Los Angeles as Described by Contemporaries, 1850-1890, by Henry Winfred Splitter

1850’s and 1860’s

“To the resident of the Mississippi Valley and the eastern states, Los Angeles and vicinity is the climax of all that is romantically strange: desert, mountains, sea, climate, and a medley of nationalities and races. Today hundreds of square miles of this area are built up into blooming garden cities, and it is hard to visualize the primitive aspect this land once wore…

Even in summer the valley of what is now the Los Angeles metropolitan area favorably impressed a cultured visitor from San Francisco (by steamer to San Pedro, thence by horseback). ‘After a ride of nineteen miles over a sterile country, a scene of unsurpassed rural beauty opens out as suddenly as raising the drop-curtain would expose some charming view of fairyland. The long hedgerows and white roads remind one of England. Immense cornfields, equal to any in the world for yield and luxuriant growth, recall similar scenes in the Southern States. Large vineyards stretching away in every direction, as far as the eye can reach; numbers of smug, cozy dwelling dotted about, and absolutely smothered in flowers; its quaint, dilapidated, low, flat-roofed, white-washed buildings; Mexicans cantering about on horseback, the lazy, listless air of some of the native Californians, almost make the traveler think he has been suddenly transported to the Mediterranean or to some inland town in Spain.’

The traveler from the East or North, however, must have been disappointed in one aspect of the appearance of romantically situated Los Angeles; namely, in the striking absence of forest trees. The most noticeable feature of the pueblo in 1850 as viewed from Paredon Blanco or White Bluff (now Boyle Heights), apart from the several uniform one-story adobe houses with flat mud-and-tar covered roofs — only five of them roofed with tile, three of them two storied — ‘would have been the almost utter lack of trees of any size, for, with the exception of a thicket of willows from the hills of the present Elysian Park down to about where Ninth Street crosses today, there were but two trees of consequence to be seen.’

‘Those two trees were the mighty aliso or sycamore on Aliso Road in front of Luis Vignes’ winery, and a large pepper tree that sheltered the small adobe hut of an old Indian woman a short distance northwest of the Plaza. This pepper tree was the only one of that now abundant species in the town. The first pepper trees to be planted as sidewalk shade trees were set out eleven years after, when in 1861 Juan Temple planted a row of them in front of his place on Main Street where the Federal Building now stands. The one lone pepper tree of 1850 was from the ‘parent’ pepper trees of California, which grew in the quadrangle of San Luis Rey Mission’…”

1870’s

“Los Angeles in the seventies was a city of sharp contrasts. The only magnolia believed to be on the coast was spreading its creamy blossoms to the sun in Mr. Sainsevain’s garden; a mammoth rose tree, only seven years old but already twelve feet high, thirty-six feet in circumference, and two feet around the trunk, was scenting the air at Mr. Griffith’s residence on Hill Street near Second. Church spires shot up in 1875 like yucca blooms in late spring: Methodist Episcopal on Fort Street (Broadway), the Methodist Episcopal South edifice on Spring, the Roman Catholic cathedral on Main, and the modest home of the German Baptists on Spring. In addition there was the old Plaza Church… and the Jewish synagogue. One hundred thousand dollars invested in these new church buildings during that single year seemed only a partial tithe for the prosperity that had come upon the Southland…

To be sure, south of Sixth and west of what was called Grasshopper Street (now Figueroa), there gleamed only an occasional house in its invariable orchards and gardens. Still less impressive were the streets of Los Angeles, bordered only rarely by sidewalks, streets that were in summer basins of deep, puffy dust, while in winter there was mud, ankle deep, sometimes hip deep. Water stood here at all seasons in pools and sloughs, generously flavored with miscellaneous rotting trash, to which summer weather brought greenish scum and an insistent odor of putrescence. Shade trees along the thoroughfares were a rarity. Adobe houses and store fronting those streets shouldered here and there an occasional wood scrolled cottage or two-story Victorian-American mansion, or even, in the very center of town, a self-consciously modern brick business block.

A visitor from Sacramento, being familiar with the metropolitan splendors of San Francisco with its more than 200,000 population, savoring these sights, remarked with proper condescension, ‘If Los Angeles citizens would evince their public spirit by paving their streets, building crossing and sidewalks, tearing down the unsightly old hovels and fences that disfigure the streets, plant shade trees, and improve their public drives, the city would soon be worthy of all the encomiums that have been lavished upon it.’

And as the population of Los Angeles was at the time estimated at only ten or twelve thousand, it seemed fitting for its citizens to bear such reproof with humility. It was not that paved streets, even sidewalks, were not appreciated. Some few years previously, the editor of the News had editorialized sourly, ‘The city marshal should see to it that drivers of vehicles and horsemen do not make thoroughfares of the sidewalks which are intended for the exclusive benefit of pedestrians. On one side of Aliso Street, below Alameda, horses and carriages monopolize the sidewalks, and frequently bespatter with mud any foot travelers who happen to be passing on that side of the street.’ It was rather that paving material (conveniently, stone or wood blocks) was practically unavailable, while the tarred pavements of today had not yet been evoked from the test tubes of chemists and the brains of engineers.

Apart from the mere inconveniences of street mud and dust, there were the putrid street odors assailing house-dwellers and pedestrians alike. Competing with the dreamy fragrance of orange blossom from nearby groves came ‘the concentrated vileness of the gutters down a portion of Main and Spring Streets. Fever, plague, pestilence, and all horrors of death steam up in the poisonous exhalations from the green slimy ooze. The breeze is tainted with it; the night is sick because of it… Climate, sea breezes, and the odor of the orange groves will not serve us… if the concentrated, double distilled essence of disease daily and nightly ascends to our nostrils… Clean the gutters, citizens! Clean the gutters!’

And it was not altogether a matter of the gutters, at that. ‘Yesterday the gentlemen boarders of the City Hotel (city jail) were busily engaged cleaning the streets ‘on compulsion.’ Five hundred old boots and shoes, a half ton of straw, seven dead cats, and five cart loads of orange peelings were removed and deposited outside the city limits. It is rumored that one of the laborers found a purse of twenty dollar gold pieces along one of the gutters.’ But even the rumored treasure trove did not serve as a permanent incentive to keep the streets clean, and consequently periodic shovelings and forkings were all that saved our city from being entirely buried… it its own filth…”

1880’s

“The West-bound traveler of the 1880’s wearily approaching Los Angeles through barren mountain passes and over bleak deserts, must often have felt under the vastness of night sky as did a local poet, Mariner J. Kent, in his ‘Night in the Desert’:

The moon, with grayish bars,
Slow creeps athwart the night’s black moon;
The distant, lonesome stars
Unfriendly glow without the moon.

Coyotes yelping by,
The redman wailing o’er his dead,
With wild, uncanny cry
Breaks the silence vast and dead.

The hills, uncertain, dim,
Afar off stretching clouds of doubt,
Stand wardens mute and grim,
Keeping fore’er the bright world out.

The sage that endless strays
Across the desert bleakful spanned,
Like death-plume fitful sways
Above each mount of drifted sand.

The wind from the chilly peaks
Moans through low trees brown and sere,
Whirls on with shrilly shrieks,
O’er the lone waste fraught with fear…

The city itself, once attained after the traversing of anywhere from fifteen to sixty miles of railway or winding wagon track, did not essentially disillusion the visitor. Its dominant tone seemed to be the spaciousness of a vast garden. ‘This,’ asserted a new resident of a year’s standing, ‘is preeminently a domestic city. Here every man, however poor, literally seems to live under his own vine and fig tree. There is no crowding of doorsill upon doorsill, with the stench of the gutter and the glare of the pavement coming in to the dweller through the parlour blinds. Each house is set back from the street, surrounded by cypress and geranium hedges, with roses climbing over the doors and windows, and figs and oranges growing on the lawns. Plenty of fresh air to breathe and sunshine to cheer.’

A discordant note, nevertheless, begins to creep into this record of pastoral delights. He continues: ‘True enough, the style of these houses is with a few notable exceptions bad, and sometimes worse, but nature successfully accomplishes the work of covering up in a few years with her artistic touches the bungling work of man…’

In addition to sights, there were sounds also that re-enforced the impression of peace and infinite retirement. ‘To the stranger walking up Main or Spring Street, our principal thoroughfares, the most noticeable sound is the tinkle of the bells upon the car horses. This is distinctively a peculiarity of this city… It is even more noticeable after nightfall… Los Angeles is a very quiet city after 8 o’clock in the evening. Of all California towns, many of which only awaken to life in the evening, it is peculiar in this. Perhaps the presence of a large number of the Eastern people may account for it. Day or night, Sunday or work day, it is all one to your true bred-in-the-bone Californian. Be that as it may, the bells on the street car horses have it all their own way after 8 o’clock. At 10 even their clanger ceases, and the city is quiet as the grave. Only the saloons and the newspaper offices are open, and the occasional passerby hurries along as if the great quivering flood of light floating down from the electric masts were something to be hidden from, something to be avoided by dodging into screen doorways or lurking in shadowed corners…’

If our sightseer should have chanced to pass the corner of Main and Commercial Streets he might have been curious as to the stubby iron cannon oddly used as hitching posts at that intersection. These relics of war had, according to later chroniclers, been once held in much higher esteem. They were indeed, says C. D. Willard, once part of the much-prized heavy battery of four guns possessed by the American army of Captain Gillespie who was forced to surrender here to Flores in 1846. Two of these, dumped into the tideland marshes of San Pedro by Gillespie before he hurriedly sailed away, were some time after allegedly rescued by B. D. Wilson, who then had them placed in their more conspicuous but still ignominious position on Main Street…

As a counterpoise to this lecture on the history of the antique cannon, the rambling sightseer possibly could be brightened up by reference to the forthcoming Fourth of July celebration. This by all reports was to be a wide and handsome occasion. ‘The beef and the sheep will all be roasted whole, in Spanish style, under the supervision of Senores Refugio, Botiller, and Carrasco, who have officiated at many similar fiestas. Beer ad libitum will be furnished. The viands will be served under the old aliso tree in the yard of the Philadelphia Brewery as soon as the exercises at the park are concluded.’

This, by the way, is a signal example of the manner in which the Native Californian and the Yankee had each by mutual concessions adapted himself to the other. There is beer now instead of native Californian wine; the Spanish American barbecue, directed by Refugio, Botiller, and Carrasco, takes the place of the elaborate, home-prepared Yankee picnic. The Glorious Fourth is dubbed a fiesta, while the site is none other than the shade of the old aliso tree of early Californian renown.

None the less, it is the Fourth of July, the most American of holidays. The sociologist might learnedly term the process one of cultural fusion. Most persons, however, would be content to call it Americanism in action or the melting pot at work…”

-Excerpt and images courtesy of Archive.org, Allen County Public Library Genealogy Center, “The Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly,” by the Historical Society of Southern California, 1955. (top) Image courtesy of Newspapers.com, The Los Angeles Times, Sunday, May 25, 1952

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