Baghdad On The Freeway

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Many of the pictures accompanying this article were located with the aid of Panorama: A Picture History of Southern California, an excellent local history by W. W. Robinson. For most of the black and white illustrations, we are indebted to the Title Insurance and Trust Company, publishers of Panorama, to the Security-First National Bank of Los Angeles, and to Remi Nadeau. The color illustrations are from the collection of Mrs. Reginald Walker (page 8), the Los Angeles County Museum, and the California Historical Society unless otherwise credited.

ALL QUIET ,” ran one headline as late as 1870. “No murders or suicides occurred in Los Angeles yesterday.”

Even respectable citizens resorted to gunplay when their honor was abused. Duels were fought either impromptu or by appointment. More than once a courtroom was panicked when opposing lawyers blazed away with pocket pistols. Many citizens even took a curious pride in the reckless character of their town. In 1853 one editor wrote: As an instance of the diversity of entertainment afforded to the public…take the following: On Tuesday of last week we had four weddings, two funerals, one street fight with knives, a lynch court, two men flogged, a serenade by a calathumpian band, a fist fight and one man tossed in a blanket. If any of the flourishing up-country towns can hold a candle to that let them do it forthwith.…

“There are six murderers at present in the jail in this city,” another editor boasted in 1874. “There are five in jail in San Francisco.”

As Los Angeles courts were notoriously lax in bringing criminals to justice, the people repeatedly organized vigilance committees and hanged prisoners without ceremony. Newspapers often condoned the lynchings and sometimes even suggested the use of a hemp necktie for horse thieves. On one occasion in 1855 the mayor himself led a lynch party. The most appalling atrocity occurred in 1871, when a policeman was killed in the Chinese quarter and a mob of Angelenos descended on the locality and murdered nineteen Chinese.

Shamed by this hideous outrage, the city was ready to reform. Through the mid-seventies violence was retreating before the advance of decency. The roughlooking character with a Colt at his belt was making way for the proper lady in frills and furbelows. The sound of pistol shots was drowned out by the ringing of the school bell.

By this time the gringo had captured the soul of the city. It had taken a generation since the American conquest, but the carefree, mañana spirit had given way to Yankee opportunism and enterprise. There came a feeling—later developed into a religion—that Los Angeles was destined to be a great American city. To the Ten Commandments the Angeleno added another: Watch Us Grow.

So it was that in 1872, when the Southern Pacific was building a second transcontinental line, Los Angeles County voted a subsidy to the railroad for the privilege of being on the main route. All the old prejudices against a railroad monopoly were stirred up in the stormy campaign, but the Angelenos were after one object: a place on the nation’s highway.

Two years after the election they discovered that the railroad was attempting to secure a right-of-way through Cajon Pass, behind San Bernardino. A bill granting the route as a branch line was before Congress, and S.P. surveyors were already exploring the pass. In alarm the citizens realized that this could provide the railroad with a short cut that would send transcontinental trains whistling past thirty miles away. Having bought and paid for a main line, they meant to keep it.

Led by that pioneer booster, Robert M. Widney, they moved quickly. Surveyors for another local line were sent hurrying for Cajon Pass. In the strategic narrows, where there was room for only one roadbed, they drove their stakes an hour before the S. P. men arrived. Meanwhile a telegram and a pamphlet opposing the bill were dispatched to Congress.

Despite all the railroad’s influence, its bill was beaten. Though it held all California in the grip of monopoly, the Southern Pacific had met its match in the Los Angeles boosters. Two years later, in 1876, the Southern Pacific’s main road reached the city, and by 1881 Los Angeles was linked to the rest of the continent. Having fought for their main line, the Angelenos prepared to reap the rewards. Boosterism was now securely in the saddle. Having committed themselves, they went further and launched the most persistent ballyhoo campaign the nation had ever seen. Something about the California climate bred enthusiasm; eager to share their good fortune, the Angelenos buttonholed the rest of the country and never let go.

Through the seventies they were bombarding the eastern states with pamphlets, and by the eighties the Southern Pacific added its own ammunition. Pioneering some of the earliest advertising techniques, these boosters used every known superlative and invented new ones of their own.

“Why, it is all spring and summer here in Southern California,” exclaimed one settler’s testimonial in a Los Angeles pamphlet of 1885. “I’ve not had any winter since I left the East!”