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?

The 5, the 101, the 405: Why Southern Californians Love Saying 'the' Before Freeway Numbers

This 1939 plan, developed by the city of Los Angeles, refers to its proposed freeways by name rather than number. Priority parkways are highlighted in color in this 1943 reprinting of the plan from 'Freeways for the Region.' Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

Southern Californians have a distinctive -- "Saturday Night Live's" Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig might say funny -- way of giving directions. To get from Santa Monica to Hollywood, take the 10 to the 110 to the 101. Burbank to San Diego? The 134 to the 5. And, if you can, always avoid the 405.

Why the definite articles? After all, a resident of the Bay Area enjoys coastal drives along "101" or takes "80 east" to Sacramento. Most of North America, in fact, omits the "the" before route numbers.

The answer begins with the region's early embrace of the freeway. Long before the National Interstate and Defense Highways Act of 1956 gave most U.S. cities their first freeways, Los Angeles had built several. These weren't simply extensions of federal interstate highways through the city; they were local routes, engineered to carry local traffic and (partly) paid for by local funds. It only made sense that, as they opened one by one, they'd get local names, ones that succinctly denoted their route or destination. The freeway through the Cahuenga Pass thus became the Cahuenga Pass Freeway, and Angelenos knew the freeway to San Bernardino as the San Bernardino Freeway.

State highway officials did affix route numbers to these freeways. But clarity dictated that Southern Californians continue to use their descriptive names. In their early years, most Los Angeles-area freeways bore signs for multiple numbered highway routes. The Pasadena Freeway, for example, was Route 6, 66, and 99, all at once. The Harbor Freeway carried both Route 6 and Route 11. The Hollywood, Route 66 and 101. Who wouldn't prefer the simplicity of a name over a confusing array of numbers?

Terraforming the Irvine Ranch and the Construction of UC Irvine

Aerial view of UC Irvine in Dec. 1967. Courtesy of the Special Collections and Archives, UC Irvine Libraries.

A newborn university, or a terraforming project on an alien world?

Seen from the air in 1967, the University of California, Irvine, looks like a radical experiment in reshaping and reskinning the earth, its geometric forms and bold colors at odds with the irregular contours of the beige land surrounding it. But the site of the school was not Mars. It was the Irvine Ranch, an agricultural empire whose grazing lands and orange groves then sprawled across 93,000 acres of Orange County.

By happy coincidence, the ranch's owner, the Irvine Company, entered the real estate development business around the same time the Regents of the University of California resolved to open a new branch campus in rapidly urbanizing Orange County. In 1960, the Irvine Company donated 1,000 acres of rolling hills for a new UC campus, which would anchor a master-planned suburban community on the company's extensive ranch lands. Both would bear the Irvine name, and both would bear imprint of a single designer: William Pereira, a former Hollywood art director-turned-architect.

The Irvine Ranch was not Mars, but it was a tabula rasa on which Pereira could realize his modernist visions for the future. His master plan for the city of Irvine preserved wetlands and conformed to the natural contours of the land, but it otherwise envisioned a built-from-scratch suburban city, infused with modernist planning principles like the segregation of automotive and pedestrian traffic. Similarly, his design for the UC Irvine campus boldly experimented with form, eschewing traditional features like a central quad and brick-clad buildings.

The basic plan -- conceived in conversation among Pereira, UC president Clark Kerr, and UC Irvine chancellor Daniel Aldrich -- consisted of two concentric rings. The first -- a narrow, paved, walking path -- contained a central park, planted with broad lawns and climate-appropriate trees and ornamented with two scenic lakes (never built) and a campanile-like structure named the Centrum (also never built). The second ring -- a broad pedestrian road, one mile in circumference -- encircled five academic hubs, one each for the humanities, engineering, life sciences, physical sciences, and social sciences. A sixth gateway hub housed the library and administrative offices and linked the campus with the rest of the master-planned community of Irvine through a mixed-use town center. Like spokes on a wheel, these six hubs radiated out from the central park. Each occupied a distinct place within the campus, yet students could easily walk from one to another in ten minutes or less.

What Does California's State Highway Shield Symbolize?

The current design of California's state highway shield dates to 1964. In this photograph, taken from the cover of the Mar-Apr 1964 edition of California Highways and Public Works (published by the forerunner to Caltrans), two workers re-sign U.S. Route 101 (Alternate) as California State Highway 1. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

California's state highway markers -- those green, numbered signs placed along local freeways and rural routes across the Golden State -- are so familiar a feature of the automotive landscape that it's easy to overlook their symbolism. But the shield accomplishes a neat trick. At once it points ahead and back -- forward toward some spatial destination, but also back toward a temporal point of origin.

Its shape mimics the spade carried by Forty-Niners into the foothills and sold by the opportunistic merchants who made the real fortunes of the California Gold Rush.

When state highway officials adopted the miner's spade as an emblem of their system in 1934, did they fancy themselves successors to the Forty-Niners? By pioneering auto travel through California's rugged terrain, they were, after all, following the figurative (and sometimes literal) path of those gold-fevered newcomers.

But if so, they chose to celebrate a complicated legacy. Tales of prospectors' grit or shopkeepers' cunning often ignore the profound environmental and social costs of the Gold Rush: forests felled and streams choked with silt; Indians displaced and enslaved; Chinese, African-American, and other nonwhite miners excluded from the diggings.

Its symbolism was even more perplexing from 1934-57. In those years, the silhouette of a grizzly bear -- an animal the Forty-Niners and their descendants had hunted to extinction by 1922 -- strode atop each route number.

A 1957 design refresh erased the bear. Another in 1964 made the spade green (for visibility reasons; blue-and-gold was a close runner-up) and softened its upper point, somewhat obscuring the historical reference.

Today, California's is the only non-rectangular state highway shield.

The Lost U.S. Highways of Southern California History

In 1953, US-66, US-99, and US-101 met at the Four-Level Interchange. Of these, only the 101 remains an active highway route. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

US-101 still traces the spine of Spanish California. US-395 continues to parallel the eastern escarpment of the Sierra Nevada. And US-66 charts a direct course to a gauzy, nostalgic past. But these are mere vestiges of our first interstate highway system, one that linked Southern California to the nation with concrete pavement and black-and-white shields.

Soon after a joint board of state highway officials adopted the 50,100-mile United States Numbered Highway System in 1926, you could have cranked up your Model T on the Lake Michigan shore, followed signs for US-66, and in 2,451 miles your tires would be kicking up Santa Monica sand. Or, starting at the Peace Arch that straddles the U.S.-Canada border, you might have followed signs for US-99, and within a couple days you'd be cruising past the downtown department stores and movie palaces on Broadway.

These U.S. numbered highways calmed the chaos of the some 250 named national auto trails that preceded them. Most of the highway routes used pre-existing, state-maintained roads, which became eligible for funding through the Federal Aid Highway Act. Standardized signage -- including the distinctive route markers modeled after the official United States shield, but also the now-familiar system of octagonal stop signs, rectangular directional signs, and diamond-shaped warning signs -- made the roads safer and easier to navigate.

Route numbers -- now commonplace, but then an innovation -- also kept motorists on the correct path. And the system bundled a lot of meaning into each one-, two-, or three-digit number. Odd numbers marked north-south routes and grew larger toward the west; US-1 hugged the Atlantic coast, and US-101 the Pacific. Similarly, the even numbers of east-west routes grew larger toward the south. Trunk lines contained one or two digits (US-95); their tributaries earned a prefix (US-395). Numbers ending in "0" or "1" were reserved for highways of truly national scope (US-60 or US-91); shorter routes ended with "2" through "9" (US-99). (The two great exceptions to this scheme were US-66 and US-101, both considered first-order highways.)

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.