That’s the Ticket: Early Pico Rivera History Through a Quintet of Agent’s Stubs for the Rivera Station of the Southern California Railway, May-July 1897

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

The city of Pico Rivera was incorporated in 1958 and created from two prior and separate communities, Pico, on the north, and Rivera, on the south. The latter got its name for the obvious reason in that it was along the west bank of the San Gabriel River, that is, the new path which was created in the winter of 1867-1868 when heavy rains forced the channel along irrigation ditches and then absorbed Coyote Creek to empty into the Pacific where Seal Beach and Long Beach meet today, with the old channel, which was denoted the Río Hondo, remained on the west.

A about two decades later, Rivera was launched and it was part of the larger Los Nietos Township. Not only did it have its position amid the two watercourses, but rapidly developing railroad construction provided another important connection. This came through the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, or simply the Santa Fe, railroad company which established a direct transcontinental tie to greater Los Angeles at the end of 1885, being a critical catalyst for the great Boom of the Eighties in the region, and then moved quickly to provide another link from San Diego.

Los Angeles Herald, 30 October 1887.

As is often the case with railroad building, this was a little complex. In 1885, the Riverside, Santa Ana and Los Angeles Railroad was formed and in October 1887 completed a line from the first to the second of those cities. A month later, an extension was finished to San Juan Capistrano and then another to Oceanside was finalized in August 1888, the same day that the route from Los Angeles through Santa Fe Springs (changed from Fulton Wells) and Anaheim to Orange was also put into service—these last two segments were overseen by the Santa Fe’s Fred Perris, for whom the Riverside County town is named, though the projects were under the auspices of the California Central Railroad

With the “Surf Line” fully in place, it was hardly a surprise that, with a new station built between the two rivers, the town of Rivera soon received impetus as a railroad town. The Los Nietos Townsite Company was established by J. Fletcher Isbell and William T. Bone and, in October 1887, an agreement was made with rancher and farmer Joseph H. Burke to acquire 95 acres for the new community.

Whittier Graphic, 31 May 1888.

By May 1888, Isbell and Bone advertised the new town, including in the Graphic, a paper for another recently established local burg, Whittier. With the new “Surf Line” almost complete, the two promoted that important transportation element along with “an unlimited supply of water,” while adding that “Rivera is the banner section for Walnuts, Figs, Oranges, and all varieties of Fruits, Corn, Potatoes, Barley, Alfalfa and all kinds of Grain and Vegetables.”

Not only that, but it was asserted that the area “has been known for twenty years as the ‘Egypt of the U.S.,'” presumably because of the purported synonymous connection of the land to the river, though the San Gabriel could hardly be compared to the Nile! Another inducement, apparently, was that “ex-Governor Pio Pico, while making grants reaching over ten degrees of latitude selected his own home and here . . he still resides in excellent health.” Within just a few short years, however, the venerable Don Pío would lose his Ranchito in what was basically a swindle.

Herald, 7 January 1889.

In any case, an early detailed article about Rivera appeared in the Los Angeles Herald of 7 January 1889, though it was a reprint from the Downey Champion in the older town bordering Rivera to the south. The account was from Isbell, who reported that “the neat and cozy hotel is nearing completion,” a new store was about finished across from it, Burke and his son were finishing houses, and others were erecting or had recently finished dwellings.

Also noted was that “the Christmas dance was a complete success” with some 140 persons attending “and the evening was one of unalloyed enjoyment.” With respect to local agriculture, Isbell noted that a Sacramento firm “have purchased the bulk of the orange crop in and around Rivera” at a price of a dollar per box with an estimated total of 30,000 boxes or 100 railroad cars full of the increasingly valuable crop. The 28 January 1890 edition of the Los Angeles Express reported that about 70% of the 6600 sacks of walnuts went to the Germain Fruit Company of the Angel City and the remaining 30% went to Charles J. Shepard, with the total value about $45,000.

Herald, 11 August 1889.

In its 12 September 1890 edition, the Herald published a lengthy treatment on Rivera from an unnamed “tramp reporter” who ventured out to see what he referred to as the Mesopotamia of Los Angeles County, with the town sandwiched between the two rivers (again, comparisons between them and the Tigris and Euphrates are more than a bit fanciful.) This section “stretches from the gap between the hills at the Old Mission where the river breaks through the Monte country,” in other words the Whittier Narrows, where the Temple Homestead was situated, “to below Downey city.”

Most of the trip was spent within a mile of the Rivera depot, but that took a full eight hours of visiting. Isbell was waiting there with a horse-drawn conveyance and the journalist noted that “the orchards of walnut and orange trees come right up to the very station, and stretch thick all around to a distance of three miles.” Considerable attention was paid to the 100-acre place of H.L. Montgomery, who joined the party on its travels, and the walnuts were described in great detail. The eldest were planted in 1876 or so and there were well over 900 on 40 acres, but also oranges, lemons, limes, pears, peaches, apricots and figs. Still, it was noted that Montgomery refused a $60,000 offer for the walnut grove, though he expected an $8,000 return on the current crop.

Los Angeles Times, 1 January 1890.

There was a visit to a rare woman owner of agricultural land in Rivera, this being Mrs. Flora, who lived there with a daughter, and it was stated “this lady owns sixty-two acres all set to oranges lemons and walnuts” with these “in perfect condition” and almost in the full-bearing stage.” It was added that “the ladies attend to the business of the place themselves, and direct all that is done on it” and it was accounted that “they are successful farmers in the extreme, and make very large profits from their fruit.”

Nearby was the farm of George Washington Tweedy, whose family migrated from Arkansas with a party that settled what became El Monte. The Tweedys bought 2,000 acres of the Lugo family’s Rancho San Antonio, west of Rivera, and much of that was later acquired by Chicago meatpacking titan Michael Cudahy, already owner of much of what was formerly the Nadeau Ranch, though the subsequent town of South Gate included the Tweedy Park subdivision.

Herald, 1 January 1890.

As for George Tweedy, he was suffering from a severe cold and remained housebound, but the reporter noted hat his 80 acres was mostly set with walnuts and workers were busily at work to harvest the crop, including getting trays together, putting up sheds and putting more space in the barns. Nearby was the 40-acre place of his brother John, also devoted to that crop.

Then there was Joseph H. Burke, one of the landowners who sold to Isbell and Bone for the creation of Rivera. While it was stated that Burke came to the area in 1852, he actually settled in Los Angeles first and remained there for about a dozen years before acquiring land near the San Gabriel River. Notably, the journalist recorded that Burke was “on the place once owned by Jim Barton, whose tragic death while sheriff of Los Angeles County, is part of the history of the section.”

Herald, 12 September 1890.

Barton, who was once married to Lucinda Rowland, daughter of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland, served as sheriff for much of the very violent 1850s and was gunned down, along with his small posse, in January 1857 as he rode through what is now Irvine in Orange County, in search of the Flores-Daniel gang of bandits. This incident was the topic of one of the Curious Cases presentations given at the Homestead several years ago and will someday be the subject of a series of posts here.

As for Burke, whose wife Mary Hunter was the daughter of Jesse Hunter, the leader of the Mormon Battalion sent by Brigham Young to assist with the American seizure of California during the Mexican-American War, a federal Indian agent and the first brickmaker in Los Angeles, his focus was on his vineyards. The article noted “Mr. Burke was busy crushing grapes, as the vintage is in full swing” and added “he has a fine plant in the way of cellars, cooperage [wooden barrels], pumps and other belongings of a big winery.”

Times, 20 September 1891.

Burke, who also had financial dealings with the Temple family, had 16,000 gallons of three-year old port on hand along with angelica, claret, white wine and orange wine, this latter from the 315 orange trees which were in bad shape when he purchased them and replanted them on three acres. With good care, he turned the oranges into good producers, and it was finally noted that Burke had fifty acres of walnuts planted seven years before along with “trees there that were set in 1852, when Jim Barton first settled there.”

After some winetasting at Burke’s, the party headed to the Rivera hotel for dinner, as what we call lunch was usually called (supper being what we now note as dinner), and a stroll in that area found a new store, two general stores, a pair of blacksmith shops, a post office, and a livery stable among some houses. Presbyterian and Baptist churches and a school with over 50 students “in the upper grade” were also mentioned.

Herald, 14 July 1892.

Oliver P. Passons was another “old timer” in Rivera, having purchased his land in the mid-Fifties, and the article observed he had 88 acres of 20-year old walnuts which fetched as much as over $5,000 in a year, but never less than $2,700. His son and son-in-law had adjoining places, while another son was across the road. Other landowners had variations of the theme, growing walnuts and citrus, though there were a couple of other viniculturists, including a Mrs. Johnson who had half of her 20 acre spread planted to grapes.

Somewhat further afield were places like the ranch of Harriet Russell Strong, a remarkable woman whose husband committed suicide in 1883 because of financial issues but who planted walnuts and, while waiting for these to mature, had 30 acres of pampas grass set out, which the article mentioned, yielded plumes selling for $50 per thousand. A single mother of four daughters, Strong was also involved in women’s clubs, fought for women’s rights, was an inventor with five patents and played a key role in saving Pío Pico’s Ranchito house, now a state park.

Times, 28 January 1895..

The visit ended at Isbell’s place, formerly the farm of E.B. Grandin and comprising 40 acres of oranges and walnuts, some going back to the early Seventies. The summation concerned the increase in bearing years of the walnuts being from six to twenty, with the best yields in those ranging from eight to fourteen and that year’s crop bringing in from $50-300 an acre. The local association hoped for a yield in the neighborhood of $10,000 for those growers within a three-mile radius of the train station. Yet, it was noted that few properties were for sale, though the post-boom environment meant depressed prices for those who were interested in disposing of their parcels.

A month later, the Los Angeles Express of 24 October stated that the Los Nietos Valley Walnut Growers’ Association shipped out its first crop of six carloads from the Rivera depot and that “a heavy crop and fine quality of nuts is the report from this celebrated walnut country.” In 1891, about $78,000 worth of the crop was shipped from Rivera, some three-quarters of which were from the local association, while, the next year, all of that organization’s yield, some 75 carloads went to Germain. Oranges, too, increased during subsequent years, so that, in early 1895, the Los Angeles Times noted that 75 carloads were to be shipped from the station that season.

Herald, 24 May 1897.

Another detailed description of Rivera was published in the 24 May 1897 edition of the Herald and it stated

This country is the center of the English walnut business, the growers of which have formed the Rivera Walnut association [a split perhaps from the Los Nietos organization?], composed of 160 members, controlling 4500 acres of walnut orchards. There are outside of this association some ten other walnut growers who own about 300 acres of walnut orchard, making a total of 4800 acres in Rivera and vicinity.

While much of this was of young and immature trees, the 1896 crop totaled some 1,300 tons and, with another 360 tons at Los Nietos and Whittier, the total income for the 170 growers was expected to be some $238,000 or some $1,322 per grower on average. Assuming that only half the trees were mature, the potential for a fully bearing yield was on the order of some $672,000.

Herald, 12 December 1897.

Beyond this, there were 85 carloads of oranges sent out from Rivera so far in the season, with another 15 expected and that 33,600 boxes was estimated to fetch about $23,500 for growers. The article ended with the observation that “the people of Rivera are well-fixed and prosperous, and each year will find them more so.”

At the end of the year, the Herald provided another detailed view of the community and asserted Rivera was “the business and social center of one of the richest agricultural sections of the Pacific coast, taking everything into consideration.” Among the businesses mentioned were stores, a blacksmith and wagon shop, a lumber yard, two hotels, the train station, the citrus and walnuts growers’ associations, a court for the Justice of the Peace and more.

A map from 1903 showing the town of Rivera below the dark line of the “Surf Line” coming up from San Diego and Orange County at the lower right and heading towards Los Angeles at center left.

Some detail was provided about the walnut and orange industries and it was added that “as a social center, Rivera is a most charming little place” with younger residents accounted as “a typical representation of a cultured and refined American citizenship.” Churches, the town hall, the Rivera and Ranchito schools, and fraternal orders were also mentioned. It was noted that “the Anaheim disease” eradicated the local grapevines, as was the case throughout almost all of the region, but, interestingly, the article stated, “there are no regrets . . . for it is a saying among [the residents] that it was best that they should go.”

This is some of the historical context of the town of Rivera for this quintet of agent’s stubs issued by the Southern California Railway Company, which organized in 1889 to consolidate several railroads acquired by the Santa Fe, which was also reconstituted after New York and London investors took control of the company from its primarily Boston-based leadership. The Southern California Railway took in a few more local lines in 1892 and remained the local firm representing the Santa Fe’s regional railroads until 1906, when it was decided to close down the company and have all of these lines directly under the Santa Fe.

Herald, 9 September 1896.

As for the depot, the Pico Rivera Historical Museum is in what is attributed to be the 1887 station built by the Santa Fe and which was moved from its location by the tracks to its current spot on Washington Boulevard. Yet, on the afternoon of 7 September 1896, the depot caught fire “and in less than an hour it was a mass of smouldering ruins,” though there were enough people present to salvage items and saving the adjacent saloon.

A new shipment of desks for the local school was consigned to the flames and a number of orange crates along with walnut association sacks and other material also went up in smoke, but the railroad agent preserved his documents, supplies and equipment. The paper observed that “the Rivera depot was considered the handsomest on the line between Los Angeles and San Diego,” but, not being very large, it lacked space, especially during the shipping of walnuts. So, the piece closed with “it is believed that the railroad company will soon have in its place a new depot, and one amply sufficient for all needs,” meaning the current station must date from late 1896 or early 1897.

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