Downey: The Cradle of the Cosmic Age

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Situated between the San Gabriel and Rio Hondo Rivers, the land where Downey sits has always been very fertile. The settlement of Downey was established in 1873 and it remained an agricultural area all the way until the Second World War. John G. Downey is considered one of the pioneers of the modern subdivision; he subdivided 96 acres of land in the 1870s and started advertising the property as a prime spot for homesteads and vineyards. Downey's promotional material listed the land for $10 an acre. The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in the mid-1870s gradually accelerated the development, but by all accounts, Downey still remained largely rural, with orchards, dairy farms, ranches, dirt roads, and small homes well into the 20th Century.

John G. Downey is also considered one of the first to realize the great potential of the citrus industry in Southern California. He imported a number of different varieties of oranges into his settlement, and by the 1880s there were many acres of orange groves in the areas adjacent to Downey. The land was also conducive for dairy farming and sugar beets; numerous citrus groves, dairies and sugar beet farms remained in the area until the rapid construction of tract housing following World War II.

Vultee was a pioneer for using women employees in the factories | Photo: Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library
Vultee was a pioneer for using women employees in the factories | Herald-Examiner Collection, Los Angeles Public Library

Rapid industrialization and suburbanization occurred across Downey and Southern California because of World War II. The city's population more than tripled between 1940 and 1960, with the phenomenal growth of the aerospace industry during the war being one of the biggest driving forces. After the war, hundreds of homes were built for the emerging factory workers. Historian Larry Latimer reports that aviation pioneer Jerry Vultee bought E.M. Smith's old Downey airstrip in 1936, and started his airplane production plant there in the following years. Vultee was one of the nation's largest producers of military aircraft — the plant built 13,000 airplanes in Downey during World War II — and was also known as a pioneer for using women employees in their factories.

Similar to Montebello and many other Southern California cities, the boundaries of Downey are very much delineated by local rivers and freeways. Considering the freeways were built along the paths of the rivers and during the late 1950s and 1960s, it is easy to see how the planners and engineers who envisioned the freeways followed these roads that were already in use. Downey's western border, with the exception of one small fragment in the northwest quadrant of the city called "Treasure Island," is marked by the Rio Hondo River. The northern border is Telegraph Road, but for all and intents and purposes, it is essentially Interstate 5, because Telegraph runs just north of the interstate.

Learn how the Southern California spirit pervaded the aerospace industry in this clip.

In South Gate near Imperial Highway, just west of Downey city limits, is where the Rio Hondo River merges with the Los Angeles River. As any river historian knows, there were many floods in the area prior to the concretization of the rivers in the late 1930s, and the nearby city of Paramount was originally called Clearwater for this reason. Further influence of the waterway in the area can be seen in the name of one of Downey's major roads, Old River School Road.

Vultee Aircraft became North American Aviation, and then eventually North American Rockwell, which was eventually bought by Boeing. The Downey location, located on the eastern side of Lakewood Boulevard stretching from near Imperial Highway to Firestone, is where much of the United States space technology was developed from the 1950s, well into the early 1990s. During the 1950s, the Downey site transitioned from aircraft to missile technology. Over 25,000 employees worked in Downey on the Apollo Space Program.

For over 40 years, thousands of engineers, mechanics, and factory workers were employed on the premises until massive layoffs afflicted the aerospace industry during the 1980s and 1990s. By 1999, the famed site where so much of the American space program had begun, was no longer in operation. For over 10 years following the closing of the Boeing site, the large aircraft hangars became the Downey Studios. Films like "Spider Man," "The Italian Job," and "Iron Man" were shot there until the studios were demolished in late 2012.

An organization called "The Aerospace Legacy Foundation" still exists in Downey, and they have done ample research and archiving to preserve the rich aerospace history of the city. According to the Foundation, many writers and historians refer to the city as the "Cradle of the Cosmic Age."

The Columbia Memorial Space Center, a former Boeing site, is a 20,000 square foot interactive learning center that opened in 2009 to commemorate the aerospace history of the area. Located a half block east of Lakewood Boulevard and a block north of Imperial Highway, this hands-on site not only celebrates the history of the Apollo Space Program, NASA, and the Space Shuttle, it also includes two floors of exhibits and laboratories for local students to engage in science learning and technology. A program allows students to design their own airplane, and test their design on the center's airplane launcher. There is also a memorial dedicated to the astronauts lost in the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident.

On the day when I was there, two full school buses from the Montebello Unified School District were visiting. The robot laboratory and shuttle simulator were surrounded by dozens of students. A large chart showed the evolution of the space program over the 20th Century, from the earliest rockets, all the way up to the space shuttle. My favorite exhibit was the huge projected satellite images of Earth that were shot from outer space. This center, located on the site of where both the Apollo and Space Shuttle space craft were designed and built, is a treasure trove for aerospace aficionados and local school children, and is definitely one of Downey's crown jewels.

Read more about Downey's transition into aerospace here.

Top Photo: Downtown Downey | Pam Lane/Flickr/Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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