What Happened in the Elysian Hills Before the Dodgers?

Panoramic view of the community of Chavez Ravine, circa 1952. Photo by Leonard Nadel, courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Contemporary Los Angeles best knows its Elysian Hills as a backdrop to baseball. Beyond the outfield pavilions of Dodger Stadium, their green slopes fade to brown each season beneath "cotton candy skies," in the words of the retiring Vin Scully. But long before such legendary names as Scully, Koufax, and Lasorda emerged from the hills, the landscape gave rise to legends of a different sort: man-eating lions on the prowl; an incredible "moving mountain"; an Edenic garden of exotic trees.

These earlier legends point to a long history that preceded the Dodgers' arrival in 1962 -- a history that "Lost LA's" second episode explores in depth. Below are the stories that inspired the episode, debuting Wednesday, Feb. 3 at 8:30 p.m., accompanied by several others.

Click on the links below for the full story.

The Beginning of Rancho Cucamonga

Cucamonga winery, 1909 | Courtesy of the Rancho Cucamonga Library.

The following text is an excerpt from "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California" by Frances Dinkelspiel. L.A. as Subject recently caught up with Dinkelspiel to discuss her book and the research that made it possible. Click here to read the full interview.

The grape vines were scraggly. They pushed their way out of the ground with barely enough enthusiasm to crawl up the metal stakes meant to hold them. Some had a few bright green leaves and twisting tendrils emerging from a winter sleep, but a significant number were gray and barren.

As I stood under the warm April sky and looked at the vines, I found it hard to believe that this spot was once home to one of the most admired vineyards in California, lauded for its wine, port and sweet Angelica. Weary travelers on their way to the gold mines had exulted in the liquid made from its grapes, and judges at 19th century state fairs had given the wines top awards.

But Rancho Cucamonga, forty miles east of Los Angeles, was now a city of strip malls, chain restaurants, and hotels, indistinguishable from surrounding towns. Three highways cut through the once-verdant area. Lines of houses crawled all the way to the base of the nearby San Gabriel Mountains, which were often obscured by smog wafting east from Los Angeles.

When L.A. Was a City of Vines: Q&A With 'Tangled Vines' Author Frances Dinkelspiel

Jean-Louis Vignes, a French immigrant who settled in Los Angeles in the 1830s, pioneered the production of fine wine in Southern California at his Aliso winery. Drawing by Edward Vischer from 'Vignettes of the Californian Missions,' courtesy of the Honnold Mudd Library Special Collections at the Claremont Colleges.

Click here to read an excerpt from author Frances Dinkelspiel's book "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California," where she reveals surprising connections between L.A. and California's modern wine trade, tracing the industry's fraught history.

Long before Napa or Sonoma became household names across the globe, the City of Angels reigned as the viticulture capital of California.

In 1850, the angels numbered only 1,610, but the city's 100-or-so vineyards along the rich floodplains of the Los Angeles River produced 57,355 gallons of wine. Four years later, when Los Angeles adopted its first city seal, it placed within its center a cluster of grapes.

Soon, all across Southern California, vineyards of Mission grapes -- the same varietal planted by Spanish missionaries -- sprawled under the region's sunny skies.

In 1857, German colonists founded a utopian winemaking commune 26 miles southeast of Los Angeles, irrigating their vines with water from the nearby Santa Ana River. They honored the river's contribution in their commune's name: Anaheim.

Around the same time, 37 miles east of Los Angeles, the Rancho de Cucamonga emerged as a leading winemaking enterprise.

Cucamonga's lucrative vineyards -- and the jealousies, conspiracies, and violence they inspired -- figure prominently in "Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession, and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California," a new book by Frances Dinkelspiel that's at once a gripping tale and an impressively researched work of history.

Dinkelspiel previously chronicled early Los Angeles in "Towers of Gold," her biography of banker Isaias Hellman. Now, in "Tangled Vines," she reveals surprising connections between frontier Los Angeles and California's modern wine trade, tracing the industry's history to its origins in conquest, colonialism, and exploitation.

We recently discussed her book and the research that made it possible. What follows is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Wild L.A.: Mountain Lions, Grizzly Bears & the Land that Once Was

KCET is Southern California Television

The video above is from the new history series, Lost LA, a co-production of KCETLink and the USC Libraries, premiering Wednesday, January 27 at 8:30PM on KCET.

A series of recent news headlines have reminded us that our city—often associated with brown skies, high-speed pavement, and its concrete river—still maintains an intimate relationship with nature.

Throughout the summer, spooked residents of Burbank and Glendale reported at least five mountain lion sightings. "I have a 4-year-old daughter and 10-year-old girl," one man told the Los Angeles Times. "I am just seriously scared." Then, on August 30, a cougar sprinting across the 405 freeway in the Santa Monica Mountains was struck and killed by rush hour traffic. Most recently, L.A. County officials struggled with the fate of a pack of coyotes that moved into an abandoned Glendale house.

For those living on the edge between L.A.'s urban sprawl and the surrounding undeveloped mountains, such encounters may be an unavoidable but frightening reminder of wild nature's proximity, like the firestorms that occasionally turn the brown slopes red. For residents of the vast flatlands of L.A., though, these headlines also serve as a reminder of the landscape destroyed by more than 240 years of settlement.

Photos: How Rain and Floodwaters Literally Built the Southland

A swollen Los Angeles River rushes through Compton, 1926. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library Photography Collection.

Without rain, there would be no Southland.

Over countless millennia, rainwater scoured the mountains ringing the region. It ground granite into sand. It sloughed off topsoil. Where it issued from canyons at the base of the mountains, this muddy soup fanned out, carrying courser and then finer sediments until it merged with the cold waters of the Pacific.

As the floodwaters drained, the sediments settled, filling the deep geologic basins that abut Southern California's mountains. Eventually, these stacked sedimentary layers grew thousands of feet thick, emerging from the waters of the Pacific as flat, broad valleys like the San Fernando, San Gabriel, and Pomona, or sprawling coastal lowlands like the Los Angeles Basin and Oxnard Plain.

In the twentieth century, the metropolis hit the pause button on this natural process of land reclamation. To protect lives and capital as the city expanded into areas prone to flooding or landslides, flood control projects reconfigured the region's hydrology. Check dams and debris basins now trap sediments in or near their mountainous origins. Storm drains and flood control channels funnel rainfall to the sea as quickly as possible.

Now, those sedimentary flatlands -- home to most of the metropolis's 18 million residents -- are slowly shrinking as wave erosion and (inevitably, probably) rising sea levels encroach on the coastal plain.

Through their composition and their printed captions, the photos above and below purport to document destruction. They certainly document real human suffering. But when viewed in the context of the region's geologic history, they show the opposite of destruction; they reveal the natural forces that -- with each new flood -- created a little more Southland.

Best of 2015: Los Angeles History

A circa 1935 postcard of downtown Los Angeles. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, William H. Hannon Library, Loyola Marymount University.

This year saw exciting changes in Los Angeles, from the historic epicenter of downtown to its outer suburban reaches.

In downtown, the Broad, a new contemporary art museum, swung its doors open atop Bunker Hill, and the steel skeleton of the Wilshire Grand Tower, soon to be the tallest building in the city, crept into the neighborhood's iconic skyline. Stretching west from downtown, testing began for the Metro Expo Line extension, the first passenger train line on the Westside in half a century, expanding the county's tentacular public transportation system. And flowing throughout the city center and beyond, a new milestone in the ongoing efforts to revitalize the L.A. River was reached, as a $1.3 billion river habitat restoration plan was unanimously approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in Washington D.C.

Below, follow the links to our most popular history articles from 2015, and the stories that connect some of this year's milestones to the Southland's rich past. Plus, unearth the answer to one of the region's most peculiar questions: why do we say "the" before freeway numbers?

The Lost Plan to Honor L.A.'s Mexican and American Past Within its Street Grid

This 1857 survey map sketches out a plan to name Los Angeles streets after U.S. presidents and governors of Mexican California. Scanned from a reproduction in the USC Libraries' Special Collections. Original at the Los Angeles City Archives.

At Jefferson and Figueroa, American and California history intersect.

The two streets bear the names of historic figures -- Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States, and Jose Figueroa, a governor of the Mexican province of Alta California -- who lived on opposite sides of the continent and never met or exchanged correspondence.

But this collision of historical worlds -- an English-speaking Atlantic republic and a Spanish-speaking Pacific province -- is no coincidence. It's a remnant of an early scheme to honor Los Angeles' dual, competing identities within its street grid, conceived in the 1850s when the wounds of the Mexican-American War still throbbed and Spanish-speaking Californios still outnumbered the English-speaking newcomers.

Survey maps from that period project a sprawling grid of streets onto the countryside surrounding what was then a small village. North-south streets bore the names of California's Mexican-era governors -- Manuel Micheltorena, Juan Bautista Alvarado, José Figueroa, José María de Echeandía -- alongside a couple additional Spanish names, San Pedro and Soto. East-west streets bore the names of the United States' first seven presidents, from George Washington to Andrew Jackson.

How Iron & Steel Helped Los Angeles Forge a Modern Metropolis

An undated photo of a steel foundry. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Concrete may be the element that binds modern, industrial Los Angeles. But long before the age of freeway overpasses and paved flood control channels, modern industry rolled into town along a road of iron.

Shipped around Cape Horn from the foundries of Pennsylvania, and laid atop redwood timbers to form 21 miles of tracks, the flanged T-rails of the Los Angeles & San Pedro railway inaugurated the region's modern Iron Age. They formed the first heavy-duty, reliable connection between Los Angeles and its makeshift harbor on San Pedro Bay -- and, by extension, distant ports accessible by steamship or clipper. Seven years later, the tracks of the Southern Pacific reached Los Angeles, binding the region to the rest of the continent.

The Southland best remembers the iron road for its role in the boom of the 1880s, when a fare war between the Southern Pacific and the newly arrived Santa Fe fueled mass migration to the region. But railroads also brought national and global markets within reach -- including those selling pig iron, an intermediate material that local foundries could work into finished products.

Encouraged by steep railroad tariffs on manufactured goods, firms like the Baker Iron Works and Llewellyn Iron Works opened for business in the 1870s-80s. In their shops, workers transformed pig iron from Scottish and Alabamian blast furnaces into myriad products: wine presses and steam boilers, pumps and furnaces, locomotives and horsecars.

Previously, the metal had been a scarce but essential resource in the agricultural village of Los Angeles, pounded into horseshoes, plows, harrows, and other tools. Iron deposits in fact dotted the local mountains -- and in the 20th century Kaiser Steel would exploit Eagle Mountain's rich iron ores -- but with no one to mine these deposits, early Los Angeles blacksmiths like John Goller were forced to scour the countryside for abandoned wagon tires and other scrap metal. Iron's scarcity allowed blacksmiths to charge exorbitant prices for their services.

Often, pre-railroad Los Angeles simply imported finished iron goods from Northern California foundries. The city's first iron water mains, installed in 1860, came from Peter Donohue's iron works in San Francisco, shipped south by steamer. Five years later, when teamster Phineas Banning wanted to build a fleet of prairie schooners, he commissioned an entire ship to carry the 350 tons of iron parts from the San Francisco Bay.

How Ice First Came to Frost-Free Los Angeles

A member of the 52 Club rides a block of ice along Venice Beach in this undated photo, courtesy of the Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

The Ice Age was something of a misnomer in Pleistocene Los Angeles. As glaciers sculpted Yosemite's granite cliffs and the mile-thick Laurentide ice sheet entombed Manhattan, Southern California was a land of coast redwoods and Monterey cypresses -- hardly the frostbitten landscape that "Ice Age" brings to mind.

Now, after millennia of warming, even the chilliest of L.A. nights rarely forces the mercury below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. An Angeleno could live her entire life without negotiating an icy sidewalk or pouring antifreeze into her car's radiator.

And for millennia, Southern Californians made do without ice. Native Gabrielino (Tong-va) Indians had one word for both snow and ice, yow-aht, and for them frozen water must have been something exotic, glimpsed during the first springtime trek through the mountains, when cascades stood frozen and icicles dripped from tree branches.

But an Ice Age of sorts did eventually visit Los Angeles, ushered in not by climate change but by the thirsty Angelenos who crowded the town's saloons.

For as long as alcoholic beverages had flowed in frostless Southern California, they had been drunk at room temperature. Ice, if it could somehow be procured, promised an intoxicating menu of possibilities: lager beer, whiskey on the rocks, even cocktails.

That Explains It: Answers to Things You've Always Wondered About L.A.

'Hollywoodland' sign | Photo: LAPL

Whether you grew up in the megalopolis of Los Angeles or you are a new resident, you've probably noticed landmarks, heard expressions, or saw something peculiar in this dynamic landscape that spiked your curiosity.

Well, look no further! Below are answers to some of your burning questions. Click on the links below for the full story.


1) Why did the Hollywood sign used to say "Hollywoodland"?


2) Why is a part of Wilshire Blvd. called the "Miracle Mile"?


3) Why is the L.A. River channelized?


4) Why do Southern Californians say 'the' before freeway numbers?


5) What did L.A. look like before concrete?


6) What are those cast metal bells along the 101?


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