by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It is hard to overstate just how vital a major railroad connection was to any town or city aspiring to major growth in 19th century America. For Los Angeles, its modest start in developing rail service came with the 1869 completion of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad, with connected the Angel City, then in the early stages of its first significant and sustained period of development, and the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro, the future improvement and expansion of which was also critical for the region’s future prospects.
The railroad was launched when “Port Admiral” Phineas Banning, founder of Wilmington and tireless promoter of the harbor area, became a state senator and successfully got a bill passed by the legislature early in 1868 for a charter. With prominent figures like ex-Governor John G. Downey, Benjamin D. Wilson, Mathew Keller and John S. Griffin, Banning’s enterprise incorporated soon after and a site for a Los Angeles depot was also chosen in February with the location at Alameda and Commercial streets. The Wilmington terminus was expanded with a depot and associated structures.
In late March, city and county voters barely approved a modest subsidy, with some significant objection by those in the latter who argued the benefit was not shared throughout the region, by which the city and county acquired stock along with private investors. Construction began about six months later and moved slowly at first, so that it was just over a year before the line was completed at the end of October 1869.
It was not long before a much larger and consequential railroad project was in the offing as the mighty Southern Pacific, which dominated the industry in California, proposed a line from the north to Yuma at the Arizona-California border along the Colorado River with goals of expanding through a southern transcontinental system. Seeing the obvious and significant barriers of building to Los Angeles because of the rugged mountains to the north of the Angel City, the company proposed bypassing this region by heading through Tehachapi Pass and through the deserts north and east to get to its destination.
Upset about the possibility of being left out, Angelenos mustered as much political capital as it was capable of generating and lobbied Congress, which had to approve legislation for the project, to force the Southern Pacific to build through Los Angeles on it way to Yuma. At the same time, Banning, Wilson and other local leaders sought a federal appropriation that would allow for the construction of a breakwater at the harbor, a first step toward what would eventually become an artificial deep-water port.
Wilson, who followed his business partner Banning to Sacramento as state senator, traveled on his own dime and initiative to Washington to lobby for passage of the bill. The Los Angeles Star editorialized about “Our Railroad Prospects” in its edition of 22 January 1871, observing that prospects were good adding, “without it, we shall be severely left out in the cold” as there was a second proposal for a charter to build a transcontinental line to San Diego, with no guarantee of a connection north. The paper continued:
We think the time has surely come, when the great interests of the Southern line demand prompt action from Congress. A vast fertile and auriferous country [is] lying waste, when it can be made populous and productive by the same means which have enriched other countries. Let us have a railway, and soon the Territories below us, as well as our own valleys, will throb with life, enterprise and industry; mines, mills and manufactures; will swarm with population, cities and towns.
Ominously, the Star opined that the passage of a bill and the building of a southern transcontinental rail line would “wipe out the Apache and bring the millenium to Arizona.” There was the usual haggling and amendments as the legislation went through committee hearings and was then presented to the two houses.
Finally, early in March, the news reached Los Angeles that the legislation passed that mandated the Southern Pacific build a line through the very challenging topography to the north to the Angel City and then eastward to link to the projected Texas and Pacific Railroad line that was to be built, but was not realized, to San Diego as the second transcontinental line.
Elated Angelenos staged an “Impromptu Demonstration” as expressed by the Los Angeles News of the 4th, as it related that “the joy of all classes of our citizens . . . was unbounded, and manifested itself in various ways.” One block of revelers appeared spontaneously before the Bella Union Hotel on the east side of Main Street and near the recently closed Hellman, Temple and Company bank, so that “bonfires were lighted and powder burned, and general exhileration [sic] seemed to prevail” while “speeches were vociferously demanded.”
Among the ad hoc orators was future county and superior court jurist H.K.S. O’Melveny, who “opened the exercises with a few jubilant remarks” and provided a concise history of “the railroad question from its inception.” He was followed by his predecessor as county judge, Andrew J. King, a strong Confederate supporter and secessionist, “who kept up the strain” established by O’Melveny in brief remarks. Also offering his views was attorney and future mayor Henry T. Hazard. “full of the spirit of final triumph after so long waiting in vain.”
While the speeches died away, “by no means [did] the enthusiasm and hilarity” and even as the paper prepared the issue for the press, “the city is still bright with the fires of joy, and resonant with noises of gladness.” The article ended with the statement that there were plans for a more formal celebration to mark “the event, which is destined through all the future, to form the great epoch in the history, not of Los Angeles alone, but all of our glorious Southern land.”
The next day’s Star was sure to pass particular praise to Wilson, stating that now “that this valley will be on the highway of travel.” he was due a signal honor because the House of Representatives apparently was raising barriers, but the state senator “besieged the members, begged the assistance of our delegation, and so gained favor for his views, that he was requested to appear before the Committee in charge of the bill, to make an exposition of his object.” The paper added that his testimony was so effective “as to convince them of the necessity of affording us the benefits of the railway” and leading to a successful passage.
The Southern Pacific, however, was not just going to build a challenging line to the Angel City without some significant concessions and a protracted period of negotiations ensued, which involved F.P.F. Temple as a key member of a negotiating committee of Angelenos working with the powerful company to come up with a package that would satisfy the firm. Discussions continued for much of 1872 and it was finally decided to add measures to the fall elections, which included the election for president.
For one thing, the Southern Pacific wanted a cash subsidy to defray some of the expected enormous costs of construction and it was decided to seek an amount equal to 5% of the assessed property value in Los Angeles County along with acreage in the city for a new depot. The company, however, also wanted ownership of the Los Angeles and San Pedro and this meant that city and county voters had to separately approve the yielding of the publicly owned stock in the line to the Southern Pacific. Meanwhile, opponents of the powerful transportation giant managed, late in the game, to introduce a competing measure to give a subsidy to the Texas and Pacific and its planned route to San Diego with a spur up to the Angel City, while others, like a Los Angeles Tax Payers Union also tried to prevent passage of the subsidy and stock transfer.
The 5 November election, which saw incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant win locally as he retained his office, was heavily contested, with the News declaring “we have frequently referred to the Stanford proposition [the Southern Pacific subsidy as reflected through its president, Leland Stanford, one of the so-called “Big Four” of the firm, including Collis P. Huntington, Mark Hopkins, and Charles Crocker] as being the offspring of fraud” and it went on to aver that “the result of this election, as far as the vote on the transfer of the city railroad stock was concerned, proves it.” It claimed that men from outside municipal limits streamed in to vote.
The paper suggested that litigation was necessary because of the sheer and shameless illegality of the proceedings as well as the original proclamations about the measures for alienating the public stock to the Southern Pacific. Claiming that there was a mysterious and sudden late shift in public opinion [perhaps it was insinuating that bribing for votes was actively practiced?], the News thundered:
We maintain that the city and county by its majority voted for Stanford on Tuesday last has bound itself hand and foot with the shackles of monopoly. The day will yet dawn, and we do not hesitate in declaring that within the next two years the city and county of Los Angeles will be vainly striving to liberate themselves from these self imposed fetters. We shall then be credited by those who have on this question differed conscientiously in opinion with ourselves as having labored in the interest of the RIGHT and the PEOPLE.
As reported in the News on the 7th, the result, in the Angel City, constituted a landslide with the Southern Pacific proposition taking a remarkable 84% of the vote and with only 16 persons choosing the San Diego route option.
Not surprisingly, the opposition was strongest in the further reaches of the county, including what, 17 years later, became Orange County, with only 74 voters in Anaheim and San Juan Capistrano in favor of the Southern Pacific and 189 voting for the San Diego measure. At San Joaquin, which became the central Orange County area, one voter approved the former, while 114 were against it. The Silver precinct in the far north of the county voted evenly at 114 each. The result outside of Los Angeles was 57% in favor of the Southern Pacific and 29% against, while just under 15% voted for the San Diego option.
The provisions of the Southern Pacific project included a branch line from the Florence (South Los Angeles) station along the Los Angeles and San Pedro to Anaheim, as well as one through the San Gabriel Valley and through the Rancho La Puente of William Workman and John Rowland, where a station was built in spring 1874, and onward to Spadra (southwest Pomona) before extensions progressed further east to the ultimate destination of Yuma. Finally, there was the building of the line from the north, which passed through the new town of San Fernando, established in 1874, and navigated the rugged mountainous terrain before making its way through the Antelope Valley and to Tehachapi Pass.
The featured object from the Museum’s holdings is a very rare artifact connected with the Los Angeles and San Pedro, which maintained its name until about the time the Puente depot was opened in April 1874, after which it was part of the Los Angeles Division of the Southern Pacific. The piece is a receipt, dated 2 April 1873, for the consignment, from “C and E,” likely the mercantile firm of Caswell and Ellis, of bales of wool, sheep raising being a fast-growing enterprise in the region, bound for San Pedro and shipment to San Francisco.
While as a stand-alone, the piece is innocuous and seemingly insignificant, it is representative of an enormous transformation in the history of greater Los Angeles as its connection to railroading moved from the exclusively local to a broader reach, even if under the dominance of the Southern Pacific (F.P.F. Temple’s Los Angeles and Independence, launched in late 1874, was an effort to build a local line and cut into the larger company’s control) for some years to come.