almost every town in California had fine facilities for the “gas and rubber route” traveler.
Moreover, the Club reported that it had a few inquiries every day about where the Angel City camp was located. In seeking a site, Club personnel looked at water, shade, access to the business and theater districts and other factors and found the one-acre site to meet requirements with space for thirty parties at a time. The decision to establish a camp meant that “local motorists are rejoicing that Los Angeles with more paved roads and motoring facilities than any other city in the world is about to remedy the glaring defect, that has given her a reputation for inhospitality with parties that have driven clear across the continent to enjoy her beauties.”
A couple of weeks later, the Whittier News noted that J.J. Hassett of the Los Angeles Parks Department informed the Auto Club that “Elysian Park is the logical place . . . owing to its proximity to the city and its accessibility to the main arteries of traffic.” He added that there would be outdoor ovens, water, fuel and showers for comfort and attractiveness and it was planned to have a caretaker’s dwelling on the site, as well, and his communication ended with the belief that the amenity should be provided free to users.
In early August 1919, the Los Angeles Times stated that the Park Commission provided plans and cost estimates for under $6,000 for a camp in the park off Casanova Street, just off North Broadway at the base of Buena Vista Hill in the park’s southeastern section where Park Row Drive is now (close to the former Calvary Cemetery site), a location “considered an ideal one, as it is in a grove of large eucalyptus and pepper trees, is easy of access from an improved street and close to the car line and only a short walk from the improved sections of the park.” Grading, fencing, bathrooms with showers and toilets, heating, sewer connections and water were among the elements discussed for the property.
A couple of months later, the paper reported that a temporary camp at Sycamore Grove in Highland Park would close later in October because the Parks Commission felt the City Council would very soon make a $4,000 appropriation for the Elysian Park facility. President Leafie Sloan-Orcutt told the paper that Los Angeles was the sole large municipality in the state to lack such a camp and she added that the Commission was asked to pursue one by the Auto Club and the city Chamber of Commerce.
Morris Rathbun, a Chamber representative, separately urged the creation of the camp, adding that there was a demand from travelers and addressing the criticism that a city-owned camp would be patronized by people who wouldn’t spend money in the city, presumably in hotels, restaurants and the like by observing “very often the campers are extensive patrons of the stores” and that “they simply include camping out as one of the pleasures of an automobile trip.”
A 19 October profile in the Times discussed the Sycamore Grove auto camp and the fact that it was constantly full of travelers, while others arriving in the Angel City found that local apartments and hotels were also hard to come by and “are wondering if they are S.O.L [strictly out of luck? shit out of luck?] when it comes to finding a place to park.” It added that the Auto Club was responsible for the auto camp movement and that there were nearly fifty such facilities in southern California.
Continuing that “a nice juicy location” was found in Elysian Park, it was stated that Sycamore Grove would stay open longer as work on the former progressed. As for the temporary facility, it was noted that there were three-dozen vehicles there and their occupants were “the snuggest little bunch of campers to be found anywhere, and except for the crowded condition, they are as contented as a bug in the rug.” The issue for the park commissioners was “to provide a camping ground as big as possible, and perfectly permanent in construction, since the auto camping germ has come to stay.”
An opening date for the Elysian Park Auto Camp proved elusive in searching, but, assuming it was around the first of 1920, there were already reports that fall that “present facilities at the camp ground . . . are inadequate,” based on a statement by the Auto Club’s traffic bureau head, O. W. Lewis. In a piece titled “Motoring Army Hither Bound,” Huntington Park contractor Clarence Whipple told the Chamber of Commerce that there were thousands of automobile-driving tourists heading for Los Angeles, based on his three-month auto tour of the country. He added that he told folks he met in auto camps in other states that there was just one in Los Angeles, “well equipped to be sure,” but with space for only fifty cars each night. Statistics showed that almost 400 cars arrived in California each day and 75% of them visited the Angel City.
By the end of 1920, the Los Angeles Express stated that a plan for enlarging the Elysian Park camp was afoot so that the capacity would be doubled with an expenditure of under $2,000. Notably, the piece added that there was profit realized for the period from July to November during which some 7,000 autos were accommodated. In January 1922, the Los Angeles Record ran a feature in which the new park commissioner Van M. Griffith, whose father Griffith J. Griffith was the donor, announced that a 500-vehicle capacity site was being considered for Griffith Park.
Elysian Park’s camp, while offering good facilities, had room for about 80 cars at a time, but could not be expanded, it was said, because of the steep terrain. The article continued that the current camp charged fifty cents per day, including a parking space, water, gas for cooking, the use of a cook house, bath houses, and police protection, and a limit of two weeks’ duration for a stay. At busier periods, moreover, some fifty cars were turned away every day. Yet, while it was believed that with, Griffith in his position, a new municipal camp, with hotel-style service and cottages for rent, would soon be opened in his namesake park, with a 150-acre spot, enough for some 200 cars at a time, located at the head of Commonwealth Avenue, east of Vermont, such a facility never came to fruition.
In fall 1922, the Express reported that, because, “so great had become the demands on the public auto camp in Elysian park,” the Parks Commission requested the City Council appropriate over $3,300 for a second house, more kitchen equipment and space for more cars. Notably, the Times noted that there were eighteen auto camps in the Angel City, but all save one, were violating the ordinances, just passed in late September and enforced by the Bureau of Housing and Sanitation. The biggest problem was that too many persons were occupying any given tent, while there were also groups staying the entire winter, but without adequate sanitation. That sole exception in complying with the new regulations was the Elysian Camp facility.
In October 1923, there was a renewed call by the Auto Club, which declared “a bigger and better auto camp is a vital necessity at this time in the motoring welfare of Los Angeles!” Elysian Park’s facility, with a capacity of 86 vehicles, “is overflowing with eastern visitors and turning away approximately thirty auto parties every day.” It was reiterated that, while the Angel City was the most important metropolis in motordom, it “is almost the worst-equipped city for auto camping in the country.”
The new location determined by the Club to be superior to the current facility was in Solano Canyon, within Elysian Park and a short distance away from the camp. Lewis told the Times that there was a five-acre meadow that was surrounded by trees, shaded at its north end and both accessible to cars but hidden from existing drives in the park. He added that the existing location was steep “and actually dangerous in wet weather” and, moreover, was “built on terraces, over the edge of which automobiles are constantly plunging, wrecking the tents of those on the terrace below.”
Referring to the situation as “appalling,” the Club noted that hundreds of cars were turned away weekly and some of them wound up parked alongside streets on the outskirts of the city, if they couldn’t find space at a private camp. Lewis continued, “Los Angeles is looked to as the Mecca for thousands of motoring parties, and they expect Los Angeles to provide the very best in the way of camping accommodations” but the Angel City “is not winning an enviable reputation among motoring visitors.” There was a pressing need to have 500 more units or spaces and Lewis reiterated that there has been a profit made in the present facility since it opened.
While there were occasional articles in subsequent years, including photos of people enjoying entertainment provided by guests and a statement of continued profit realized from the operation of the camp, it does not appear that there was any expansion of facilities, much less the establishment of a new and larger camp.
Just before Thanksgiving 1928, however, the Express ran an article that had the headline of “Municipal Auto Camp Suffers From Too Much Outside Competition” and which reported that “no more does the municipal auto camp in Elysian park serve as a barometer to number the thousands of motoring tourists who migrate to Los Angeles each winter.” It was added that in previous years, “a capacity booking list . . . signified to the initiated that the city and county was serving as a mecca” for those driving into the region.”
Apparently, those camps that were not heeding the ordinance when it was introduced six years earlier cleaned up their collective act, as the paper noted that “because of the inroads made in the auto camp business by private operators, there are but a scant 30 cars established for the winter in the municipal camping field. Supervisor Glenn Thompson, pointing out nearby private facilities, told the Express, “we provide the campers with only tents and these other fellows give them cabins.”
It was noted that there were three major reasons for people to use the Elysian Park facility, including escaping harsh winters back east; seeking jobs in the Angel City; and because there was “abundant sunshine, spacious tents and cabins with public kitchens and other public utilities thrown in, verdant stretches of parking strips abloom with flowers, playgrounds for the children and other miscellaneous conveniences” for the fifty cent charge. Thompson intimated that at least some of the visitors were nomads, as he asked, whatever disadvantages were involved in auto camping, “what are they compared with taxes, assessments and other monkey business that we’ve got to contend with?”
The supervisor added that many cars included families with several children and that some visitors “come without money, but we only let them stay one night gratis.” Those at the facility all said they were there for the winter, as long as the head of the family could find work, and examples were given of those who were looking to settle permanently if money could be saved up by living cheaply at the facility.
Given the competition for those who could afford more (and the motel would soon be another innovation) but also that the Great Depression would induce a much larger migration of people seeking a better life and more opportunity in greater Los Angeles, it is no wonder that, by 1932, the city-run Elysian Park Auto Camp was shuttered and the site, that summer, was converted to a Boy Scouts camp.