The Oldest Things in Southern California's Archives, Part 1

Southern California's archives bridge the old and the new, offering invaluable historical context that isn't always immediately apparent in the contemporary landscape.

We asked L.A. as Subject members to search their archives for the oldest object related to Southern California history. Far more than historical novelties, the items they put forth have helped shape our understanding of the people, places, and ideas that define the Southern California of today, and they serve as an invaluable resource for contemporary scholars, journalists, and public policymakers. This week, we share six of their submissions -- including photographs, official decrees, even an Etruscan wine chalice. Part two will arrive next week in SoCal Focus.

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The Original Santa Monica Pier

With its amusement park rides and nighttime lights, the Santa Monica Municipal Pier is a landmark of coastal Southern California. But though the iconic pier dates from 1909, it was not Santa Monica's first -- the Southern Pacific built its Long Wharf in 1893, and the Fraser (Ocean Park) Pier opened in 1898.

The Santa Monica Public Library's Cynni Murphy sent this circa 1875-79 photograph by E.G. Morrison of an even earlier pier, Shoo Fly Landing. The freight pier, Murphy writes, was "built in 1875 near the present day Colorado Avenue (then Railroad Avenue) slightly south of the location of the current Santa Monica Municipal Pier." It stood for roughly four years and likely linked the Los Angeles & Independence Railroad to oceanic shipping routes before the wooden pier was destroyed in 1879.

Courtesy of the Santa Monica Public Library Image Archives.

"No Scene Twice Seen" on the Kite-Shaped Track

Private collector David Klappholz specializes in materials related to early tours of the Los Angeles area, and the oldest items in his collection recall one of Southern California's grandest tours: the Santa Fe Railway's Kite-Shaped Track excursion route.

Beginning in 1892, the 166-mile route immersed tourists in the charms of Southern California's citrus empire, with trains passing through Los Angeles, the San Gabriel Valley, San Bernardino, Redlands, and northern Orange County. Because of its distinctive figure-eight configuration, the route's promoters could advertise: "No Scene Twice Seen." Passengers could complete the trip in one day for $3.25, boarding in Los Angeles at 8:30 a.m. and returning in the afternoon at 6:30.

Passenger service ended on the Kite-Shaped Track in 1938, but trains continued to use the route to transport crates full of oranges through the early 1970s.

Courtesy of David Klappholz.

Courtesy of David Klappholz.

"His Conviction Was Based Wholly on Perjured Testimony."

Although the Center for the Study of Political Graphics (CSPG) specializes in political posters, the oldest object in its archive is a 1939 letter from activist and labor leader Tom Mooney, whom the CSPG's Carol Wells describes as "one of the most famous political prisoners in the U.S."

Wrongfully convicted for participating in the 1916 Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco, Mooney and fellow activist Warren Billings spent 22 years in prison. Their imprisonment became a cause célèbre that gained national and international attention. After a long campaign, Mooney secured a pardon from California Governor Culbert Olson in 1939 and was released from San Quentin.

Mooney wrote the three-page letter to I. Lutsky, a Los Angeles labor leader, shortly after his release. "In it," Wells writes, "Mooney profoundly thanks Lutsky for collecting $75 towards Mooney's defense, discusses supporting the ongoing effort to free Warren K. Billings, but his dismay at Billings' attempts to separate from the Mooney Defense Committee and other issues of conflict between them. Billings was pardoned and released from Folsom in October 1939."

On the reverse side of his letterhead, Mooney reproduced his pardon certificate, in which Governor Olson proclaimed that "Thomas J. Mooney is wholly innocent of the crime of murder for which he was convicted and that his conviction was based wholly on perjured testimony."

Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Courtesy of the Center for the Study of Political Graphics.

Rancho San Pedro's Land Patent

During Southern California's Spanish and Mexican eras, millions of acres of the region's most desirable coastal land was parceled into into ranchos and granted to private citizens. Under the terms of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the United States agreed to honor land grants made under the previous regimes.

Under the California Land Act, however, claimants were forced to defend their titles before American judicial tribunals -- a long and costly process. Legal bills, new taxes, and a slump in the cattle market drove many ranch holders to economic ruin and forced them to sell their land, even as they prevailed before land commissions and appellate courts. At the conclusion of this process, successful claimants received a patent confirming their title to the land.

The first such patent issued is preserved today in the CSU Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections. Archivist Tom Philo writes:

This patent, signed by President Buchanan in 1858, gave the Dominguez family clear claim to the South Bay land known as the Rancho San Pedro. This land had been granted to Juan Jose Dominguez by the Spanish crown in 1784 and reaffirmed by the Mexican government in 1828. With this document, the Rancho San Pedro became the first of the Spanish and Mexican ranchos to receive a U.S. land patent.

Courtesy of the CSU Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections.

Courtesy of the CSU Dominguez Hills Archives and Special Collections.

How Los Angeles Became the City of Angels

Originally founded as a small agricultural settlement on the frontier of Spain's North American empire, Los Angeles remained a pueblo (town) for its first 53 years. But by 1835, the pueblo had grown in political and commercial clout, and the Mexican government decided to promote Los Angeles a rank, to ciudad (city), and designate the newly-named City of (the) Angels as the capital of Alta California.

Mexican president Miguel Barragan's decree announcing the change is today preserved in the Boeckmann Center for Iberian & Latin American Studies at the USC Libraries. The document, the Boeckmann Center's Barbara Robinson notes, was signed by José María Gutiérrez de Estrada, Barragan's Secretary of Interior and of Foreign Relations.

Courtesy of the Boeckmann Center for Iberian & Latin American Studies, USC Libraries.

Southern California's Etruscan Connection

This Etruscan wine chalice dates from the 6th century B.C.E. and comes from modern-day Tuscany. How did this ceramic blackware artifact arrive in the Cal Poly Pomona Special Collections?

Special collections librarian Danette Cook Adamson explains:

The beginning of Southern California's wine industry actually started with the missions, probably at San Juan Capistrano in 1779. The missions themselves did not have a wine trade, but they were the teachers and the nurserymen for the laymen who would come after them. When the missions were secularized in the 1830s, there were a handful of people, mostly in and around the small pueblo of Los Angeles, who grew grapes and knew how to make wine. The missions also made brandy.
This Etruscan wine chalice is part of our Robert Lawrence Balzer collection. Mr. Balzer was a wine expert who would regularly take his students on tours to visit wineries throughout California. Mr. Balzer lived for many years in Santa Ana, California, and gave us his collection in 2008.

Courtesy of the University Library Special Collections, Cal Poly Pomona.

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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