Elias 'Lucky' Baldwin: Land Baron of Southern California | KCET
Elias 'Lucky' Baldwin: Land Baron of Southern California
In the year 1880, Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin became the wealthiest landowner in Southern California, laying claim to more than 40,000 acres of Los Angeles County.
Throughout the previous decade, he had cashed in on more than 5 million dollars worth of stock in silver and gold; he'd built the 3 million dollar Baldwin Hotel in San Francisco; and turned Rancho Santa Anita in to a tremendously productive operation, replete with thoroughbred race studs and miles of orchards and vineyards. Through it all, his penchant for business and love affairs kept his name in the papers for years to come, transfixing Americans with tales of immorality.
More than a century after his death, his name still echoes throughout the Southland: Baldwin Park, Baldwin Lake, Baldwin Avenue, and Baldwin Hills. The latter landmark serves as our entryway in to this man's life as we explore the history of the Leimert Park community, which, along with Angeles Mesa and Baldwin Hills, long ago formed Baldwin's second favorite ranch, Rancho La Cienega.
According to biographer Sandra Lee Snider, he gained the sobriquet "Lucky" after returning from an excursion around the world, only to find that his stocks had quadrupled in value. He accepted the name, but resented it's implications, once commenting "I've worked hard for everything I've gotten in life."
Indeed, Baldwin's journey via covered wagon from Wisconsin to California is a testament to his undying determination. Already a shrewd businessman at 25, Baldwin outfitted four wagons for the trek, two of which he loaded with tobacco, brandy, and tea for trading. In Salt Lake City, he sold the bulk of his brandy to the brother of Brigham Young at $16.00 a gallon. He later used the profits he earned in tobacco and tea sales to buy horses, which he then sold in Sacramento at a 400% markup.
This courageous portion of his life received ample mythologizing from Baldwin's posthumous biographer, C.B. Glasscock, who specialized in Western tales. The pioneering lifestyle, with all its river crossings, broken wagons, and hostile Native Americans, was enough hardship to cause many families to settle short of the California border. Yet, Baldwin handled the arduous journey in stride, acting as caravan leader, with his wife and daughter in tow.
Upon arriving in San Francisco, he bought a hotel with $5,000 cash and, ever so modestly, he began to acquire property and deal in trading, becoming a key player in the San Francisco Stock Exchange. Thus was the birth of Baldwin the American hero. The new millionaire quickly came to form and in 1875, he made his Southern California debut by purchasing Santa Anita Ranch for the price of $200,000 from local merchant, and frequently cited historian, Harris Newmark.
Baldwin's triumphant acquisition of Rancho La Cienega, along with vast portions of the San Gabriel Valley, would come as a tragic loss, however, to the prominent Workman-Temple families.
In 1871, riding a decades-long wave of successful enterprises in cattle ranching, oil and real estate, F.P.F. Temple and his father-in-law, William Workman, co-founded the Temple Workman Bank. A lavish building called the Temple Block (near the present day site of City Hall) housed the financial enterprise, and the development became the center of civic life for many years. To their detriment, neither of the two had practical experience in banking, and, according to the aforementioned Newmark, "It soon became evident that anybody could borrow money with or without proper security, and unscrupulous people hastened to take advantage of the situation."
In 1875 F.P.F. Temple and several business partners purchased the verdant lands at Rancho La Cienega from Tomás Sanchez. Their ownership would be brief. That same year a panic ensued throughout the state, sending scores of citizens to withdraw their savings. As a result, the Temple Workman bank was forced to close its doors. At this time Lucky Baldwin was the newest baron in the basin, having recently purchased Santa Anita Ranch. The struggling bank appealed to Baldwin for a loan and the shrewd millionaire accepted, with one condition: should they fail, he would foreclose on their combined real estate holdings. The bank failed that same year. Several months later, unable to recover from the financial ruin, William Workman took his life. Temple's final days were also a bleak contrast to his early success; he died a broken man, physically deteriorated by a series of strokes.
In 1880 Baldwin cashed in on the mortgages, and became the new owner of just about the entire San Gabriel Valley. To date, the cities of Arcadia, Monrovia, Sierra Madre, Temple City, parts of El Monte and South El Monte, most of Baldwin Park, Bassett, West Covina, La Puente, and portions of Montebello, South San Gabriel, and Monterey Park sit on former Baldwin lands.
Also included in the Temple-Workman acquisition was the abundant sheep pasture and fertile hills of Rancho La Cienega.
In 1885 Baldwin employed his cousin Charles Baldwin to manage the daily operations of La Cienega. In time, Charles Baldwin sent for his Indiana sweetheart, and together they converted Rancho La Cienega from a sleepy pasture to one of the most profitable dairy farms of the region. In addition to the dairy production, Charles Baldwin took advantage of the ranch's proximity to the ocean air, cultivating hundreds of acres of vineyards.
The ranch on the then western edge of the county always held a special place in Baldwin's heart. In his later years, he was sued countless times by creditors and disgruntled associates and was forced to sell his vast land holdings; and yet La Cienega remained a part of the Baldwin estate for forty seven years.
In the face of countless obstacles, and in later years at the brink of financial ruin, Lucky Baldwin often countered with, "By Gad, I'm not licked yet." Though old-fashioned, the coloquialism serves to symbolize Baldwin's uncanny ability to maintain an elegant composure throughout the volatile ride to his fortune. After his passing in 1909, he left millions of dollars in real estate and business stock to his daughters Clara Baldwin Stocker and Anita Baldwin. In 1927 Clara Baldwin Stocker finally sold rancho La Cienega to an ambitious developer from Oakland, named Walter H. Leimert.
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