Canoga Park at 100: A Brief History of the Birth of Owensmouth

Before there was Canoga Park, there was Owensmouth, born on the barley fields of the San Fermando Valley on March 30, 1912. Detail of a 1917 strip map courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California.

One hundred years ago last Friday, a town named Owensmouth was born on the barley fields of the San Fernando Valley. "Like an eaglet bursting asunder the egg which nourished its embryonic life," the Los Angeles Times gushed in its coverage the following day, "Owensmouth yesterday pipped the shell of the universe and spread its bright young pinions in the glory of the sun."

Founded on March 30, 1912, the settlement -- renamed Canoga Park in 1931 -- represented one of L.A.'s first steps in a march that eventually transformed the San Fernando Valley from farmland into suburbia.

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Before suburban development made its way into the San Fernando Valley, grain fields covered much of area. In this circa 1905 photo, a twenty-horse harvester works on the Lankershim-Van Nuys ranch, which a syndicate of L.A.'s business elites purchased in 1909.  Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

In this undated photo from the early-twentieth century, two women look over the San Fernando Valley. Although orchards and other intensive agricultural enterprises dotted the valley floor, most of it was devoted to the unirrigated farming of wheat and barley in the years before completion of the Los Angeles Aqueduct. Courtesy of the Title Insurance and Trust / C.C. Pierce Photography Collection, USC Libraries.

Owensmouth was at the vanguard of a land boom in the San Fernando Valley. For decades, two factors prevented development in the Valley: its remote location, separated by the Santa Monica Mountains from the population and business center of Los Angeles; and the opposition of a few large landholders, who preferred to maintain the valley for agricultural use. Some suburban settlements ringed the valley from Calabasas to Burbank, but wheat fields, orchards, and ranch lands predominated.

By the end of the twentieth century's first decade, however, the climate had changed. Electric railways and growing popularity of automobiles shrunk the distance between the city and the Valley, and heightened expectations of population growth and agricultural fecundity -- fueled by the imminent arrival of water from the Owens Valley -- boosted land values. One landowner, Isaac N. Van Nuys, was willing to sell. The aging farmer, banker, and land baron controlled the Los Angeles Farming and Milling Company, which owned a vast tract totaling 47,500 acres and constituting much of the southern half of the San Fernando Valley.

The expansion of electric railways made the San Fernando Valley more attractive to prospective residents. Photo of a Pacific Electric car on Sherman Way courtesy of the the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

With the Los Angeles Aqueduct under construction, expectations of expanded settlement and more intensive agriculture boosted the value of San Fernando Valley's vast ranches. Photo of the 1913 opening of the Sylmar Gates courtesy of the Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

In 1909, Van Nuys sold his farmland for $2.5 million to a syndicate named the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company. The syndicate's Board of Control comprised Los Angeles' leading movers-and-shakers: Title Insurance and Trust Company head Otto F. Brant; Los Angeles Times business manager Harry Chandler, a friend of Van Nuys'; Times owner Harrison Gray Otis, Chandler's father-in-law; transit magnate Moses H. Sherman; and developer Hobart Whitley, hailed today as the "father of Hollywood." Thirty participants drawn from L.A.'s business elite joined the board members as investors.

Critics characterized the purchase as a land grab and accused the syndicate of coercing the city into building the aqueduct for its own benefit. (This criticism resounds in later fictional works like "Chinatown.")

Ignoring the public outcry, the syndicate promptly set about improving its land and preparing it for development. At a cost of $500,000, it built the valley's first east-west thoroughfare: Sherman Way. A divided highway with a private Pacific Electric right-of-way running down its center, Sherman Way connected the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company's three planned townsites.

The first was Van Nuys, founded in 1911 and named in honor of the land's former owner. Further west would be Marian, named after Marian Otis Chandler, Otis' daughter and Chandler's wife. Marian, later renamed Reseda, was subdivided in 1913. At the western extreme of the syndicate's landholdings would be Owensmouth, named in hopeful anticipation of Owens River water that would soon spill into the San Fernando Valley by way of the Los Angeles Aqueduct.

Owensmouth's associations with water long predated plans for the aqueduct. The town was located on the site of an old well used in by stagecoaches and local settlers. When the Southern Pacific built a branch line through the area, it designated the spot Canoga, after the town of Canoga, New York, which in turn took its name from the Indian village of Ganogeh ("place of floating oil").

Workers construct the Syndicate Block in Owensmouth at the corner of Sherman Way and Alabama Ave. in 1912. Courtesy of the Calabasas Historical Society and the San Fernando Valley History Digital Library, California State University, Northridge.

The Janss Investment Company, which the syndicate hired to subdivide Owensmouth, platted the town around the junction of the Southern Pacific tracks and Sherman Way. Throughout 1911, as construction on Sherman Way raced westward from Van Nuys, workers rushed to provide the planned town with its basic needs: a water tower capable of supporting a population of 10,000, according to the syndicate's claims; a passenger depot along the Southern Pacific line; and a mission-style building where Janss could sell lots.

On April 30, 1911, the Janss Company placed its first advertisement for Owensmouth in both the Los Angeles Examiner and the Times. Accompanied by a drawing that depicted a pastoral valley framed by oaks, the ad proclaimed: "The Wheels of Progress Are Now Hastening to Completion One of the most Gigantic Land Undertakings Ever Operated in the West."

Eleven months later, Owensmouth was ready for the public eye. The Janss Company organized an extravagant celebration featuring a free barbecue, an air show, and live music. The highlight of the day's festivities was to be a race between a biplane and a Fiat sports car. In the days leading up to the event, the Times ran daily booster stories hyping the festival and promising an "auspicious beginning" for the new town.

On March 30, 1912, Santa Ana winds kicked up dust and rattled nerves, but the town's opening festival was a success. The Janss Company sold $104,100 in land the first day. Local artist Jeanie S. Peet was the first buyer, paying $1,000 for a lot for her studio. Other purchasers -- 25 out of 151 -- traveled from out of state.

In its coverage under the headline, "Stork's Happy Call to the Golden Vale," the Times struck an optimistic tone: "Captains of industry who belong to the master builders of the Western Empire made the new town, but God alone could have fashioned its site, as only He could have made the perfect day which marked its bright beginning."

The San Fernando Valley community of Canoga Park began as the town of Owensmouth, shown here along the town's main street, Sherman Way, circa 1920. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Four Owensmouth buildings, 1914. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Four Owensmouth residences, 1914. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Snow in Owensmouth, circa 1915. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Despite the Times' optimism, Owensmouth struggled through its first few years. Electricity did not arrive until 1913; natural gas came years later. By 1916, only 200 residents called the four-year-old town home, and residents and farmers could not enjoy the water to which their town's name referred; only after Los Angeles annexed Owensmouth in 1917 did aqueduct water flow into town and into the surrounding orchards and citrus groves.

In the late 1920s, residents and business leaders suggested that their town's name revert back to Canoga, complaining that Owensmouth suggested a location hundreds of miles away in the Owens Valley. Concerns about the community's image may have inspired the campaign, too; the older suburbs of East Los Angeles and Sherman had recently changed their names to Lincoln Heights and West Hollywood, respectively. In 1931, Owensmouth became Canoga Park. (The Post Office insisted on adding "Park" to avoid confusion with Canoga, New York.)

Today, Owensmouth's original town plat merges with the sprawling street grid of the San Fernando Valley, and its name was dropped from official use decades ago. Still, reminders of the community's origins remain. Owensmouth Avenue runs north-west through the Valley, and Vanowen Street, a portmanteau of Van Nuys and Owensmouth, still traverses the former lands of the Los Angeles Suburban Homes Company.

The arrival of Owens Valley water made citrus groves and other forms of intensive agriculture possible in the lands surrounding Owensmouth. Sunkist used the Canoga name, which previously referred to a watering hole at the site of the town, in this circa 1928 citrus crate label. Courtesy of the West Valley Museum and the Library Exhibits Collection, USC Digital Library.

Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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