“The Instrument of Rescuing from Oblivion a Portion of the Early History of our Country”: An Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County, California, November 1876, Part Seven

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

We conclude our extensive look at An Historical Sketch of Los Angeles County, California, compiled by Juan José (Jonathan Trumbull) Warner, Benjamin I. Hayes and Joseph P. Widney for the American centennial and published in November 1876 by Louis Lewin and Company with a discussion of Widney’s essay on the history of the region from 1867-1876, which was quite brief compared to the expansive (and digressive) contribution of Hayes concerning the 1847-1867 era and Warner’s more economical but still detailed piece regarding the period from 1771-1846.

Widney (1841-1938) was born in Piqua, Ohio, situated north of Dayton, and earned a law degree from Miami University near Cincinnati and then served in the Union Army during the Civil War and in Indian Wars in 1867-1868 after he spent some time in California. Between those stints, he resided in northern California, where his uncle Charles Maclay was a prominent figure in the San Jose area, and earned a master’s degree from the University of the Pacific and followed this with a medical degree at the Toland Medical College, later absorbed into the University of California, when that was established in 1868.

A 1936 Los Angeles Times photo of the 94-year old Joseph P. Widney, published to show he continued his avid interest in learning at a very advanced age. The negative is from the Los Angeles Times Photographic Collection, Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, University of California, Los Angeles.

He immediately migrated south, joining his brother Robert, an attorney and real estate broker, in Los Angeles and opened a medical practice, followed by his first marriage to Ida Tuthill (the couple had a son who died as an infant and then Ida passed away; Widney married in 1882 to Mary Bray, who died in 1903—the couple was childless.) In 1871, he was a founder of the Los Angeles County Medical Society, serving as its president in 1877, and long had an office in the Temple Block, while his community involvement included service on the Board of Education. Very interested in the effects of climate and weather as well as hygiene on health, Widney wrote on these topics, but was also author of the 1907 book, Race Life of the Aryan People, which argued the equality between whites and Blacks was impossible and that even having the former as masters over the latter was injurious to whites.

While Widney, who was the second president after Marion M. Bovard, and his brother were key founders of the University of Southern California, which was established in 1880 as a Methodist Church-affiliated institution following the failure of Wilson College at Wilmington, his views on race, coupled with his brother’s ties to vigilantism, led to recent calls for reconsideration at USC of the memorialization of the siblings. Even though he’d lived in Los Angeles for under a decade, Widney, later a minister after he retired as a doctor, was widely enough recognized for his attainments that was he was selected to be on the Literary Committee for the Independence Day festivities of 1876. On 13 May, the Los Angeles Herald reported that Widney, Warner and Hayes were selected as historians for the event and the committee stated that

It was determined that the history should not be delivered at the time of celebration but duly prepared and published in the newspapers issued on that day. Afterwards if thought proper it might be issued in pamphlet form.

Widney, of course, settled in the Angel City just after the beginning of the period he was tasked to cover, but it is still notable how brief his essay was. He began with the statement that this third age in the area’s history “may be said to have commenced with the tide of immigration which set in for Southern California about the year 1866.” This, of course, followed the end of the Civil War, and it was no accident that many of the migrants came from the devastated former “Confederate States of America.” The doctor opined that the first period, summarized by Warner, “had been the long, slumb’rous [sic] years of the old Missions and ranchos, when life was a thing of dreamy says and peaceful nights . . . when the drowsing pueblo and the sleeping hacienda only aroused to the bustle of an occasional fiesta or rodeo” and, therefore, it “must ever remain to the mind of the dreamer, the poet, the halcyon age of California del Sur.”

An early ad for Widney’s medical practice, Los Angeles News, 4 January 1869.

That all-too-typical dismissal of pre-American Los Angeles as “sleepy” and “drowsy” was contrasted with the period written of by Hayes and described by Widney as “one of sharply defined characteristics,” not the least of which was “an influx of a new race,” that is, white, “of new men, not great in numbers but of marked individuality.” Strangely, he cited the influx of fur trappers, though that era was largely over long before 1867, and then intoned that these were “denizens of another world who by some mischance had dropped upon this planet” and accounted them wise men, unencumbered by education or trade, who learned in the wilds “where the only voice of converse is the voice of the night wind among the sombre [sic] pines.” Then, there were the “sharp witted men who saw gold in the broad acres of the great ranchos,” not in the rivers of the gold fields.

Despite this initial influx, though, the doctor claimed that for most people “outside of the pueblos the slumber of the old rancho life was hardly disturbed,” though there were tremendous changes due to the decline of the Gold Rush and floods and droughts in the first half of the Sixties that had ruinous effects on the cattle industry. While there were many who were active and busy, Widney noted that “the immigration was not always made up of the more peaceable elements of society,” as drifters, gamblers and violent toughs also came to the region, so that “the revolver shared with the Courts in the settlement of disputes.” Further, he noted that there were reports that in one court case “the majesty of the law failed to repress the instinctive reliance of the American sovereign upon his weapons” and the judge (William G. Dryden, an associate of William Workman from their years in Texas and New Mexico, respectively) bellowed “Now shoot, and be d—d to you!,” though this incident and quote have been rendered differently over the years.

Los Angeles Herald, 13 May 1876.

Widney really began his account with 1868, when he arrived in Los Angeles, and wrote of the dueling stagecoaches of Phineas Banning and John J. Tomlinson racing to town from the harbor at Wilmington and San Pedro, the fact that, when he got here in the fall, there were no three-story buildings in town, that “East Los Angeles [Lincoln Heights] had not yet even been dreamed of,” it being founded in 1873, and that the only settlements outside those mentioned were Anaheim, El Monte and San Gabriel. In 1866, he added, the total property valuation in the county was $2,366,886, but in 1875, it was almost $15 million, while the population mushroomed three-fold from 10,000 to 30,000—in the Angel City, the growth was from about 5,000 to 13,000.

Other notable changes of that period was the introduction of gas lighting; water delivered to what became Pasadena by the owners of the Rancho San Pasqual, Benjamin D. Wilson and Dr. John S. Griffin; that a reservoir and canal were completed to provide water for a woolen mill (of which F.P.F. Temple was an investor); that the first houses were built on the hills west of downtown (such as Bunker Hill); that Anaheim Landing (which counted William Workman as an investor) opened in modern Seal Beach for shipping; and that artesian wells began to be dug. More critical was the issuance of bonds for $150,000 by the county and $75,000 by the city for the construction of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad—though the chronicler reported that one wealthy resident of long standing downplayed its viability and importance.

Also vital to the town’s development was the formation, in 1868, of the Los Angeles City Water Company, headed by Griffin, Prudent Beaudry (mayor of the Angel City from 1874 to 1876) and Solomon Lazard and the good doctor added that “since the introduction of pure water into the city, dysentery, which had been exceedingly prevalent, has become a rare disease,” though he obseved that the fall had quite a few cases of “typho-malarial fever” including some fatalities. After providing statistics on the company, including its capital of almost a million dollars, control of 24 miles of mains, and a capacity of 1 million gallons (about 75% was used in daily consumption), Griffin continued that the supply could support about 100,000 people—this became a problem when the great Boom of the Eighties was launched about a decade later.

Also in 1868 was the establishment of the first two banks, Hayward and Company and Hellman, Temple and Company, the latter involving F.P.F. Temple and William Workman, though Widney stated the two were reorganized and consolidated, though what really happened was that Isaias W. Hellman, of the latter institution, bought out his partners, who then formed the ill-fated bank of Temple and Workman, and teamed up with John G. Downey, of the former entity, to create Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank of Los Angeles. Widney then brushed aside 1869 and 1870 as “years of no marked events,” other than extensive smallpox infections, though the railroad was finished and the Pico House and Merced Theater were constructed, as were other modern buildings, as just two examples. He did record that these years were ones of drought which “prevented the inauguration or prosecution of enterprises involving any heavy expenditures of money,” despite the above.

Another important milestone came in 1871 with the federal appropriation for improvements of the harbor at Wilmington/San Pedro with $425,000 to date provided for the dredging of the sand bars and building of the first breakwater. Prior to this work, only lighters could navigate the shallow waters, but, at the time the publication was completed, “a fleet of 15 vessels, some drawing more than 13 feet of water, is lying within the harbor, having crossed the bar without the slightest difficulty.” Moreover, when finished, the project was to yield some 17 feet of water at low tide, if not more, for navigation and Widney noted, “to the indefatigable exertions of Gen. P[hineas] Banning of Wilmington is due, more than to the efforts of any other man, the inauguration of this work.” Also of note that year was the irrigation system built by Andrew Glassell and Alfred B. Chapman for 15,000 acres of the Rancho Santiago de Santa Ana, where their city of Orange, as well as Tustin and Santa Ana were situated in what became the county of that name; the formation of the medical society; and the inauguration of the Los Angeles Express newspaper.

For 1872, more development in the hills west of downtown was highlighted with credit given to Beaudry and John W. Potts for their work to bring improvements to that area, with Potts spending $30,000 and Beaudry $50,000 for grading streets, while the latter also found a large deposit of water and spent almost $100,000 on a system to distribute it to the area. After observing that La Crónica, a Spanish-language newspaper later run by Thomas W. Temple was founded and that the first fire engine, used by the all-volunteer company, were introduced, Widney erred in stating that the Temple and Workman bank opened that year, when it actually flung open its doors in November 1871.

A similar mistake was made when the writer claimed that it was in 1873 that the county voted for bonds to provide funds for and gave control of the Los Angeles and San Pedro to the Southern Pacific Railroad to build its federally mandated (he insinuated that it was a local condition, but this was also untrue) local rail lines, when the vote was actually held in November 1872 (F.P.F. Temple was a key figure in the negotiations with the SPRR.) Noting that there were terms for building certain lines within defined periods, Widney added that “the Southern Pacific R.R. Co. has more than kept faith with the people of Los Angeles,” though there were plenty of grumblers about the monopoly that company had. Still, he noted, “the construction of these roads has added millions to the wealth of the county, and is rendering possible other changes of still greater moment in the near future.

Also taking place that year was the placement of iron pipes to conduct water, instead of relying on the old zanjas; that the Orange Grove Association, commonly denoted as the Indiana Colony, made use of pipes for water distribution at what became Pasadena; the Luther H. Titus, orange grower in San Gabriel, also had this system for his tract; and that Griffin and Downy did the same for their East Los Angeles subdivision. In summer, Los Angeles High School was completed and praise given to Dr. William T. Lucky for his work as superintendent so that Angel City education “speedily gained an enviable reputation among the educational institutions of the State” while Dr. Truman H. Rose, later a physician in the Angel City, was noted as “a man of singular merit as an educator” and to whom was due “no small share of credit in the erection of the high school building, and in the previous development of the schools from a chaotic condition.”

At the first of the year was the opening of the Los Angeles Public Library (a first attempt, spearheaded by Jonathan Temple in 1859, was short-lived) in the Downey Block with founding trustee (the association was formed late in 1872) Thomas W. Temple also on the committee to work on the outfitting of the space. Widney opined that “among the influences at work refining, elevating, ennobling public sentiment in community, the power of this library has not been least, though its work has ever been quiet and unobtrusive,” with John C. Littlefield as librarian since. A second volunteer fire company, the 38s (named for the number of founding members), formed in April and one of the personnel was Elijah H. Workman. Summer brought the laying of the cornerstone at the Fort Street (renamed Broadway in 1890) location of the B’Nai B’rith Synagogue, whose rabbi was Abraham W. Edelman, as well as the formation of a chamber of commerce, though the entity later failed and the current one formed in the 1880s. In the autumn, another major daily newspaper, the Herald, was launched by Charles A. Storke of Santa Barbara.

For 1874, Widney recorded that Benjamin D. Wilson and his son-in-law, James De Barth Shorb began the construction of a water distribution system for what became the Alhambra tract, though the Lake Vineyard Land and Water Company included F.P.F. Temple as treasurer, and the writer noted that the subdivision “is rapidly becoming the home of wealthy and refined families.” Only brief mention was made of the author’s uncle, Charles Maclay, developing the town of San Fernando that year, while “prospecting and boring for petroleum was commenced in the mountains about San Fernando” and one of the more energetic of the drillers was Temple. He was also treasurer of the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, the Angel City’s first rapid transit system (albeit with one car pulled by one horse!) and which had Widney’s brother as president and it was noted that there were three other lines finished and two more in process by 1876. Another fire company, two new churches, the Los Angeles Savings Bank, a German newspaper, the Sued Californische Post were also established why the Angel City enforced a new state-mandated Sunday Law keeping businesses closed on the Sabbath.

In 1875, the Forest Grove Association, founded late the prior year, planted its first large area of eucalyptus trees with the intent to have the grove providing timber for local building and other uses—here again, F.P.F. Temple was treasurer while Robert Widney was president. Temple was founding president of the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, intended to construct a line to silver mines in eastern California’s Inyo County, but, when Nevada Senator John P. Jones acquired a controlling interest and assumed the presidency, with Temple relegated to treasurer, it was decided to build a branch line to Jones’ new seaside town, Santa Monica. The project entailed the expenditure of $375,000, but, while “this section is intended as only the first portion” of the enterprise, which was projected to extend to Utah and a connection with the transcontinental railroad, none of this was realized.

Other new towns established that year were Artesia and Pomona, this latter heavily funded with loans from the Temple and Workman bank, while some relatively new communities noted as “rapidly increasing in wealth and population,” included Richland (Orange), Westminster, Compton (founded on land developed by F.P.F. Temple and Fielding W. Gibson of El Monte), and Florence (South Los Angeles), while Newport was a new operation by the McFadden brothers of Santa Ana. Among the fledgling suburban newspapers launched that year were Los Nietos Valley Courier, the El Monte Observer and the Santa Monica Outlook. In late August, however, came the end of the boom that covered the period which Widney summarized and he wrote,

The financial crash which swept over the State during this year did not spare Los Angeles. The three banks closed their doors for a short time. Two re-opened with strength unimpaired; the third, after struggling a while, finally succumbed and made an assignment.

This was a benign way to describe a disaster as the panic that emanated from San Francisco hit this area in late August. While Farmers’ and Merchants’ and Temple and Workman did close for September to try to calm jittery nerves, the Los Angeles County Savings Bank did not, despite what was said by Widney. The closure of Temple and Workman, moreover, was the first major business failure in the Angel City and not only wiped out the fortunes of its owners, but led to the loss of large sums by many depositors.

Among the new churches were a Methodist edifice on Fort Street and the completion of the Roman Catholic St. Vibiana’s Cathedral, which, however, was not formally opened until spring 1876. Widney ended his discussion of the year with the note that Mayor Beaudry was praised for his message to the city about more support for schools and a strengthened health department (the doctor was a city health officer at one point), as well as “the duty of the city in checking the vice of intemperance by restrictions upon the sale of intoxicating liquors,” long a concern of Widney and the Methodists generally.

Despite the centennial, it was averred that 1876 “has so far been marked by no striking events.” A fourth bank, the Commercial Bank of Los Angeles, opened in January as Temple and Workman was shuttered and a newspaper, the Republican was launched. A good wet winter augured well for agriculture (though 1877 would be a drought year) and the writer recorded that more cultivation was being done than in the area’s history and the crops were free from pests or blight. This led Widney to a conclusion redolent with purple prose:

And all the while the sun has not forgotten to shine, nor the morning to come again; and the land has had peace; and rest and plenty have reigned within our borders. It is meet and proper, therefore, as recommended by our Chief Magistrate [Beaudry], that each one should, after the manner of his faith, return thanks to the one Gold of us all; meet and proper that old hatreds, old enmities, should be buried with the dead century, to be remembered no more through all the years, ad that, over the graves of our dead, hands should clasp with only one word, Peace!

For appendices, the publication included a summary of the Independence Day celebration in Los Angeles for the nation’s centennial, including committee meeting minutes, a centennial order concerning the parade, a synopsis of the day including private and public decorations along with that procession, and the transcriptions of Express publisher James J. Ayers’ Centennial Poem and John G. Eastman’s lengthy oration. In fact, let’s look to the upcoming 4th of July to share these items in another post!

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