Tuesday, December 30, 2014

The Introduction of Electric Light to Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, Part 4

This is the fourth and final installment of this post on the introduction of electric power to Los Angeles and Boyle Heights by Rudy Martinez, Advisory Board member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society.  Research included scouring online newspapers, poring through many articles and books, and diligently searching through public archival records.  Thanks, Rudy, for the expended extensive effort, which resulted in this very interesting post.

Finally, tomorrow night, December 31, marks the anniversary (the 132nd) of the switching-on of the first Boyle Heights electric light!

Through the rest of the 1880s, several more electric light masts would be built in Boyle Heights. The Los Angeles Herald, on July 4, 1887, reported that a newly-erected, 185-foot light mast at the corner of New York (now New Jersey) and Soto streets, was the tallest in the city. 

Though it is difficult to ascertain exactly how many light masts were eventually installed in Boyle Heights, an article (endorsement?) in the Herald on February 16, 1889, in discussing Edward R. Threlkleld's run for reelection for the city council's Ninth Ward, listed among his achievements, the securing of six electric lights (not including the First and Boyle mast) for Boyle Heights during his time in office. The article listed the location of each light mast. 

A Los Angeles Herald article from February 16, 1889, promoting what city council candidate Edward R. Threlkeld, a Boyle Heights resident, "has done for his ward," including six electric lights sprinkled throughout the neighborhood.
However, the Los Angeles Times on May 25, 1889 reported people in the area of Macy Street, near the covered bridge [covered in a previous post on this blog—link here], were complaining that no lights had yet been placed on a recently-erected mast and that “the vicinity is in very bad condition.” It is undetermined if the lights were eventually placed.  

The First and Boyle light mast also distinguished Boyle Heights as being one of the handful of seventeen existing light masts to be located, along with their elevations, in a table that was the result of an on-going geodetic survey conducted by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (known today as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and published on August 1, 1885 in the Times.

The August 1, 1885 edition of the Times included a table showing the location of electric light masts in Los Angeles, including the one in Boyle Heights at Aliso and First streets, based on  "the distance the lights can be seen at sea" as part of work conducted by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey.
Practically speaking, the light masts were never fully successful and had a reputation of unreliability. There were continued complaints that lights often burned out, and the company in charge was slow to replace them. In fact, within a few months, a new problem that was unique to this new technology soon came to light, so to speak – the Herald in June 1884, began to report the large number of dead moths collecting in the globes of the light masts, so numerous at times that lights would go out. 

Also, heading into the turn of the century, many major cities including Los Angeles began to rapidly build skyscrapers that would literally overshadow the light structures, making them impractical for street lighting. Eventually, smaller light posts closer to the street and lamps suspended by several wires above the center of an intersection, both lighted by the superior incandescent light, became the standard.        

Boyle Heights appears to act as a bookend to the brief history of the city's electric light masts. It served as one of the first areas in Los Angeles to have a mast for electric light, but it also had the last mast standing. According to O. W. Holden in the 1931 issue of The Intake, “The last mast to be removed was at Brooklyn and Cornwell Street which was taken out of service on October 27, 1924.”

This image by C.C. Pierce and Abiram E. McConnell from about 1895 shows the new LaGrande Station of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad in the foreground, the First Street bridge with the Los Angeles Cable Railway line on it at the left and, in the distance, Boyle Heights.  Go to the photo below to see a detail showing the electric light mast at 1st and Boyle next to the Cummings Block.  Click on the image to see it enlarged in a separate window.  Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California. 
It's interesting to note that compared to other major cities, the story of the early beginnings of electricity in Los Angeles is so little known. In fact, in his book, The Wizard of Menlo Park, Randall Stross, after describing some of the city's overly optimistic editorials about the need for a light tower, writes that “The towers in Los Angeles were never erected, averting certain disappointment.” 

In San Jose, there is a 115-foot replica of the original moonlight tower at History Park. In San Francisco there is a plaque where the first central electric station was located. The history of Detroit’s once-numerous moonlight towers is well documented, though there are none remaining. However, in 1894, the city of Austin, Texas purchased thirty-one of Detroit's original moonlight towers, and seventeen still stand today as registered historic landmarks (the towers are mentioned in the film, Dazed and Confused when Matthew McConaughey calls out, “Party at the Moontower!”).  Finally, in Cleveland, Brush's name lives on at Brush High School where the team name is the Arcs.

This detail of the above ca. 1895 Pierce and McConnell photo shows the 1st Street bridge crossing the Los Angeles River, the street climbing the Paredon Blanco (white bluff), the Cummings Block, which still stands at the northwest corner of 1st and Boyle Avenue, and, just behind the building, the tall white pole of the electric arc light switched on at the end of 1882.  Click on the photo to see it enlarged in a separate window.  Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California; only a portion of the entire image has been used.
As for the father of Los Angeles’ first electric lights, Charles Howland and his business associates helped establish the Los Angeles Electric Railway in 1886, as well as purchasing a 280-acre tract by Rosedale Cemetery that they named the Electric Railway Homestead Association. More a speculator and salesman than an inventor, Howland never really knew as much as he could have about electric light, or railway technology. 

His last two ventures were victims of the collapse in 1888 of the great land and population boom that erupted in the Los Angeles area a couple of years before. In a brief mention in the Los Angeles Times on August 20, 1894 it was reported that Howland died the previous day at “the soldiers' home”, this being the federal home for Civil War veterans in Sawtelle (now the Veterans Administration complex in Westwood). Harris Newmark, noting Howland's efforts to bring electricity to Los Angeles, wrote that Howland “was a prime mover in this project, but ill fortune attended his efforts and he died a poor man.” 

Until now, little has been known about the history of the eight-story light mast that once stood in the area that is now popularly known as Mariachi Plaza and helped usher Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights, into the new age of electric power.

Monday, December 29, 2014

The Introduction of Electric Light to Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, Pt. 3

Introduction:  This is the third of four posts on the coming of electric lighting to Los Angeles and the Boyle Heights neighborhood by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez.  The fourth and final installment will be posted tomorrow.

In October 1882, Charles Howland incorporated the Los Angeles Electric Company and built a small brick power plant on the southeast corner of Alameda and First streets to house the Brush-licensed equipment. Soon after the structure was completed, work quickly began to erect and station the poles and to string the wires along the streets for the seven light masts.

A short article appeared in the November 19, 1882 edition of the Los Angeles Herald regarding the construction at Aliso and First streets of one of the seven arc light masts that were to usher in the electric light age to the city.

A brief description of the construction of the light mast at the Boyle Heights location appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on November 19, 1882:

Boyle Heights was yesterday the scene of the usual curious crowd about the electric light masts where the top-mast was being put in place. Early next week the other masts will be completed and the lights put on. It is expected that in three weeks, at most, the effulgence of the new method illumination will cheer the way...

The Herald reported on Sunday, December 31, 1882, that on the previous evening, after Mayor James R. Toberman toured the power plant, he switched on the lights at 8:20 p.m. and “in almost an instant, the brilliant white light of electricity flashed out over the city.” 

Omar W. Holden, employed for fifty years as a street lighting engineer, wrote a lively account of the evening in 1931 for The Intake magazine, describing the scene:

simultaneously two mast tops burst into brilliance before an admiring crowd of spectators. What a contrast with the dim murky light of the gas posts which for 16 years had served the city streets.

As indicated in this description, Howland was unable to have all seven light masts ready on the same day, due to the delay in equipment arrival; thus, the mayor only switched on the light mast at Main and Commercial streets (where the 101 freeway now runs through) and another on First and Hill Streets.   

The first of the seven electric light masts switched on New Year's Eve 1882 and located on the east side of Main Street just north of Commercial Street (which is at the lower right.)  The photo was taken from the Temple Block (now the site of City Hall) and what was then the triple intersection of  Main, Spring and Temple streets.  In the distance is the Arcadia Block, with the distinctive towers.  Further down Main are the Masonic Lodge, Merced Theatre and Pico House hotel, which still stand at the south edge of the Plaza.  Click on the photo to see it in an enlarged view in a new window.   From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California's Digital Library.
On the following evening, New Year's Eve of 1882, with much less reportage and ceremony, and only twenty-four hours after electric lights were introduced to Los Angeles, the electric light mast at First Street and Boyle Avenue was switched on. Boyle Heights, only seven years in existence, was now part of the electric age. 

The other four locations, (using present-day street names) were Avenue 22 and North Broadway in Lincoln Heights (the area was then called East Los Angeles), First Street and Central Avenue, Fourth Street and Grand Avenue, and Sixth and Main streets.

It is interesting to note the planning decisions for the initial locations of the light masts. The city's elite no longer considered the Plaza area the heart of the city (which was mostly Mexican and Chinese) and the ascendant Anglo business class had now begun to establish a new bustling civic center south and west of the Plaza, with new modern services following. And a number of the more prosperous citizens were buying homes in the two newly developed and fashionable suburbs close to downtown, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights).

Property developers around the First and Boyle area in Boyle Heights were quick to tout the new light mast, featuring it in newspaper advertisements in both the Herald and the Los Angeles Times as early as February of 1883. It would be a fixture in their daily advertisements for several years.


An advertisement in the March 8, 1884 edition of the Los Angeles Herald by Boyle Heights founder William H. Workman promotes the "30 Choice Residence Lots at the head of First Street" as being "near the Electric Light Mast."

The Times reported on September 8, 1888, that 


a good natured rivalry was taking place in Boyle Heights, between the electric mast people and the car-stable interest, each claiming that they were the head center and business section of the Heights. 

Apparently these masts were quite sturdy. The Times observed on July 21, 1888, that a runaway hay wagon pulled by a four-horse team crashed into the Boyle and First street light mast, and the wagon broke in half. 

This 1888 "Map of the Workman Orchard Tract" was drawn by surveyor J. A. Bernal (who was the focus on a post on this blog) and which shows the Boyle Heights electric light mast in the upper left vignette (click on the image to see it in an enlarged view in a separate window.)  This item is reproduced by permission of The Huntington Library, San Marino, California.
In a map published in 1889 of the William Workman property and vineyards, the “Electric Light” mast is plainly seen and identified on the upper left.  These maps were generally produced to promote a subdivision, neighborhood or city and prominent features, like the light mast, were given attention as part of selling a well-planned and suitably outfitted area for potential buyers of property and structures.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Introduction of Electric Light to Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, Pt. 2

Preface:  This is the second of four posts by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez on the early 1880s introduction of electric street lighting to Los Angeles, including an arc lamp built at First and Boyle in Boyle Heights.  The third and fourth installments will be posted next week.

By early 1882, believing that too many streets were still murky and unsafe, Los Angeles citizens demanded a more comprehensive light system replace the inefficient gas lamps. Also, the city's influential business class was insisting on better illumination for their stores and properties, because of its potential to lure more outside capital investment.  This demonstrated that Los Angeles displayed such big city ambitions as having public lighting, in addition to other public works like a new city hall and courthouse, both completed in the late 1880s.

Indeed the Los Angeles Times would point out in an editorial on May 18, 1882 that “Eastern cities of the same size, and much less importance than Los Angeles, notably, Aurora, Ill., were already lighted with electricity.” As early as January 5, 1882, the Los Angeles Times, in its first year of publication, published an enthusiastic story about the “wonderful tower in San Jose” with the headline  “ELECTRIC LIGHT – Los Angeles Wants and Must Have One.” Four days later, the Times published its first ever photo, this being of the San Jose light tower.


The original handwritten Los Angeles City Council meeting minute book entry specifying the location of the new electric arc light lamps, including the one, highlighted in yellow, specified for Boyle Heights.  Image provided by the Los Angeles City Archives, which has the original minute book.  Click on the image to see it in a separate window in an enlarged view.
In July 1882, the Brush Electric Company, seeing that Los Angeles was “ripe for electric tapping,” sent its San Francisco representative, Col. Charles H. Howland, to sell the city electric lighting. On September 9, Howland successfully obtained a two-
year contract from the city council to provide lighting by December 1st. The Los Angeles Times and the Los Angeles Daily Herald reported that Howland proposed to introduce electric light to Los Angeles with seven 150-foot tall uniquely-designed “light masts” at $1,000 per mast per annum.

To be placed in the heart of the city and its settled suburbs, each mast would carry three arc lamps with a total of nine thousand candle power each. The contract stipulated the masts were to be lighted every night except on the night of a full moon, the two nights before, and two nights after. Appearing to closely resemble a re-purposed ship's mast, the Los Angeles City Directory 1886-1887 described the structures as “two sections of poles made of spars from Puget Sound, being about twenty inches in diameter at the ground and tapering to six inches at the top.” Furthering the resemblance to a ship's mast, existing photos show a workers platform on the light mast seventy-five feet above the ground.


Ordinance No. 80 at the bottom of the page specified the location of the several electric arc light lamps to be installed in Los Angeles, including number six at the corner of Aliso and First Streets in Boyle Heights.  Image courtesy of the Los Angeles City Archives, which has a copy of the printed ordinances.  Click on the image to see it in an enlarged view in a separate window.
          Approved by the city council on October 26, the project’s ordinance established the seven locations for each mast. One was “on Boyle Heights, at the corner of Aliso and First Streets.” There is also a Boyle Heights connection to the light mast on the corner of Main and Commercial streets in downtown. It was at this location that Andrew Boyle owned Boyle's Shoe Store from the late 1850s to near his death in 1871. And as noted in the store's advertisements that ran in the Los Angeles Star newspaper in 1864, he also took orders on this site for his wine, which he named after the vineyard's location, Paredon Blanco, established by the L√≥pez family in the Mexican period, which was developed as the suburb of Boyle Heights in 1875 by Boyle's son-in-law, William H. Workman.

          According to the illustrated pamphlet The Beautiful Highlands of Los Angeles,  published in 1899 by the Ninth Ward Improvement Association. Boyle Heights resident and City Council member Burdette Chandler was a strong proponent for his neighborhood as a location for a light mast:


Mr Chandler stood for over a year and a half the sole champion for electric lighting in our city, with the other fourteen members of the Council arrayed against him. When the franchise was granted he inserted a claim for a mast light to be placed on the corner of First Street and Boyle avenue. Walter Moore, the genial fire chief, used to refer to this light as the light of Leon Los Nietos. However, under its rays have grown one of the most flourishing resident portions of our rapidly growing city, and this section will not soon forget its debt to Mr. Chandler.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

The Introduction of Electric Light to Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, Pt. 1

Introduction:  This is the first of four posts by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez about the origins of electric lighting in Los Angeles, consisting of tall mast lights including one in Boyle Heights.

Since this time of year is a time of holiday celebrations, often involving bright and colorful illumination and higher than usual electric bills, this series of posts will look at the events leading up to the inauguration of electricity to Los Angeles through the erecting of seven 150-foot “light masts” that served as the city's first street lights. One of these was located at First Street and Boyle Ave. in Boyle Heights, and was switched on during the evening of December 31, 1882.

Before there were electric lights, the town of Los Angeles was a very dark place at night.  Although a Mexican-era ordinance required homes with two or more rooms to hang a lighted lantern outside the front door and this carried over into the American era to apply to stores, hotels, and saloons, Los Angeles remained a largely darkened community at night until after 1865.

This circa 1870 photo by William M. Godfrey shows wooden tanks of the Los Angeles City Gas Company on the west side of Main Street across from the Plaza, Pico House, Merced Theater and Masonic Hall.  From an original stereoscopic photograph in the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum Collection..
In that year, the Los Angeles City Gas Company, with future Boyle Heights resident William H. Perry as a director, was awarded a franchise to provide gas for illumination to streetlights and private homes. Perry began operations with a gas works directly across from the Plaza, where the Brunswig Building stands now.  

However, only a few streetlights appeared in following years while wealthier citizens could afford to develop their own interior gas lighting systems.  These included the families of Boyle Heights founder William H. Workman and their neighbors, John and Elizabeth Hollenbeck, according to Workman’s son, Boyle, in his 1930s memoir, The City That Grew.  By the early 1880s, according to Eddy Feldman, in his The Art of Street Lighting in Los Angeles, “in this city of 12,000, there were but 136 gas lamps to guide people through the darkness.”

This circa 1877 photo by Francis Parker shows the intersection of Main Street (left), Spring Street (right) and Temple Street (out of view to the right), anchored by the multi-structure Temple Block.   This site is now Los Angeles City Hall.  Notice, however, at the bottom left one of the gas street lamps installed in the city during the preceding several years.  From an original stereoscopic photograph in the Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum Collection.
By the mid-1870s, however, newspapers around the country were carrying stories about a new source of light that promised to be brighter, safer, and cheaper than using gas – electric illumination.  The early focus was on a type of light called arc lamps. 

Illumination was achieved when two closely-spaced electrified carbon rods emitted between them a high-voltage electric current, creating an intensely bright, bluish-white light. For years, early results were mixed; plus, the arc lamps required an energy-hogging generator, a dynamo, as its power source. 

Not until the late 1870s when an inventor from Cleveland, Ohio named Charles Brush unveiled a more efficient arc light and dynamo was this new technology finally seen as practical enough to be developed and sold as an alternative to gas illumination.


Encouraged by windy promises voiced by the cozy allies of newspaper editorial boards and venture capitalists seeking potentially profitable franchises, U.S. cities began to demand this newly-improved, but certainly not trouble-free, light technology as soon, and as affordably, as possible. 

Re-purposing existing gas infrastructures or building entire new grids were seen as too expensive, yet cities were eager to quickly harness the arc lamp's intense brightness in the most cost-efficient means possible, so early adapters would find inspiration from above: moonlight. Several arc lamps could be placed at the top of a metal lattice-type tower, anywhere from 150 to 300 feet tall, from where they cast light on the area below. 

An arc-light "moonlight tower" in the distance at San Jose, California, ca. 1880.  From the California Historical Society Collection at the University of Southern California's Digital Library.
These structures would commonly become known as moonlight towers, the first erected in Brush’s hometown of Cleveland in 1879 and was soon followed by other cities like New York, Detroit and, in California, San Francisco and San Jose. However, in name and design, the Los Angeles model would be uniquely different.