Scenery Changes, and Smog, Give Portola’s ‘Ghost’ Surprise, 1948

“This delightful place among the trees on the river…” -Father Juan Crespi describing the site of Los Angeles on Aug. 3, 1769.

“An amazed Spanish ghost came back yesterday to El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula.

But Don Gaspar de Portola could not recognize the place he named just 179 years ago to the day.

Like a Catalonian Rip Van Winkle, he found miracles all about him. True, the same mountains and hills rimmed in the spreading valley. But everything else, even the air, was changed. A man-made haze called smog blotted out the horizon upon which the wondering eyes of the little Spanish party threading its way in search of Monterey had dwelt in 1769.

The modern horsemen impersonating Portola and his party came in from Lincoln Park for welcoming ceremonies on the City Hall steps yesterday morning amid scenes that could not even have been imagined when the real Portola forded the little river christened ‘Porciuncula.’ Now that the Portola Trek was being re-enacted in 1948 as a feature of California’s Centennial years, the modern horsemen tried to picture that day of Aug. 2, 1769, when the region was named for ‘Our lady the Qieem pf tje Angels of Porciuncula (the shrine of St. Francis in Italy).’

No living memory could conjure up that scene.

Amid myriads of wild roses, fragrant herbs and wild grapes, antelope grazed on the rich grass of the river bed. Friendly but exceedingly primitive and dirty Indians lived under the trees.

Yesterday, by contrast, the Portola party abandoned what little greenery remains in metropolitan Los Angeles when it mounted under the flowering magnolia trees in Lincoln Park. Only bare pavement and telephone poles formed the ‘scenery’ as the official party of 14 riders accompanied by Los Angeles horsemen clattered toward the City Hall. Curious onlookers overran the park and crowded to the curbs along the streets at the horses passed.

Then, there was the river.

Portola the Modern looked down from a concrete bridge into a concrete river bed where a forlorn trickle meandered listlessly toward the sea. This was the ‘delightful place among the trees’ where the antelope drank the sweet water. Portola waved his hand at the ‘Rio Porciuncula’ and passed on.

Up Aliso St. by the forgotten spot where the giant sycamores of the Vignes Ranch once flourished the party proceeded past gas plants, iron foundries, laundries, junk yards and the Union Station. People of 50 different races, instead of just red Indians, gazed at the strange little group in its boots, tunics and feathered hats, carrying the red and yellow standard of imperial Spain.

To the glistening white City Hall came the party.

Under a flag called the Stars and Stripes the modern welcomers awaited. Sheriff Biscailuz, himself a descendant on one side of the family from proud Spanish settlers, was officiating as chairman of the Advisory Committee. Joseph R. Knowland of Oakland, chairman of the Centennials Commission, reminded the audience of the many Centennials celebrations. Mayor Bowron of Los Angeles officially greeted Portola, portrayed by Dick Kleck, who came bounding up the steps swinging his red-plumed hat. Portola responded.

Indians appeared and took part in a brief pageant with the Portola party. Chet Huntley handed Portola a scroll.

The horsemen remounted and rode solemnly off up to Broadway and out Wilshire Blvd. to their camping spot at Hancock Park where, near the La Brea pits, the Portola party suffered with earthquakes in the long ago.

Traffic resumed.

El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de Los Angeles de Porciuncula had got its name. And it was 1948 again.”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of Newspapers.com, The Los Angeles Times, August 4, 1948. (top) Image courtesy of Getty Images, “Anthony Quinn interprets the role of the Spanish captain Gaspar de Portola; he is now looking at a map in a tent in the film ‘Seven Cities of Gold’,” California, USA, 1955

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