by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With this second and final part of a post on Bertha H. Smith’s “The Making of Los Angeles,” published in the July 1907 edition of Sunset Magazine, we move from the 1870s to the 1880s and her statement that “the coming of a second railroad in 1885” to the region “precipitated the most spectacular event of that decade.”
Her reference to the completion of a line by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad to the area was that it came almost a decade after the Southern Pacific Railroad (statutorily obligated by Congress to do so) finished its line to the Angel City from the north in 1876, but there were at least two key differences between these two events.
First, the earlier route only provided a very indirect transcontinental link to the East, as passengers and freight had to go to the Bay Area first before taking the trip eastward and, secondly, the 1876 completion came at an economically depressed time. By the end of 1885, however, when the Santa Fe finished its line, it was a direct transcontinental route and the financial situation was significantly better.
After observing, as has often been done, that a rate war ensued so that a one-way fare [presumably from Kansas City in Smith’s example) fell from $75 to, for one day, a single dollar, she commented that “booms are pretty much alike. Those who have lived through one do not like the word. Those who have not may go down on their marrow bones and be thankful for their ignorance.” Given this, the writer pronounced, “it is enough to say that Los Angeles does nothing by halves, even in the matter of booms.”
Secondary in importance to the completion of this direct link to the east in Smith’s telling was the formation (or, rather, the reformation, as there was a precursor that went defunct earlier in the decade) of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. She argued that “for nearly twenty years it has carried on the most perfect system of advertising ever planned or executed by a city, with the possible exception of Chicago,” that metropolis perhaps the only American burg that grew faster in a given period of time than the Angel City.
While Smith stated that the organization was launched just after the boom, the Chamber’s website suggests that the 1888 establishment was “to overcome the mass exodus of [from?] Los Angeles in the early 1880s and to reinvigorate growth” [unfortunately, in citing some of the founders, it identifies “William W. Workman” instead of William H. Workman, who was finishing the second and final year of his term as mayor at the time.)
In any case, the author continued that “the men who formed the chamber realized that there was as much need of bolstering courage at home as of passing on the good word” about the city and region. As such, Smith asserted,
The Chamber of Commerce is a guardian angel that hovers over Los Angeles and has never failed the city where its welfare was concerned. It has a special fondness for newspaper and magazine writers [of which Smith was one, as noted in the first part], and by the time one of them has been shown the permanent exhibit of California products now housed in a splendid new building, has been taken the round of show places near Los Angeles from the mountains to the sea, and has been filled to the chin with a mixture of statistics and the famous Chamber of Commerce punch, he would be an ingrate indeed if he wrote an unkind word about California.
Voluminous pieces of Chamber-published literature and consistent displays of regional products at expositions that were very popular at the time “must be credited [for] the doubling of the city’s population during the decade following the boom,” this being the 1890s, though there were, of course, other reasons for the growth.
Having offered this encomium for the institution, Smith turned to “the third great factor in the development of the city,” which took place within the last decade or so, during which there was another significant uptick in population. She added that “it is not the old residenters [is that a word?] that have profited by the change” wrought in recent years, meaning not the gent who purchased a property on Broadway for several grand a couple decades back and made a cool half a million bucks in 1906, or the German grocer and Irish launderess who hung on to land and reaped the rewards of happenstance.
Instead, Smith claimed, “for the most part the old-timers simply sold their down-town homes when business came too close for comfort and moved farther out and the new-comers have profited by the great advance in values.” At the vanguard of this new class of capitalists was Henry E. Huntington, who “just before 1900 . . . formed a syndicate and bought the street railway system.”
It was in 1898 that Huntington purchased the Los Angeles Railway under the auspices of the Southern Pacific of which he was vice-president under his uncle, Collis P. Huntington. After the latter’s death and a hostile takeover by rail tycoon E.H. Harriman, Huntington was cut loose from the SP board, but retained control of the Los Angeles Railway and had Harriman as a major partner and, when the Pacific Electric Railway was established in 1911, sold it to the Southern Pacific.
As recorded by Smith, “within seven years the city lines [of the railway] have been increased to two hundred miles” from 150 “and a network of inter-urban lines aggregating nearly six hundred miles has drawn a score of towns into close touch with Los Angeles, and has brought into being another score of settlements” with these having efficient rail service to the Angel City. She observed that “Los Angeles was one of the first cities in the country to adopt the ‘trolley’ car, and to-day is second to none in the extent and service . . . of its lines” and added that $25 million was invested in this work “and the lines are being continually extended in every direction.”
Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Pacific railway, with 200 miles of track, was purchased by Harriman and his associates, while another line between Los Angeles and the popular coastal resort town of Redondo Beach was acquired and rebuilt by Huntington and his syndicate. Together, these tycoons and their compatriots controlled almost 800 miles of railway and “the Pacific Electric terminal building,” situated at Main and 6th streets, “is the largest building west of the Mississippi” with 600 trains running through it daily.
The Los Angeles Pacific had more modest quarters for its 500 daily cars, but “a building commensurate with its needs is a promise for the near future.” Also briefly noted was the completion, six years prior, of the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake Railway, connecting the growing harbor to the south with the Utah metropolis and which ran its line through the southern San Gabriel Valley parallel to the Southern Pacific.
This route passed along the south end of the 75-acre Homestead, sold in 1907 by Lafayette Lewis of Anaheim (who desecrated El Campo Santo Cemetery and was successfully sued for damages by Walter P. Temple and, thereby, elected to evade the costs by unloading the ranch) to Eugene Bassett and his son-in-law Thurston H. Pratt of Pasadena.
Of course, it was clear that “water is the without-which-nothing in the southern part of California,” though the choice of the hyphenated phrase isn’t so obvious. While it was one thing in bygone days to tap snowmelt and underground aquifers, “the ever-growing needs of a fast-growing city have for years troubled the brains of those who have the city’s welfare most at heart.”
The old zanja, or open ditch, system and the more recent distribution of local water through reservoirs and pipes were long outmoded, so “the project that has at last taken definite form is the bringing in of water by conduit [really, open channels] from Owens river, above the lake of the same name, to storage reservoirs in the San Fernando valley, and thence to the city.”
What became known as the Los Angeles Aqueduct was projected to cost $23 million (amazingly, it did actually achieve that figure) and a second much larger bond issue election was held in June to add to the $1.5 million previously approved for early planning. William H. Workman completed his third term as city treasurer in 1907 and one of his tasks was going to New York City to sell bonds.
The city had acquired water and riparian (this meaning taking as much water as was deemed reasonable and to broad beneficial use) rights for some fifty miles from Owens Lake to the intake for the project, while other sources were purchased and forest land reserved to prevent encroachment on its supply.
Smith added that,
The Owens river project seems assured and while in its magnitude it is without parallel in the history municipal water systems, it is declared by experts that the tapping of the streams bed by Mount Whitney’s snows will place the city beyond all need of worry in the matter of water supply for a century to come.
Regionally, untrammeled subsequent growth meant water had to be drawn from the Colorado River and the Sacramento River delta, but we are confronting increasingly challenging choices about future water supply. The writer also noted the importance of hydroelectric power in conjunction with water for development, including industrial uses, which would grow dramatically in following years.
In fact, she noted that “the problem of fuel has been second only to that of water” and, with coal not being easily located and wood becoming increasingly an issue for the long term, it was “the discovery of oil a few years ago [really, the early 1890s] in the immediate vicinity [that] at once gave hope of commercial independence and a greater scope for economic enterprise.”
With the Golden State poised to surpass Texas in oil production later in 1907, manufacturing was expected to burgeon, with growth already more than doubling since the turn of the century and Smith concluded, “with oil and electricity in unlimited quantity, the question of power is settled” and only access to raw materials for industry was at issue.
Agriculture might have been a time-honored staple of the greater Los Angeles economy, but production topped $110 million in 1906, while “the tourist crop” also expanded dramatically in recent years—the 1880s boom with easy rail transport were essential for both. The French might have demurred, but Smith insisted that “Los Angeles has been likened to Paris—a place where it is everyone’s desire, if not to be, at least to have been.”
As for trade, she remarked that it was a long way from “the early days, [when] horses were exchanged for blankets in New Mexico,” along the Old Spanish Trail, used in 1841 by the Workman family to migrate from the latter, to the status of “Los Angeles as the jobbing center for Arizona, New Mexico, and Nevada;” in other words, serving as the hub of the American Southwest.
What was left to cement the city and region’s status as an economic powerhouse was “the completion of San Pedro harbor,” where “the great sea wall is nearing completion.” Whereas there was division within the Chamber of Commerce during the Free Harbor fight of the 1890s over whether San Pedro/Wilmington or Santa Monica (where the Southern Pacific took over the wharf built in the 1870s boom by the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad and then constructed another later) would take precedence for federal largesse.
By 1907, however, that issue as settled toward the former and the Chamber was unified over promotion of it and Smith added that Los Angeles annexed a strip of land between San Pedro and Wilmington, though, within three years, both towns were also absorbed by the Angel City. Also vital was that “this harbor opens vast possibilities for export trade with the Orient,” no one foreseeing that, under a century later, it would be massive imports from China that marked that connection.
As for what may be, Smith insisted that all that mattered was “to try to comprehend what is,” with a gaze of the skyline of the Angel City being an obvious visual measurement of the transformation of the pueblo to the modern city marked by “the lofty, ragged contour of clustered sky-scrapers,” which only recently tripled in magnitude from four-story structures common in 1900 to the “height-limit” structures of recent vintage. As these steel-frame behemoths came into being, with graybeards pondering, “well, now, what are they going to do with that building?” Smith replied that these new commercial structures were leased before completion.
Because of the larger open spaces of Los Angeles, the migration of downtown south and west was exemplified by a store that was at the south end of the business district in the late 1880s when it opened a store on Spring north of 1st, but was almost done with what “will be the largest department store west of Chicago” at its Broadway and 8th location. The enterprise was unnamed, but it was almost Hamburger’s, which was acquired in the 1920s by the May Company, and the structure still stands today. Downtown streets, Smith claimed, offered “the most beautiful ornamental street lighting of any city in the world.
With annexation, which only accelerated in coming years, the city grew from 36 to 62 square miles and this meant that “a city of homes” was such that even “the workingman can own a cottage with a lawn in front and a garden behind.” Smith acknowledged changing times, however, as “that modern metropolitan device, the apartment house,” imported from the East, was making its mark on the Angel City, though she sourly asked “why people should choose to live piled on one another’s heads, forced to smell one another’s cooking and hear one another’s babies and pianos.”
This also meant a change in neighborly relations as “Los Angeles is famous for its manner of welcoming the stranger within its gates,” but the writer lamented that “nowadays the old-timer is as much a stranger as the newcomer, whose conventionalities are smothering the whole-souled hospitality that was once characteristic of the place.” Notably, Latinos from the Mexican period could easily, a half-century before or more, have mourned the passing of their traditions of hospitality once the Americans seized Los Angeles.
Smith identified other concerning changes, including “a network of trolley and telephone and electric light wires overhead, and above that clouds of smoke from factory chimneys where no smoke consumers are used,” while unpaved streets were “a disgrace to the city of to-day,” storm drains were in dire need, and pipes for gas and water delivery were outmoded, as well.
The preceding winter included gas shortages during cold weather and Smith warned that company officials were condemned to “spend a very long time in purgatory” if housewives lacking the ability to cook means had a say about their afterlives, though it was good that a new gas company was recently established to shake matters up. As for water, delivery was also stunted by inadequate supply (pending the completion of the Aqueduct in six years’ time).
Yet, Smith concluded, the issue was “merely the problem many mothers have to face—that of keeping a growing lad in breeches,” while she contended that “all people can do is to growl” at the utility companies and the city council “and blame it all on politics.” She opined that
Los Angeles is reasonably decent in its politics, as the standard of civic decency goes. There doubtless is some graft, to be sure, for there is graft everywhere. But it is not of a flagrant sort, and what mishandling of funds occurs can be classed only as petit larceny. Gradually men of unquestionable integrity are giving their time to the management of municipal affairs, and on the whole the sins are of omission rather than commission. The welfare of Los Angeles is too much the common cause for politics to do much harm.
This was an overly sunny view, to be sure, although there was a good government movement during this Progressive era that proved to be a powerful force through much of the following decade. In the Roaring Twenties, however, corruption reared its ugly head much more aggressively through city government.
In any case, Smith’s essay ended rather abruptly with the observation that Los Angeles was still officially considered a second-class city and she assumed that the 1910 federal census would change that, even as the Angel City was already there in reality, but, she stated without explanation, “by that time—Quien sabe [who knows]?”
This article is a very interesting one, if not always on point in terms of accuracy, about the state of Los Angeles in the early 20th century and as the nation was to experience another major financial depression later in 1907— in fact, it was in October, which is often the time of year when these downturns happen, as in, for example, 1929, 1987, and 2008. Having artifacts like this issue of Sunset Magazine in our collection with essays like Smith’s are useful to the Homestead’s discussion of its interpretive era of 1830 to 1930 and we’ll look forward to more posts like this one.