Today the Los Cerritos District of Long Beach extends from 48th Street on the North to the 405 Freeway on the South, to the Los Angeles River on the West and Long Beach Blvd. on the east. It was formed from land that belonged to the Bixby family of Rancho Los Cerritos.

Los Cerritos District today
Los Cerritos District today
Rafaela Cota Temple 1850
Rafaela Cota Temple 1850

The Rancho Los Cerritos, which would give birth to the city of Long Beach, has a long history going back to 1784 when it was part of the much larger Rancho Los Nietos owned by Manuel Nieto. Nieto died and his survivors divided their inheritance. What would become the Rancho Los Cerritos passed to the hands of Dona Manuela Nieto de Cota in 1804. It was later sold by her heirs to Rafaela Cota, a niece of Manuel Nieto, and her husband John Temple on December 16, 1843, for $3,200. Burdened with debt because of a devastating drought, harassed by increased taxes, Juan Temple had to sell the Rancho Los Cerritos. On February 23, 1866, the Flints and the Bixbys purchased the 27,000 acres for $20,000, or 80 cents an acre. The firm made Jotham Bixby manager of the huge estate and in 1869 Jotham acquired a half interest in the rancho, for which he paid $10,000. In 1880 when William Willmore approached Jotham Bixby about buying land to form a colony, Bixby considered Willmore’s offer. With the additional money the Flint-Bixby Company could purchase neighboring Rancho Los Alamitos, which the Flint-Bixby Company had been leasing from the Michael Reese estate since 1878. The extra capital would allow for the purchase.

As mentioned in my blog on Willmore City subdivisions, William Willmore could not pay his debt to Jotham Bixby and new owners took over his settlement. However, a massive land boom occurred with the arrival of the second continental railway. By 1888 more of the 27,000 acre Rancho Los Cerritos lands were put on the market. One was Cerritos Heights.

Cerritos Heights ad 8/16/1887 LA Herald
Cerritos Heights ad 8/16/1887 LA Herald

The town of Cerritos Heights was born yesterday. It is situated on the line of the Pasadena and Long Beach railway, about three miles north of Long Beach, and a short distance north of the Santa Ana and Long Beach proposed railroad. A street railway is to be made from the new town to Long Beach. The townsite embraces 2111 acres, and is laid out with streets 80 feet wide; lots, 50×170 feet, with alleys of 20 feet in the rear of the lots. The map will be recorded at once. The advertisement of the town appears in the Herald, and will tell all about the new settlement. Cerritos Heights was the only town born yesterday, and is therefore one day younger than Dundee, which was born the day before. On the average a new settlement is projected every day, and it is a cold day when a new town is not set afloat in Southern California. Should a day pass without the birth of a town, the country will have twins on the following day to keep the number constant. (Los Angeles Herald 8/11/1887)

The land sales took a dive the following year, and would not pick up again until the Pacific Electric line from Los Angeles to Long Beach opened in 1902. Before that time Long Beach was a quiet resort town, with a rail line that stopped in the town twice a day — in the morning and afternoon. However, with the Pacific Electric people were coming and going every 20 minutes. It changed the town completely.

Soon housing developments began to spring up along the line. In June 1906, George Bixby announced plans to subdivide about 500 acres in the Cerritos area to make a high class residence district. “Strong building restrictions will be placed on the purchasers and the effort will be to bring into being a settlement of fine country homes.” (LAH 6/30/1906). However, the San Francisco earthquake curtailed plans to create this community which surrounded the ranch home of the Rancho Los Cerritos. An economic recession hit Southern California, with all the funds that had been used to develop the area being redirected north to help rebuild San Francisco.

The Bixby’s of the Rancho Los Cerritos were in a bind, they had spent more than $200,000 in improvements, but real estate had come to a standstill. They had an idea.

Hotel Virginia built 1908

One of the projects that had been underway before the earthquake was the building of the Hotel Virginia in downtown Long Beach. It was considered one of the five great hotels of the West, opening on March 31, 1908. What they needed was a private country club for select members and Hotel Virginia guests. A Rancho Los Cerritos site which included the old Jotham Bixby ranch house was the initial choice. Plans for the remodeling of the ranch house were being prepared by Los Angeles architects Hunt, Eager & Burns, when, on October 9, 1909, the Daily Telegram reported “certain complications” had come up which caused the site to be given up.

Ranch house of Rancho Los Cerritos
Ranch house of Rancho Los Cerritos

Instead, a ten year lease on 175 acres of land in what is now Recreation Park was secured on October 22, 1909, from the Alamitos Land Company. The lease included a lake which newspapers reported could, at little expense, be made into a beauty spot. The Alamitos Land Company agreed to build a $10,000 club house, golf links, stables and garages. All this for a rent of $100 a month. What the Alamitos Land Company really hoped was that the golf course would attract more real estate development to the area. In November, forty charter members signed up for limited membership in the new “Virginia Country Club”. The initiation fee was $25 and the monthly dues were $2.50.

Industries sprang up around the Long Beach harbor as it was being developed (1906-1913). Thousands of people flocked to the area to work and needed someplace to live. In May1912 three hundred acres of the Los Cerritos Rancho were placed on the market by Mayor Charles Windham’s real estate company. Development of the Los Cerritos area began again. Promotional ads described the area as the coming “high-class” residential district of Long Beach. It was an ideal spot for a home, close to the Pacific Electric line, only thirty minutes from Los Angeles and ten minutes from Long Beach. (Daily Telegram 11/12/1912)
Jotham Bixby’s grandson, Richard Bixby and his wife were one of the first to build, as was Attorney Walter J. Desmond, who practiced law in Los Angeles. Desmond remarked that before he moved it took 2 ½ hours a day on the electric line to get back and forth to work, by building a new home in Los Cerritos his travel time was reduced to one hour a day.

Virginia Country Club, c.1920
Virginia Country Club, c.1920

Following Windham’s development, growth in the area took off. In October 1919, their ten year lease up, the board of directors of the Virginia Country Club decided to move back to the site they had considered in 1909, feeling the new location would make the club more accessible to golfers coming from Los Angeles and other cities. By a vote of 35 to 1 they agreed to purchase 125 acres of land adjacent to the old adobe, the Rancho Los Cerritos. It was a wise move. On June 23, 1921, around 5 p.m., the Shell Oil Company struck oil at its well at Temple Avenue and Hill Street on Signal Hill. The hunt for other oil rich areas began, and in 1925 oil was discovered on their property and the club reaped the profits.

What had once been Long Beach’s most beautiful and exclusive residential area, become a mud infested area of derricks, sump holes, oil covered streets and oil spattered homes. Homeowners in Los Cerritos, which had been annexed to Long Beach in December 1923, fled elsewhere in dismay. Out of the shadow of oil derricks, Los Cerritos began an upward climb in 1927 to once again become a fashionable residential section of Long Beach.

The life of the Los Cerritos oil field had been fleeting. Operations and individuals who drilled for the black gold reportedly invested $24,000,000 into the petroleum ventures but had taken out less than $1,000,000. Oil promoters decided it was time to move on, and for homeowners it was time to begin their uphill task of a “come back.”

Oil in the streets 1922
Oil in the streets 1922

State and city laws requiring the removal of derricks from abandoned wells were strictly enforced. Slowly the unsightly wooden structures began to come down. By December 1927 it was estimated that 65 percent of those erected had been removed and the ground straightened up. The Los Cerritos Improvement Association organized the homeowners and aided the work.

As the fear of the menace of oil vanished, residents began to return to the Los Cerritos area and soon expensive houses costing upward of $50,000 ($681,000 2014 using CPI increases) were being constructed, creating the district we know today.