by Paul R. Spitzzeri
As has so often been noted here, Los Angeles underwent its first significant and sustained period of growth, modest as it may have been compared to later “booms,” from the late 1860s through the mid-1870s and the Workman and Temple families were among the most prominent of the so-called “city makers” (to borrow from Remi Nadeau’s 1948 history of that title) during that era.
One of its preeminent boosters, moreover, was Major Benjamin C. Truman (1835-1916), whose remarkable eight decades are worth a fairly lengthy summation. He was born in Providence, Rhode Island and received his education there and in the Boston area before teaching for a year as a late teen in a school in New Hampshire. Truman learned how to handle a printing press and became a typesetter and compositor for the New York Times from 1854 to 1860 before briefly working as a journalist for the Philadelphia Press.
With the onset of the Civil War, Truman caught his big break, securing a position on the staff of Tennessee’s military governor, Andrew Johnson, but also, while on the battlefield, becoming a widely read correspondent of the conflict for the Times. After the 1864 election, Johnson became vice-president under Abraham Lincoln, but was only in that office for about five weeks when the president was assassinated in April 1865. Truman served as a member of the new president’s staff at the White House for about eighteen months and left as a special agent of the postal service, charged with improving mail service in the west, including California.
During his tenure, lasting a couple of years, Truman established new mail routes, or restored some interrupted by the war, including the famous Butterfield stage route, which entered Los Angeles from the east. It was reported by a Pomona newspaper upon Truman’s death that when he sought to establish a post office at the east end of Los Angeles County, he had dinner at the tavern of William W. Rubottom, whose place was along a cut-off road he built with F.P.F. Temple in 1867. According to the account, the proprietor told the postal agent that if he designated the post office as Spadra, after Rubottom’s Arkansas hometown (actually, Spadra Bluffs), he would feed him royally (Truman was widely known as a gourmand and bon vivant) whenever he stopped by.
Recently married to Augusta Mallard, daughter of a Los Angeles attorney, judge and farmer and with whom he had a daughter, Truman left federal service to move in 1870 to San Diego, where he bought an interest and then took over management of that city’s Bulletin newspaper. While, after about a year or so, he claimed that he stood by his adopted hometown, even when Los Angeles capitalists offered him stock and the editorship of a new unnamed newspaper, Truman did relocate to the Angel City by February 1872. He immediately became involved in prominent community enterprises, such as serving on a committee working on getting the Southern Pacific railroad line to Los Angeles and becoming president of the Southern District Agricultural Society.
In 1873, Truman acquired the Los Angeles Star, the city’s first newspaper when it was established in spring 1851 and which operated, except when it was shuttered from 1864 to 1868 because of too-open pro-Confederate sympathies, for almost three decades. Filled with the flowery prose redolent of that era, Truman supplemented his journalism with writing, including 1874’s Semi-Tropical Southern California, which drew from his Star columns describing the region in colorful and glorified terms, and he went on to write several other books. The first to interview notorious bandido, Tiburcio Vásquez, after his capture in late spring 1874, Truman quickly churned out a pamphlet, “Vasquez, The Bandit.”
Likely because of the economic malaise that descended on greater Los Angeles after the panic of summer 1875 led to, among other tragedies, the collapse of the Temple and Workman bank, of which he had a most notable headline when it came to the public release of the stricken institution’s inventory, Truman sold the Star in fall 1877 and returned to work as a postal service agent through the rest of the decade. As the Eighties dawned, he was hired for the literary and advertising bureau of the mighty Southern Pacific and was credited with helping to bring loads of settlers and tourists to southern California as improved rail service was crucial to the Boom of the 1880s.
Truman’s employment with the Southern Pacific lasted until 1892 and he took a position in helping to develop the state’s exhibits at the following year’s World’s Fair at Chicago. The last two decades of his life were largely devoted to writing, whether about his Civil War experience, government travels to Asia, North Africa and the Middle East, gastronomic subjects and much else. He died at age 80 of senility at the Hotel Leighton in Los Angeles, a private funeral began at the family house in Highland Park with religious services at the Church of the Angels in nearby Garvanza, and he was interred at Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights.
In a Los Angeles Times obituary, it was stated that he knew more generals, Confederate and Union, as well as politicians and journalists of anyone in the Civil War years. Moreover, the paper quoted others as suggesting that Truman “came out of the Civil War the most brilliant and successful of all the war correspondents.” It was just about the time that he was leaving after his first postal service stint and not long before his marriage and move to San Diego that Truman visited Los Angeles and penned, for the New York Times a paean to the “paradise of California” and published in the prominent paper in its edition of 12 March 1869, which is in the museum’s collection.
The missive was written in the gold mining boom town of Havilah, at the southern end of the Sierra Nevada Mountains in Kern County east of Bakersfield, and was dated 9 February, with Truman beginning with “a long ride of seventy-five miles [from an unstated location, likely mentioned in a prior letter], and Los Angeles, the paradise of California, from which place I wrote you a series of letters a year ago, is reached.” The correspondent marveled that “the wonderful growth of this garden spot is entirely beyond conception” and revealed the all-too-common bias about what was until recently the majority of the county’s populace in suggesting that “the element Americano irrevocably insinuates itself into the element Mehicano [sic]” so that “the dreamy indolence of the latter is overcome by the sparkling industry of the former.”
Consequently, Truman went on, it was “thanks to the Americans [that] Los Angeles has become one of the most important and flourishing (as well as the most beautiful) cities upon the Pacific coast.” As he worked himself up into flights of flourish and fancy, he asserted that “there is no section of country under the sun, taking everything into consideration, where nature has been so lavish with her gifts” and he specifically cited “the great desideratum” of the climate, being “genial and healthful,” as crucial to the city’s improving position. Then, it was time for a heaping helping of purple prose:
From Aurora’s [dawn] fanning zephyr to Cynthia’s [evening] delicate breath, day in and day out, from one year’s end to the other, the voluptuous atmosphere seems laden with balms from Hygeia [Greek goddess of health]; and for picturesqueness of situation, the whole country is charming beyond description. One may feast his ravishing gaze upon the solemn grandeur and boundless immensity of old ocean—as imperishable as Heaven’s garniture of stars—upon the most symmetrical of hills and the raggedest of mountains, majestically lifting their hoary heads to sky’s azure dome, or enveloping themselves in wanton clouds of the most bewitching colors and exquisite pencilings; upon emerald valleys, prodigal with nutritious grasses and aromatic shrubs and flowers; upon sweeping plains, banqueting in bosky [covered with trees and shrubs] luxuriance; upon roaring rivers and whimpering rills; while here and there over the vast expanse of landscape are farms and farm-houses, orange groves and vineyards, and a multiplicity of other objects which may be taken in at one sweep of the vision.
As to the fertility of the soil, Truman asserted that all field crops and fruits, northern and semi-tropical, not to mention every vegetable, “are successfully cultivated and produced in great profusion.” Those areas that were not farmed were comprised of “vast pastures, over which roam bands of horses, cattle and sheep the year round.”
Concerning agriculture, the writer noted that there were about 1.5 million acres of arable land, “a great portion of which is susceptible of a high order of cultivation.” He added that until very recently, most of these tracts “were held under Spanish grants, the owners of which resisted all offers of relinquishing with provoking tenacity,” but continued that “during the past year, however, high taxes and magnificent inducements have compelled the sale of many of the largest ranches in the county.” With surveys, subdivisions and sale on a growing market, Truman wrote, “these parcels of land comprise some of the most desirable arable tracts in California, and are selling with wonderful rapidity and at remarkable prices.”
Two days before penning his missive, Truman left the Angel City with ex-governor John G. Downey, General Andrés Pico and another man and, after twelve miles, reached the “Conaque Pass” that is, Cahuenga Pass, where they enjoyed quail and rabbit hunting. Moving on, he went on, “over the Pass, and the tourist comes upon the San Fernando rancho, containing 128,000 acres of arable land, and owned by General ANDREAS [sic] PICO, who commanded the Mexican army in California during the war between Mexico and the United States.” This southern half of the Rancho ex-Mission San Fernando, owned by Pico and his brother, ex-Governor Pío Pico, was sold later in the year to Isaac Van Nuys and Isaac Lankershim and the proceeds used to build the Pico House hotel on the Plaza in Los Angeles.
Another ten miles north, the party reached the Mission San Fernando “with its mines [?] and its orchards, the latter containing several hundred olive trees, palms, oranges , figs, vines, tuna [the fruit of the cactus] &c.” After another mile-and-a-half, the party reached “a place for entertainment for man and beast for the night” and Truman, “giving the door a shake [and] shouted ‘Tengo mucha [sic] hambre‘,” identified the owner as “Señor JESUS MARIA GONZALES” and stated that “CATALINA, his pretty daughter, was cooking” quail for their supper.
A search of census records for 1870 (it just so happened that Truman was the federal census agent for southern California) found no one in the county by those names, so whether Truman fictionalized the visit or mistook the Gonzales family for that of Gerónimo and Catalina López, proprietors of the López Station stage stop near the mission (the couple’s López Adobe is now a City of San Fernando historic landmark) isn’t known.
In any case, the group left after breakfast the following morning and traveled 36 miles “through a canyon or cut [Beale’s Cut at Newhall Pass, created about a decade prior]” and traveled “by Petrolia and its oil wells, which are running to waste, and which rank high among the wonderful things of California.” This area, in what is now Santa Clarita and often called the San Fernando oil field, was home to the first drilled oil well in the region, at Pico Canyon, and, during the first half of the 1870s, F.P.F. Temple and others prospected vigorously with some middling success, before Star Oil Company brought in Pico #4 and inaugurated the oil industry in a substantial way.
The group arrived just prior to nightfall at Soledad, roughly halfway between today’s Santa Clarita and Palmdale, and stayed at a mining cabin where venison and bear meat was procured for dinner and where Truman recorded that “I titillated my thorax with a gorgeous cocktail.” The next day, the writer set out solo for the remaining 100 miles to Havilah, traveling by way of Elizabeth Lake, west of modern Lancaster, which he called “a queer little sheet of water.”
A desert road took him some fourteen miles to Willow Springs, west of Rosamond, where he noted “to the left is Fort Tejon with its surrounding grounds all cracked by an earthquake,” this latter event being the 1857 shaker that remains the last 8.0 (estimated) quake our region has experienced. Eastward “is the heaven-forsaken desert of Mojave,” while another 14 miles led to the Sierra foothills where “one must pass a bald-headed spur of the defined chain, called Tehatchaypach,” or Tehachapi. Truman wrote of panoramic views from the top of peaks, a valley with sheep grazing amid oaks and sycamores, and “numerous grizzlies . . . seen right upon the road.”
After leaving Tehachapi pass, the traveler passed through Robinson’s Station a dozen miles further and then went through valleys and well-timbred country to Havilah, “an attractive place of a thousand inhabitants, nine-tenths of whom are Americans, and all engaged in mining.” Truman recorded that “a notorious character” (Asbury Harpending was the founder in 1864, though Truman did not name the person) named the town, referred to in the Book of Genesis in the Old Testament as rich in gold, while playing cards. Naturally, the correspondent added a little tale, likely fictional, that the gent “while the Bible [used to verify the origin of Havilah] was in his lap, won over $500 on four nines, three of which had reposed under the sleeve of his coat for half an hour previous.”
Benjamin C. Truman was one of many notable figures in 19th century Los Angeles and a booster with a prodigious pen and imagination, so his letter of March 1869, a few years before he settled in the Angel City, is a remarkable one about the first boom and a precursor of sorts to his columns in the Star and his Semi-Tropical California, which we will definitely feature as a highlighted artifact from the Homestead’s holdings in future posts.