From Worthless Land to Semi-Wild Paradise: The Origins of Elysian Park

Elysian Parks' Fremont Gate entrance in 1909. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

This post continues a series looking at the origins of Los Angeles' oldest parks. Previous installments visited Westlake (MacArthur), Eastlake (Lincoln), Prospect, and Second Street parks.

Like many of the city's earliest recreational tracts, Los Angeles carved Elysian Park out of municipal lands that defied development. A Jewish cemetery and a rock-quarrying enterprise were among the few early, documented uses of the land, but the area's deep ravines and steep hills rendered the park's original 550 acres too rugged for settlement, agriculture, or commerce.

"When successive City Councils were giving away, for small compensation, the vast domain that was donated to the pueblo at its founding," historian J. M. Guinn wrote in 1915, "the lands that form Elysian Park were considered worthless and the councilmen could find no one to take them off their hands. So these refuse lands remained in the city's possession."

But the land would not remain worthless for long. A newfound American appreciation for wild, sublime landscapes was beginning to endow lands like the future Elysian Park with new value. In fact, the same happy coincidence -- the rejection of remote, inaccessible lands as worthless and a growing regard for wilderness and natural wonders -- gave the United States its earliest national parks.

Persuaded by city engineer George Hansen that future generations of Angelenos would benefit from its scenic and recreational opportunities, the city council set aside the hilly lands as public parkland on August 22, 1883. Three years later, on April 5, 1886, the city formally organized the once-worthless parcels as Elysian Park.

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Unlike Westlake (today MacArthur) Park and Central Park (today Pershing Square) -- also created out of lands considered worthless -- Elysian would not be improved with formal landscaping and popular amenities like recreational lakes, boathouses, and band shells. Instead, the land was to retain a semi-wild character.

But on that note Elysian Park presented a big complication. Though rumors of twin mountain lions named Evans and Sontag cultivated a sense of wilderness, the park's denuded hills were hardly pleasing to the nineteenth-century eye. Almost all of its indigenous coast live oaks and California black walnuts -- once a ready supply of food for local Tongva (Gabrielino) -- had been sacrificed in previous decades for timber or firewood.

1876 view of the Buena Vista Reservoir in present-day Elysian Park. Courtesy of the Photo Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

An 1870 drawing of the lands that would later comprise Elysian Park. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Before the park's 1886 creation, most of the area's native oak and walnut trees were cut down for timber and firewood. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Fan palms line this unidentified drive in Elysian Park. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Eucalyptus trees line an Elysian Park road in this color postcard. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Mayor Henry Hazard personally led the crusade to beautify the park. Between 1886 and 1892, the city parks commission and private groups together planted more than 150,000 trees -- a number mostly accounted for by inexpensive eucalypts but also including deodar cedars, live oaks, pines, cypresses, and pepper trees.

The park became even more colorful in 1893, when the Los Angeles Horticultural Society created the City Arboretum in Chavez Ravine. A haphazard planting of rare trees from around the world, the arboretum transformed Elysian Park's western canyon into an exotic forest. Some of the arboretum's trees, still growing today, remain the only representatives of their species in Los Angeles.

Around 1895, Elysian Park received its most recognizable tree planting with the creation of the Avenue of the Palms, an allee of date palms along present-day Stadium Way. (Now afflicted by a fatal fungus, these century-old palms are slated to be cut down and replaced by healthy trees.)

After beautification, improved access was a top priority. The extension of Buena Vista Street to the park's Fremont Gate entrance brought the park within a short carriage ride of the central city, and in 1893 a former burro trail became a trans-park road. Further improvements in 1896 -- funded by a $20,000 subscription drive and performed by an army of unemployed workers -- laced the park with footpaths and added basic facilities like restrooms.

In later years, Elysian Park would confront many challenges, including landslides, highway construction, and the appearance of a major league baseball stadium on its fringe. A police academy and military barracks would reduce its size, and the concrete channelization of the Los Angeles River in the 1930s would dramatically alter vistas from the park's northern and eastern peaks. But despite the changes it has weathered, Elysian Park today remains an oasis of wildness among the city's concrete landscape.

Elysian Park's eastern entrance along North Broadway, then named Buena Vista Street, circa 1900. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

A carriage ride through Elysian Park. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public Library.

Streetcars provided easy access to Elysian Park along Buena Vista Street. Courtesy of the Metro Transportation Library and Archive.

A view of Elysian Valley from Elysian Park. Courtesy of the Werner von Boltenstern Postcard Collection, Department of Archives and Special Collections, Loyola Marymount University Library.

Figueroa Street's northern extension toward Pasadena, made possible by a series of tunnels, cut through the eastern side of Elysian Park. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Los Angeles Public 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, cultural institutions, and private collectors. 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 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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