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Concrete may be the element that binds modern, industrial Los Angeles. But long before the age of freeway overpasses and paved flood control channels, modern industry rolled into town along a road of iron.
Shipped around Cape Horn from the foundries of Pennsylvania, and laid atop redwood timbers to form 21 miles of tracks, the flanged T-rails of the Los Angeles & San Pedro railway inaugurated the region's modern Iron Age. They formed the first heavy-duty, reliable connection between Los Angeles and its makeshift harbor on San Pedro Bay – and, by extension, distant ports accessible by steamship or clipper. Seven years later, the tracks of the Southern Pacific reached Los Angeles, binding the region to the rest of the continent.
The Southland best remembers the iron road for its role in the boom of the 1880s, when a fare war between the Southern Pacific and the newly arrived Santa Fe fueled mass migration to the region. But railroads also brought national and global markets within reach – including those selling pig iron, an intermediate material that local foundries could work into finished products.
Encouraged by steep railroad tariffs on manufactured goods, firms like the Baker Iron Works and Llewellyn Iron Works opened for business in the 1870s-80s. In their shops, workers transformed pig iron from Scottish and Alabamian blast furnaces into myriad products: wine presses and steam boilers, pumps and furnaces, locomotives and horsecars.
With no one to mine local iron deposits, early Los Angeles blacksmiths were forced to scour the countryside for abandoned wagon tires and other scrap metal
Previously, the metal had been a scarce but essential resource in the agricultural village of Los Angeles, pounded into horseshoes, plows, harrows, and other tools. Iron deposits in fact dotted the local mountains – and in the 20th century Kaiser Steel would exploit Eagle Mountain's rich iron ores – but with no one to mine these deposits, early Los Angeles blacksmiths like John Goller were forced to scour the countryside for abandoned wagon tires and other scrap metal. Iron's scarcity allowed blacksmiths to charge exorbitant prices for their services.
Often, pre-railroad Los Angeles simply imported finished iron goods from Northern California foundries. The city's first iron water mains, installed in 1860, came from Peter Donohue's iron works in San Francisco, shipped south by steamer. Five years later, when teamster Phineas Banning wanted to build a fleet of prairie schooners, he commissioned an entire ship to carry the 350 tons of iron parts from the San Francisco Bay.
Needless to say, shipping costs meant that Los Angeles could only acquire iron goods at great expense. By manufacturing them locally and thus depressing the cost of machine parts, engines, and other industrial equipment, firms like Baker and Llewellyn primed the Los Angeles economy for the industrialization that followed the discovery of oil in 1892.
They also set the stage for the city's bitter labor wars of the early 20th century. As champions of the open shop, the Baker and Llewellyn iron works made themselves villains of the rising labor union movement as they broke strikes and touted the productivity of their non-union workers. The simmering tensions boiled over on Christmas Day 1910, when – mere weeks after the better-remembered bombing of the Times headquarters – dynamite rocked the Llewellyn Iron Works. The two bombs were the work of brothers J.B. and J.J. McNamara, both leading members of the iron workers' union.
Iron's greatest legacy might be how it transformed Los Angeles' urban form. As business and population boomed, local foundries began supplying the steel rails that spawned the first streetcar suburbs, as well as the structural components that vaulted commercial structures high above downtown streets. In 1883, Baker Iron Works built the city's first elevator inside the Nadeau Hotel, a machine that freed architects to build high above the reach of stairs. In 1904, the city celebrated the completion of its first "skyscraper" – the 12-story Braly Block at Spring and Fourth, made possible by elevators and steel-frame construction.
No better monument to L.A.'s modern Iron Age exists than the Bradbury Building.
No better monument to L.A.'s modern Iron Age exists than the Bradbury Building, which rose five stories above the corner of Broadway and Third in 1893. Structurally, 350 tons of iron and 400 tons of steel, all forged inside the Llewellyn Iron Works, holds the building aloft. But it's best known for its ferrous interiors -- its open-cage elevators, built naked by the Baker Iron Works, exposing wheels and gears to all, and its ornamental cast-iron railings, forged inside the Llewellyn plant -- that grant the landmark building its timeless charm.
This article was originally published Dec. 9, 2015.