When L.A. Was a Horse-Powered Town

Three muscular horses pull a Los Angeles fire engine up a First Street Hill, circa 1900. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

The age of the urban horse ended in Southern California not with a bang but a putter -- the sound of an engine firing on one cylinder as the Erie and Sturgis Gasolene Carriage rolled down L.A.'s streets on the morning of May 30, 1897. With this historic test drive of the city's first automobile began the long decline of equine power, a technology whose importance to U.S. cities in the late-19th century rivaled that of the internal combustion engine in the 20th.

Though they powered everything from plows to water pumps, horses made their greatest contribution as the motor of intracity transportation. For a time, nearly every vehicle on an L.A. roadway -- the streetcars and omnibuses of the city's first public transit lines, the hacks and cabs of its for-hire services, the carts and wagons of its farmers and freight haulers, the buggies and carriages of wealthier Angelenos -- moved only because of the horses attached to them.

This dependence on equine power profoundly affected land-use patterns. In 1900, 8,065 horses called Los Angeles home, one for every 12.7 people. Inside the city, stables, saddlers, and blacksmiths occupied prime real estate along L.A. streets. Outside the city, farmers planted countless acres with the oat and alfalfa that fueled these animal engines.

And the horse-drawn vehicle was hardly a zero-emissions machine. In fact, though Southern California's millions and millions of internal combustion engines have added up to an environmental disaster, the urban horse made the automobile look like a clean technology by comparison. A single animal produced 15-30 pounds of manure and a quart of urine each day, much of which festered on the city streets, attracting flies, soiling shoes, and mingling with dirt to form noxious mud when wet and eye-stinging dust in dry weather. And when draft animals collapsed from over-exertion, their drivers often left their carcasses to rot in the roadway -- a sight that disturbed humans and spooked other horses, occasionally triggering mad stampedes through crowded streets.

City officials struggled to keep this public health menace in check, contracting with street sweepers and dead animal removers, but ultimately it took the replacement of equine by automobile power to clean up L.A.'s streets.

When San Bernardino Was a Mormon Colony

A large company of Mormons founded the town of San Bernardino in 1851. Six years later, as civil war loomed between Utah and the federal government, the colonists returned to the Great Basin. Courtesy of the Robert B. Honeyman, Jr. Collection of Early Californian and Western American Pictorial Material, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

Brigham Young's territorial ambitions suffered a blow in 1851, when Congress rejected the State of Deseret's claim to the Southern California coast, creating instead a smaller Territory of Utah.

But Young, who served as both Mormon church president and Utah territorial governor, did not let go of his California dream.

In March 1851, 437 Latter-day Saints set out from Great Salt Lake City to establish a foothold in the San Bernardino Valley. Located relatively close to the port at San Pedro and the gentile settlement of Los Angeles, their colony would gather supplies for the Mormon heartland in Utah. It would also gather souls, welcoming converts from the gold fields up north, the Sandwich Isles, and other lands overseas. The importance of the mission was reflected in the choice of its leaders: Amasa M. Lyman and Charles C. Rich, two of the Mormon church's twelve apostles.

An 1873 drawing by Edward Vischer of what then remained of Lyman's and Rich's residences. Courtesy of the Mission Era: California Under Spain and Mexico and Reminiscences collection, Bancroft Library, UC Berkeley.

In the days of covered wagons -- and the colonists had 150 of them -- the journey was fraught and arduous. Waypoints bore ominous names like Bitter Spring and Impassible Pass. But by the end of 1851, the colonists had traversed the Cajon Pass (where the name of the Mormon Rocks still pays tribute to their passage), purchased Rancho San Bernardino from the Lugo family, and erected Fort San Bernardino, a five-acre village crowded within a 12-foot stockade. Outside they dug irrigation canals, planted crops and vineyards, and cleared a lumber road into the nearby mountains.

Soon the colonists left their fort walls to establish the town of San Bernardino. Surveyor H. G. Sherwood, who also designed the street plan for Salt Lake City, platted out 72 square blocks within a rectilinear grid. Street names recognized the Mormons' westward flight from persecution: Independence Street, Nauvoo Street, Salt Lake Street.

1865 photograph of the ruins of Mormon San Bernardino, including the house Amasa Lyman shared with his five wives. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

The colony thrived. By 1856 San Bernardino's population of nearly 3,000 rivaled that of Los Angeles. It also generated its own political institutions: a county (split off from Los Angeles County in 1853) and municipality (incorporated in 1854). As in Utah, Mormon ecclesiastical leaders filled civil offices, too. Apostle Lyman, for example, served as San Bernardino's first mayor.

When Oil Derricks Ruled the L.A. Landscape [Expanded]

Circa 1941 postcard of the Signal Hill oil field. Courtesy of the Werner Von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Oil extraction is still big business in the Southland, but today locating signs of the industry can require a careful eye. Wells hide in plain sight as office buildings or masquerade offshore as tropical islands. In the back of the Beverly Center shopping mall, one quietly sips from the earth behind a nondescript wall.

But the wells were not always so clandestine.

Through much of the 20th century, oil derricks towered over homes, schools, golf courses, and even orange groves across the Los Angeles Basin, once among the nation's top-oil producing regions. Beginning in 1892, when Edward L. Doheny and his associates opened the region's first free-flowing well, each new strike would quickly attract a cluster of the wooden structures, which supported the drills that bored deep into the Southland's sedimentary strata.

One such thicket rose atop previously barren Signal Hill in 1921. Workers at a Shell Oil drilling site had hit a gusher that sprayed dark, crude oil more than 100 feet into the air. Because the surrounding land had recently been subdivided for a residential development, would-be homeowners elected to build oil wells on their tiny parcels instead of houses, creating an dense forest of wooden derricks.

Landscapes across the Los Angeles Basin witnessed similar overnight transformations as oil companies jockeyed to drain the region's rich petroleum fields, deposited tens of millions of years ago on what was once a sea floor and then buried under thousands of feet of accumulated sediments.

But perhaps nowhere was the change as striking as at the region's beaches, where the industrial landscape of oil extraction encroached on the Southland's carefully crafted image of perpetual summer. In Orange County's Huntington Beach, political concerns kept the wells on the land, where they formed a sort of palisade along the shore. And just east of Santa Barbara at the evocatively named Summerland beach, piers stacked with oil derricks stretched into the Pacific, standing firm against the crashing surf.

Maps: When Two States, California and Deseret, Laid Claim to Los Angeles

This 1850 German map of the United States recognizes the State of Deseret's claim to the Southern California coast. Note, however, that Deseret's official boundaries included the pueblo of Los Angeles, which this map excludes. Map of Vereinigte Staaten von Nord-America und Mexico by Carl Christian Franz Radefeld and Joseph Meyer. Courtesy of the Internet Archive.

For a brief time, mapmakers couldn't decide which state Los Angeles belonged to.

In December 1849, two self-proclaimed states began governing vast swaths of what had been Alta California, the land the United States had recently pried by conquest from Mexico.

The State of California (Peter Hardeman Burnett, governor), its legislature seated in San Jose, claimed the Pacific coast south from the Oregon Territory to the border with Mexico.

The State of Deseret (Brigham Young, governor), its general assembly seated in the Great Salt Lake City, claimed the vast interior deserts of the Great Basin and Colorado River watersheds.

Generally, these states' boundaries -- drawn by delegates to their respective constitutional conventions -- neatly divided the conquered territory, their border roughly running along the Sierra Nevada. But there was one place they overlapped: the land we know today as Southern California.

When Schoolhouses Crawled Across Los Angeles

In 1886, house-moving contractors hoisted the Los Angeles Central School building on stilts and moved it across the city. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Buildings once wandered the streets of Los Angeles.

Today, we perceive buildings as stationary objects -- heavy things of wood, steel, and concrete, tethered to the ground by pipes and telecommunications lines. But in the boomtown that was late-19th-century Los Angeles, buildings migrated across the city with some regularity.

Most were houses, displaced by the relentless march of the central business district south from Temple Square into the city's residential areas. As commercial structures invaded these once-suburban blocks, real estate values surged, prompting homeowners to sell their lots and relocate. Many took their houses with them (why waste a good house only to build a new one?), hiring contractors who raised the structures from their foundations with screw jacks and then hauled them across town by horse or ox.

By the end of the century, these wandering houses had become a public nuisance. The contractors who specialized in moving buildings often left them standing in the middle of streets, blocking traffic, while they completed another job. These house-movers, who worked in large teams, also routinely cut utility lines to clear the way for taller structures. When workers with the electric or telegraph companies arrived to protest, they encountered an army of men clutching crowbars and pickaxes.

One house's journey nearly resulted in disaster in East Los Angeles. In 1893, a train from Pasadena was rounding a curve at full speed, the Times reported, "when the engineer discovered to his horror a house standing directly upon the track." The train's engineer was quick and its brakes true, but such incidents convinced the city council to regulate the house-moving industry in 1898.

The council may have also recalled the greatest house-moving spectacle in the city's history, which was also the industry's greatest embarrassment: the 1886 journey of the Central School house.

Last House Standing on Bunker Hill

One of the last remnants of the original Bunker Hill in 1968. Photo by William Reagh, courtesy of the California State Library.

By the summer of 1969, bulldozers had cleared Bunker Hill of its Victorian mansions. Trucks had hauled its funicular, Angels Flight, to storage. Steam shovels had shaved 30 feet off its summit.

And yet for all its heavy machinery, the Community Redevelopment Agency couldn't touch Stuart Oliver's property.

Oliver's house, shade trees, and two adjoining rental units floated above a desert of virgin real estate -- bare earth from which the steel-and-glass towers of the Financial District would soon rise. Earthmovers had pared down the surrounding land by two stories, clawing into the earth up to the edges of Oliver's 7,940-square-foot parcel.

The resulting earthen stump was the final remnant of old Bunker Hill.

It's tempting to see in photographs like the one above an act of defiance, to cast the house's owner as a stubborn crusader against a misguided urban renewal scheme.

In truth, Oliver was a willing accomplice in Bunker Hill's redevelopment.

The Lost Canals of Venice of America [Expanded]

A gondolier rows through one of Venice of America's original canals, now a paved roadway. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Secreted away from the hustle and bustle of the famous boardwalk, the picturesque canals of Venice, California, are one of the seaside community's hidden charms. But in Venice's early years, the canals that survive today were only a sideshow. The main attraction -- the original canals of Abbot Kinney's Venice of America -- are lost to history, long ago filled in and now disguised as residential streets.

The Lost Hills of Downtown Los Angeles [Expanded]

Excavation of Fort Moore Hill, 1949. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Young Research Library, UCLA.

In 1912, Los Angeles considered an audacious plan to reshape its topography. A group calling itself the Bunker Hill Razing and Regrading Association proposed to pump water out of the Pacific Ocean, pipe it 20 miles to the city center, and spray high-pressure jets of brine against a ridge of hills to the immediate northwest of downtown Los Angeles. In all, the project would sluice away some 20 million cubic yards of shale and sandstone that Angelenos knew as Bunker, Fort Moore, and Normal hills.

The city once prized these hills for their commanding heights. Atop them, 19th-century civic leaders placed courthouses and colleges, which floated above the city and dominated the skyline. Developers took advantage of the hilltop vistas, transforming the once-barren summits into fashionable neighborhoods.

In the eyes of 20th-century business interests and civic leaders, however, the hills stood in the way of progress.

Suburbs like Hollywood and Colegrove boomed on the plains to the city's northwest, but the hills made these new towns difficult to reach from downtown by streetcar. Because they could not scale the hills' steep eastern faces, the trolleys circled around the hills, creating bottlenecks on the few routes out of downtown. At first, the city carved deep road cuts and bored tunnels into the hills to relieve congestion, but regrading offered a more comprehensive solution.

Traffic relief was not the only justification. Regrading offered the prospect of 181 acres of new, vacant real estate to a dense central business district that found itself cornered-in by the hills. The association also promised to remold the excavated earth into a series of dams and levees along the Los Angeles River, flooding the Elysian Valley (Frogtown) to form a recreational lake.

How Dana Cove Became Dana Point Harbor

Dana Point Harbor as a work in progress, circa 1971. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

If you've ever enjoyed a sail out of Dana Point Harbor or dinner at one of the marina's restaurants, thank the engineers. Before construction began in 1966, the site of the harbor was a shallow cove where water lapped against imposing cliffs and two promontories provided minimal protection from the open ocean. When seas were calm, ships could anchor at Dana Cove or send landing craft to its narrow strip of sandy beach. In fact, the cove and an adjacent promontory owed their names to sailor Richard Henry Dana, who collected cowhides there in 1835-36 and later wrote about his visit in "Two Years Before the Mast." When swells rolled in, however, the seafloor amplified the wave action. Surfers gave Dana Cove a nickname of their own: Killer Dana.

To transform Killer Dana into a place fit for kayaks, paddleboards, and Bermuda sloops, the Army Corps of Engineers designed two massive breakwaters that would enclose the cove and turn away its notorious swells. Construction crews began carrying out the engineers' plans in the summer of 1966. Workers dumped roughly one million tons of rock -- larger boulders hauled in by truck from a San Marcos quarry, smaller rocks transported by barge from Catalina -- into the water to form the harbor's breakwaters. They then sealed the gap between the two jetties with a cofferdam and pumped the cove dry. This allowed them to dig the marina's channels and build its concrete seawalls without the interference of seawater. (It also stranded the cove's abundant sea life. Fish and Game workers relocated abalone and lobsters from the old sea floor, but their old habitat was forever destroyed.)

Engineers also repurposed one of the cove's two rocky headlands, San Juan Point, as earthen fill for parking lots and picnic areas and carved three access roads into the cliff faces, connecting the harbor to the coast highway above. In all, construction crews moved three million cubic yards of earth. Major work continued well into the 1970s, but in 1971 the first boats sailed into their slips, and Dana Cove had become a harbor.

The Great Los Angeles Lion Hunt of 1892

From 'California Game Marked Down (1896).

Fourteen hounds, at least a dozen men on horseback, and many more on foot or in horse-drawn coaches, assembled near the Chavez Ravine brick factory on the morning of December 29, 1892. Holding the reins of a tally-ho was the hunt's organizer, Colonel Griffith J. Griffith, the man who four years later would donate Griffith Park to the city and eleven years later would shoot his wife in the eye in a fit of drunken rage. Next to Griffith sat another self-styled colonel, Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, along with other members of the press -- all of them armed at Griffith's expense with rifles and ammunition.

This was no ordinary hunt, the target no mere fox. The hunting party had more fearsome prey in mind: two mountain lions seen days before prowling Elysian Park together.

The Southland was then a wilder place -- a few grizzly bears still clung to survival in the nearby mountains -- but the appearance of two large cougars so close to the city raised alarms. The Times fretted that the "California lions" would "pervert their appetite...by eating the strollers on Lovers' Lane or occasional stray children." The Times' rival, the Los Angeles Herald, was no less sensationalistic. "Lions in the City," its headline cried.

In fact, the real reason for the hunt was that the lions (if there were actually two -- mountain lions are typically solitary creatures) had feasted upon one too many of Frank McCrea's pigs in the hills of Griffith's Rancho Los Feliz. As McCrea's landlord, Griffith was determined to eliminate the threat to his ranch's livestock.

Around 8:30 a.m. the party set off along the road from Chavez Ravine to Rancho Los Feliz. Griffith drove the lead coach but delegated leadership of the actual search to Charles Haskell. Haskell and his hunters followed the dogs into Elysian Park's eucalyptus grove and scanned the canopy above for treed cats. They raced up dry gullies and over chaparral ridges, through present-day Silver Lake and into Griffith's Rancho Los Feliz, searching the ground for lion tracks.

By the time the party trickled into the Los Feliz adobe for what was meant to be a celebratory lunch, the hunters were tired, hungry, and embarrassed. Their hounds had given chase to a pair of coyotes and disappeared into the hills of what is now Griffith Park. Meanwhile, the hunters found neither lion nor lion track. The Times reporter playfully named the elusive cats Evans and Sontag, after two famous fugitives in the San Joaquin Valley. Evans and Sontag the outlaws would eventually be captured; Evans and Sontag the cats never would. Mrs. McCrea fed Griffith and the hunters anyway, serving a feast of buttered biscuits, olives, preserves, warm pie, coffee, and roasted pig.

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