Reading Between the Lines From Point A to Point B With a Letter from Charles Forman of the Los Angeles Cable Railway, 21 September 1888

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As previous posts on this blog have noted, the Los Angeles Cable Railway (LACR) was a significant streetcar system undertaking in the late 1880s, while its vice-president and manager, Charles Forman, was featured in a post from a 1909 publication on the Makers of Los Angeles. A post from 16 August 2020 discussed the completion of the LACR line to Boyle Heights in early August 1889 and the article noted that the superintendent of construction and vice-president of the firm at that time was James C. Robinson, who was sent to Los Angeles by the president of the line, Charles B. Holmes, who built the Chicago City Railway, a cable system in the Windy City. Homes acquired 75% of the stock of the LACR when principals like James F. Crank and banker Isaias W. Hellman sought more capital as the company ran low on funds.

The second post, from early this past April, noted that Forman, a native of New York state, came to California in 1853 a to join an uncle, Ferris Forman, at Sacramento. After several years, including a stint as deputy secretary of state, due likely to his deep involvement in Democratic Party politics, Forman migrated to Virginia City, Nevada, a major silver mining boom town in what was famously known as The Comstock Lode.

Reno Gazette-Journal, 16 May 1887.

In fact, the immense silver deposits were so important to the Union’s Civil War fight against the Confederacy that Nevada was admitted as a state in 1864 despite lacking the necessary 60,000 persons (it was somewhere in the 30,000-40,000 range) required. There, he was superintendent of several mines, dug the well-known “Forman Shaft” southeast of there and not far from Gold Hill and also had cattle and lumber investments along Lake Tahoe. He earned his sobriquet of “General” because of his service with a volunteer militia that engaged in bloody conflicts with indigenous Paiute people in Nevada.

In 1862, during a short stay in greater Los Angeles, while his uncle was commander of Camp Drum at Wilmington, Forman married Mary Agnes Gray, the daughter of Charlotte Gray Rowland, second wife of Rancho La Puente co-owner John Rowland, and the 1909 bio stated that he began investing in Angel City real estate as soon as 1865. The Formans remained in the Virginia City area for another couple of decades, but, in 1882, decided to establish a home in Los Angeles.

Los Angeles Times, 9 June 1887.

The couple took the highly unusual step of dismantling their home there and having it moved and put back together on a 20-acre parcel they’d recently purchased on Pico Street, west of Figueroa, outside the downtown area of Los Angeles. Later, Forman purchased land in what he named Toluca, purportedly a Paiute name for beautiful valley and now the city of Toluca Lake, in the southern San Fernando Valley and his ties with the owners of that property, James B. Lankershim and Isaac N. Van Nuys carried over into other endeavors, as noted below.

Despite the move of the house to the Angel City, Forman did not sever his ties with mining in Nevada, continuing his work as a superintendent of a couple of mines, including for the Overman Mining Company at Gold Hill. After five years, however, he decided to make the change to a full-time Los Angeles resident, as noted in the 16 May 1887 edition of the Reno Gazette Journal, which reported that “Mr. Forman has long been identified with the mining interests of Nevada, and his familiar face will be missed on the Comstock.”

Times, 9 June 1887.

Within a month, Forman was one of the incorporators, with Crank, Hellman, Stephen C. Hubbell and Stanley P. Jewett, the latter an engineer who broached the idea of a cable system to Crank, who controlled all but one of the horse-drawn lines (including the Spring and Sixth, the first streetcar operator in the city and which had F.P.F. Temple as its treasurer when formed in 1874) several years prior, in the formation of the LACR.

The Los Angeles Times of 9 June went into great detail about the system, which was to include just a tad over eight miles of lines including to the new Westlake Park at the western limits of the city, to Eastlake Park at the northeast end at East Los Angeles (Lincoln Heights) and to the eastern edge next to Evergreen Cemetery at Boyle Heights, which was founded by Hellman, John Lazzarovich and William H. Workman, who was elected mayor at the end of 1887.

Los Angeles Herald, 17 June 1888.

Promoted as promising to be “one of the best-constructed cable railroads in the world,” the LACR acquired the patents of a San Francisco cable company for its double-tracked system which was to cost some $1.25 million, while an expert from the northern metropolis was preparing the plans, which were to include designs for at least three engine houses while the rails were to be laid in beds of Portland cement.

Also considered very important were the construction of viaducts over railroad crossings to get the line to Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, while the paper added that the company had rights-of-way to build out to Pasadena, Santa Monica, and somewhere along Vermont Avenue, west of downtown. To the Boyle Heights area, it was noted that two new institutions, the Orphans Asylum and the “Presbyterian College,” soon known as Occidental, would also be along the route and the Times noted,

We will thus have one of the most complete street-car systems on the continent. Being under one management, the system offers peculiar advantages; and one will be able to ride farther for the same money [a 5-cent fare] than in almost any other city in the country . . . The rolling stock and every other appointment of the system will be absolutely first-class, and will give the city the accommodations so long needed. The directors represent immense wealth, and will push the road through for all there is in it. Mr. Crank thinks the main cable system should be done within a year.

This turned out, as is so often the case with major infrastructure to be wildly optimistic and unrealistic and almost exactly a year later, just one of the problems was a strike by workers because of a cut in wages announced by the LACR (this being an unstated, but obvious, indication of the financial strain experienced by the firm) that would pay them $9 a week or just $1.50 a day.

Times, 27 August 1888.

As reported in the Herald of 17 June 1888, at a meeting at Third and Fort (renamed Broadway in 1890) streets, laborers issued resolutions that called the reductions, announced by Forman, “quite insufficient for the support of life, and humble respectability” and “unreasonably unjust and uncalled for, while calling for the present wages to be maintained. When a delegation went to the firm’s offices, Jewett implored them not to strike and said he could pay them their existing amounts until a stockholders’ meeting was held.

Forman issued a statement noting that “a certain amount of money was appropriated . . . for the construction of this new cable road,” but, despite all of his best efforts in overseeing the project,” funds became limited, “so I looked about to see some point at which a reduction could be made” and “I thought I saw it in the unskilled labor.” While he asserted that this meant graders and trench-diggers only, but there was a misunderstanding that his order would affect everyone doing field work for the LACR and Forman professed to be “astonished when the iron men and other employees of the road declared that they would work no longer.”

Times, 17 September 1888.

Meanwhile, there were unfounded rumors of a general laborers’ strike throughout the city and it should be noted that the Gilded Age of the late 19th century America featured many labor disputes including the Great Strike of 1877 in several Eastern locations and the Haymarket Riot of 1886, which took place in Chicago, with the Homestead and Pullman strikes of 1892 and 1894, respectively, not far in the future.

The following day’s Express recorded that there was considerable agitation at reports that Crank, who was in San Francisco, was readying to hire 150 Italian laborers as strike-breakers, while 150 strikers were initiated into the Knights of Labor, which were integral with the Haymarket strike.

Herald, 5 December 1888.

Local worker leaders, C. Hixon and Mike Bird, presided over a meeting at the Painters’ Hall on Aliso Street and two other labor officials, identified only as Burke and Lynch, told the assemblage of what Jewett promised them with Hixon recorded as having “exonerated Charles Forman from all blame.” The workers then returned to their jobs, it was concluded, “perfectly satisfied that there would be no further attempt made to cut their pay down to starvation wages.”

Two-and-a-half months later, the Los Angeles Times, which came to lead the “open shop” movement that blunted the force and effect of unions in most of the industrial sector of the Angel City, provided a status report on the LACR, making no mention of the previous unrest. Instead it confidently predicted that,

Some time about next New Year’s, when the welcome rains have come, and the still more welcome tourist, returning from the snow-bound East, finds to his amazement that Spring street has been paved, he will be doubly thankful to find commodious cable cars swiftly gliding where once the crowded horse car painfully threaded the municipal bogs.

It was anticipated that LACR lines would be finished to the river by the opening of 1889, with routes east of the water course to be completed “very soon thereafter.” The paper went into great detail about the elements of construction, including the roadbed, tracks, the three engine houses (at Workman Street and Downey Avenue in East Los Angeles; Chicago and Aliso avenues in Boyle Heights; and the largest of the trio at the southwest corner of Grand Avenue and 7th Street southwest of Central Park, now Pershing Square and now the Robinson and Company building stands.)

Herald, 29 December 1888.

The account added that the trains, like those in San Francisco, were expected to run no faster than 8 miles per hour and with enough frequency that “if a lady sees one go by while her new bonnet is being wrapped up [in a milliner’s store], she need not run after it shaking her parasol, for another will be along very soon” at between 2 1/2 and 5 minutes later.

Notably, Forman told the paper the final cost had risen to between $1.5 and $2 million. After observing that Crank and Jewett were in the eastern states looking at other cable systems, the paper noted that “General Manager Forman superintends the whole scheme and looks after every detail of construction and operation.”

Herald, 1 January 1890.

The article ended with the cheery note that,

When the system is in order and the cars begin to run it will mark an epoch in the history of Los Angeles, and will especially help on the development of those healthy and growing suburbs of the parent city, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles. To them the cable cars will be messengers of future greatness.

In its 17 September edition, the Times provided a briefer report, stating much of the earlier one word-for-word, adding that active construction began about five months earlier and it asserted that, given conditions, “the balance [of the work] is going right along, and will be done on time.” It reiterated that possible extensions were being prepared, but not built pending future operations of the current lines, to Grand Avenue and Jefferson Street, as well as Seventh and Alvarado streets.

For Forman, however, there would soon be a rupture between him and officials of what came to be known by fall 1888 as the Los Angeles Pacific or Pacific Railway as Holmes took what the 1 January 1890 issue of the Herald reported was 80% of the LACR’s stock. The 5 December 1888 edition of that paper made allusions to the many changes wrought under Holmes’ assumption of the enterprise, as it noted that “a new General Manager had arrived from Chicago to take charge of the cable system.”

Forman, “the able manager of the lines,” was found and told of the word on the street and he replied, “well, the news is slightly exaggerated. Mr. J.C. Robinson has arrived from Chicago to be Superintendent of the system but not Manager, for I retain that position.” He added that, without a superintendent for more than a year, his work was doubled and “an assistant has become necessary.”

The Herald of 29 December caught up with “the zealous manager of the Cable Car system” after he returned from a San Francisco trip and it was asserted that another Los Angeles sheet’s statement that Forman was no longer with the LACR was a fabrication. He told the paper, “we have been obstructed of late by the rains, but . . . [we] will in fact crowd things until we get the work done.” After expressing that further delays would not happen and eight to ten carloads of material were expected that day, the official added, “I think I can safely tell you that we will have the cable cars running in about three months from date.”

While he was soon no longer part of the LACR and the successor Los Angeles Pacific, Forman may have been more than fortunate in that storms of Christmas Eve 1889 wrought much damage to the line and bankruptcy followed early in 1891, due to residue from the floods and the competition of new electric streetcars, including the Los Angeles Consolidated Electric Railway, led by Eli P. Clark, not to mention that end, by 1889, of the great Boom of the Eighties that peaked in the preceding two years during William H. Workman’s mayoral administration.

In June 1893, the year a major depression hit the United States, the Consolidated bought the cable line for a fraction of its capitalization and it, in turn, was acquired by the Los Angeles Railway—which, in 1898, was acquired by Henry E. Huntington and, in 1911, became part of the great Pacific Electric system.

Forman maintained interests in mining, including in Nevada, utilities, the Main Street Savings Bank and Trust Company (with Lankershim and Van Nuys as leading) lights, was a founder and president of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce, and a founder of the elite California Club. The letter featured here, written on LACR letterhead on 21 September 1888, concerned his lawsuit against the Overman Mining Company regarding compensation he claimed he was owed while superintendent.

Nevada State Journal, 14 March 1889.

The missive was addressed to Colonel Marshall N. Stone, a former Confederate officer during the Civil War who settled in Virginia City three years after the war’s end and who seems to have represented Forman in his suit and then moving to Salt Lake City shortly after its conclusion. The typewritten and badly faded and stained document concerned depositions and other matters pertaining to the litigation and there are also two pages from another letter from Forman to Stone that look to be separate and which came with an envelope postmarked the preceding day, the 20th.

While not related to the business involving the LACR, these documents at least provide a springboard to discussion about this transportation project, not to mention a great vignette on the letterhead and the envelope!

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