Pioneers, Politics, and Punches: Dan the Miner, Carthay Circle, and Dirty Dealings in the Golden West

There are thousands of pathways in modern Los Angeles. Hiking trails, sidewalks, and 6499.5 miles of paved roads. We spend an enormous amount of time on these congested roads, and we curse the hours wasted. We listen to music, talk on the phone, eat, text, put on makeup, read -- creating such a little bubble that often the only way we notice the world outside is when a fellow driver does something we perceive as wrong. The endless duplexes, high rise offices, and fast food restaurants we pass are a blur, and the city somehow feels very ancient and worn.

So much of our city land is covered in concrete and sprawl that if you are like me you often forget what a new city Los Angeles is, what a new state California is. And then at the Mid-City mess of intersections where San Vicente meets McCarthy Vista, you see an island triangle of green land, a breath of fresh air in the mid-morning traffic. This little deserted park boasts one magnificent tree and some seemingly stranded rocks and boulders. Under the tree a solitary 7 feet bronze statue stands. It is a young man, handsome in a Disney Prince kind of way. On closer inspection there are cobwebs hanging from his chin, but he is oblivious, lost in the mining pan he holds, forever searching for gold.

The memorial at first sight seems to honor the spirit of the 49ers in general, and D.O. McCarthy in particular. They were the California dreamers, the men and women who pushed through the underbrush and passed over the mountains less than 200 years ago to carve out the pathways we now take for granted. But what many don't know is that this was a monument from a son to a father, and that it took a hell of a lot more than honor, determination, and good Christian values to turn this temperate natural paradise into a thriving concrete metropolis.

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Photo by Hadley Meares

The American Flag

D.O. McCarthyDaniel O'Connell McCarthy was born in Raleigh, North Carolina in 1830, the son of Irish immigrants who claimed descent from the Kings of Ireland. After migrating with his family to Mississippi, Daniel found himself an orphan at 14 and went to Mexico with the army as a commissary clerk. While working in the mercantile business in San Antonio, the handsome, charismatic, gently mannered young man caught gold fever. In 1850 he led a group of fellow dreamers across the sparsely populated southwest to boomtown Tuolumne Country at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. After a stint as a miner he worked as a merchant in the town of Sonora, and became increasingly disturbed with the town's growing confederate sympathies. Having seen the effect of slavery first hand, he sought to fight the pro-South trend by starting one of the state's first papers, The American Flag. Moving the paper to relatively sophisticated San Francisco, this incarnation of The American Flag became a Republican platform, which he used to crusade for women's suffrage and fight against legislative corruption.

This fight led to McCarthy's arrest and eventual release to the cheers of hundreds of supporters. In 1870 he, his wife Amanda (another early pioneer hailing from Alabama), and their children moved to sleepy San Diego, where his story starts to sink into the confusing muck of Wild West politics, water grabs and power plays. His reputation as an honest man preceding him, it wasn't long before he had encouraged others to invest in the New Mexico silver mines and local real estate. He very much believed in the potential of San Diego, even going to Mexico to meet with President Diaz to bring water across to the California side. Starting the influential newspaper, The Vidette, he gave voice to his opinions and established himself as one of San Diego's leading citizens.

However, whether due to having too many interests, corruption, or mismanagement, things started to go down for old D.O. One laudatory biographer blames the downfall on mismanagement of others, but is vague about who the others were. It is interesting to note that his problems began when his son John Harvey became an adult.

J. Harvey. Los Angeles Times, July 25, 1935You see, from an early age J. Harvey was a person people seemed to want to punch.
A college age J. Harvey first burst onto the pages of history in 1891, not for a society ball or a sporting accomplishment, but for arraignment on the charge of having impersonated a police officer during a horse deal on the Mexican border. Shortly before this arraignment, he and D.O. had been charged with smuggling a y brand stallion and roan horse across the border. It seems D.O. was simply caught up in his son's mess and J. Harvey was acquitted, but a couple of months later he was involved in some kind of kidnapping case that was also resolved, perhaps with the help of his influential father.

Despite his apparent wild streak, D.O. gave J. Harvey a job as a reporter and business manager at The Vidette. This was an era of vicious California politics in the fast growing state, where deals involving land and water were often life and death battles. In 1896, J. Harvey found himself on the receiving end in the water wars, when AG Gassen, a henchman of Governor Budd, confronted him over articles in The Vidette criticizing a water contract that was considered a poor deal for the citizens of San Diego, and reporting the brutal tactics being used to push it through. The physically imposing Gassen began to cuss out the slight Harvey, who in turn called Gassen a "dammed boodler." The boodler was not amused, and struck Harvey viciously in the face until bystanders separated the two men. J. Harvey, rushed home by carriage, was so severely injured doctors feared he would never recover. On the afternoon of the attack, D.O. was seen racing around San Diego, gunning for the man who had hurt his son.

But San Diego was not yet through with the McCarthys. D.O. lost most of his New Mexico investments and The Vidette, of which J. Harvey was now president, went into receivership. By 1901 the whole clan decamped to Los Angeles, where J. Harvey and D.O. became involved in the Central Pacific Oil Company, a speculative oil concern that roped in gullible investors promising riches from oil fields in unspecified tracts. When J. Harvey was asked for a specific description of the land, he claimed "maps and data have been misplaced." These shady dealings were soon well known in Los Angeles and would be but one of the "famous transactions of J. Harvey McCarthy."


"J. Harvey McCarthy, president of the Pioneer Investment and Trust Company, and E.P. Thom, real estate agent, No. 414 Bradbury Building, in the ring:
*Round one- Thom leads for the race. McCarthy ducks and Thom's fist catches him full in the eye. Thom rushes McCarthy and lands with his left on McCarthy's nose. McCarthy rallies just in time to get the weight of another blow above the belt. He goes down for the count.
*Round Two- There was no round two."
-The Los Angeles Times, May 15, 1907

J. Harvey McCarthy was a ruthless dreamer, a man with big ideas and few scruples. From early on he was obsessed with the history of California and determined to be a pioneer in his own fields. So it is not surprising that he formed a real estate corporation, called Pioneer Investment and Trust. It is also not shocking that in 1903 fellow stockholders accused him of wresting total control of the company by issuing hundreds of shares of stock to himself and his cronies and entering it in the books as "paid out for advertising." It was also alleged that two sets of books were kept, and to avoid a scandal J. Harvey agreed to a cash settlement with his accusers. However, on the day payment was due, Harvey was nowhere to be found.

Several suits were filed in L.A. Superior Court, and during the first trial the newly christened "Get-Rich Quick McCarthy" watched as countless witnesses swore against his character. When one man was asked who he had heard speak ill of J. Harvey, he replied, "Well, let's see. For one there was his own cousin, Ben Moor. John D. Works, HW Alden of the Nadeau Hotel, HW Stacy ... " before McCarthy's lawyers cut him off. Another man was asked what McCarthy's reputation in Los Angeles was. "Bad," the man answered. And what was his reputation in San Diego? "Worse." Would the man believe him under oath? "Not unless he sounded mighty reasonable."

L.A. Times, August 30, 1906McCarthy always seemed to survive and thrive, perhaps due in part to his political connections. Tellingly, while D.O. was a lifelong Republican, J. Harvey was a Democrat closely aligned with presidential hopeful William Randolph Hearst, owner of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. This association earned him the wrath of the Otis-controlled, conservative L.A. Times. In this vitriolic era of yellow journalism, one must take the Times coverage of J. Harvey with giant grains of mistrust. But even 109 years later it is amusing to read their description of J. Harvey as a "butt-in" who, in attempting to secure a seat as a delegate at the 1904 national convention, bought "enough cocktails to drown the whole convention." McCarthy was elected as an outsider and took a full seat at the convention.

Even a shady political wheeler and real estate dealer needs a better half. In 1906 the long time "confirmed bachelor" and native Kentuckian Mary Patterson, who was staying with her aunt in the ritzy St. James Colony, took a chauffeured purple car to Santa Ana's First Baptist Church and married. While Mary settled into their home at 981 S. Elden Avenue, hosting well-appointed wedding showers which featured "progressive games," her husband fought with homeowners in Euclid Terrace, who claimed Harvey was holding the titles to their homes ransom. He also took time to show his softer side, paying $90 for a basket of first of season cherries to aid victims of the San Francisco earthquake.

Another earthquake was on the horizon. With dreams of empire, and many building projects under his belt, J. Harvey bought Geneva, a tiny Swiss settled community in rural Merced County. Through a public contest, it was renamed Planada in 1911. J. Harvey sank hundreds of thousands of dollars into the town, building a school, bank, church, theater and department store. The isolated city quickly failed, and by 1912 he was desperate to unload the property. When the Los Angeles Investment Company, who had already invested heavily in the project, refused to buy the rest of the bad asset, J. Harvey allegedly set out on a deliberate campaign to ruin the company. At a stockholders meeting investors told of mysterious telephone calls, and it was claimed that many of the residents of the town had gone bankrupt. J. Harvey eventually got out the Planada debacle, just like he always did, and today Planada is a small town with around 4,000 residents.

Native Sons of the Golden West

The good of the whole community should be the first consideration of everyone who desires to see Los Angeles grow not merely in population and commerce but in finer things that distinguish a city with a soul from a mere collection of people and buildings.
-J. Harvey McCarthy in the Los Angeles Times, August 12, 1922

L.A. Times, October 19, 1938

Los Angeles is a city with a short memory, where financial success and strategic PR can blot out a shady past. After old D.O.'s death in 1919, a new J. Harvey began to emerge -- the innovative community builder he always wanted to be. In 1921 he began developing a large tract in Glendale. That same year found him opening a 60-acre tract at Western Avenue and Santa Monica Boulevard. Ever grandiose, J. Harvey declared that one day Western Avenue would rival New York City's Fifth Avenue, a prediction that has yet to be fulfilled.

But his greatest project was to be Carthay Center. In 1922, J. Harvey purchased 136 acres of land running down Wilshire Boulevard, between Fairfax Avenue and Beverly Hills. The land had been a passenger airplane flying field, but to J. Harvey it was his last stab at a field of dreams. Here he would create a model California community, the "ideal upper middle class residential area of Los Angeles," boasting the first underground utilities in Los Angeles, an electric rail stop, and ornamental street lighting. But this thoroughly modern neighborhood would be steeped in the past, in the whitewashed version of California history that for J. Harvey was very close to home.

The firm of Cook and Hall took charge of the landscaping of the green ways and planned ornamental lagoons and a sweeping plaza. Architects Aleck Curlett and Clad Beelman designed the mission style homes and the business center. Pedestrian pathways were erected, as was a school. But most importantly J. Harvey's beloved California historical preservation club, the Ramona Chapter of the Native Sons and Daughters of the Golden West, helped him honor the pioneers that paved his way. All the new streets were named after notable past Californians -- Commodore Sloate, Moore, Hayes, Schumacher, and of course McCarthy (San Vicente was initially named Eulalia, after a famous midwife). The non-denominational Amanda Chapel, now the Anglican Church of Our Savior, was dedicated to the memory of J. Harvey's mother. This "church of religious liberty" was dedicated by none other than William Jennings Bryan, Democratic hero, after which the church bell brought from the old Mission Dolores in San Francisco, rang out.

Sundial with a pedestal of brick from Mission San Juan Capistrano, 1927 | Herald-Examiner Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Monument to Jedediah Smith, 1927 | Herald-Examiner Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

Lots sold incredibly fast, and J. Harvey and the Ramona Parlor went on a monument spree. In February, 1924, a commemorative 15-ton boulder was placed in honor of pathfinder Jedediah Smith, and in July a sundial with a pedestal of brick from the San Juan Capistrano mission was dedicated to civic leader I.J. Muma.

On September 25 the 512 pound, bronze statue called "The Pioneer", created by sculptor Henry Lion, was unveiled in front of several thousand spectators. Water flowed from the miner's pan into an ornamental lagoon (of which there are remnants today). A program was then presented, featuring performers from MGM enacting scenes from the gold rush days, and singers from Graumman's singing pioneer songs. Survivors of the gold rush were acknowledged and as J. Harvey surveyed the scene, he no doubt wished that his father was one of them.

The historical orgy did not stop there. In 1926 another monument was built this time honoring Snowshoe Thompson, the first letter carrier to cross the Sierras. The charming Carthay Circle Theater was finished in 1926, and soon became the focal point of Carthay Center. Carthay Circle became the neighborhoods official name. The Spanish revival theater with its 140-ft lighted tower which shimmered with multi-colored tiles, boasted large historical paintings by Frank Tinny Johnson and a massive curtain painted with a scene of the Donner party. The theater would be a showplace, hosting many high profile premiers, until it was torn down in 1969.

Unveiling of the 'Pioneer Fountain Group' statue, ca. 1926 | Herald-Examiner Collection, courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library
Premiere night, Carthay Circle Theater, 1940 | Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library

With his pet project flourishing, J. Harvey was free to focus on other things. He remained an active democrat and fought for school bonds. In 1932, the man once so passionate about himself, showed a great passion for others when he traveled to Washington, D.C. with the Ramona Parlor to ask for aid for the starving Native Americans of the Pala Tribe. McCarthy was said to be particularly "severe in condemning those charged with looking after Indian welfare." J. Harvey died two years later at the age of 65 at his home on Elden Avenue. It would have thrilled him to know that in the L.A. Times, once his staunchest critic, he was not referred to as a spoiled son or a speculative schemer, but as a "Pioneer."

So, "The Pioneer," now commonly known as "Dan the Miner" in this city of reinvention, still stands looking into a pan which has long gone dry. In 2008, he was temporarily ripped from his stone and cut in half by two criminals looking to cash in on the high price of bronze. He was found at a scrap yard and returned to his rightful little piece of land. The thieves were each sentenced to 16 months in jail. One thinks that D.O. and J. Harvey would probably forgive them. They knew more than anyone the price you have to pay to carve out your place in this golden world.

''Dan the Miner'' today | Photo by Hadley Meares

About the Author

Hadley Meares is a writer, historian, and singer who traded one Southland (her home state of North Carolina) for another. She is a frequent contributor to Curbed and Atlas Obscura, and leads historical tours all around Los Angeles for Obscura Society LA.
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