Los Angeles History

The River:

It all started with a river.

Winter rains and, in the spring, mountain snowmelt fed a river whose waters coursed to the Pacific Ocean. By late summer, that river was a trickle yet it remained sufficient to quench the thirst of mastodons, saber tooth tigers and, from at least 7,000 years ago, the region’s first human settlers.

The Tongva:

The Tongva (“people of the earth”) were hunters and gatherers and although we’ve learned much about their culture through their language and spoken history, there are no material remains of their settlements. But say the place-names of Azusa, Cahuenga, Cucamonga, Pacoima, Topanga and Tujunga and you’re speaking Tongva.

Researchers believe a population of about 5,000 Tongva inhabited the region of present-day Los Angeles and Orange Counties and in 1542 some of them were on hand to greet Juan Cabrillo as his boat sailed up to present-day San Pedro.

It’s a fact…

While exploring the California Coast (“Alta California,” as it was then called), members of Captain Juan Cabrillo’s shipboard crew noted that smoke from shoreside settlements appeared to rise skyward above the basin and spread outwards. They named the area the “Bay of Smokes.” What the sailors were seeing was Los Angeles “smog.” The year? 1542.

The Spanish:

Cabrillo viewed the land, “claimed” Alta California for the Spanish Empire, and then sailed away. The gold and silver mines of Mexico, Central and South America proved far more interesting to the kings and queens of Spain than a smoky basin in remote Alta California. For the next two hundred years, the Tongva were left alone. But when King Carlos III of Spain learned of a growing – and increasingly lucrative – fur trapping trade engaged by the English and Russians, he wisely decided a more permanent presence was required to secure his claim.

As Quoted…“…we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from the north-northwest…” – Juan Crespi, 1769 – on first viewing the future site of Los Angeles

The Missions:

The idea was to settle the region, convert the natives to Christianity – and convert them to tax-paying colonists loyal to the crown. Their hunter-gatherer days now numbered, the Tongva were to become self-sufficient “colonists” within their own lands. And so it happened. While the Spanish did introduce farming, European livestock and a variety of fruits and vegetables (with a little water, anything grows in California) they also introduced disease. The system was often cruel to any non-compliant Tongva but smallpox, influenza and measles took far more lives.

The mission system ultimately created 21 missions from San Diego (1769) in the south to San Francisco de Solano (1823) in the north, in present-day Sonoma County. Efforts to build a 22nd mission for Santa Rosa were aborted following the Mexican Revolution; by 1840 the mission system had ended, their buildings, churches and lands confiscated.

The Pobladores:

There are three main components of the mission system: the mission church, the presidio – a military garrison, and the pueblo – an agricultural community. In September 1781, twelve years after an expeditionary party declared the River a great spot to build a community, a settlement party arrived. Forty-four Pobladores, or “townspeople,” left the nearby San Gabriel Mission and walked to the River, where they founded Los Angeles – a pueblo. The nearest missions were the aforementioned San Gabriel (founded 1771) and San Fernando (founded later, 1797). The nearest presidio was in Santa Barbara (founded 1769).

It’s a fact…

Of the 44 pobladores who settled Los Angeles in 1781, not one could write his or her name. But boy, they could farm! Los Angeles was soon the most productive pueblo in Alta California.

The Name:

It was a little pueblo but with a very big name: El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reina de los Angeles del Rio de Porciuncula. Truthfully, nobody really knows the founding name of Los Angeles. But members of that expeditionary party, one Gaspar de Portola and Juan Crespi – a Franciscan missionary (right image), arrived at the River on a day close-in to a Franciscan religious celebration honoring a little chapel in Italy: the Porciuncula. So later, in 1781, the founders named the little pueblo to honor the queen of the angels of the river – hence the 14-word moniker.

Some historians have cracked that the first thing the settlers did was plant their fields (they had a job to do, after all). The next thing they did was build a jail (this was the frontier, after all) and the third thing they did was shorten their pueblo’s name: Los Angeles. For this we will be forever grateful.

The River (Revisited):

Other than the shortened name, nothing remains from that original settlement. The jail, the crops, the fields, homes and even some livestock – all were washed away. You see, the little community was founded in September of 1781 alongside a trickle of a stream – just enough to irrigate the nearby fields. The Tongva must’ve been amused at the Pobladores’ brazenness.

As any Southern Californian knows – or soon learns – a few inches of winter rain can turn a trickling stream into a hellish torrent. It wasn’t until the early 1800s that Angelinos learned to keep their river close, but not too close. Today’s Olvera Street buildings – the oldest dates to 1818 – stands a full quarter mile from the river – a river that has long since been tamed and contained within cement walls.

Trickles or torrents aside, the little town’s growth was slow. It was, after all, an agricultural and ranching town whose only real blessing seemed to be a favorable climate. In 1850, the year California became the 31st state (after Wisconsin, before Minnesota), little Los Angeles didn’t even make the top 100 list in population. San Francisco, spurred by the Gold Rush, already ranked in the top 25. LA didn’t appear on that list in 1860, 1870 or 1880, either. But by golly, it made the charts in 1890: #57, with a whopping 50,000 souls! So what happened?

The Railroads:

In 1869 the transcontinental railroad had been completed, linking the east to…San Francisco. A link south to LA followed in 1876 and by 1885 Los Angeles boasted a direct link east via the Santa Fe Railroad. Almost overnight, Los Angeles’ crops had regional – and with the introduction of refrigeration cars – national markets. Growth followed and it was exponential. An Angelino born in 1880 when the city counted just 11,000 residents was likely among the 2 million counted in 1950.

A favorable climate grows more than crops; it grows industries, too. The film industry, in part, thrived in abundant sunshine with fewer rainy days to delay or cancel outdoor filming. Even “indoor” shots benefitted. In the early silent movie years a studio lot could be just that: a “lot” – an outdoor space. Indoor parlor scenes were often filmed outdoors; movie sets provided the walls but Mother Nature provided the light.

A favorable climate grows people, too. The Chamber of Commerce championed the weather as ideal for healthy, hearty, happy living – and real estate booms followed. By the mid-1920’s, plucky LA had out-stripped rival San Francisco in population – an event that made headlines. And most everyone who came to Los Angleles arrived by train.

Rail Transit:

With a booming population people needed somewhere to live. Smart entrepreneurs were only too happy to buy up land, run streetcar tracks out in all directions and then sell off properties adjacent to the rail lines. Not only would they earn income from the land sales, they’d earn fare-paying downtown commuters from those homeowners.

By the turn of the last century, decades before affordable automobiles and generations before the city’s freeway network, Los Angeles boasted a streetcar and interurban system (the latter essentially long-distance streetcars) the envy of the world – almost 1,400 miles of track! Thus, LA’s famous urban “sprawl” we often attribute to cars and freeways was in fact, a product of streetcars. Far-flung rail lines enabled a low-density occupation of the region. At its peak in the early 1920s, rail tracks extended from the Valley south into to Orange County; from Riverside on the east to Santa Monica on the west.


It’s a fact…

The Brooklyn Dodgers weren’t named for their on-field agility but for their on-street smarts – dodging speeding trolleys. The “Trolley Dodgers” became the Brooklyn Dodgers and in 1958, the Los Angeles Dodgers. In 1962 the team played their first game at Dodger Stadium (Dodgers 6, Cincinnati Reds 2). One year later LA pulled the plug on electric trolleys.

The Automobile:

The first cars appeared on LA’s streets in the early years of the 20th century but for years remained the playthings of the rich and famous. By the 1920s, as prices dropped and incomes rose, automobiles moved onto middle-class driveways. With the population still booming and housing subdivisions no longer dependent on streetcar access, new homes went up anywhere and everywhere. The “Hollywoodland” home development, for instance – the one one whose giant, hillside advertising sign was later shortened to read “Hollywood” – was accessible only by car.

Even where there was easy access to downtown-bound streetcar service, more and more people preferred the freedom and flexibility their private cars afforded. It’s estimated that as early as 1926, more downtown Los Angeles commuters arrived at their jobs by private car than by mass transit.

Traffic congestion (cars, streetcars, trucks, pedestrians – and the few remaining horse-drawn wagons) was a huge topic of the day. City planners hemmed and hawed over how best to handle downtown’s traffic woes. Fantastic subway and elevated rail systems were proposed – but never developed. Double-decking of downtown streets was suggested along with the most radical idea: the outright banning of automobile traffic from the downtown core.

But by the 1930s it seemed evident that downtown planners were looking for answers to questions few were asking anymore. People stopped caring about downtown congestion because they were going there less and less. To note, Bullocks Wilshire – three miles from downtown – had opened its main entrance doors (out behind the store – facing its splendid parking lot, incidentally) in 1929. Other department stores quickly followed and by 1940, downtown was becoming almost irrelevant to thousands and thousands of Angelinos.

The rest, as they say, is history. Always a sprawling city, the automobile expanded the sprawl and by the 1950s an incredible system of freeways was taking shape that eventually linked population centers with shopping centers, defense plants, airports, baseball stadiums and beaches. Clearly (the growing smog alerts aside) the car was the future and Los Angeles was to be the city of the future.

By some accounts, it all actually worked – for about 11 minutes on a Sunday morning sometime in 1965. As the city continued to fill in, available land for freeway construction became problematic. Still, more and more people arrived with more and more cars. Freeways became parking lots. Rush “hour” became “hours” and by the mid-1970s, the love affair with the automobile was souring.

And still, the population is growing, attracted by a broad range of jobs, a great climate, an interesting mix of cultures, an incredible list of amusements – and still, after all these years, that persistent, “can-do” attitude.

The Future:

Angelinos have been famous – and sometimes, infamous – for their pluck and perserverance. The river that positioned the town proved far too small to sustain a city. So the city built its own rivers: aqueducts, that carried water in from hundreds of miles away. Lacking a proper harbor, Los Angeles built one – today the nation’s busiest.

As Quoted…Often attributed to Mark Twain (it certainly sounds like him) is this quote: “In the East, men drink water and fight over whiskey. In the West, men drink whiskey and fight over water.”

LA’s future? Who knows what it will be? What we do know is that Los Angeles is not

  • …a sparsely populated city. Of the top ten most populous U.S. cities, LA’s population density ranks fourth, behind New York, Philadelphia and Chicago but ahead of Houston, Phoenix, San Antonio, San Diego, Dallas and San Jose.
  • …a city where nobody uses public transit. MTA’s average weekday bus and rail ridership is almost 1.5 million. Thousands more use the Metrolink commuter rail system each day.
  • …the city once described as “72 suburbs in search of a city.” Los Angeles HAS a downtown – in fact, a remarkable downtown where people live (its population has doubled in 10 years) and work. We at WalknRideLA think it’s a good time to visit!


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