by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It’s a fairly innocuous set of seven snapshots, taken on 28 December 1897, by an unidentified shutterbug and mounted on photo album pages with an inscription on one reading, “Redondo Beach Hotel / California / just show / best views,” but the photos not only provide some views of the well-known resort, the beach and a steamship heading for the wharf, but provide the backdrop for this post’s discussion of some of the early history of Redondo Beach, now a well-heeled city of about 72,000 residents on the coast southwest of downtown Los Angeles.
The Rancho Sausal Redondo, encompassing about 22,500 acres, gave the community its name and most of the northern section of town is within its bounds, but the center of Redondo Beach, including its city hall, high school, pier and other areas is actually within the northwest corner of Rancho San Pedro and a small portion of its extreme southern limits fall in Rancho Palos Verdes.
Sausal Redondo was granted in 1837 by Governor Juan Bautista Alvarado to Antonio Ygnacio Avila and probably the furthest thing from anyone’s mind regarding the seaside ranch was its resort and high-value real estate potential! Avila, as did his compatriots in the late Mexican and early American periods, ran cattle and other livestock on his property and, when the Gold Rush was in full swing in the late 1840s and early 1850s, likely did quite well financially.
He died in 1858, after the rush ended and a national depression burst forth the prior year. Within a few years, Avila’s heirs also contended with a fearsome flood in the extraordinarily wet winter of 1861-1862 (atmospheric river, perhaps?) followed by a terrible drought in 1863 and 1864 that all but destroyed the cattle industry, the economic backbone of greater Los Angeles.
Beyond this, there were considerable expenses incurred in pursuing a claim under the California land claims act of 1851 that was passed when times were good locally, but which, by the time most of the patents were issued close to two decades later, was an entirely different story for the claimants and their descendants or successors, who contended with lawyer’s fees (often paid out in interests in the land involved), surveyors’ charges and other costs as part of these claims.
So, it is not surprising that, in 1868, the ranch was sold to Robert Burnett, a wealthy Scotch nobleman, who previously acquired the adjacent Rancho Aguaje de la Centinela from lawyer Joseph Lancaster Brent and treated the two properties as a combined ranch, on which he continued the pastoral practices of the past, with sheep a major introduction regionally after the floods and droughts decimated the cattle population.
It’s very complicated, but an issue that arose had to do with claims by Burnett and Tomás Avila Sánchez, a grandson of the grantee and former long-time county sheriff who owned the Centinela, that the boundaries of Sausal Redondo should be extended to more than twice its granted limits, due to a survey that embraced former public and Los Angeles pueblo lands extending to the east and north.
It took several years, but settlers on some of these properties (their tenure dating back to the 1850s), represented by newly arrived lawyer and real estate promoter Robert M. Widney, were able to convince federal officials that the earlier map, from which the Avila claim was based, was correct. Somewhat tangentially, among the so-called “land grabbers” involved in these battles was former Civil War General William S. Rosecrans.
Burnett, who returned to Scotland, then leased the ranches to Canadian emigré Daniel Freeman, whose transactions with the properties, however, were usually conducted under the name of his wife Catherine. In late April 1873, a deal was struck by which, for $150,000 paid by September 1875, Burnett would transfer the ranches to Catherine Freeman. Her spouse then made arrangements with local capitalists to establish the Centinela townsite and subdivision, with the Centinela Land Company headed by F.P.F. Temple.
As noted here previously, the project promised a good deal, with the town laid out just north east of today’s Los Angeles International Airport, within parts of modern Inglewood (its west side), the unincorporated community of Athens, and portions of Westchester, while a port was planned near the outlet of Ballona Creek at the ocean and a railroad intended to go to Los Angeles. Land sales were held in mid-January 1875 and again in March, but, later that year, and just about when the Burnett-Freeman transfer was to be consummated, disaster struck.
Stock prices in silver mines at Virginia City, Nevada, with most of the financial work being done in San Francisco, were in an untenable bubble by summer and one of the major investors who sought to sell out at just the right time was Elias J. “Lucky” Baldwin, who earned his nickname when he instructed an agent to dispose of his stock when it got to a certain price, but then left town with his strongbox key on his person. When he returned, the value had risen beyond his sale point and then he pulled the trigger and walked away with several million dollars, while his move fomented a full-blown panic that erupted in late August.
The Bank of California, the state’s largest, imploded and the body of its president, William C. Ralston, was found floating in San Francisco Bay. The ticking telegraph shot the news to Los Angeles, where jittery depositors rushed to the two commercial banks in town: Farmers’ and Merchants’, run by Isaias W. Hellman, and that of his former partners, F.P.F. Temple (known as the “Ralston of Los Angeles” for his purported financial success) and William Workman. While the former endured the panic, the latter did not.
Temple and Workman borrowed money from Baldwin “on rather hard terms,” as expressed by Temple when he informed his aged father-in-law and partner of the deal in a letter in the Museum’s collection, but, by the time the bank reopened in early December, depositor confidence was destroyed and the funds were quickly withdrawn, so that, by mid-January 1876 the shattered institution was shuttered.
Workman committed suicide several months later, while Temple, who’d been elected county treasurer the day the two banks suspended business to try and calm the roiling waters of the panic and was still allowed to serve his two-year term (albeit, with a deputy conducting daily operations of the office), suffered a series of strokes and died a broken man in April 1880.
The collateral for the Baldwin loan included the significant landholdings of the ruined bankers, including what became known as the Baldwin Hills. Notably, “Lucky” considered investing at Centinela in spring 1875, as he began spending his recently acquired millions on local real estate, starting with Rancho Santa Anita in the San Gabriel Valley, but decided against it—though the hills he acquired by foreclosure much later reaped enormous dividends for his heirs and daughters, Anita Baldwin and Clara Baldwin Stocker, when oil was found there.
As for the Centinela project, it quickly faded into oblivion. Freeman resumed control of the Centinela and Sausal Redondo ranchos and, in April 1882, more than six-and-a-half years later than originally intended, Burnett finally conveyed the Centinela and Sausal Redondo ranches, with other lands, to Freeman (Catherine having died in 1874) in what was called by the relatively new Los Angeles Times “one of the largest real estate transactions ever consummated in Los Angeles County,” with the price being $140,000.
By then, Freeman was one of the largest grain producers in the region, on a scale perhaps only bettered by Lankershim and Van Nuys in the southern San Fernando Valley and Charles Maclay and Albert Moffitt in the northern section of that area. In March 1882, news accounts recorded that Freeman and his tenants had 10,000 acres of wheat and 7,000 acres of barley planted on the two ranches. In June 1883, it was reported that Freeman estimated that he had 120,000 sacks, or about a quarter million bushels of grain, two-thirds of it barley and the remainder wheat, generated from them.
Meanwhile, just a month after the deal with Burnett was finalized, Freeman took out ads offering the Sausal Redondo and its “over 22,000 acres of the finest farming land in Los Angeles County” to “farmers in lots to suit and at very low prices.” It appears that, with economic conditions still depressed in the region, this attempt did not meet expectations.
At the end of 1883, a new effort was launched to sell half of the ranch in one transaction through a San Francisco land bureau with the local agents in Los Angeles being the attorneys John S. Chapman and Jackson A. Graves. It was added that, should the large tract not sell, it was intended to take “the best grain ranch in Los Angeles County” with its “fine fruit & grape land” and subdivide and sell it.
Again, conditions were not evidently propitious for these endeavors, but Freeman finally hit paydirt a few years later, thanks to the onset of the famous Boom of the Eighties, largely fueled by the completion of a transcontinental railroad link to Los Angeles by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe. In the fevered rush for real estate development from 1886 to 1888, most of this period being during the mayoral term of William H. Workman, the Sausal Redondo was subjected to subdivision.
Part of it was adjacent to the Port Ballona project, which sought to establish a competitor to San Pedro/Wilmington and Santa Monica with a wharf in a dredged area where Ballona Creek empties into the Pacific—this being a variation of what was proposed for the Centinela subdivision in the mid-Seventies.
In its New Year’s Day 1887 edition, the Los Angeles Herald briefly described “a new settlement west of Compton,” that community on Rancho San Pedro land acquired and developed in the last half of the 1860s by F.P.F. Temple and Fielding W. Gibson of El Monte and renamed in 1870 for major owner George D. Compton, with water delivery planned so that “there will soon be a prosperous town of Sausal Redondo to add to the attractions of Los Angeles County.”
Later in the year, there were advertisements by, in April, J. Downey Harvey (nephew of former governor and ex-president of Farmers’ and Merchants’ Bank, John G. Downey) and his 320 acres next to the port site, as well as, in August, the team of Ozro W. Childs and Charles Silent, who promoted “the vast Centinela and Sausal Redondo ranchos” in lots from 5 acres and up and from $175 northward.
The latter was an early mention of the name “Redondo Beach” and, also in August, Silent and his partners Nathan R. Vail and Dan McFarland, called for architects to submit plans for a project:
We propose building at Redondo Beach (formerly the Dominguez property, near the Salt Works) a large first-class hotel, to be equal in all respects to the Del Monte at Monterey. We invite architects to submit . . . plans and estimates . . . the building to contain not less than 400 rooms, and to cost not less than $100,000, and to be in every respect suitable for a first-class seaside resort.
The reference to the “Dominguez property” meant that portion of Rancho San Pedro, long owned by that prominent Californio family, acquired for the purpose of developing the hotel and townsite, while the “Salt Works” were well-known for utilizing a spring-fed lake, a couple of hundred yards from the sea, to produce salt.
As early as 1854, a simple plant was established on more than 200 acres sold by Manuel Dominguez for the purpose and it operated, under a few different owners, for more than a quarter century. Today, the site is a generating station near the boundaries of the San Pedro and Sausal Redondo ranches, which is also the dividing line between Hermosa Beach and Redondo Beach.
A major part of the hotel and townsite project was the completion of a narrow-gauge railroad from Los Angeles, built by the Santa Fe. In early November, the Centinela-Inglewood Land Company and the Redondo Beach Company were organized by the same syndicate including McFarland, Silent, Vail, Leonard J. Rose of the San Gabriel Valley (and namesake of Rosemead), William N. Monroe (founder of Monrovia), and others. At the end of the month, Carroll H. Brown was chosen (over the prominent brothers Joseph and Samuel Newsom) to design the hotel, which was then slated to cost about $300,000.
The hotel, a centerpiece, along with the wharf (finished in 1887, destroyed soon after by a storm and rebuilt, though it was removed in 1915) of what was promoted as “The Gem of the Continent,” opened on 1 May 1890 and became a major landmark in the region. One of the real estate and insurance agents who came to Redondo Beach that year was Henry S. Ledyard, the former managing cashier of Temple and Workman and who’d been through many ups and downs in the fifteen years since the bank’s collapse. Tragically, Ledyard, who was drinking heavily and concerned about the health of his wife after their daughter died soon after birth, committed suicide and press accounts referenced the bank failure and Workman’s suicide in connection with Ledyard’s death.
This brief review of some of the early history of Redondo Beach is illustrated by a quartet of the 28 December 1897 photos showing the hotel, some of its landscaping, the wide expanses of the beach and a steamship heading to the wharf. As noted at the outset of this post, the images, on the surface, are interesting, but the history of the area elucidated here in summary form hopefully provide some context for them.