“A Well-Known Character About Town”: Robert Turnbull, the Namesake of Turnbull Canyon, Puente Hills

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Tonight’s talk to the Delta Tau chapter of Delta Kappa Gamma, a professional society of women educators formed in 1929, took place in Whittier just a stone’s throw (more or less) from Turnbull Canyon, the early history of which was the basis for the presentation. The canyon is getting some attention these days thanks to a new documentary about it that has been screened in the Quaker City and which were hoping to show soon at the Homestead. Former Whittier librarian John Garside has also produced a video about the canyon as part of his “Forgotten Tales” series on YouTube.

This post takes a look at the canyon’s namesake, Robert Turnbull (ca. 1846-1888), a native of Scotland, who was quite active in regional real estate during his nearly two decades living in greater Los Angeles and who seems to have had a decent estate at one point, but whose sad demise appears to have led to the naming of the canyon in his memory.

Los Angeles News, 27 April 1870.

Unfortunately, nothing could be found to tie Turnbull to his native Scotland and the earliest likely record of him in this area is a record in the Los Angeles News of 18 April 1870 under the “Hotel Arrivals” showing a Robert Turnbull staying at the Lafayette Hotel and his residence given as Azusa. That October, someone under that name was aboard a steamer docking at San Francisco. Three years later, in November 1873, another stay at the Lafayette for Robert Turnbull included his listing as a resident of the new town of Riverside.

While it is possible there was more than one persons by that name in the fairly sparsely populated region at that time, it does not seem likely. In any case, Turnbull turned up again in summer 1875 as a buyer of lots in the Mt. Pleasant Tract of Boyle Heights, a community founded that year by William Henry Workman, Isaias W. Hellman and John Lazzarovich, the latter specifically the subdivider of Mt. Pleasant because of his connection by marriage to the López family, which owned what was previously known as Paredon Blanco (White Bluff.) That September, F.P.F. Temple, whose Temple and Workman bank was then suspended due to financial problems, sold Turnbull some lots in that tract.

Los Angeles Star, 22 September 1875

Turnbull was, in fact, a major depositor at Temple and Workman, having a certificate of deposit there for $6,000, a substantial sum. When the institution, unable to survive despite more than $340,000 in loans from Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, failed in January 1876 and then went into assignment, an executive committee of major creditors was formed to work with assignees Edward F. Spence and Daniel Freeman on how to get creditors whatever could be salvaged of their funds. Because he was one of the largest depositors at the bank, Turnbull had a seat on that committee.

The last half of the 1870s and first years of the following decade were difficult ones for greater Los Angeles, but Turnbull continued to deal regularly in real estate. Just after the bank assignment was initiated, he spent $2,000 for 20 acres in the Rancho Santa Gertrudes, which is in the Santa Fe Springs/La Mirada area and then conducted a swap of that property for a lot in the Bellevue Terrace tract in Los Angeles, where the well-known Carroll Street of Victorian-era houses is located northwest of downtown. He later sold some of this lot to St. Athanasius’ Episcopal Church, the city’s oldest Protestant church and which perhaps counted Turnbull as a parishioner.

Los Angeles Star, 4 February 1876.

The first record of his acquiring land in the Puente Hills came in 1878, when Turnbull and Robert M. Town, the latter a founder of Artesia and Pomona (this last has a Towne Avenue named for him), were subject early that year to a mortgage sale in favor of Anson Averell, who secured a successful foreclosure for two sections of land, comprising 80 and 240 acres, respectively, in the hills. A list of real estate conveyances that fall showed that Town and Turnbull, through the sheriff, alienated those 320 acres to Averill for $1610.12 An 1877 map of Southern California shows Town’s name, though not Turnbull’s, on tracts that were formerly public lands located between the ranchos La Puente, La Habra, and Paso de Bartolo (Whittier).

Despite that setback, Turnbull, in February 1879, engineered a purchase of 335 acres of the Rancho La Cienega, west of Los Angeles, for $6,000 from Henry H. Gird, brother of the future founder of Chino. Yet, within just a few months, the Los Angeles County Bank secured a foreclosure on Gird, Turnbull, John P. Strunk, and Sedgwick Lynch, the latter a Santa Cruz and Los Angeles lumber merchant who also was co-owner of the Rancho Los Nogales.

Detail from an 1877 map of Southern California shows parcels at the lower left, just outside the bounds of Rancho La Puente, identified by Robert M. Town, with whom Turnbull invested in land where Turnbull Canyon is situated.

Still, Turnbull’s real estate activity continued somewhat regularly into the 1880s, including the acquisition of land in the Puente Hills near the two he was involved in with Town. Having secured a federal patent for 160 acres in two sections, Nancy Phillips Guess, sold the land for $900 to Turnbull in September 1882. A Los Angeles County directory for that year showed that, in the Norwalk post office district, Turnbull had 40 acres—this presumably involved Puente Hills property, as well. In the 1880 census, Turnbull lived on Charity Street, later renamed Grand Avenue, next to Mary Cape, also a native of Scotland, who took in washing, and he was listed as a “wool grower,” meaning a sheep-raiser, an occupation well suited to someone with land in the Puente Hills. It also recorded him as married, as was Cape, but it is unclear to whom.

In August 1883, the state issued Turnbull a patent for four pieces of property in the hills, but it was a few years later that the situation got very interesting for him as greater Los Angeles entered its famed Boom of the Eighties. With hordes of new settlers taking advantage of better railroad travel through direct transcontinental travel to the Angel City, the real estate market got red hot and prices skyrocketed.

The 1880 census listing of Turnbull and Mary Cape, his “housekeeper” for ten years, on Charity Street, now Grand Avenue.

Among Turnbull’s land dealings was a transaction in early June 1887 with the Pickering Land and Water Company, the founders of the new town of Whittier, a colony of Quakers who named their community after the poet John Greenleaf Whittier. The sale listing is mind-numbing in its references to fractional interests in lots and sections, but it seems to have involved hundreds of acres and the sale price was substantial, being not much under $30,000, a handsome sum for the time. It does seem clear that the promoters of the town acquired the canyon for its potential for a gravel pit for construction, as well as to establish a reservoir for water service to the new town.

Turnbull, however, did not get to enjoy his windfall for long and who knows whether he had mortgages and other debts that he had to satisfy, which would not be at all surprising given what we know of some of his real estate history. In any case, on the evening of 19 January 1888, two boys found the partially-dressed body of Turnbull lying on the bed near a levee of the Los Angeles River.

A reference to Turnbull’s acquisition to land in the Puente Hills, Los Angeles Times, 27 September 1882.

The Los Angeles Times for some reason decided to title its short article, “Lost His Pants” with the subtitle “He Then Went to the River Bed and Died.” The reason for its glibness appears to be its characterization of the deceased as “Bob Turnbull, a well-known character about town, who has frequently been in the police station for drunkenness.” It was affirmed that the body lacked trousers, though it may well have been that they were taken from the corpse.

The paper related that Turnbull went home the night before his death “and told Mrs. Cape, an old woman who keeps house for him [see the census note above–she was shown as only four years older than him], that he had just got out of the [police] station.” After a while, he informed her was going out and, not locating his hat, “picked up Mrs. Cape’s bonnet, put it on and left.” After professing it a mystery how Turnbull sans culottes wound up in the river bed, the Times noted that “Turnbull formerly ran a carpenter shop on Los Angeles street,” though, as noted above, he was a “wool grower” in the most recent census. It added that “he is supposed to have some means” and one wonders how a carpenter could amass such capital.

The listing of the sale of Turnbull’s Puente Hills land to the developers of Whittier, Los Angeles Times, 7 June 1887.

The Los Angeles Express reported in its brief note much as did its competitor on “The Ghastly Sight That Met the Eyes of Two Boys” though it added that Turnbull was said to be about 50. The Los Angeles Herald suggested that the deceased was perhaps 55 years old and added that his left arm was broken and that he had several marks on his face. It went on to note that he and Cape resided near the Macy Street Bridge and speculated that “while drunk he managed to injure himself so that he died before he could seek aid.”

In its coverage of the coroner’s inquest, the Herald recorded witness testimony, including that of young Grant Van Slyke, who stated that he and Willie Temple (no relation to the Homestead family of that name) were told by another boy about Turnbull’s corpse being in the river bed and reported that they immediately went to the police. Grocer Henry Fenton said he visited Turnbull the day prior to his death, having heard he fell from a horse and found him in bed at home.

Times, 20 January 1888.

Turnbull related that the fall caused no injury, but showed Fenton facial injuries and “he told me that he was taken to the jail after he fell from the horse, and he supposed he was talking too much and some person had struck him to quiet him.” Fenton told the jury that Turnbull downplayed the issue, but added “I don’t think I saw the deceased perfectly sober as long as I have known him” and said that Turnbull was under the influence when he visited and that he drank some whisky while Fenton was with him.

Finally, Mary Cape testified she was housekeeper for Turnbull for a decade and that he returned home Wednesday morning in a carriage, telling her he’d been in jail the previous night. He slept until 7, though Fenton said he was there two hours previously, and then left, wearing her hat and carpet slippers meant for indoor wear. She added that he did not complain of any head pain when he departed.

Los Angeles Express, 20 January 1888.

In the Times‘ reporting on the inquest, it noted that Turnbull had bruising on both eyes and told both Fenton and Cape this happened in jail. Whereas the Herald only provided a brief summary of the autopsy, the doctor who performed the procedure told the jury that a review of internal organs showed Turnbull to be “a chronic drunkard,” though otherwise healthy. He found both knees skinned and some discoloration under the eyes from blows.

When, however, the skull was opened, there was a fracture on the left side and several blood clots that were several days old. The doctor testified that “he believed death resulted from apoplexy [a hemorrhage or stroke], superinduced by a blow to the posterior and left side of the head, which blow was received several days before the death of the deceased.” The jury ruled that this was the cause of death “by force or violence at the hands of a person or persons unknown” and whom the members “have no means of knowing.”

Times, 21 January 1888.

The paper noted that the circumstances of Turnbull’s death were such that “enough doubt has been raised to call for the fullest investigation on the part of the authorities” and that “no effort should be spared to settle beyond all question what at present looks like a very mysterious case.” Obviously, an examination into who was jailed with Turnbull seemed vital, but there was no further reporting located on anything to do with the incident.

The Times piece ended with the observation that, not only was Turnbull well known in Los Angeles, but that “he is said to have sold a ranch a few weeks ago [actually, months] for $30,000.” His estate went into probate, with a Janet Simpson, perhaps Turnbull’s wife or a relative, as the applicant in seeking certification of a will. There was later a court order for partial distribution of $10,000, but to whom was not stated.

Herald, 21 January 1888.

Turnbull was interred at Rosedale Cemetery, which opened a few years prior west of downtown, and the handsome above-ground tombstone suggests it was paid for out of his estate. While the papers stated he was in his fifties, his hard drinking perhaps aged him somewhat, as the age at the inquest and on the grave marker was given as 41 and this corresponds well with his stated age of 32 in the census eight years before.

Just a few months after the sad demise of Turnbull, the Whittier Graphic reported, in its 19 April edition on some work being done to build a sidewalk to a bridge crossing over the “Arroyo Turnbull.” The Herald of 2 May, in a short article about local oil prospecting, noted that W.E. Youle, who’d drilled wells for F.P.F. Temple near modern Santa Clarita in the first half of the 1870s, “is boring a well in Turnbull Canyon, near Whittier.”

Turnbull’s tombstone at Rosedale Cemetery, posted by TLS to Find-a-Grave.

These are the first located references to the canyon, whose previous name has not so far been found, being named for the recently deceased Turnbull and it may be that the city fathers decided to bestow the moniker in honor of him. In any case, we can certainly date the identification of “Turnbull Canyon” to 1888 and, whatever the terrible circumstances of his death, Robert Turnbull deserves some remembrance to his contribution to our local history by selling land to the founders of Whittier, while the road built from there in the 1910s to the new community of North Whittier Heights and passes now just west of the Homestead, is another commemoration.

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