Baghdad On The Freeway

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For the next fifteen years the Californians, like the Greeks, conquered their conquerors. American settlers came, but Spanish ways prevailed. Two years after the surrender the Gold Rush was drawing hordes of Americans to the northern California mines, but the main effect in Los Angeles was to open a new market for the cattle trade. Soon the rancheros were driving herds of cattle up to San Francisco and the mining settlements. With beef prices soaring, a steer was worth several times what it had been in the hide and tallow days.

At first amazed by their new wealth, the Californians soon accepted it with gusto. The first of L.A.’s conspicuous consumers, they indulged themselves with expensive dress and furnishings—the men with silvermounted saddles and ornamented costumes, the women with silk gowns and lace rebozos . On the dirt floors of their haciendas they laid imported rugs and New England furniture brought around the Horn. For the first time they were rich in money as well as in name, and they searched eagerly for new ways to show it.

But by 1856 the market was saturated and prices had crashed. Many rancheros were heavily mortgaged on short-term notes at interest rates of 4 and 5 per cent per month. The simple folk to whom bonds and notes were unknown in the easygoing forties soon found themselves in the grip of Yankee law and Yankee business methods. By 1858 the great ranchos were falling under the sheriff’s hammer. Proud California families were stripped first of their cattle, then their land, finally their homes. The real conquest of California had begun.

In the end even the climate that had sustained their paradise failed the Californians. From 1862 to 1864 a disastrous drought withered the grass and strewed the range with thousands of carcasses. The “good land” had become a graveyard—the whitened skulls the headstones—of an industry and a way of life.

Southern California now lay prostrate before another kind of invading army. Subdivided into farm tracts by their new owners, the rancho lands were thrown open to settlement. Real-estate circulars—the first Southern California boom literature—were distributed throughout northern California, and even reached Europe. In the fall of 1867 the first covered wagons arrived. For a time they rocked into Los Angeles in an unbroken line, their occupants camping nearby until the city’s outskirts looked like a tented field. Every southbound steamer out of San Francisco was crammed with emigrants, many of them standing up by day and finding sleeping places on the deck by night.

One of the earliest arrivals was Robert M. Widney, who swung down from a stagecoach with a small trunk in his hand and $100 in his pocket. Surveying the busy scene, he lost no time in opening the city’s first real-estate office. Soon he was hauling prospects out over the rolling hills in a buckboard. In the true spirit of his profession, his optimism was complete. “Los Angeles county,” he declared in his monthly Real Estate Advertiser , “heretofore underrated and misrepresented at home and abroad, is rapidly assuming its proper place among the counties of the state.”

Boosterism had arrived. In the next few years whole communities—Santa Ana, Pasadena, San Fernando, Santa Monica, Pomona—sprang to life. A patchwork of fields and orchards spread over mesas that had known only the hoofs of longhorn cattle. The “good land” was broken with a determined Yankee plow.

Until this time the city itself had changed little. In custom and manners—even in appearance—it was still the Spanish pueblo. Its chief charm was its orchards and gardens, watered by an ancient system of zanjas , or canals. Flowers grew around every home, and it was said that the city actually produced more fruit and vegetables than it consumed. In the business district a few brick buildings had been erected in the late fifties, and more went up in the mid-seventies. But in the main the dusty streets were lined with adobe buildings, their wooden awnings casting shade over dirt sidewalks. The only street paving was a layer of cast-off boots and other apparel, dead animals, decayed vegetables, and fruit which often burdened the air with a fearful stench.

Through these thoroughfares, vaqueros drove herds of horses and cattle, oblivious to the fate of pedestrians. More often they used the streets as arenas for displaying feats of horsemanship, sometimes shooting pistols in the air and urging their steeds into the buildings. Before 1867 there were no street lamps, and few citizens ventured out at night without a lantern and a pistol—the first to keep from falling into a mud hole, the second for protection against thieves.

From its beginnings, in fact, Los Angeles had a reputation as one of the wildest towns in the West. As early as 1836 one visitor called it the “hell of California”; another thought it should be named Los Diablos instead of Los Angeles; still a third labeled it a “den of thieves.”

The enterprising Americans enhanced this reputation. In the 1850’s the vigilante uprisings of northern California sent waves of fugitives hurrying southward, and Los Angeles was their favorite rendezvous. Horse stealing, highway robbery, and murder became so commonplace that a temporary lull in the violence became a matter of news.