August 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 5
In Los Angeles, Spanish friars, Mexican dons, Yankee troops, and local boosters have reared a colossus that won’t stop growing
O n a hot summer afternoon, two commuters sat in an auto on a Los Angeles freeway—stalled bumper to bumper in the homebound traffic. Their shirts were open from the blast of the sun, their eyes swollen with the smog of a hundred thousand exhausts.
“My solution,” drawled one of them, “is to make everybody in L.A. draw lots to see who packs up and moves out.”
A generation ago this would have been treason. But gone now is the booster spirit that sparked a hundred-year migration to Southern California. In its place has come a desperate realization that Los Angeles has oversold itself. And it is too late to stop the tide.
How did this sprawling city of two million—for that matter, this metropolitan area of almost five million—rise up from a semidesert devoid of resources save a balmy climate?
Its story begins with Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo, a Portuguese captain in the employ of Spain, who sailed up the west coast of Mexico in 1542. Discovering California, he also discovered the site of Los Angeles. From the ships anchored in San Pedro Bay, his men could see that it was “a good port; and the country is good, with many valleys and plains and trees.”
Their opinion was confirmed two centuries later when Spain moved to take actual possession of California. In 1769 an overland expedition from Mexico under Gaspar de Portolá halted near what is now the Los Angeles River. Father Juan Crespi surveyed the virgin countryside and made a prophetic note in his diary: “It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement.”
It was so delightful, in fact, that even the Indians exhibited the proper booster spirit. They engaged in friendly trade, and when it appeared that the Spaniards were about to leave the area, they anxiously made signs to inquire whether they would stay.
But though the Spanish marched on, they were back two years later to found Mission San Gabriel, located on Crespi’s “good land” just east of the present site of Los Angeles. It was to become one of the most prosperous California missions. By 1810 it ministered to 1,200 Indian neophytes, ran 10,000 head of cattle, produced oranges, grapes, and more grain than any other mission.) Convinced that California could be self-sufficient, Felipe de Neve, the Spanish governor, determined to establish two pueblos, or farm communities, and picked out the sites on a personal trip in 1777. One was in the north, at the foot of San Francisco Bay—the location of San Jose. The other was the “good land” of Cabrillo and Crespi—the site of Los Angeles.
By 1780 soldiers were moving through the upper provinces of Mexico, recruiting settlers for the southern pueblo. By May, 1781, eleven families were on their way north from Lower California—the first small wave of the huge overland migration to come. Escorted by four soldiers who parceled out the land, they founded their village early in September. Its full name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Angeles —“The Town of Our Lady The Queen of The Angels.” It was soon called simply Los Angeles, and its inhabitants Angelenos.
The governor’s plan worked well. The Los Angeles pioneers built rude huts, diverted the river to irrigate their fields, and soon were producing enough to feed the military posts of San Diego and Santa Barbara from the surplus.
But to the good fathers of San Gabriel the new neighbors were a mixed blessing. Shiftless and unruly, they set a bad example for the mission Indians. They paid, as one friar put it, “more attention to gambling and playing the guitar than to tilling their lands and educating their children.” Indeed. Father Mariano Payeras believed the Angelenos should “give their attention to other products of industry than wine and brandy.…” Visiting the pueblo in 1821, he grieved at the lack of a church, though the foundation of one had been laid six years before in a burst of piety. Calling the citizens together, he made them agree to join in completing the church if he would provide help from the missions.
“I have seen that 800 Catholic souls are there without a shepherd in sight,” he wrote his colleagues. “This is very painful.”
Though the missions lacked money, they eagerly responded with labor and trading goods. From San Juan Capistrano and San Luis Rey marched a small army of Indians to labor on the great project. From the other missions came contributions of cattle and barrels of brandy. In such a spirit of devotion the Los Angeles church was completed in 1822. For their part, the good Angelenos provided cash for the project by purchasing the brandy and drinking it with utmost zeal.
By that time Mexico’s Revolution against Spain, which had begun in 1810, had thrown California on its own resources. When supply ships stopped coming from Mexico, commerce was opened with the outside world. There was a ban on vessels from non-Spanish countries, but English and American captains began to appear along the California shore with rich cargoes and dubious intentions. One of their favorite smuggling points was the anchorage at San Pedro, where they took on tallow and hides from the growing herds of cattle in the Los Angeles basin. With the triumph of the revolution, all of Mexico was opened to foreign ships. And while smuggling continued out of the sheer joy of fooling the customs collector, there was a commendable rise in legitimate commerce.
Thus began the great era of the ranchos. As early as 1784 the governor had granted certain land concessions to a few retired soldiers. But not until the rise of the hide trade in the 1820’s did the cattle industry flourish. The growing number of settlers in California cast covetous eyes on the vast cattle range owned by the missions. California was no longer a frontier, they argued, and the missions had served their purpose. Already in decline from years of separation from Spanish support, the missions were closed by the Mexican Secularization Act of 1833, and their holdings thrown open. The result was a sizable land rush. Counting the earliest concessions, seventy ranchos were given out in the area now encompassed by Los Angeles County—most of them to occupation soldiers or their sons. Using the labor of former mission Indians, these men built an aristocracy based on land, cattle, and the hide trade. Their names—from Pico to Sepúlveda—are still written large across the face of Los Angeles.
Through the thirties and forties—the storied Days of the Dons—Southern California was a veritable paradise for these families. The necessities of life were abundant and competition unknown. As one old ranchero put it, “There were no courts, no juries, no lawyers, nor any need for them. The people were honest and hospitable, and their word was as good as their bond.” Though there were few luxuries, gracious living marked every household. Gay fiestas, fandangos, weddings, and bull fights relieved the daily routine of rancho life.
Each spring, starting at San Diego in the south and working up the coast beyond Santa Barbara, the rancheros gathered in successive rodeos, or roundups, to brand and separate their cattle. Families that had not met in months would ride all day to take part in the dancing and feasting, the display of bright costumes and feats of horsemanship.
Every year, with the appearance of Yankee trading vessels on the coast, the Los Angeles plain would come alive with oxcarts and pack mules piled high with cattle hides—the “leather dollars” of the Californians. On the cliffs above San Pedro, Spanish dons parleyed with New England captains, while in the harbor below sailors were tossing the hides aboard ship and trudging upward with boxes of fine silks, brocades, and the products of the world.
No wonder such a life beckoned many a pioneer American to settle on the “good land.” From the time Mexican independence threw California open to foreigners, adventurous Yankees began to arrive. Many of them took Mexican citizenship, accepted the Catholic faith, married the daughters of Spanish families, and won vast grants of land from the governor.
Mexican California was an Elysian field compared to frontier America, but so long as warm blood flowed in Spanish veins Los Angeles affairs were never dull. In the 1830’s the pueblo became a center of political discontent. Led by one of the earliest boosters, Don Pío Pico, its people demanded the removal of the capital from Monterey to Los Angeles. After years of petty intrigue and comic opera revolutions, California was in complete turmoil. In alarm, Mexico City sent a new governor with an army of 300 men to restore order. Landing at San Diego in August, 1842, General Manuel Micheltorena marched northward with his troops for Los Angeles and Monterey.
To the Angelenos this was their opportunity. For days they made ready for the Governor’s arrival, and when he came they threw a grand ball and a week-long fiesta in his honor. But while the General basked in their plaudits, his army was otherwise occupied. The Angelenos found their chicken coops raided, vegetable patches ravaged, fruit trees and vines picked bare. Micheltorena’s army was, in truth, a band of thieves and cutthroats recruited from the prisons and guardhouses of Mexico. Hungry and desperate, they swept through Los Angeles like a plague of grasshoppers. By the time the Governor was officially inaugurated, the Angelenos were afraid he was going to stay. After all, they protested piously, they had no desire to injure neighboring Monterey. Offended by this change of attitude, the haughty Micheltorena marched northward, his soldiers pillaging as they went.
Within two years the Governor and his troops had outworn their welcome in the north. Revolt had flared, and Los Angeles learned with panic that Micheltorena was marching south in pursuit of the rebels. Led by Pío Pico, her citizens joined the revolution and armed for battle—sharpening swords and lances, repairing muskets, gathering hundreds of horses.
On February 19, 1845, Micheltorena’s army arrived at Rancho Encino in San Fernando Valley. Charging out of Los Angeles, a defending army of 400 horsemen poured over Cahuenga Pass to meet him. Next day, in the area now occupied by Studio City, the two forces clashed. With many flourishes of fife and drum they swung into battle lines, making sure to remain out of effective artillery range. While all Los Angeles watched apprehensively from the top of Lookout Mountain, the cannons boomed away. Total casualties for the day: one mule!
Blocked at Cahuenga Pass, Micheltorena disengaged and swung his forces eastward, attempting to outflank his enemies and take their city from behind through the pass of the Los Angeles River. But Pío Pico was too quick for him. Wheeling about, his horsemen raced back through Cahuenga, galloped across Los Feliz Rancho and confronted Micheltorena in the narrows of the river. By next morning the Governor was bottled up against the mountain and forced to surrender.
In the curious treaty that followed, his men were permitted to keep their arms and march to San Pedro Harbor with full military honors. No consideration was too great for Micheltorena, if only he would leave the country with his army of bandits. One thing more: in departing, he would please march back around the mountain and head for San Pedro by way of Cahuenga Pass, making a wide berth of the chicken coops, vegetable patches, and grape vines of Los Angeles.
With Micheltorena gone, the southern pueblo was again willing to be the capital of California, and promptly won the prize under the new governor, who was Pío Pico himself. But it was a short triumph. By May, 1846, Mexico was at war with the United States, and American forces were descending upon California. Still torn by petty dissension, the Angelenos were unable to muster a defense. By August, Governor Pico had fled Los Angeles and all of California was in American hands. While the Yankees set up headquarters in Monterey, Captain A. H. Gillespie was left to occupy Los Angeles with a small garrison.
The conquest of California might have been complete but for the overbearing character of Gillespie. With no understanding of the native temper, he imposed needless restrictions, deliberately humiliated the leading citizens, and within a few weeks made himself a hated despot. To this challenge the fiery Angelenos responded as they had to Micheltorena—on September 22 they rose in rebellion and forced Gillespie’s surrender eight days later. Like Micheltorena, he was allowed to embark, with banners flying, at San Pedro.
Triumphant, the Californians renewed the defense of their country, re-established Los Angeles as the capital, and chose General José María Flores as provisional governor. Like the Aztecs against Cortez, they had scarcely resisted until they felt the tyrant’s heel.
A little more than a week after Gillespie’s defeat the Americans were back with a force of sailors to retake Los Angeles. Landing at San Pedro, they marched northward on foot. But the Californians had dug up an ancient four-pounder cannon which they had previously hidden in an old woman’s garden. Mounted on cart wheels and pulled along by the reatas of the horsemen, it was trundled southward to meet the advancing Americans. Near Dominguez Hills, General José Antonio Carrillo’s cavalry drew up before the foe and fired the gun. The gringos promptly advanced to seize it, but the horsemen quickly dragged it out of the way and reloaded. Time and again the strange game was repeated—the gun booming, the Americans reeling, the Californians retreating and reloading. Finally, with six men killed and six more wounded, the attackers gave up the frustrating chase and withdrew to their ships. They did not know it, but the Californians had just run out of gunpowder.
Smarting from the “Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun,” the Americans prepared a full-scale campaign against Los Angeles. Colonel John Charles Frémont was dispatched overland from Monterey with a body of frontier riflemen. Commodore Robert F. Stockton, who was in charge of American operations against California, put into San Pedro with a force of sailors and marines. By this time the Yankees had a new respect for native arms. When their boats landed on shore they saw California horsemen dotting every hill. In the gap just east of Palos Verdes a cloud of dust showed where the main force of defenders was passing through. For several hours the dust continued to boil as the thunder of hoofs shook the ground. Stockton concluded that the Californians were far too numerous to risk battle. Returning to the ships, the Americans sailed for San Diego. Actually, General Carrillo had been running a vast herd of horses in a continuous circle so that the Americans viewing them through the pass thought they were one long column of cavalry.
Masters of maneuver on the battlefield, the Californians were still their own worst enemies. Intrigue and rebellion divided their camp, and in one disorderly night most of their horses stampeded out of town and were lost. Meanwhile General Stephen W. Kearny had led an American column overland from New Mexico, and though the Californians defeated him at the Battle of San Pasqual they were unable, for lack of horses, to prevent him from joining Stockton. By the end of the year the combined American column was marching northward to take Los Angeles.
His rear threatened simultaneously by the approach of Frémont from the north, Governor Flores saw the end approaching. Summoning all his defenses on January 8, he made a last attempt to ambush the southern column as it crossed the San Gabriel River. A heavy thicket of willows and mustard grass commanded the lower ford approaching Los Angeles. Here Flores hid his horsemen, ready for a sudden charge on the Americans as they floundered through the quicksand. But at the last moment a traitor revealed the ambush, and the Americans veered to the upper ford. Flores sallied north to oppose them, taking a high position back of the west bank. As the Americans slogged knee-deep into the river, Flores opened up with cannon, his grape and round shot splashing the water before them.
But this time the American jaw was set. When he had risen that morning, Stockton had told his aide that if the enemy would fight, he would “give the San Gabriel a name in history.…” As Kearny ordered the American artillery unlimbered to return the fire from the far bank, Stockton rode up and countermanded the order. Not a shot should be fired, he said, until the guns had crossed the river to cover an American charge. Once in the water, mules and wheels alike bogged down in the current. Quick to prove his point, Kearny notified Stockton that the guns could not cross in the quicksands.
“Quicksands be damned!” roared the Commodore. “The guns shall pass over!”
And leaping from his horse, he seized the ropes himself. Officers, men, and mules bent to the task while the water around them churned with enemy fire. In midstream a troop of Californians, decked with colored streamers and shining lances, charged the struggling column. Marines and sailors drove them back with musket fire. Arrived on the opposite bank, the American cannon were wheeled into position and soon boomed their answer to the enemy battery. Roused by the smoke of battle, Stockton himself aimed one of the pieces and fired it—the ball smashing the wheel of an enemy gun. Not to be outdone, Kearny stepped up, a pistol in each hand.
“Now, Commodore,” he announced, “I am ready for the charge.”
Under cover of their guns, the Americans stormed up the slope, beating off another cavalry charge as they went. Seeing the battle lost, Flores now ordered a retreat. With a loss of three killed and seven wounded, the Americans had won the battle of San Gabriel and sealed the conquest of California.
Next day when Stockton and Kearny resumed their march, Flores made a last, pitiful stand at La Mesa, on the outskirts of town. But it was little more than a skirmish. The gringos plodded relentlessly onward, their ox and mule teams raising dust across the plain. Next morning they marched into Los Angeles to the lively step of their band, while native hotheads sat on the hill above the plaza, catcalling and waving pistols.
As for the beaten Flores, he had already transferred his command to General Andrés Pico, brother of Pío, and fled to Mexico. Pico in turn spurred northward into San Fernando Valley to meet Frémont; but when he heard of the American victory at San Gabriel, he realized that there was little purpose in further resistance. Frémont accepted Pico’s surrender at the foot of Cahuenga Pass on January 13, 1847. For this breach of etiquette, both Pico and Frémont were soon suffering the ruffled displeasure of Stockton.
But the bloodshed at last was over, and California was American. Defeated by their own shortcomings, the Californians had at least proved that they were, as more than one American testified, “the greatest horsemen in the world.”
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.
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!”
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.”
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.”
But though some fortunes were shattered, the collapse was no calamity. When the dust cleared Los Angeles was a city of large brick buildings and paved streets, new colleges and churches, electric railroads and street lights—an American metropolis that looked the part. Approaching a population of 80,000 in 1887, it had fallen back to 50,000 in the census of 1890—but that was still five times as many people as it had had ten years before. Across Southern California the more solid boom towns clung to life, their industrious citizens doing more than looking on “while the earth sends forth her plenty.” The boom had revolutionized an empire—swept away the vestiges of its Spanish origin, left it thoroughly Americanized in appearance and culture, made it the promised land of eastern immigrants yet to come.
Most important of all, the booster spirit—far from dying with the boom—was fused into the Los Angeles mind. Broken to harness, it was put to work by the newly formed Chamber of Commerce. Bottled and corked, it was spoon-fed to every new arrival, whether he came by birth or by rail. Los Angeles was going to be the biggest city in the world. The only question was how long it would take.
With this war cry the Angelenos laid a firmer basis for growth than climate and ballyhoo. In 1892, in Los Angeles, E. L. Doheny made Southern California’s first great oil strike, one of several that would make California the second largest oil-producing state in the nation. Led by the Chamber of Commerce and the Los Angeles Times , the city was campaigning for a federal-built harbor at San Pedro, and by 1899 work began on a man-made port that would bring to Los Angeles the merchant ships of the world. Answering a need for intercity transportation, Henry E. Huntington built a network of electric railways that helped start another real-estate boom after the turn of the century. With new growth straining the local water resources, engineer William Mulholland reached 240 miles to Owens River for a fresh supply. Even the climate joined in and helped bring to Los Angeles two massive new industries—motion pictures and airplane manufacture.
Spurred by its own success, boosterism was riding high. By 1920 Los Angeles had passed San Francisco in population and was still boasting about this when it topped a million after the boom of the twenties. Up to this point no one had thought of asking whether population was an end in itself. More people meant more customers—it was that simple. But the depression made it terribly clear that people alone do not make prosperity. Switching its tactics, the Chamber of Commerce stopped trying to attract population for its own sake, and began to concentrate instead on attracting industry.
Yet this was only a shift of emphasis. It took World War II and the postwar boom to kill the booster spirit. By the time Los Angeles became the third city in the nation and was ready to take on Chicago, many Angelenos were wondering whether it was worth the trouble. Elbow room—always dear to the westerner—was gone. Life in Southern California had become a huge jostling match. In San Fernando Valley, the city’s last frontier, subdividers had built tract homes so fast that schools, streets, sewers—the simple utilities—fell years behind. Though valiant efforts were made to rush construction of freeways, Los Angeles became a vast traffic jam enveloped in smog. Sometimes hidden from its own sunshine, the city was doing a good job of destroying its first and best resource—climate. And as for the “good land,” it had disappeared under a layer of pavement, roof tops, and swimming pools.
Unable to stem the flood it started, Los Angeles was the victim of its own salesmanship. It was too late to wonder whether the Spanish might have been right, after all. The only thing left was to build a city equal to the population.