At Our Leisure with a Photo of a Sightseeing Automobile, Los Angeles, 9 May 1906

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The first automobile made its experimental debut in Los Angeles in 1897, with former mayor and future city treasurer William H. Workman, a near neighbor of inventor J. Philip Erie, the inaugural passenger of what proved to an impractical product. It did not take long, however, for more viable “horseless carriages” to make their mark in the Angel City, which soon became the cap capital of the planet.

The highlighted object from the Museum’s collection for this post is a photograph, dated 9 May 1906, what could well be one of the earliest examples of a “sightseeing auto” plying the streets of Los Angeles and showing eager tourists the myriad attractions the city and its environs had to offer.

The image was taken just about the time that a few thousand Shriners were in town as part of a national excursion that prefigured the imperial council that the fraternal order held in the city the following year and also came a few weeks after the terrible earthquake and fire that ravaged San Francisco—an event that had an effect on tourism in the Golden State.

Times, 1 May 1906.

Notably, the photo was snapped just after the closing of the winter season in the region, which was widely visited by folks from other parts of the country who enjoyed a balmy respite from the snowstorm. So, at the Hotel Green, which still stands as an apartment building, in Pasadena, it was reported in the 1 May edition of the Los Angeles Times that “there will be a general exodus . . . tomorrow as the doors of that hostelry close in the morning, after breakfast for the season.”

A list of guests were featured, with some returning to Chicago, Cleveland, Troy, New York, and Denver, while others were moving to other local hotels. Manager J.H. Holmes, who also had a financial stake in the Mt. Wilson Hotel in the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, told the paper that, while the season was abnormally short because of a mild winter in the east and which, therefore, lowered the number of guests, the Green had one of its best years. Major renovations were to take place in the summer for a late November opening.

Los Angeles Herald, 2 May 1906.

The following day’s Herald reported that “railroad men say that the travel to the east is now the heaviest that it has been this year” and every train was packed with those heading that way and many unable to secure tickets. Moreover, it was stated that the reason was because of “the large number of tourists who are now returning home” not because of those fleeing California because of the recent San Francisco disaster.

The Long Beach Tribune of that day, in discussing the eastbound exodus, noted that “tourists stay longer and longer each year” in greater Los Angeles, where “formerly March and April saw most of them return to their eastern homes,” though it was the trend for most to remain as late as June. It was asserted that, come September, a larger number of tourists would come to the region and lower rates for the summer would also draw large numbers.

The Times of the 4th noted the unprecedented drop in railroad fares and suggested that “California seems in a fair way to be coming into its own, as an all the year round resort.” The paper went on to observe that “always in the past California has been advertised as a winter resort” with rates set “only to induce the tourist and the home seeker to visit this favored region.” An extensive marketing campaign to showcase summer attractions in the Golden State to those “living in torrid regions,” including cooler mountain resorts and the “ocean-laved beaches,” to avoid “the rigors of an eastern summer.”

Long Beach Tribune, 2 May 1906.

A Southern Pacific Railroad official told the paper that it aimed to capture a good number of those in the east who went abroad for the summer and that the campaign emphasized the “cool breezes, the absence of enervating heat, the unlimited range of altitudes, and the boundless attractions of mountains and beaches.” The idea was to brand California as “a region of perennial delight which has the power to attract and satisfy the visitor during every one of the 365 days of the year.

With respect to local promotion and projects to enhance tourism, the powerful Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce issued its “Facts About Los Angeles” advertisement that referred to the Angel City as “The Tourists’ Paradise” and “The Homeseekers’ Refuge,” being both a winter and summer destination and the “Most Progressive City of the Twentieth Century.”

Times, 4 May 1906.

Information was provided on such aspects as building permits; bank finances; the number of churches; the quality of schools; manufacturing; transportation including railroad service and “one of the best, if not THE BEST electric systems, urban and interurban, in the world;” theaters; hotels; an “abundant supply” of water; and much else.

For production of regional products, figures included 30,000 carloads of citrus; 700 carloads of nuts; nearly 3.4 million pounds of butter; 350,000 barrels of flour; 280,000 gallons of pickled olives; 85.5 million pounds of beet sugar; 1.2 million gallons of wine and brandy; and 30 million barrels of petroleum, with a total valuation of all products of $103 million. The local population leapt from 55,000 in 1893 to over 200,000 by 1905, according to school census figures and it was averred that Los Angeles led the country in the growth of business at the post office.

At Monrovia, it was reported in the Times of the 4th that the closed Hotel La Vista Grande was acquired by a company that purchased almost the entire block in which it was situated so that there was “ample room for the enlargement of the old building [with the building of 100 new rooms] and permits the use of an orange park in addition to the present improved grounds surrounding the hotel.” The article also observed that “the indications are that the city will be amply able to meet the demands of tourist travel next year.”

Times, 5 May 1906.

The following day’s edition of the paper stated that the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s executive committee “held a lively meeting at the Venice Country Club house” the prior evening about “the best method of advertising the entire bay section.” While it was understood that good literature was needed, “a good plan would be to catch the eye of the thousands of strangers who daily visit Los Angeles.” It was added, “these tourists come into the Southwest in search for homes” and the Santa Monica Bay area needed to be one place to visit for such a purpose.

With respect to the influx of between three and five thousand Shriners, the Los Angeles Herald of 8 May held that “they are not traveling in any stereotyped manner at all” and their visit “comprises visits to all the points of interest around Los Angeles.” The paper asserted that “the visitors are getting a chance to see what California really is” with hotel rooms filled with locally grown fruits and nuts, while “a creditable lunch is to be had there at any time.”

Herald, 8 May 1906.

The paper went to suggest that the wives of the Shriners “seem to be having a shade the best of it, for in the absence of any set program they make their lords and masters [!] take them where they will.” The imperial council of 1907 would be vastly different as the Shriners would have their time largely determined by meetings and fraternal functions.

The Times of the 9th reported on the arrival the prior day of ten special trains, which left New York on the last day of April, and reported that “the pilgrims within were greeted by the very essence of pandemonium” as they were welcomed by a blaring band and the hailing by local Shriners. A major part of the visit was attendance at the long-running La Fiesta de Los Angeles, also known as La Fiesta de Las Flores. Among the excursions were those to local beaches, Santa Catalina Island and Mount Lowe and an automobile ride was scheduled for the following day.

On the 11th, the Herald proclaimed that “Nobles of Mystic Shrine are having the time of their lives these days. You can tell them on the street by their happy and contented expressions.” They were picking oranges in large amounts and had a great time at the beaches and “last night hundreds of Shriners visited Chinatown and were shown through the celestial realms by committees of Los Angeles Shriners.” Others, it was recorded, “took sightseeing autos,” perhaps like the one shown in the photo, “and viewed Los Angeles and surroundings, including the old missions.”

Herald, 2 May 1906.

The aftermath of the San Francisco disaster was very frequently discussed, including when it came to impacts on tourism. The California State Realty Federation, the Herald of 2 May stated, took official action “to refute false stories about California published in the eastern papers.” The federation instructed its members:

Write to friends and business acquaintances, refuting the widely published lies as to wholesale damage wrought throughout California by the recent earthquake, intimating that all the state had suffered severely and was panic-stricken.

There was absolutely no damage done in Los Angeles by the shock . . . [which] created some nervous tension here . . . [but false reports] were probably due to the hysterical dispatches sent by fakers and excitable tourists who had never before experienced anything like a shock.

The South Pasadenan of the 3rd ran an editorial declaring that “one result of this earthquake is that California will be rid of a few of the weak-kneed brethren, and we can spare them . . . they can not help their cowardice; but when they go they will make room for the brave people who will come this way regardless of the quake.”

South Pasadenan, 3 May 1906.

The paper continued that “in the matter of tourists, it will cut little figure” because “people go from all over the world to gaze into an open crater [a volcano?] where there is real danger of being engulfed alive—and sometimes they get what they are looking for . . . and by the same token, many people will come here next winter” to see the damage from the temblor and fire. It concluded that “the only ones it will not deter from coming here will be those supersensitive souls” who, in many cases, live in cyclone country. Some, however, would someday become residents of our region and the rest “the state can manage to wiggle along without.”

In its edition of the 6th, the Times reported from its Pasadena office that Crown City officials were satisfied that “tie-tourists” and “brake-beam bums” among refugees from San Francisco had “given the city a wide berth and brake-beam tourists have all taken a through ticket to Los Angeles.” The Pasadena police chief threatened vagrants with “rock pile” public work or they were “given a gentle hint to move on to a less exclusive town.”

Times, 7 May 1906.

The next day, the paper stated “conservative estimates made here are that there are now in Los Angeles Chinatown and in Chinese quarters throughout the city between 900 and 1000 refugees from San Francisco” with another 300 soon expected to arrive. All were apparently taken in by Chinese residents so there was “no need of establishing general relief headquarters.”

The article went on, however, that

Within a few weeks many of the well-known firms of San Francisco Chinatown, whose places have been constant delights to the perennial tourist, will spread out in all their glory here. Prominent among these will be the large Sing Fat establishment . . . [which] lost a stock at San Francisco valued at $350,000.

It was further reported that the firm planned to move its rice transport business to Los Angeles as well to have the Angel City be the distribution area for imports and exports from China and Japan. Sing Fat opened a store on the third floor of the Central Department Store at Broadway and 6th Street later in the year. It was also stated that Chinese merchants were lobbying to have steamship companies reroute their vessels from San Francisco to the harbor at San Pedro/Wilmington.

Herald, 8 May 1906.

In its 8 May issue, the Herald published a letter from “Jay-Jay” who opined that “it is time somebody with a strong pair of lungs and a powerful megaphone perch himself on top the Union Trust building and give utterance to a big holler about the way some of the so-called enterprising firms and fakes are showing their friendship for Los Angeles and entire state of California.”

This was because “illustrations of the earthquake horror and its twin brother, the fire, are hawked about the streets, and sold helter skelter to tourists” so that “thousands of so-called ‘souvenir cards’ with scare pictures” tended “to misrepresent the situation and sow the seeds of fear and distrust in the minds of the people who may have planned to come to Southern California, at least.”

“Jay-Jay” insisted that no such product be allowed for sale unless it fully explained the situation, “otherwise many an ignorant and thoughtless easterner will be led to think that the whole state of California is a good section of the country to overlook in the future.” While it was too late to recall those that had been sold, he argued that, “to suppress the souvenir pictures,” there should be “a fund to buy up the entire lot in existence and consign the whole lot to the fire.”

The photo featured here only has the date and city name, so we don’t know if this was a disparate group of sightseers or, perhaps, some Shriners and wives. The location appears to be a park and with a bit of a house’s roof visible at the top right, it could well be that the site was Westlake, now MacArthur, Park. With its tasseled canopy, open sides, six rows of seats, and engine under the body, it is certainly an interesting early vehicle of its kind!

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