Baghdad On The Freeway

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To advertise the wonders of the California soil, the Angelenos shipped citrus fruit to eastern fairs, beginning with the Philadelphia Centennial of 1876. By the eighties the railroads put on special fast trains to carry California fruit to eastern consumers, and within a few years, the invention of the ventilated refrigerator car made the Atlantic seaboard a permanent market for western produce.

Eventually such zeal was bound to win converts. No sooner were the first transcontinental trains puffing into Los Angeles than the tide began to flow. The Southern Pacific fed the flood by putting on low-fare emigrant trains. Mere boxcars with cooking facilities, they were the railroad version of the prairie schooner. The waves of newcomers mounted still higher after the competing Santa Fe line entered Southern California in 1885. They rose to mountainous seas when the two rival lines headed for a knockdown rate war.

By early 1886 cross-country fares, which were usually more than $100 from Mississippi Valley points, were diving headlong. Rates dropped so fast that passengers from the East were given rebates for price cuts made during the trip. Local travelers saved money by purchasing transcontinental tickets and then dropping off at their own way station. The battle reached a crescendo on March 6. The Santa Fe started the day with a $12 rate from Kansas City. When the Southern Pacific met this, the Santa Fe cut to $10, then to $8. Warming to the fight, the S.P. dropped to $6, then to $4, finally to $1.

At such fares, obviously, one couldn’t afford to stay at home. And while rates soon rose above this outlandish level, the fare from Kansas City, for example, remained below $25 for months. Having opened the gates, the railroads were deluged. New trains were put on to accommodate the hordes, each new string of cars pulling into Los Angeles crowded to the windows. It was another Gold Rush—by rail.

By this time the population influx had brought such a demand for land that real-estate prices were rising fast. Encouraged, landowners were putting whole new tracts on the market. Before the end of 1886 auction sales of lots—advertised for days ahead with circulars and huge ads—had begun. The English language was hardly adequate for a proper description of Southern California, and the subdividers turned to music and art. When a new tract was opened, brass bands rolled through town at the head of a parade of omnibuses, while gaudy banners pictured the superb scenery at the subdivision and offered “a free ride and a free lunch” to anyone who would come along to inspect the property.

Most of the people piling into these horse-drawn excursion buses had no intention of buying a lot, but every intention of enjoying an exciting afternoon at the subdivider’s expense. Once the buses arrived at the auction site, however, hired “cappers” stirred interest by asking loud questions of the promoter and starting rumors of vast new facilities—from railroads to colleges—that were to serve the community. Then the auctioneer mounted his stand and, pointing to a great cloth map of the tract, offered the first lot.

“A hundred dollars,” cried a prosperous-looking gentleman in a silk hat.

Everyone turned to look at this brave plunger, not suspecting that he was a capper. But the auctioneer was merciless.

“I am not selling you this map ,” he sneered. “It is a fifty foot lot I am offering you. This map is only a reduced picture of it.”

“One hundred and fifty,” called another voice—and this time it was a bona fide buyer.

And so the sales mounted, the fever rising in the spectators until most of them believed, in the words of one visitor, that “the first duty of man is to buy a lot.”

By the spring of 1887 the Great Boom was in full fury. Hundreds of real-estate agents swarmed the streets. Demand for office space was so frenzied that merchants were subletting part of their own floor space to the realtors, until one could hardly enter a store without stumbling over a desk and a pile of boom circulars. One operator worked in the corner of a fruit stand, while at least a dozen more occupied a single store room. Still others kept shop in their hats and closed deals on the sidewalk. As one eyewitness described the scene: The streets were everywhere filled with people, and the sheen of happy teeth in the sun, the everlasting blast of the brass band on the curbstone … the flourish of checkbooks, the rushing to and fro of real-estate agents … the glitter of diamond rings and breast pins, the beam of new silk hats and smiling faces all tended to steal away one’s brains. …

In this spirit, Los Angeles worked itself into lunacy. Hotels were so jammed that many rooms were filled with cots and some guests slept in the bathtubs. Persons owning a piece of land within five miles of town were accosted by would-be purchasers day or night, in church or theater. According to one observer, it was not uncommon for a property owner to be awakened at night and have a wad of bills thrust in his face as a down payment. Another Angeleno recalled, “You could scarcely get anyone to talk about anything but real estate.” Actually, there were two topics of conversation: the price of a lot and the future of Los Angeles.

“I knew long ago that we were going to beat San Francisco,” crowed one paper millionaire, “only I was green enough to think it would take eight or ten years to do it.”