Tidbits of Mission San Gabriel History, 1869-1875, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Returning with this second and final part of a post on some history of the mission town of San Gabriel and its environs during the first boom in greater Los Angeles, we take in variety of topics. This includes the fact that it was a main stop for travelers heading east of the Angel City to San Bernardino, including the few tourists, like Charles Nordhoff, mentioned in part one, who came to the region at the time (though, with the completion of a transcontinental railroad directly to the area in late 1885, the publication of Helen Hunt Jackson’s famous novel, Ramona, and other factors that would very much change).

Just as one illustration of its place of significance in eastbound transportation, Ferguson & Co.’s San Bernardino Stage Company advertised in the Los Angeles Star in 1870 for its tri-weekly service from Los Angeles to San Bernardino. This included connections to steamer arrivals and departures from the rudimentary harbor at San Pedro with separate stage service to the Angel City. For the firm’s coaches, there were five stops on the 60-mile trip, with the first being at the mission, followed by stations at El Monte, Rubottom’s hotel and tavern at Spadra (now southwestern Pomona), San José (presumably the Palomares family’s adobe in northern Pomona) and then Rancho Cucamonga.

Los Angeles Star, 12 November 1870.

The company’s agent was George M. Fall, previously superintendent of the main stage line to San Francisco. He was soon was elected to the Los Angeles Common (City) Council and was also considered the founder of the Angel City’s first volunteer fire company, which organized in late September 1871. Almost exactly a month later, Council member (many sources state he was the Los Angeles County Clerk, but that position was held by Thomas D. Mott) Fall ordered the use of the fire company’s hoses to flush out hiding Chinese men in the Coronel Adobe during the horrific massacre of 19 Chinese males (including a teenager) on 24 October. Eight years later, while working as a state prison guard in the famous silver mining town of Virginia City, Nevada, Fall died if typhoid fever at age 38.

Another interesting tidbit from the period concerned the bells in the well-known mission belfry, which contained a half-dozen of the devices used for all kinds of summonses in the history of the institution—and one of which wound up at “Lucky” Baldwin’s nearby Rancho Santa Anita headquarters, with it returned many years later by the notorious capitalist, who, a tale asserted, claimed that the bell fell from the tower into a cart of his as it drove by! In any case, the Los Angeles Express of 8 December 1874 cited a correspondent, perhaps Henry D. Barrows, a long-time Angel City resident and well-known for his abundant knowledge of regional history, in the San Francisco Chronicle about “an interesting legend about the old bells of the Mission of San Gabriel.”

A late 19th century cabinet card photo, from the Museum’s holdings, of the Mission San Gabriel stone church and belfry. Note the two missing bells, one of which “mysteriously” wound up at the ranch of “Lucky” Baldwin, but which was later returned.

It was related that a priest at the mission went back to Spain not long after San Gabriel was founded in 1771 (though it moved to its current location after a few years at its original site in the Whittier Narrows) and inspired locals in an unnamed city with his account of “the wonders of the far off land on the Pacific.” This included the heroic work of the Franciscan missionaries and for which the unnamed cleric “implored for a gift of bells” for San Gabriel. The story continued that,

His appeals were not in vain, and on a set day an immense throng assembled, rich and poor, high and low, the noble and the peasant and all alike contributed of their store. The poor cast in their mite, the nobles brought large sums, ladies of high degree cast in their jewels, and all was thrown into the seething furnace, from which forth flowed [flowed forth?] the glowing mass into the moulds prepared for its reception. After being duly blessed and consecrated they were taken on board of a ship bound for the far-off Pacific. After many months they finally reached their destination, and amid the shouts of thousands of the half-wild natives they were again blessed and consecrated and placed in a position at the Mission, where never a day has passed without their resonant notes being heard calling the believer to worship.

This purportedly true story of how the bells of San Gabriel were created was said to be one that “if filled up by a master hand would equal the brightest page of romance,” but, whether it was Barrows or another local who concocted or passed along an existing tale, it was surely romantic enough.

Los Angeles Express, 7 December 1874.

Speaking of the indigenous people of San Gabriel, the ravages of violence, disease, alcohol and other causes reduced the native population to a very few survivors by the mid-1870s and, yet, it was remarkable to read in the Express just eight days after the fanciful story of the mission bells, that, in the typical denigrating fashion of the time, “the remnants of the noble red men of this latitude have just concluded a grand pow-wow near the Mission San Gabriel.”

The account recorded that the event took several days and “was characterized by a great bonfire kept in a continual blaze, the firing of bombs [fireworks?], and periodical extravagant dances.” Making light of one of the many terrible scourges that afflicted the Indian community of the region, the paper added that “there was plenty of fire-water, and the noble red man kept ignobly drunk nearly all the time.” On a Sunday, the account ended, “the orgies concluded . . . by the conflagration of a wicky-up [kizh, or dwelling],” after which the celebrants returned to “their several rancherias.”

Express, 15 December 1874.

Some attention was paid in the first part of the post to the predominance in the San Gabriel Township, which included the mission and its small community, but also outlying areas, of the raising of citrus, with the orange being the main product. The Express of 16 April 1875 reported that, after one of its competitors (either the Herald or the Star disparaged the paper’s recording of orange shipments at the Los Angeles railroad depot for transport to San Pedro), it was armed with specific details on the bounty found at the station.

Observing that it actually undercounted the produce received, the paper reported that for the first quarter of the year, there were 18,467 boxes of fruit delivered, with an average of well over 1,400 per week, this being “a much higher figure than we ever put it.” Moreover, the Express went on,

It must be remembered that a very large proportion of the oranges shipped from this county go direct to the anchorage from the Mission San Gabriel [and surrounding groves and orchards], and these are not of record in our local office.

It added that there were also many of the fruit grown south of Los Angeles, so that, between these two locales outside of Los Angeles, “perhaps it would only be within the truth to double the above figures” and that this “would make quite a respectable showing for a product which is just now limited to a very few plantations.” The article ended with the statement that, when all of the trees in the county were in bearing condition, some 300,000 boxes worth of the fruit would be available, with an assumed value of in the vicinity of $1 million.

Express, 16 April 1875.

Two months later, the Express made brief reference to the San Gabriel Valley by situating it as along the Southern Pacific railroad line to Spadra (including its passage through the Rancho La Puente, where the same track is just north of the Homestead paralleling Valley Boulevard. A stop was at “the old Mission San Gabriel, where there was “a small village, with a church, hotel, school, two or three stores, etc.”

Adding that the area was “quite an attraction,” the paper commented that “here are the residences and very fine places of several wealthy, business and retired men of Los Angeles.” These included George Stoneman, recently a prominent Union Army general during the late Civil War and a future governor of California (1883-1887); Edward J.C. Kewen, a Confederate supporter through fiery speeches during that conflict while he was an Angel City attorney and who owned the old Mission mill called El Molino Viejo; Leonard J. Rose, proprietor of the Sunny Slope Ranch and namesake of the city of Rosemead; Luther H. Titus, a recent arrival of 1872, but already making a name as a successful orchardist at his Dew Drop Ranch; and Benjamin D. Wilson, whose Lake Vineyard estate was one of the best-known places in greater Los Angeles. The piece ended with the claim that “it is said that Rose’s and Titus’s excel any in Italy.”

An 1870s stereoscopic photo from the Homestead’s collection of the orange and walnut orchard of George Stoneman in the San Gabriel Township.

While it would be after the completion of that direct transcontinental railroad line and the resulting Boom of the Eighties, much larger than the one of the late Sixties and first half of the ensuing decade, that the region and the San Gabriel Valley specifically would be known as a “health-seeker’s paradise,” with hordes coming to combat tuberculosis and other ailments, there is an early reference to the area’s healthful environment in an ad from the Express in its 12 January 1875 edition.

David F. Hall (1828-1908), a Rhode Island native who came to this area with his wife in the late 1850s and prospected for gold in San Gabriel Canyon before running a store at San Gabriel by 1860, advertised that “having refitted my entire house, and given up merchandising, I am prepared to accommodate Boarders with pleasant rooms and board, at reasonable rates.” Not only this, but Hall added that he was at the mission, which was “so justly celebrated for Asthmatic and Pulmonary complaints.” For those that took the 9 a.m. train from Los Angeles, they could visit his establishment and then be back in the Angel City within six hours.

Express, 16 June 1875.

As noted above, the teeming tourist trade would not come to fruition in the region for another decade and more, but there were some travelers who came to greater Los Angeles and then wrote of their visit in newspaper and magazine articles and other publications, with travelogues being very popular in the late 19th century. The 11 August 1874 edition of the Express featured one of these, being published in a Fort Wayne, Indiana newspaper by the wife of a local banker. Among the “intelligent resume” which Mrs. Samuel C. [Minerva] Evans wrote was this account of her visit to San Gabriel, after sailing up from San Diego and visiting Los Angeles, where she devoted some attention to the famous William Wolfskill orange grove, the first commercial orchard in California. She then wrote

Eight miles to the east, over a magnificent drive along the silver line of the [Los Angeles] river, stand[s] the old Mission San Gabriel, with its grove of olive[s] that caught their first greenness from the sunlight of a fading [18th] century; its vaulted roof and rude ornaments, showing plainly the unskilled labor of the early Indian convert.

To me there is a mournful interest in these crumbling ruins, within whose sun-dried walls the bread of life was first broken to the unlettered children of the soil [the indigenous people], by the loving labor of these self-denying monks.

Evans then wrote of meeting “one old Spanish woman” representative of a lifespan made possible by “the genial climate and the severe simplicity of their mode of life,” and added that the elderly lady, who had to be Eulalia Pérez de Guillen, the llavelera, or keeper of the keys, at the mission entrusted with keeping native girls safe from designing men, native and Latino, and who was said to be in her 130s, though she was almost certainly in her late 90s at the time.

Express, 12 January 1875.

The chronicler told of Guillen’s “happy smiling face” and obvious joy being around children, while she enjoyed a “simple kindness of our little one [the Evans’ eight-year old boy, Samuel, Jr.]” who emptied his pockets of all of his “treasures” and including “a few matches and a colored string.” In return, the child was given a little money “as we bade adieu to church and worshipper, strange relics of a by-gone time.”

From there, Evans turned to the fact that “all over this valley, when properly irrigated, the growth of trees and fruits is marvelous,” including almonds, chestnuts figs and walnuts, while “one must sit under the glossy foliage of the orange tree to enjoy the sweet completeness of its luscious fruit.” This was undertaken at Rose’s Sunny Slope ranch, which, she reported, was “one of the finest and largest orchards in the country, and from whence large quantities are successfully shipped to the [eastern—California being part of the nation!] States every year.

Express, 11 August 1874.

From there, Evans’ trip continued eastward and the profuse praise she had for greater Los Angeles was manifested in the family’s relocation at the recently established town of Riverside, where the navel orange was established and brought great fame to the citrus capital. Samuel, Sr. became a prominent figure in that vicinity and co-owned a large amount of land in the Arlington and Arlington Heights areas west of town, where the California Citrus State Historic Park is today.

Four months prior to Mrs. Evans’ visit, a correspondent named “Viator” waxed eloquently (or grandiloquently) for the Los Angeles Star about his sojourns at Stoneman’s Los Robles ranch and Kewen’s “Rancho del Molino.” He reveled in “the enjoyment of a luxurious feast of all good things that can delight the eye and charm the senses” in an area which some tourists, spending a significant amount of money after a long journey across the country, only generally saw by glances. Having left Wilmington, where he wrote several columns for the paper, Viator noted that the somnolent sounds of the surf were replaced by birds and roosters.

Los Angeles Star, 27 March 1874.

He rhapsodized about the fact that “the lover of nature . . . can find in this highly favored region an epitome of all her charms” and marveled that, just a half mile from the Stoneman house, there was a height from which Wilmington could be seen some thirty miles distant as well as “the shadowy outline of Santa Catalina.” Boasting of his classical education with self-conscious references to Shakespeare and Homer, Viator added,

to the east the eye wanders over a broad and fertile plain extending some twenty miles, its entire surface diversified with grove, orchard, vineyards, dwellings, school houses, churches and whatever else betokens the bounty of nature and the prosperity of man.

Elevating himself to an enraptured ecstasy, Viator extolled the virtues of the foothills and canyons of the San Gabriel (then commonly called the Sierra Madre) Mountains, which he visited with Stoneman, whom he last saw in barren northern Texas in 1858, and he couldn’t help but quote abundantly from Romantic poets like Byron, Longfellow, Tennyson, and William Cullen Bryant.

Star, 2 April 1874.

At one point, as Viator and Stoneman rambled, they heard “a chime so musical and sweet, so spiritually clear and delicate,” that John Bunyan, creator of The Pilgrim’s Progress, would have been amazed. When Viator sought to know the source of the bewitching sounds, Stoneman informed him that “it was the hour of vespers at the old Mission” and the first day of the visit concluded. For the fourth, it was a stay at Kewen’s El Molino Viejo, the old Mission mill (formerly owned by William Workman and others as part of their grant to the lands of the mission, though this claim was rejected by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1864.)

It was stated that, when Kewen, a former California Attorney General and Los Angeles County District Attorney who was jailed at Alcatraz Island for his Confederate sympathies early in the Civil War period, occupied the site a dozen or so years prior, “he found the old building roofless, floorless, doorless and windowless.” Soon, the massive-walled structure “was soon converted into a comfortable and picturesque residence, which, embowered as it is in a tropical wealth of fruits and flowers, forms one of the chief attractions of the tourist and the stranger.” Kewen, said to be a genial and generous host par excellence, was busy overseeing and assisting in the laying of a section of garden in front of the dwelling and Viator was given access to books and cigars while he awaited the host’s completion of the work for the day.

A late 19th century view, from the Museum’s collection, of the spring-fed body of water called Wilson, Kewen and Mission Lake and now Lacy Park in San Marino.

Viator noted the beauty of Kewen Lake, now the site of Lacy Park in San Marino, and, after a “bachelor dinner,” with Mrs. Kewen (Fannie White, whose father led the overland party Kewen joined to come to California in 1849 during the Gold Rush) absent, he and the proprietor roamed the tract. While there were others who made their estates more productive, it was anticipated that Kewen’s would soon bring “a princely income to its genial proprietor” who was ready to retire from his law practice and devote more time and attention to the development of El Molino Viejo. In 1874, nearly half of the 450-acre tract was enclosed and 50,000 grape vines produced 90 tons of grapes sold to local winemakers. About 100 orange trees were in full bearing, while 2,500 were at various ages that, in a few years, would bring plenty of mature fruit. Other mature trees included 500 lime, 600 lemon, and 700 English walnut, while hickory, pecan and black walnut varieties were newly planted and banana trees were under an experiment (as Elijah H. Workman was also trying at his Los Angeles property.)

The remaining unfenced 250 acres were devoted to raising wheat and barley and Viator added that “the Colonel [he was commissioned in the filibustering army of William Walker in Nicaragua in the 1850s] is an enthusiast in the study of grain and fruit growing.” While Viator largely avoided poetical references, with an exception or two, he heaped generous praise on Kewen for “the pleasurable emotions which I experienced during my sojourn” and, though the two were strangers until then, Viator exclaimed “I seem to have met one with whom I had wandered years ago among a thousand scenes of beauty familiar only to those who have lived as much among books as among men, if indeed not more.” The scribe ended with the observation that,

“Rancho del Molino” is another of those favored spots which by location and surroundings is exempt from any impossibility of a failure of crops, the supply of water being perennial and capable of very great increase, not half the present supply being utilized.

Having provided these samples of San Gabriel history during greater Los Angeles’ first significant and sustained period of growth, which came to a calamitous close with the collapse of the state economy including the failure of the Temple and Workman bank, we’ll bring this post to an end, but with an invitation to join us next Sunday the 17th for a presentation on the Workman and Temple family’s long association with San Gabriel. We hope to see you there!

4 thoughts

  1. I enjoyed the “Tidbits” a great deal. I hope these wonderful stories should be recreated into a movie staring (hopefully Robert Redford) as Workman himself!

  2. Thanks again, Marian. Could Redford could do a creditable northern England accent? Maybe McKellen or Branagh?

  3. Thank you for these “Tidbits”. Eulalia Perez Guillen was my 4th generation (Duarte) grandparent.

  4. Hi Edgar, we’re glad you enjoyed the post and the reference to who had to be Doña Eulalia. If you can’t join us next Sunday, we will record the presentation for the Museum’s YouTube channel.

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