by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It has been oft-stated on this blog that the great Boom of the Eighties, which peaked during the 1887-1888 term of Los Angeles Mayor William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, was a truly transformative period for the region. Many posts have discussed the demographic, economic, political and social effects the boom had on greater Los Angeles and the Museum’s collection has artifacts that help us to better understand the conditions of that period, including what came afterward.
One of these is the October 1892 issue of The Californian Illustrated Magazine, managed and edited by long-time Pasadena resident Charles Frederick Holder, a Naval Academy graduate and former curator at the American Museum of Natural History, who settled in the Crown City in 1885 just before the boom burst forth. The son of a zoologist, Holder was a naturalist as well as a dedicated conservationist, while also having a reputation as a sportsman, particularly deep-sea fishing through his avid interests at Santa Catalina Island. Before his death in an automobile accident in 1914, Holder produced a few dozen books and many articles in addition to overseeing the magazine.
One of the contributors was Jeanne C. Carr, whose Carmelita estate includes the site of today’s Norton Simon Museum and who contributed writing that have twice been covered in this blog, one concerning the San Gabriel Valley along with the well-known Switzer’s Camp in the Arroyo Seco north of Pasadena. For the magazine, Carr wrote “Among the Basket Makers,” discussing the manufacture of these important items by the indigenous people of California and, though she doesn’t refer to the local natives, there are a photos of baskets from Los Angeles and San Gabriel Valley collections and her essay is a very interesting one.
So, too, is “Can a Chinaman Become a Christian?” by Rev. Frederic J. Masters, a Methodist pastor who spent years evangelizing in China and then wrote about the Chinese in California, as well. Notably, Masters noted that “among the Chinese are found some very depraved specimens of humanity,” but then qualified this by saying “it would be indeed be strange if the Asiatics in our midst, the majority of whom represent the peasant class and many of them the dregs of a heathen population, should be discovered to be saints,” adding “as things look, our race cannot set up very high claims to social virtue.” After all, he continued, “this land of churches and bibles” was filled with “the sickening accounts of daily atrocities, social scandals, dueling, debauchery, villainy and crime.”
So, it was one thing for whites “to fling pharisaical stones at a Chinaman for vices, habits and customs that are the outgrowth of a heathen environment that has made him what he is,” but quite another to act as if all Americans were living upright, moral lives. What was needed for the Chinese (and all those whites behaving like Philistines) was the moral instruction of religion and Masters sought to prove that the Chinese were fully capable of becoming Christians. Masters cited many ministers to this point, including the Rev. Joseph C. Nevin, also with extensive experience in missions in China as well as working with the Chinese in California, and who said:
having watched them live the gospel under more trying circumstances than fall to the lot of christians in our own country—having known them out of the slender income contribute liberally to the Lord’s cause—having listened to their ofttimes earnest prayers and fervid addresses—having stood by the bedside of the sick and dying—having witnessed the trial and triumph of their faith * * * I can say with the utmost confidence that no greater proof of the power of the gospel to save can be found amongst any people in the world.
In an environment in which there was a pervasive and deeply rooted hatred of the Chinese among so many Californians, the views of these religious leaders and missionaries were certainly more advanced than those of the vast majority of their fellow residents. The idea, however, that it was only through becoming Christian that the Chinese could emerge from the purported depravity of their “heathen environment” is, of course, inimical to most views now.
M.C. Frederick was the author of “Ranching for Feathers,” which examined the fairly novel enterprise of raising ostriches in southern California, including the establishment in 1887 at Norwalk of a farm of some 40 birds by Edwin Cawston. In fall 1892, Frederick reported, there were 158 ostriches in the region, with not quite 40% of them at Cawston’s facility, which later moved to South Pasadena, where it became both a famous tourist attraction and a successful business for the sale of feathers.
The piece went into some detail about the business and quoted Cawston as suggesting that artificial feeding was the best way to care for the bids so that “the California feathers are particularly fine, just as our domestic cattle are superior to those of the vast herds that roam over the plains finding their good as best they may.” He had twenty acres of alfalfa and ten of fruit, between the rows of which were sugar beets that he found particularly good for feed and Cawston stated he could have eight ostriches for every cow with the same profit margin and this demonstrated “how much more profitable the former is than the latter,” especially when egg shells sold for $15 a dozen.
This takes us to J.R. Henderson’s “New Los Angeles,” which is lengthy and detailed enough that we will discuss half in this part of the post and the other half in tomorrow’s. Henderson noted that it was a truism that a successful metropolis had to have access to transport by water and train and, even if there were “rich surrounding and the agricultural wealth,” the former was essential. He noted that “a better illustration of the truth of this remark can hardly be found than in the comparison of Los Angeles of the past with the Los Angeles of to-day.”
Even as it was well-sited by the Spanish, the Angel City “slumbered in a cradle of indolence for half a century” from 1781 to 1831, even as cattle roamed the ranges in large numbers and “the rich lands eagerly responded to the rudest agricultural persuasion.” The region included, “simple-hearted people, devoted to a pastoral life” and who “were happy and contented in their isolation,” with the only outside trade being in hide and tallow.
In that latter year, however, “a spasm of energy seized this pastoral community” thanks to the opening of the Old Spanish Trail (which actually was pushed through from Santa Fe to Los Angeles in 1829.) This introduced a new trade route and the Angel City “began to expand” and became the capital of the department of Mexican Alta California in 1835. Henderson asserted that “it was the means of communication with another land [really, another part of México] that aroused it from its torpor.”
Yet, the author insisted, the seizure of California by the United States during the Mexican-American War and the immediate onset of the Gold Rush was such that “Los Angeles profited little or nothing by the tremendous influx of population. He supported this by stating that the population of the Angel City in 1854 was 4,000, of whom only 500 were Americans and that, a half dozen years later, there were about 4,500 denizens. Yet, there was substantial wealth generated in the beef trade in the first half of the Fifties and criminals found ready pickings in the area then, while the decline of the Gold Rush’s first phase of placer mining, the importation better breeds of cattle and a national depression in 1857 changed matters significantly.
Either unaware of or ready to omit the floods and droughts of the first half of the Sixties, followed by an actual boom that took place from the late 1860s through mid 1870s, Henderson continued that “plodding on in a quiet, sluggish kind of way, during the next twenty years, Los Angeles, according to the census of 1880, had a population of eleven thousand three hundred and eleven” and asserted the growth was the completion in 1877 [actually, 1876] of the Southern Pacific Railroad line to the city from the north. There was, really, a large growth from 1870 to 1875, to as many as 15,000 persons, and a decline afterwards as the economy foundered as it did in the state and nation generally during much of the decade.
He went on to suggest that there were further population decreases when Arizona mining boomed in the early Eighties and it is true that some folks left for that territory, as one post on this blog discussed relative to the Jewish merchants Isaac Kauffman and Elias Laventhal. When the Southern Pacific reached Arizona and then acquired two southern lines in 1881, this marked another important development for Los Angeles “as some life was infused into the place” and “the dawn of progress was beginning to illumine the fogs of stagnation.”
In the first half of the Eighties, immigration picked up, land for small farmers was increasingly available, irrigation improvements helped with raising crops, though another lull came by mid-decade. Therefore, Henderson added, “such is a brief outline of the history of Los Angeles of the past” but “now the crisis in her existence has arrived; a great tidal wave of immigration . . . set in and landed her on the platform of permanent advancement and prosperity.” This was modified somewhat, as he went on that this was “not instantaneously permanent, for the tidal wave receded and left much wreckage, but permanent as regards the future.”
The next landmark was the completion of a direct transcontinental railroad link by the Santa Fe in late 1885, which means that “the prospects of the future were brilliant, so brilliant that thousands poured into Los Angeles from all directions, and a real estate boom, unsurpassed and probably unparalleled by any other similar boom was inaugurated.” What was perhaps presaged earlier in the decade led to a situation in which “the boom was impetuous, rapid, bearing all before it like a mountain torrent. Vividly, Henderson noted,
People were intoxicated with enthusiasm over the prospects of Los Angeles and the county. It is impossible to describe the excitement that reigned during this period. Private sales of real estate and sales by public auction drew daily crowds. Purchasers formed lines before daybreak at the offices of real estate agents, in order to make sure of securing lots; bands of music enlivened the auction scenes, and lunch tables to good cheer. The advances in the values of real estate were excessive and of course unsound.
The author opined that 1886 brought “no serious consequences” to the first phase of the boom, “but at the beginning of 1887 a number of outside speculators flocked to Los Angeles, like birds of prey.” It was through the agency of these interlopers, it was asserted, that “the excitement was raised to the pitch of madness,” thanks to such products as the installment plan, because “what would have been a good, solid, and steady advance for three years was crowded into as many months; and then reaction naturally set in.”
Henderson reported that most buyers of land through spring 1887 were locals in relatively reasonable frames of mind, but, it was bandied about that, the ensuing winter, “eastern people would swarm into Los Angeles” and take up all the good deals, so “car-drivers and servant-girls, clerks and waiters, salesmen and saleswomen practiced an unimaginable economy, hoarding up every cent they could, in order to pay the first installment of one third on a lot in some one or other of the mushroom sites of paper cities.”
Sales in June, July and August reached $11.5, $12, and $11.5 million, respectively, and then dropped near half to some $6 million by November. While those hordes of easterners were eagerly awaited, “the holders of lots” who salivated at the thought of quick profit, “were doomed to disappointment.” The land sharks were wrong and those who did make the long trip out, Henderson continued, “failed to find Los Angeles to be the angelic city which they hoped for” because of muddy thoroughfares, shifty lodging and boarding house owners, and the unethical methods of realtors. Thoroughly turned off by what they found, “they left in crowds for other and more congenial places.”
With that, the writer stated, “the real estate boom was over” and “a vast amount of money was lost,” even as “there was no collapse.” Instead Henderson went on, “what disaster there was, was borne with fortitude by the sufferers, and the community at large had learnt a lesson.” Progress was made and the situation, “regarded with calm reflection, now that it is an item of history, must be considered as a somewhat violent upheaval followed by beneficial results.”
Even as the real estate boom receded, there were efforts to improve the city and region, such as with the construction of a new city hall and county courthouse in the Angel City in 1888-1889. This, the author observed, “was succeeded by a productive boom, the backbone and motor nerve-power of the prosperity of Los Angeles.” Henderson then wrote, “let us no look upon Los Angeles of to-day and see what the last five years has accomplished,” but this is a good time for us to pause this part of the post and invite you back tomorrow for part two and his further analysis.