Baghdad On The Freeway

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Obviously too big for one city, the Great Boom encompassed all of Southern California. When it was discovered that any lot could be sold at the drop of a surveyor’s stake, whole new towns were laid out. Glendale, Burbank, Fullerton, Monrovia, Whittier, Inglewood, Hollywood—all sprang full-blown from the drawing board. A few subdividers represented large capital, and their movements were watched hungrily by the crowd. But anyone with a few hundred dollars in his pocket and a spring in his step could found a town. All he had to do was put a little money down for an option on some acreage, lay out the lots, run off circulars, and stand off the surveyor and the printer until the sale opened and the money poured in. Larger operations required a bigger build-up, starting with newspaper ads, posters, and handbills several days before the sale. Before the word psychology was invented, Los Angeles boomers were putting it to commercial use.

“Buy land in Los Angeles and wear Diamonds,” said one early classic.

“You need not till the soil,” announced another, “you can look on while the earth sends forth her plenty.”

If the townsite were located on the desert, it was billed as a health resort; if in a swamp, as the future site of a magnificent harbor. On the side of a mountain, the view was superb. In April, 1887, Jonathan S. Slauson and other alert capitalists opened up Azusa in a dry wash full of sand and boulders. Reproached for locating his subdivision in such a spot, Slauson gave a typical answer: “If it’s not good for a town, it isn’t good for anything.”

By the time the advance promotion for Azusa reached its peak, buyers were afraid there might not be enough lots to go around. On the eve of a land sale, people stood in line all night, setting up housekeeping on the sidewalk. Next morning, when speculators arrived to buy the front places in line, the number one man refused all inducements, number two was offered $1,000, and number five claimed to have sold for $500. Slauson announced proudly, “This may be cited as the climax of the Big Boom.” A bystander remarked, “Not one in a hundred of the purchasers had seen the townsite, and not one in a thousand expected to occupy the land.”

When this speculative spirit invaded the boom, so did the sharpers. From Chicago, Minneapolis, and Kansas City came a band of professional boomers, leaving their consciences—as one Angeleno put it—“on the other side of the Rockies.” California was so wonderful, they told themselves, that a man ought to be tricked into buying a piece of it for his own good. They would call public meetings ostensibly for some civic purpose, and before the evening was over they would be selling a new tract to the audience. Shunning such crass economic considerations as soil and water, they laid out townsites where the only possible business for the citizens would be to sell each other lots. One mountainside tract, said a disgusted onlooker, “was accessible only by means of a balloon, and was as secure from hostile invasion as the homes of the cliff-dwellers.”

By July of ’87 lots were being sold like grain futures—some of them changing hands too fast for the deeds to be recorded. Almost everybody in town—cooks, waiters, dishwashers—was a speculator.

“I do not mean to say that everybody in Southern California is rich,” wrote Charles Dudley Warner after his visit in 1887, “but everybody expects to be rich tomorrow.”

At the height of the land boom even the natives, who at first laughed up their sleeves at the prices they had wrung from the tenderfeet, were buying back at ten times the cost. On the part of the buyers, the only concern was whether they would run out of land; on the part of the sellers, whether they would run out of people.

“We have sixty millions on this side of the Atlantic, Sir,” one sidewalk tycoon asserted confidently, “and when they are exhausted there are lots more on the other side.”

At the end of ’87 some were suggesting that prices were out of reason, whereupon the boomers protested so much that people began to wonder. Newspapers across the country were already heaping ridicule on the Great Boom. When the jokes caught on in Los Angeles, the end was near. Gradually the out-of-towners began unloading on the natives. When enough people held off from the market to take a look around, sellers panicked. Prices were shaved, then slashed. By April, 1888, everybody was scrambling to get out from under. With buyers defaulting on payments, whole townsites reverted to the original owners. Scores of paper towns disappeared—their white stakes plowed under, their names preserved only on yellowed plat maps. On bleak hills the skeletons of luxury hotels were stranded like driftwood, their windows broken, their grand ballrooms silent.

Threatened with mass foreclosure that would take both their lots and their homes, the residents of one town, La Verne, called in the house movers. Early one Sunday morning the citizens of nearby Pomona awoke to find the city of La Verne rolling past, one jump ahead of the landowner.

The Great Boom had collapsed and the exhausted Angelenos with it. Looking back, one observer estimated that total sales in Los Angeles County for 1887 had reached $200,000,000. “Could we have kept the boom running for another year,” he mused fondly, “we would have made enough to pay off the national debt.”