“It is Enough to Say That Los Angeles Does Nothing by Halves”: Bertha H. Smith’s “The Making of Los Angeles” in Sunset Magazine, July 1907, Part One

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As has been stated numerous times on this blog, the phenomenal growth of Los Angeles in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was perhaps unrivaled in the history of American cities, save, perhaps, the example of Chicago. The leap in population by 100 times from 1870 to 1920 and another doubling during the Roaring Twenties was, by any standard, a remarkable transformation of a small, isolated frontier town into a fully modernized metropolis that was the advancing hub of the American Southwest as many hoped it would be in those earlier years.

There were, of course, negative ramifications along with all of the positive boosting of the region, as the absolute dominance of white power brokers was often at the expense of people of color, many of whom provided the inexpensive and easily manipulated labor force that did the hard work of planting, caring for and reaping the crops in local farms and orchards; cleaned public buildings and private houses; worked in factories and manufacturing plants; labored in rail yards; and in many other ways.

Los Angeles Times, 24 June 1899.

Those were the stories that remained repressed and invisible while, increasingly, books and magazines hailed the growth of greater Los Angeles through the prism of progress, but the audiences, writers and subjects represented the dominant segment of society and such was the case with the featured article for this post, “The Making of Los Angeles,” by Bertha H. Smith, published in the July 1907 edition of Sunset Magazine. The journal was founded at the close of the 19th century for the purpose of promotion and marketing the west coast by the Southern Pacific Railroad’s Passenger Department and remained under its ownership until 1914.

Smith was, in many ways, representative of the hordes of white migrants who flocked to the area during those boom decades, as she, born in Kansas in 1872 to a produce merchant and a housewife, came to Los Angeles with her family in the waning days of the century. By 1899, Bertha was securing work writing articles for the Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Herald newspapers and, in 1904, published the book Yosemite Legends, about that famous national park.

Times, 13 November 1904.

While she was not as well-known as her older sister, Harrye, who was locally recognized as Mrs. A.S.C. (Armitage S.C.) Forbes, whose crusade to save and restore the California Missions was marked by the placement of roadside bells throughout the Golden State, Bertha expanded her reach nationally, writing for magazines like Good Housekeeping and traveling extensively around the country as part of her work. Much of her work focused on women in the West, including those managing farms or engaged in pursuits that showed the changing role of women.

Her article about Los Angeles, though, was very general and was subtitled “A Study of the Astonishing Growth of California’s Southland City—Oranges, Palms and Fast-Rising Sky-Scrapers—Present Population Close to 300,000” and she began with the observation that “Chicago and Jack’s beanstalk hold the world’s records for quick growth in their different classes; but if Los Angeles keeps up its present pace, it will soon outstrip Chicago, and before the end of the decade may even challenge the beanstalk.”

In 1900, there were just north of 100,000 denizens of the Angel City, she continued, but a school census recorded more than 284,000 residents and, in order to keep pace with this demographic burgeoning, “buildings have ben erected at the rate of twenty miles a year and an average cost of a million dollars a month.” Smith emphasized such usual statistical measures as building permits, postal receipts and bank clearings to show the dramatic economic growth, as well.

With all of this came the question: “Why is Los Angeles—this lusty Los Angeles of to-day?” Her response was three-fold in terms of the “most conspicuous reasons”: weather, the Chamber of Commerce, and Henry E. Huntington. With respect to the first, Smith gushed,

In the beginning the Creator gave it a climate that is a perfect blend of the free breath of the desert, the pure air of the mountains, and the clean, bracing wind from the sea; and a soil that, given water, refuses nothing grown in temperate or semi-tropic climes.

Since the boom of the Eighties, which peaked during the mayoral administration of William H. Workman, nephew of Homestead founders William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, the Chamber “has labored unceasingly to let very man, woman and child in the United States and beyond, know that here was a place where people could not merely exist, but live.” Lastly, as the new century dawned, “a man came to Los Angeles with his brain and his millions and te potentiality of many more millions” and created a streetcar system “that is to-day second to no other electric railway system of like extent in the world.”

Much had been written, Smith went on, about the natural situation of the region, “thanks to barrels of printer’s ink spilled in every corner of the land,” but, turning again to divine providence, she intoned, “the Creator did His part a very long time ago, and He did as much for a half dozen other towns within fifty miles of Los Angeles.” The bounties of nature, however, were to be appreciated, but it took more than that and here Smith followed the standard line about how “for more than a hundred years Los Angeles made no great stir in the world.”

She offered that only a few more people came to the city in a century than would recently arrive in 100 days, but she had to add that “for most of that hundred years Los Angeles was not an American city.” Adopting the view of Latino indolence retarding the growth of the region, she wrote that “it took a deal of Yankee push to overcome” the “sleepy” aspect of pre-American California under Spain and México. Smith observed that the site of the pueblo was so that “people should furnish food supplies for the presidios,” though the nearest of the latter were in Santa Barbara and San Diego.

The “pomp and ceremony” under the auspices of the Catholic Church was all that could be mustered by “a small band of travel-stained and foot-sore soldiers,” a tiny group of missionaries, and “the ready-made population of families composed in varying parts of Spaniards, negroes, and Indians” comprising the 44 pobladores. She added that “the Yang-na villagers,” meaning the indigenous people of the region, “were the only spectators of the unique ceremony of the founding of the second pueblo in California.”

While the bounds of the new town were considered substantial, “running six miles in each direction,” there was the matter of “scraping together what would come from Mexico on the promise of a none too reliable government to provide each family with ground for a house, fourteen acres for cultivation” and the animals and tools needed for their subsistence farming. Smith then dismissively concluded that, “the possibilities of such a country were wasted on the vagabond band that came, and the pueblo never amounted to anything until long after the last remnant of the original settlers was gone.”

Central or Sixth Street Park became Pershing Square after the end of World War One.

She added that “it was still a sorry excuse for a town that the United States adopted [adopted?!] near the middle of the nineteenth century,” but, typically of the era, there was no discussion, if any thought at all, about the fact that the department of Alta California was established in the late 18th century by a Spanish empire that was a shadow of its former acme two centuries prior and a crumbling remnant soon to be subsumed under the empire assembled by Napoleon of France.

At the time of its “adoption,” Los Angeles had a population of 1,610, though this 1850 census total was vastly undercounted, and it was almost certainly in the range of 3 to 4,000. Still, wrote Smith, “the few Americans outweighed all the rest” and their names were found on streets and business blocks (with Temple being a notable one.) Smith asserted that for two decades, until the dawn of the 1870s,

Los Angeles seems to have distinguished itself only as the toughest [i.e., most violent] town in the country and continued to justify the name of Los Diablos earned in an earlier day. During this period, one after another, ministers of various Protestant denominations came, looked the field over and were vanquished by the vice and crime that ruled.

Beyond the fact that the “Los Diablos” moniker has no evidence behind it, as violence was actually quite low before the American period and the upheaval of the Gold Rush era, the inference about the Protestants is that the Catholic priests either tolerated and turned a blind eye to crime and violence, which is simply not the case.

To fit the narrative, however, the author continued that social organizations struggled, schools were established late, while charity and philanthropy were engaged in during fits and starts. It was said that assessments for all the property in Los Angeles was below $200,000 and improved buildings at not even a half million, while “petty revolutions were the chief occupation of the people,” though this would have been more about the pre-American period even if those taking part would not agree that the infighting was “petty.”

Still, Smith argued, the 1850s and 1860s found that “this backward, brawling step-child was beginning to show, in small ways, the influence of its foster parent [?!]” while “the battle was on between American push and energy and Spanish love of ease” and she considered “an auspicious omen” when John G. Nichols, Jr., who was son of an 1850s mayor of the Angel City, was the first “American” baby born in the town.

Other signs of modest advancement included the completion of a telegraph line from San Francisco and a stagecoach route established to the “boat landing,” harbor being too generous a word, at San Pedro, with the region’s first railroad, the Los Angeles and San Pedro replacing it. Smith continued that, “banks were started,” including Hellman, Temple and Company, launched in fall 1868 with William Workman, his son-in-law F.P.F. Temple, and merchant Isaias W. Hellman joining forces in the second such institution to open in town. Brick and iron were made, flour and beer processed and cattle raising “varied with the planting of grapes and oranges and nuts.”

Smith recorded that the first shipment of grapes and wine from California to other markets took place in 1855, followed the next year by oranges. By 1868, a gas works was in operation in Los Angeles and an improved water delivery system established after floods washed away the works on two occasions and the private Los Angeles Water Company brought reliable service, though, at the expiration of its 30-year contract, the City took over the system through the forerunner of the Department of Water and Power.

Real estate finally became a significant industry during the late Sixties, when the region’s first significant and sustained period of growth, its first boom, ensued. Smith, however, seemed to confuse the arrival of railroads in San Francisco, asserting that the railroad to the east (the transcontinental) was completed when the telegraph was finished in 1860 and then said that this rail line brought 80,000 “gold-made people” to the northern part of California in a year—though, by the time the transcontinental was completed in 1869, the Gold Rush was long over.

Smith averred that, with that railroad deluge, “Los Angeles got only a little backwater of the flood,” though she coupled that with the the fact that consistent steamship service to and from San Francisco helped keep “the small southern pueblo into a sort of touch with the East,” but claimed “the influence was not strong enough yet to Americanize it wholly.” The early to mid 1870s brought a connection to the Southern Pacific and to San Francisco, but “if the struggling little pueblo wished to live and be allowed to grow,” courage required a deal with the railroad company in terms of a $600,000 subsidy, control of the local railroad, and donation of land for a depot and grounds for the SP.

It was also observed that, during this period, the Depression of 1873 that erupted in the East finally made its way to California, which initially appeared immune from the downturn, though Smith also asserted that “the only real progress made during” that period “was in orange and rape-growing, and in wine-making.” Such citrus growers as the Wolfskills (she said patriarch William shipped out a rail car of oranges in 1873, but he’d died seven years earlier so it was his son John who handled that transaction) and James de Barth Shorb were cited as earlier exemplars of finding Eastern markets through railroad shipments.

Smith also noted that the railroad meant more growth in the hinterlands of the county rather than in the city, even as its population doubled from near 6,000 to over 11,000, though some of that increase in the outlying areas was because old ranch lands were subdivided for small farmers, many of whom fled devastated areas from the Civil War. In writing that Los Angeles did not differ much from other western communities, she wrote that “gradually the gringo dominated it, and traces of its Mexican ancestry were fast disappearing,” as brick and wood structures replaced adobe buildings and the demographics of the population shifted toward an Anglo majority.

An increase in newspapers, including the move to daily editions, a horse-car line (the Spring and Sixth Street Railroad, whose first treasurer was F.P.F. Temple), bridges spanning the Los Angeles river, and “several business blocks of considerable pretensions,” including the Temple and Downey blocks, were completed. In 1873, “the public school system reached the dignity of a high school building,” though “the little frame building” gave way to the current structure and was followed, in 1905, by the opening of the second high school, Los Angeles Polytechnic, now the John H. Francis Polytechnic in Sun Valley. Growth, however, called for more schools, including “a new Girls high school [which] will be built within a year” as an addition to Los Angeles High.

The 1876 completion of the Southern Pacific to Los Angeles from the north was deemed as having “failed to make as great a change as had been anticipated” and fares were too high for new settlers, though she did not here mention the debilitating depression, though she did note that “those who hesitated least were the health-seekers” who sought cures for their ills in the salubrious climate of greater Los Angeles and this included “hundreds of men active in the life of Los Angeles to-day,” who “came then from less-favored climes under sentence of death from their doctors.”

We’ll take up the thread of this tale in a couple of days with part two of this very interesting, if not always accurate and often prejudiced, view of the growth of Los Angeles, so check back soon.

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