Title

How L.A. Celebrated Sunset Boulevard's Opening in 1904

Sunset may have been its name, but the boulevard's grand opening on May 14, 1904, marked the dawning of a new age in Los Angeles. A parade of a dozen or so automobiles — accompanied by horse-drawn carriages, tally-hos, and electric rail cars — puttered over the freshly macadamized roadway that now connected Los Angeles with the then-independent city of Hollywood. Crowds of well-wishers gathered along the route. Buildings displayed patriotic bunting.

The idea of a Sunset Boulevard had been around since 1887. As originally conceived, it would have run west from the Los Angeles city limits to the sea, connecting several of the towns that sprang up during the Southland's great real estate boom of the 1880s. But while some isolated segments were soon built (notably a stretch through the short-lived boomtown of Sunset, possibly the source of the road's name) a crucial link remained missing: the section between downtown Los Angeles and the rapidly growing suburb of Hollywood.

Property owners in the hilly area now known as Silver Lake and Echo Park soon realized that the road would catalyze development and boost the value of their holdings. In 1892, led by the Los Angeles and Pacific Railway and a Confederate Civil War veteran named George H. Smith, they petitioned the city to open Sunset Boulevard through their land. The city council mapped out a route the following year, tracing the path of the defunct Ostrich Farm Railway. Actual work, however, didn't begin in earnest until April 18, 1903, when contractor Charles Stansbury and his workers began carving the boulevard's meandering path into the area's soft sandstone hills.

When the new boulevard finally opened in the spring of 1904, its future as one of L.A.'s iconic automobile routes might have seemed unlikely. The road surface was uneven in places, and there had been no effort to plant shade trees — an oversight that celebrants hastily remedied by fastening palm fronds to telegraph poles. Furthermore, the boulevard didn't yet extend to the sea and wouldn't until 1934, when sinuous Beverly Boulevard was remade into the westernmost stretch of Sunset.

Most importantly, the boulevard's purpose was still in flux. Originally envisioned as a rural highway for weekend outings on horse-drawn vehicles, upon its opening it functioned principally as an interurban railcar route, with the double tracks of the Los Angeles Pacific Railway running down the median. Indeed, most people who came to the boulevard's grand opening celebration at the mouth of Laurel Canyon arrived by trolley. But with motorists gliding down Sunset's smooth roadway that day, Los Angeles couldn't have missed the historical import of the moment: the city had just opened one of its first transportation corridors designed at least in part for the ascendant automobile.

Motorists celebrate Sunset Boulevard's completion in 1904. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.
Motorists celebrate Sunset Boulevard's completion in 1904.  Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.

 

The procession at the intersection of Sunset and Glendale (then Lake Shore Avenue). This view looks west toward the present-day site of the Echo and Echoplex music venues. Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.
The procession at the intersection of Sunset and Glendale (then Lake Shore Avenue).  This view looks west toward the present-day site of the Echo and Echoplex music venues.  Courtesy of the Automobile Club of Southern California Archives.

 

Lake Shore (now Glendale) south of Sunset in 1904
The parade putters up Glendale Blvd (then Lake Shore AVe) south of Sunset. Courtesy of the USC Libraries – California Historical Society Collection.