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.

Photos: When the Red Car Rolled Through Orange County

A trolley car along the Pacific Electric's Newport-Balboa Line. Courtesy of the Orange County Archives.

How important was the Pacific Electric's arrival to Orange County? When its red cars first rolled into Pacific City in 1904, a small beachside community renamed itself after the railway's owner. We know it today as Huntington Beach. But Henry Huntington's influence was felt far beyond the coastal settlements. His railway served as a catalyst for real estate development all along its three intra-county lines that pierced the Orange Curtain. A new line to the county seat, Santa Ana, gave rise to the towns of Stanton and Cypress. The extension of the Whittier line to Yorba Linda spurred the early growth of Brea (then known as Randolph). Later, the railway's Santa Ana line would become one of its most successful, as its straight, diagonal path across the Los Angeles Basin provided a more direct route between Los Angeles and Orange counties than the highways that meandered from town to town. Nearly 2.5 million passengers rode that line in 1945. But the Orange County's red cars ultimately suffered the same fate as the rest of the system, which after World War II suffered from aging equipment and a steep decline in ridership. Regular passenger rail service to Orange County ended in 1950.

This Was L.A. Baseball in the 1880s

The Los Angeles Baseball Club, circa 1884. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection

The Los Angeles Dodgers occasionally don so-called throwback uniforms with retro designs that honor the team's history. When they do, they never want for flamboyant options. There's the 1944 outfit worn by their Brooklyn forebears during night games, cut from powder-blue satin so that it would shimmer under the artificial lights. There's the uniform from Brooklyn's 1937 season when, for one year, the Dodgers inexplicably abandoned their signature blue for green.

Los Angeles' early baseball history provides another option -- if only the Dodgers could muster the sartorial courage.

The semi-professional Los Angeles Base Ball Club of the mid 1880s sported uniforms whose distinctly western accents set them apart from the outfits worn by East Coast teams. Some elements were standard issue, of course. Teams everywhere wore knickerbockers that gave way at the knee to often-colorful stockings. But the Los Angeles club's lacy tunics and cowboy-style neckerchiefs seemed to reflect the team's pride in its home city and its western roots.

And why shouldn't they? When the Los Angeles nine took the field at the Sixth Street baseball grounds (the current site of downtown's Aon Tower and Pegasus Apartments) to face off against teams from Colton or San Francisco, they represented their home city in a way that teams in today's era of free agency can't. When the major-league Louisville Colonels barnstormed through Southern California in the winter of 1886 or the Philadelphia Athletics in 1887, the Los Angeles club's uniforms would have instantly announced their local allegiance.

But the team's clothing wasn't all that challenged national norms. So did its multicultural roster. Whereas much of organized baseball in the eastern U.S. excluded nonwhite players at the time, teams in California -- which after all had been American for less than half a century -- were much more likely to feature white players sharing the diamond with teammates of Mexican descent. Among them was one "A. Solano" (top-left in the above photo) who was quite possibly Alfredo Solano, a civil engineer, surveyor, and charter member of the Los Angeles Athletic Club. A. Solano spent several years at shortstop and third base for Los Angeles between 1884 and 1886. By the late 1880s he no longer fielded a position, but his name frequently appeared in box scores as umpire.

The Solano name continues to resound with L.A. baseball history. Tucked between Dodger Stadium and Elysian Park is the quiet community of Solano Canyon, named for Alfredo's father Francisco Solano. For more than fifty years, from the age of Koufax to that of Kershaw, each roar of the Dodger Stadium crowd has echoed through a canyon that shares its name with a pioneer of Los Angeles baseball.

How the 15th Amendment Came to Los Angeles

Passed by Congress in 1869 and ratified by the states on Feb. 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment prohibited race-based restrictions on voting. Courtesy of the National Archives.

At four o'clock on the morning of April 12, 1870, dozens of explosions echoed through the dark and empty streets of Los Angeles. The booming noise might have started the town's horses and roused some of its residents, but this wasn't the sound of violence. It was the sound of freedom. The blasts were coming from the top of Bunker Hill, where some fifty people -- almost half the city's African-American population -- gathered to watch as anvils were shot into the air over and over again in celebration of the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The festivities lasted well into the evening and even the following morning. That night, hundreds of white Angelenos joined the celebrants at a grand Ratification Ball that culminated in a midnight supper.

The amendment's ratification was certainly something worth celebrating. The Fourteenth Amendment had guaranteed citizenship since 1868, but California, as with most states, continued to deny African-Americans one of the fundamental rights of citizenship: the right to vote. Now -- over the objections of the Democratic politicians who dominated local politics and were generally hostile to civil rights -- black Angelenos possessed that right.

Or did they?

Just four days later, Lewis G. Green walked into the county courthouse and attempted to exercise the right so many Angelenos had just celebrated by registering to vote. The county clerk refused. The reason? Green was black.

Lewis Green's 1864 ad in the Los Angeles Star for his 'Hair Cutting Saloon'.The 43-year-old barber, who had helped organize the April 12 festivities, was also a leader within Los Angeles' African-American community. As Ralph E. Schaffer recounts in "Implementing the Fifteenth Amendment in California," it's likely that Green's attempt to register was an orchestrated moment of activism. For Green wasted no time in following one courageous step with another: he sued clerk Thomas Mott in county court, petitioning Judge Ignacio Sepulveda for a writ of mandamus that would compel Mott to add his name to the electoral roll.

Green's attorney, a young lawyer (and future USC founder) named Robert Widney, pointed to the plain language of the Fifteen Amendment. "The right of citizens of the United States to vote," it said, "shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."

Mott and his attorneys with the firm of Glassell, Chapman, and Smith countered by citing state law. The 1849 California state constitution limited voting rights to while male citizens, and a state statute prescribed fines for any clerk who registered someone not eligible under the state constitution. In the absence of an act of Congress designed to compel cooperation by state officials, Mott's counsel argued, the newly passed amendment was simply a general constitutional principle that didn't supersede the state's restrictions on voting rights.

Sepulveda -- who, like Mott, was a leading figure within the local Democratic party -- agreed. On April 28 he denied Green's petition.

Congress soon intervened, however. Its Enforcement Act of 1870 answered the arguments of officials like Mott with specific penalties for noncompliance. President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill into law on May 31.

Mott relented. On June 21 he inscribed Lewis Green's name on the Great Register of voters -- though not without protest. Next to the registration numbers of Green and other black voters, Mott apparently wrote "C" for "colored" and also noted that he had assented to their registration "per Fifteenth Amendment." Still, Green and his compatriots had finally secured their hard-won right to vote.

Of course, that right did not yet extend to L.A.'s entire African-American community. Its most noted philanthropist, Biddy Mason, still couldn't register, nor could another leading entrepreneur, Winnie Owens. In fact, half of black Los Angeles was still denied the franchise. Women -- regardless of their race -- would remain ineligible to vote in California for another fifty years.

Elysian Park's Incredible Moving Mountain of 1937

The slow-motion landslide blocked Riverside Drive where the Golden State (I-5) Freeway now passes Elysian Park. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Times Photographic Archive, Department of Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.

For a few days in late November 1937, it was the Southland's greatest attraction -- a landslide in slow motion, 1.5 million tons of an Elysian Park hillside creeping toward the Los Angeles River bed. Cracks became crevasses as a half-moon-shaped landmass near Point Grand View sank inch-by-inch over the course of several weeks. Below, the slope crept across Riverside Drive and toward a strip of homes and shops. Sensational news reports, printed in papers and broadcast on radio nationwide, described it as a "moving mountain," and tourists came from afar to witness the geologic curiosity. One Oklahoma City police officer took a leave of absence to watch the slide. Two boys hopped freight trains from New York to see it. Some 10,000 sightseers came by the hour. Spectators pressed against police barricades along Riverside Drive, and enterprising vendors worked the throng like a baseball game, hawking peanuts, popcorn, and soda. Some even sold field glasses.

Everyone acknowledged that it was a sight to behold, but no one could agree on its cause. Some blamed seepage from the Buena Vista Reservoir atop the hill, or perhaps intake tunnels bored in 1885. Others speculated, somewhat implausibly, that pent-up gas pressure from an underground oil field had dislodged the hillside. Whatever the proximate cause, the landslide represented one episode in a continuing process of erosion as, over millennia, the Los Angeles River undercut the base of the Elysian Hills. Eventually, hillsides would give way as their slopes became too steep -- a condition that construction of Riverside Drive might have exacerbated. What made this landslide such an attraction was its seemingly orderly nature. A violent process had been reduced to a crawl.

Order, however, suddenly turned to chaos on the night of Friday, November 26. At 10:35 p.m., the moving mountain roared downslope. Lights flickered and died as the landslide snapped transmission towers carrying 110,000-volt electric lines. Though, remarkably, no one died, the landslide was a genuine disaster. A 24-inch water main was severed, the Riverside Drive viaduct lay crushed beneath the hillside, and residents and shop owners were displaced as the city condemned several properties. And yet the slide -- which more or less stabilized after its violent climax -- continued to attract sightseers. The next day, an estimated crowd of 500,000 converged on the site, munching on popcorn and hoping the mountain would move again.