From Point A to Point B: A First Mortgage Gold Bond Issued by The Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway Company, 16 March 1892

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

In 1874, the Spring and Sixth Street Railway, with F.P.F. Temple as its treasurer, inaugurated rapid transit in the small, but growing, Los Angeles with a modest horse-drawn streetcar line. Fifteen years later, William H. Workman, recently mayor of the Angel City, was part of the Los Angeles Cable Railway, which used the technology still in place in San Francisco and which quickly supplanted the horse-drawn system, built one of its lines out to his Boyle Heights tract (which he, banker Isaias W. Hellman and merchant John Lazzarovich inaugurated in 1875.)

The next evolution in the streetcars was, of course, electricity, and the Los Angeles Electric Railway (a.k.a., the Pico Street Electric Railway) was launched during the great Boom of the 1880s in 1886 and 1887, though it was short-lived. A firm called the Electric Rapid Transit Company was formed in 1890 to resurrect and cars were ordered, but the owners had trouble meeting financial obligations. They turned to an investor who was in the process of migrating to the Angel City from Phoenix, the capital of the Arizona Territory: General Moses H. Sherman.

Moses H. Sherman (1853-1932) from a “mug book,” featuring a fawning biography paid for by the subject, of Los Angeles County history.

Sherman was born in December 1853 in West Rupert at the western edge of Vermont and spent much of his early years on the family farm just a few miles away in Salem, New York. He attended the state normal school for teacher education at Oswego on the shore of Lake Erie and began teaching. Because he contracted tuberculosis, however, he headed west in 1872 while still only 18 years old for a drier climate and landed in Prescott, Arizona Territory (that would be “Press-Kit” to those who know). He continued his career in education for a few years before being appointed to represent the territory at the nation’s centennial celebration in Philadelphia.

After returning to Arizona, Sherman was appointed to be the superintendent of public instruction and later was commissioned by Governor John C. Frémont to be the adjutant general of the territorial militia—for the rest of life he was referred to honorifically as “General.” Sherman then moved into real estate and banking, including the Valley Bank of Phoenix, where he’d relocated when it became the territorial capital. Sherman also launched the Phoenix Street Railway and owned a majority of the stock in the city’s water company, while he also donated the land for the state capitol.

Los Angeles Herald, 14 February 1891.

Sherman first visited Los Angeles in June 1876, just after the city’s first boom period came to a spectacular end including the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, and he returned a few more time over the next decade or so, including during the aforementioned boom in the Eighties. When a new bank, the National Bank of California, opened at Spring and Second streets in 1889, Sherman was a founding director and the institution’s president was another recent arrival (in this case from Ohio) named John M.C. Marble.

With the difficulties encountered by the Electric Rapid Transit Company, Sherman saw an opportunity to bring his experience and skills with electric streetcar systems to Los Angeles and he invested $56,000, taking control of the enterprise by fall 1890. Known for a short time as the Belt Line Railway Company, the enterprise was renamed The Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway Company (LACER), incorporated in Arizona because it was easier to issue stock there, but there was immediate controversy over its aims and ambitions.

Los Angeles Express, 14 March 1891.

Among Sherman’s partners were his father-in-law, Robert H. Pratt, who was a prominent official with the Central Pacific Railroad, which built the western half of the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s, and its subsidiary, the powerful Southern Pacific, and brother-in-law, Eli P. Clark, also a former teacher who ended up in Prescott. Marble also joined the business as did Frank V. McDonald, cashier of a San Francisco bank, one of a pair run by his father Richard, with the cashier of the other institution also involved. Construction work was initiated in February 1891.

An early detailed account from the 14 April edition of the Los Angeles Express was titled “A Grand Enterprise” and it began with the observation that

It is not generally understood by the public, and it is known to comparatively few people and appreciated by less, that there is an institution working its way of inception in our midst will will comprise, when complete, an addition of $1,000,000 to the taxable basis of Los Angeles.

This is the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway Company, to which has been given the name of the “Belt Road,” and it is now in the progress of building.

It was added that the system was to have a half-dozen branch lines with five dozen cars plying forty miles of double track, which “will reach out from the center and bring all parts of the city into communication with each other.” The paper was reported that San Francisco capitalists were looking into establishing a system in Oakland, but Andrew W. Barrett, formerly of the Los Angeles City Council, grand marshal of the Independence Day parade of 1889, and a real estate and insurance broker, lobbied for Los Angeles.

Express, 10 April 1891.

Sherman, Marble and John A. Muir, another founder who was a Southern Pacific assistant superintendent for the Los Angeles division of LACER went to San Francisco and reportedly found resistance because of concerns about how the recent boom went bust and purportedly signaled problems with how development was being managed in the Angel City. Barrett used his recent experience and contacts regarding the City Council to develop support for the new project and he became the superintendent of the new company.

Pacific Rolling Mills Company of San Francisco was hired on a $700,000 contract to build the track, install the electric lines, construct the car house and power house (these were built on the east side of Central Avenue just south of 6th Street) and the other work needed. Notably, a state law allowed any company to be able to use up to five consecutive blocks of another firm’s lines by paying half the cost and expense of those lines and this applied to the Los Angeles Cable Railway. Meanwhile, there were such lines as that of the failed Second Street Cable Railway which went west into the Crown Hill subdivision west of Bunker Hill, and the defunct Pico Street line in terms of taking those over.

Express, 1 July 1891.

A great amount of detail was provided about the single-story car house and the two-story power house, with the latter’s second floor to include a reading room and library for employees, while the first level included the engines, generators and batteries, the boiler room, the coal bunkers and tracks connected, not surprisingly, with the Southern Pacific’s tracks. The car house was to have a depressed floor under the tracks so repairs could easily be conducted rom below, while a transfer table was to be installed on a track that would allow for easy movement of cars in and out of the structure, which was to have room for 54 cars and which faced Alameda Street on its east side.

As to the narrow gauge (3 1/2 feet) track, it was of steel with octagonal poles, painted white, set 120 feet apart, on the side of the streets with 500-volt wires strung along them and with cars attached by poles to the wires and single-gear motors, said to be very quiet, utilizing the power with speeds up to 25 miles per hour. The cars were to be 32 feet long with a capacity of forty persons with closed centers for twenty-two passengers and open ends, with these latter having seating for nine people each. A conductor and motorman were to staff each of the cars, which were to ply routes along the University (south), Second Street (west), Boyle Heights (east), East Los Angeles (northeast to what became Lincoln Heights), Sisters’ Hospital (northwest) and Sixth Street (west) lines.

Los Angeles Times, 28 July 1891.

Naturally, the idea was to stimulate building along the routes traversed by the card, including residential growth in outlying areas within city limits. Yet, there was immediate pushback from the cable system’s receiver, James F. Crank, who alleged that the LACER was formed with questionable financing to try to “bluff” the cable line to sell to it or be forced out of business. A confidential letter written by Marble was cited as damning as he talked about buying the cable road cheaply, though the banker responded that any successful competition could lead to such an outcome.

There was also an outcry about the LACER’s connections to the McDonald banks in San Francisco and whisperings about the questionable operations of those financial institutions. The Pacific Milling Company was owned by William Alvord, also president of the Bank of California, and there was talk of how the firm ended up with contracts for both the cable and electric lines and what that implied. James G. Fair, a very wealthy San Francisco capitalist who made his pile with the Comstock Lode silver mines in Virginia City, Nevada and who was a recent United States Senator from that state was also said to be angling to take over both lines.

Herald, 1 January 1892.

San Francisco and Los Angeles newspapers, during the summer of 1891, reported frequently and at length about reports and rumors involving these various persons and the wrangling among them and the two streetcar lines. At one point, Eli P. Clark lashed out at statements intimating potential wrongdoing by saying that accusations against his company were lies and providing detail about negotiations and transactions that he insisted showed that everything was above-board and steadfastly denying that the purpose behind LACER was purely speculative, including the idea of a quick sale once the infrastructure was in place.

As for Marble, he strenuously denied that “the electric company in this city is lying in wait to pounce upon and devour the cable company.” While he described the cable company as one in which it “has always been an unfortunate property at best,” he averred that “I do not see why the two systems should not get along agreeably together” and said he was not ashamed of what he wrote in the letter, as mentioned above. He added that the San Francisco company was working with the cable company on a financing basis, but with the LACER “they get part cash,” while the former was in difficulties, but the latter was more well-positioned for success.

The opening of the first line was in July 1891 and, while there were some issues with pedestrian accidents, scared horses leading buggies on city streets and a report of a derailed car on the line to Vernon. By late August, Crank and Frank McDonald were said to have “met by chance” in an office of someone associated with the Pacific Rolling Mills, and the former was said to have spoken bluntly about the question of whether the cable company was to either buy the electric line or be acquired by it. Fair acted as if he had little to do with the controversy other than his involvement in the rolling mills firm and told a San Francisco paper that he hadn’t been to Los Angeles in over a quarter century, so rumors of his designs on the streetcar lines there were totally unfounded.

The controversy receded from view by fall 1891 and, at the end of the year, the Express reported that “the most notable and important progressive movement” was the development of the LACER, which had thirty miles of track in operation with ten more to be constructed. It took control of a line running south on Maple Avenue to city limits as well as one built in the vicinity of Elysian Park.

The Los Angeles Herald of New Year’s Day 1892 had a different report on the mileage covered by the system, stating that there were 35 miles of electric and 13 operated by horse-led cars, though it was expected that ten of the latter was to be converted to the former quite soon. It was also noted that, in addition to the main power plant described above, a secondary one was acquired with the line that ran down Maple Avenue. Moreover, while cars ran from between 5 and 15 minutes between stops, it was anticipated to reduce that to between 3 and 5.

The featured artifact from the Museum’s collection for this post is a $1,000 First Mortgage Gold Bond issued by the company and dated 16 March 1892. It has a great vignette at the top showing a car plying a street near the county courthouse as well as machinery in the powerhouse, while at the bottom is a view of the power plant and car house. The signatures of Sherman and McDonald are also at the bottom along with the embossed company seal, while a stamp by trustees indicated how much was paid ($420.37) and 30 bond coupons of $30 each remain attached and were to have been payable through 1910.

Even though a deal was struck at the end of June 1892 by which the Los Angeles Cable Railway was acquired by the LACER, the resulting national depression of 1893, which included the dramatic failure of the McDonald’s banks, and the burden of expenditures to build the several lines led to severe economic strains on the company. In March 1895, Sherman and his compatriots handed the LACER over to a trustee for the bondholders, who then purchased the company at a foreclosure sale that summer.

The firm was renamed the Los Angeles Railway, but, three years later, it was acquired by the Southern Pacific through the agency of Henry E. Huntington, the nephew of the SP’s president, Collis P. Huntington. After the latter’s death in 1900 and the takeover of the SP by E.H. Harriman and others, Henry Huntington was ousted from his role, but, along with his Southern Pacific stock, took the Los Angeles Railway with him. In the first decade of the 20th century, he built that line as the city expanded and then developed, with enormous regional growth, what became the Pacific Electric system, the largest in America in terms of track mileage.

This bond is a great early artifact associated with what became a very integral part of greater Los Angeles transportation (for more on earlier electric streetcar lines, check out this webpage from the Electric Railway Historical Association.) through much of the 20th century and we’ll continue to highlight streetcar-related objects from our holdings as part of the “From Point A to Point B” series of posts on this blog,

4 thoughts

  1. This is a wonderful article – A great story – makes me wonder about people like Sherman and Clark – why come to a brand-new territory (AZ) – opportunity? These two and many others had a different idea of opportunity (starting things from scratch in the middle of nowhere) and I do (starting an enterprise in an already thriving area) – Same for my great-great grandfather Jacob Frankenfield, who was president of the Council in 1890.

    Here are a few interesting tidbits I am aware of:

    – B. O. (Byron Oscar) Carr married Sarah Pratt, another daughter of Robert, and was earlier superintendent of the Union Pacific’s Ogden Division before moving on to San Francisco and the People’s Home Savings Bank. Makes the LACE look like something of a family effort. (from the Carr Book, a family history).
    – When Sherman left Phoenix he left his brother-in-law B.N. Pratt in charge of his Phoenix affairs. More family connections (from the book Ride a While and Smile the While).
    – The railway Sherman oversaw in Phoenix was a series of horsecar lines, which were electrified in 1893, which makes his foray into electric railways (a new technology) in 1890 all the more of an adventure here in L.A. (from the same book).

    I love all your articles, and often wonder how to manage to turn out so much great stuff!

  2. Hi Budd, many thanks for the comment and kind words about the blog and this post. It was said Sherman went west because of his contracting tuberculosis, which did send a lot of people out to this part of the country. Perhaps this was the same for Clark? We also appreciate the additional information you provided which further solidifies the “family and friends” element of the formation of the LACER. Finally, your mention of your great-great-grandfather was interesting–it sounds like he and Chester Rude (your great-grandfather?) were notable figures in their day.

  3. I agree, a wonderful article. Moses Sherman, along with Harry Chandler and Sidney Woodruff developed the Hollywoodland neighborhood, probably one of the most recognizable areas due to our Hollywood(land) sign. This year we are celebrating 100 years . Lots of misinformation about the age of the current sign that is only 45 years. The current sign was completely reconfigured in 1978, smaller in size, different materials and with different footings on some of the letters.

  4. Thanks, Christine, we appreciate the kind words and comment. A lot could have been mentioned about Sherman’s later activities, including Hollywoodland, but that can always be part of another post since the Homestead’s collection has some great photos of that tract!

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