From Farms To Subdivisions

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From Farms To Subdivisions


GOP Railroad & the Long Beach Hotel 1887

GOP Railroad & the Long Beach Hotel 1887

Real estate development in Long Beach started when a sandy, curly haired Englishman with a high broad forehead and blue eyes, William Erwin Willmore, conceived of the idea of founding a colony.  In 1880 Willmore’s plan for his American Colony began to take shape when he met with Jotham Bixby to discuss the subdivision of the Rancho Los Cerritos.

Willmore hired Charles Healey to prepare a map of the project which Willmore called the American Colony. Though he originally hoped to purchase 10,000 acres, Willmore scaled down his dream upon the recommendations of Healey to 4,000 acres, 350 of which would form his townsite of Willmore City.  Judge Robert M. Widney, a Los Angeles attorney, was the money man behind William Willmore in his early endeavors. It was Widney who built the infamous “Get Out and Push” railway, the first transportation link connecting Willmore City with the outside world.   A Faithful dray horse pulled the railcar along uneven terrain, often forcing passengers to “get out and push” to keep the railcar moving.

Willmore City was not as popular as its promoters had hoped.  In the fall of 1882 there were nine dwellings either completed or under construction.  Only about a half-dozen families remained in the town site during the winter.   Mail and produce had to be brought from Wilmington by Widney’s railroad.  The horse cars made two trips each day to the rail juncture in Wilmington, but many times they were empty on both trips.  During the winter improvements were made to the railway.  The route was straightened, the number of ties doubled, the pine rails overlaid with strip iron, and two new passenger cars built.

Despite all its advantages Willmore City and the American Colony were not prospering.  Willmore could not pay his debts, and in 1884 his holdings were sold to the Long Beach Land and Water Company and the name of the town changed to Long Beach.   Ironically, if he had been able to hold on three more years he would have been a success.  There was a tremendous land boom in Southern California when the new transcontinental Santa Fe railroad was completed in 1885.  A price war developed with tickets falling from $52.50 in 1883 to $4 in 1886. Thousands moved to the Southland, many of them to Willmore’s city.

In July 1887 the Southern Pacific decided to run a switch from their Wilmington line to Long Beach, in effect, replacing Widney’s line.  Now Long Beach had a steam railroad, a vast improvement over the old.

In 1888 talk began about creating a third transcontinental railroad line from Los Angeles, by way of the rich mineral fields of Southern Nevada and Utah, to Salt Lake City.  In September 1890 The Los Angeles Terminal Railroad Company was formed.  Thomas B. Burnett was general manager, W.H. Workman, W. Winthup and D. McFarland directors.  In 1890, the Terminal Railway acquired Rattlesnake Island at San Pedro from the Dominguez family as a terminus for their rail line (eventually changing the name of the island to Terminal Island).  Despite the protests of some that a rail line along Ocean Avenue would destroy the beauty of the town on April 5, 1891, the Long Beach Board of Trustees granted the Terminal Railway a franchise to build a line along the beach front, bringing the cars directly to the hotels.  The citizens of Long Beach celebrated the momentous event by having a banquet and torchlight procession.  (For more on Willmore City see my  blog: Willmore City and American Colony Subdivisions)        

Burnett station

Burnett station

           Two miles out of downtown Long Beach, farmers south of Signal Hill decided they needed their own rail depot. The area was known for its beautiful flower fields, and taking their daily pickings into Long Beach meant that many of the fragile blooms would be damaged before making it to the Los Angeles market. They petitioned the Terminal Railroad for their own station. Thomas Burnett, general manager of the Terminal Railroad, complied and a depot was built (northwest corner of California and Burnett).  Originally called the Signal Hill Station, it took on a new name in February 1897 (Los Angeles Herald 2/28/1897). It seemed the post office didn’t like compound or hyphenated names for their post office stations. Many remembered Thomas Burnett, who had suffered a stroke the previous year, and wanted the new station named for him, to honor his achievements.  Signal Hill station became Burnett. Within a few months the area around the depot began to be referred to as Burnett.  Burnett, was on high ground overlooking the entire city of Long Beach, the harbor and Catalina Island, lay just south of what is now the intersection of Willow and California.  A school, the third in the Long Beach district was established in 1888. Known as the Signal Hill School, the name was changed to Burnett Elementary in the late 1890s.

The fact the area had its own rail station proved a boon to the area.  What was home to truck gardeners gradually gave way to housing.  In July 1903, the Evening Tribune reported a building boom in Burnett with land selling for $1000 an acre.  A number of families had recently arrived from “Indian Territory” (as Oklahoma was known then).  This influx of new immigrants meant that two new rooms had to be added to the school house.

Burnett was a prominent farming community.  At one time three miles of farm land separated it from Long Beach, but with the all the real estate activity houses were quickly replacing agriculture. On August 1913, Los Angeles businessman C. Dean Mc-Phail, bought a large section of what became known as the Burnett Villa Tract for development.  Gradually the area known as Burnett would be absorbed into Long Beach, with only the name Burnett Street, Burnett school, and Burnett library remaining to mark the history of the district. (For more on the early railroads and the Burnett area of Long Beach see my blog for September 2014 at


PE 1905

The Electric Railroad

Electric street railways, around since the late 1880s, quickly replaced horse-drawn cars used by many rail lines.  By the turn of the twentieth century there were 8,000 miles of track in the United States, 50 of these miles owned by the Los Angeles Railway.  The track and equipment of the Los Angeles Railway was in bad shape, the service was poor, and the company was losing money.  In 1898, Henry Edwards Huntington stepped into the picture when a syndicate he had controlling shares in bought the ailing Los Angeles Railway Company.

Henry Huntington came to California in 1892 to work with his Uncle Collis on the Southern Pacific Railroad (SP).  Following his uncle’s death in 1900, Henry sold his shares in the Southern Pacific. Henry Huntington now spent his time, and money, on his true love: building his own electric railways in Southern California.  Because the Southland was so vast and its population so dispersed, Huntington operated two distinct trolley companies: the Los Angeles Railway which he purchased in 1898 and the Pacific Electric (PE), created in 1901.  Each was designed for a different purpose. The Los Angeles Railway was constructed to run as an intraurban company to transport people; the goal was to generate profits from streetcar operations alone.  The Pacific Electric, on the other hand was designed as an interurban to carry both passengers and freight.  Its purpose was to promote the sale of property in the newly created suburbs which the line ran through.

The question on many peoples’ minds was whether the new Pacific Electric railway would come into Long Beach.  The Salt Lake Railroad had such a strangle hold on the city it seemed unlikely.  The Salt Lake had fought bitter battles to keep electric railways out of Long Beach.  They wanted to keep their monopoly.   So successful was their strategy that Long Beach was one of the few communities in Los Angeles County without an electric road.   However, things in town were about to change with the arrival of Charles Rivers Drake.

Charles Rivers Drake

Charles Rivers Drake

In May 1901 Drake had arranged to buy the holdings of the Long Beach Development Company, the Bouton Water Company and parts of the Banning Company.  His new company was called the Seaside Water Company, which would later develop the beach amusement area known as the “Pike.”  Soon after his purchases, he was asked by H. E. Huntington to be his agent in trying to obtain electric railway rights into Long Beach.  Drake agreed.   In August, fearing the interurban railway would not be approved, Drake played his trump card.  He told Long Beach officials that if the electric railway was approved there was a good chance Huntington would build a wharf in the city and develop the city’s harbor.  This was all the business interests in the city needed to hear – they were anxious to develop the Long Beach side of San Pedro Bay into a profitable seaport.  But the bid for the franchise had to be competitive, others had been trying for years to open an electric road into Long Beach. In August 1901 the electric railway franchise was open to bids, five were in the running, and Huntington won with a bid of $9600. It was so high a figure, the others could not compete.

The Long Beach line would be the Pacific Electric’s first complete interurban link built by Huntington and one of the most successful in the entire system.

The Line Opens

The first electric car entered Long Beach on June 30, 1902, a practice run to prepare for the grand opening of the line at 6 A.M. on July 4th.  By noon on the Fourth, a crowd of 30,000 men, women and children had poured into the city.  Most came on the new trolley line, but a count showed 1,450 buggies and carriages parked along the beach.  Fred Bixby from the Rancho Los Alamitos was there as well with one of the first automobiles in town, a “White Steamer.”  It attracted as much attention as Charles Drake’s new bathhouse on the beach.  In fact there were so many people Drake decided to make as much money as he could and opened his new plunge, which still needed a roof built over the pool, that same “red letter” day.

Building the Pacific Electric rail line

Building the Pacific Electric rail line

        Though liquor was prohibited in Long Beach, state legislation allowed members of “social clubs” to imbibe behind closed doors. The Long Beach Social Club, a controversial purveyor of alcohol, drew up to 300 customers an hour that 4th of July (the club would be forced out of town later that year), despite word from local citizens that any visitors frequenting the club would be arrested.  Local police raided the club twice during the day, with many “members” surging out of the building into the crowd before they could be hauled off by police.  Local restaurants thought they had stocked up on enough extra food to feed the hoards expected to visit the city, but even these extra provisions failed to feed all who came to Long Beach that day.

 With the exception of a twenty minute interruption due to two supply systems getting out of step, the electric road was in steady operation throughout the day. The major problem for police was keeping the crowd off the tracks between the foot of Pine Avenue and the pier; fortunately there were no accidents. When night fell most visitors were exhausted.  The town’s hotels could not handle all the overnight guests. Several thousand people, too tired to take the trolleys back to Los Angeles, simply bedded down on the beach for the night.

Few participating in the events of July 4, 1902, were aware that it was an historic occasion, marking a turning point in Long Beach history.  But Huntington knew, as his comments to the Los Angeles Herald a few days later (7/7/1902) indicated: “I have watched Long Beach for a number of years,” remarked H. E. Huntington, “and I have long been satisfied that this beach will become the most popular resort within easy reach of Los Angeles. You have a magnificent and unbroken beach line, a handsome vista, a splendid climate and all those features which contribute to a pleasant summer and winter resort.”

The Pacific Electric Route

 What would it have been like taking the electric railroad in the early years of the 20th century?  If you wanted to come to Long Beach from Los Angeles, the main route was down East Ninth Street from Main Street to Tennessee Street (later renamed Hooper Avenue), where the electric cars entered a private right-of-way.  The line emerged from this right-of-way at Willow Street in Long Beach.  For the approximately three remaining miles to the ocean, the line rode a private right-of-way in the center of American Avenue.  It was certainly one of the most popular lines, according to the Los Angeles Herald (Nov. 30, 1902) which reported 18,000 to 20,000 visitors using the line daily during summer months.

The first local line was the East Ocean-Esperanza line built to service the civil war veteran’s encampment held here in September 1902.  It traveled along Ocean Avenue to Esperanza and was extended to Mira Mar (Belmont Heights) in 1904.  In order to get the franchise, the Pacific Electric had to agree to landscape the bluff along the shoreline from Alamitos Park (current Bixby Park) east.  The resulting park-like promenade is still in use today.  This double track line was abandoned in 1915.

Pacific Electric routes

Pacific Electric routes

Another line built around the same time was the East First/East Second Street line which ran along First Street east from Pine to Alamitos Avenue, then east on Second Street to Esperanza.  The Pacific Electric Company did not want to build this line, because it paralleled the East Ocean Avenue and East Third Street lines.  However, the Salt Lake Railway had been after this franchise in 1901 and the P.E. outbid them in self defense. This single track line built in 1902 was abandoned in 1911.

The Alamitos Heights line ran from Livingston Drive and East Second Street northeast on a private right-of-way to the Newport line at Naples Junction.  This connection enabled the Long Beach-Huntington Beach line to operate.  Built in 1904 it was discontinued in 1917.

Other lines included the East Third Street-Redondo Avenue line; the West Third Street line; the Seaside Park line; the Magnolia Avenue line; the Daisy Avenue line; the Pine Avenue line; the East Seventh Street line; the West Seventh Street line; the Municipal Dock line and the Long Beach-Alamitos Bay Seal Beach line.

The ten years that followed the construction of the original, 1902, Long Beach line represented the “golden era” for the Pacific Electric: their Monrovia line opened in 1903 and reached Glendora in 1907; the Sierra Madre and Oak Knoll lines, 1906; Covina, 1907; Pomona, 1911; San Bernardino, 1914, and others, including the popular trips to Mt. Lowe, the Ostrich Farm in Pasadena, San Gabriel Mission, Lucky Baldwin’s Ranch, Redondo Beach Plunge, and Newport Beach.

Prior to the arrival of the red car, trains stopped in Long Beach twice a day; but the opening of the electric line with service every fifteen minutes, dramatically altered the way of life in Long Beach.  No longer was it a sleepy and isolated little seaside resort — quick, reliable transportation pummeled the town into an age of tremendous growth and prosperity.  By the 1910 U.S. census, Long Beach had grown eightfold, from a population of around 2,000 to one of 17,809.  It was promoted as the fastest growing city in the United States — all this growth taking place because of the Pacific Electric.

Real Estate Boom

The announcement of the coming of the Pacific Electric railway set off a tremendous real estate boom along the proposed rail lines. Along these routes various housing tracts sprang up on former farm land. Wherever the PE cars led, subdividers, development, and growth soon followed. Just as the railroads had brought excursion trains into Southern California during the earlier boom years of the 1880s, so now the Pacific Electric ran special excursions to beach towns along its route, including Long Beach. A beach boom of real estate speculation resulted. Contracts flew from hand to hand so fast that no one knew where the chain of title ran. Many of Long Beach’s early residents made money in subdividing their original land purchases, tract names such as Johnson, Kenyon and Tutts reflect names of those who were wise enough to have bought early and sold later at a substantial profit. The February 13, 1903, Evening Tribune described the growth in real estate:

The advance in property in Long Beach during the past eighteen months is unparalleled in the city’s history. Until one looks about, notes the transfers of realty and the prices paid, he longs for an opportunity to buy at the figures of 20 or 22 months since, which then he considered high. In August 1900, a lot 50 x 104 at 430 Cedar Avenue, with a five room cottage was offered for $1000. Day before yesterday it sold for $1900.

The February 28, 1904 Los Angeles Herald also talked about the growth:

         “Farm after farm has been subdivided and placed on the market only to be snapped up eagerly, forcing busy agents to scramble for more. The first spreading was north along the line of the Pacific Electric railway. Then the Seaside Water Company donated a beautiful park in Knoll tract in the west end of the city, and the trend of sales and houses erected was in that direction. At present the popular fancy is east of town, toward Alamitos Bay, and northeast, about the sunny slopes of Signal and Reservoir Hills. Here, above frost and fogs, oranges, lemons and guavas are raised and acreage on these hills is becoming valuable.”

Many were getting into the real estate business such as Hazelwood-Smith Brothers, Frank E. Shaw, S. K. Hemphill, N. F. Stone, Rowley & Dinsmore and M. A. Hanna. The Baker Realty Company was composed of four partners who came to California from Missouri in November 1903 with no thought of remaining, but the all-the-year-round climate and the attractions of Long Beach captivated them and they stayed. Eno & Varney were from Iowa and specialized in bringing residents from the Hawkeye state. W. B. Redburn & Son even inaugurated a clever scheme for interesting people in Long Beach realty. At the Iowa picnic they handed out cards giving free carriage rides about the city if presented at their real estate office. Of course you would have also been in for an earful about local real estate. This was in fact an early version of present day time share tactics where a free breakfast or other incentives are offered if you come hear the realtor’s spiel.

Some concentrated their sales in specific areas around Long Beach. There was E. L. Covart & Co. and W. W. Lowe & Co. handling beach lots at Alamitos Bay. Stearns & Counts had desirable suburban property in Alamitos in the Bay View tract, bordering on the bay and near two railroads. George H. Blount was in charge of the Knoll Park tract and also several lots in the Carroll Park tract and acreage on Signal Hill. All agreed that no mistake could be made in buying property anywhere in the vicinity of Long Beach.

Realty agent horsewhipped

Everybody tried to get in on the land boom that resulted when the Pacific Electric railroad came to Long Beach in 1902. By 1905 there were over 125 listings in the Long Beach city directory for “Real Estate.”  Most in the business were honest; however, there were a few willing to take advantage of a situation if it could make them a fast buck. In fact, it was not uncommon to find violence and law suits accompanying a land deal gone wrong.

On April 27, 1905, shrieks of pain and cries for aid were heard coming from an office on the second floor of the Bixby block in downtown Long Beach shortly before noon.   The sounds were traced to the office of contractor, J. S. Barrett. The crowd tried to get in but found the doors locked. Moans and a strange swish could be heard behind them. Suddenly the door opened and Charles W. Stewart, a well known real estate man, stumbled out, his face distorted with pain. Behind him with a horsewhip and a flushed face, was Mr. Barrett. He looked at the crowd and in answer to questions said: “Yes, the scoundrel perjured himself and beat me out of money, and I horsewhipped him. (Eve. Tribune 4/27/05). Barrett then left the office and walked down the stairs. Stewart was helped to a nearby room and treated for his wounds. What had happened to bring on such a drastic attack?

Earlier, Stewart sold a lot to Barrett for $800 and received $20 to secure the sale. However, it happened the owner of the lot, George Nibel, was not able to secure title to the property and Stewart had to declare the sale off. Stewart offered Barrett his $20 back, but Barrett refused the money. Instead, he took Stewart to court and sued him for fraud in selling him the lot. Barrett lost the case and ended up having to pay all the court costs, which only increased his anger.

On the morning of the incident Stewart received a telephone call from Barrett asking him for his $20 back. Stewart withdrew the money from the bank and went to Barrett’s office to pay him the money. He was greeted by Barrett who seized a new blacksnake whip and began to horsewhip Stewart.

Again taken to court, Barrett admitted to the whipping, saying Stewart deserved it because he had deliberately perjured himself at the trial, and anybody who did that was going to suffer. Barrett told the court he had expected to be arrested, and he would pay his fine and then things would be even. He had not counted on public sentiment against him in Long Beach.

 Barrett, who was twice the size of Stewart, had to be sent to Los Angeles for a fair trial. He was found guilty, sentenced to pay a fine of $500 and ordered to spend 30 days in jail. Barrett appealed to the Superior Court and was released on $1000 bail. The decision of the lower court was affirmed, but Barrett failed to appear and his bail was forfeited. Barrett was finally found by authorities in late July 1906 and taken off to serve his sentence.

San Francisco Earthquake Triggers a Recession

Readers of the April 1, 1906 Los Angeles Herald were told of the unbridled growth of Long Beach:  “Saturday night closed one of the most active weeks in the history of real estate activity in the city of Long Beach. From every agent, comes a story of business unparalleled.” Sales in Signal Hill, East Long Beach, Alamitos Townsite, Alamitos Bay, Belmont Heights, Vista del Mar, North Long Beach, and the new tract Long Beach Park were taking off like a wild fire. Residents of Long Beach anxiously awaited the prosperity the harbor, their new luxury hotel the Hotel Virginia, and all of the other development taking place around them would bring. However, on April 18, 1906, they were suddenly distracted from dreams of money and wealth by an earthquake in San Francisco.

Engineer H. H. Morris was in the Long Beach Bathhouse at 5:15 A.M. when he saw the water in the pool begin to move. For fifteen minutes the water churned violently, wetting the deck profusely. The earthquake woke most of the people in Long Beach, but it did little damage. Still, many panicked. F. Warner Gilson was so afraid that his home would collapse he nailed several 2×4 timbers into his house for bracing. Just to make sure they worked, he stood outside all night holding the supports to prevent his home from falling should another earthquake occur.

Public relief to the San Francisco victims was quick. $10,137.14 in relief money was raised by the people of Long Beach. This helped purchase two and a half carloads of provisions and one and a half rail cars of clothing. Long Beach also sent forty-one members of its Company H National Guard unit to patrol what remained of San Francisco’s streets. Several of the local boys had to fire their rifles into the air to frighten marauders, but they did not actually shoot anyone during their 23 days of duty.

On April 27, 1906, the Long Beach Tribune asked the Long Beach business community what they felt the disaster in San Francisco would have on Long Beach. Most felt the earthquake would have no effect on the growth of Long Beach, in fact some said that it would actually benefit the city. Since it would take several years to rebuild San Francisco, many felt the maritime trade and business that once was handled by San Francisco would come to the Los Angeles/Long Beach area instead.

Prosperity did continue for a short time, but by the summer of 1907 economic hardships were being felt. Investors who previously flocked to Southern California turned their attention and pocketbooks north, to San Francisco, and the opportunities presented in rebuilding that city.   Things began to be especially tough in the real estate world, as James Zaninetti  found out in 1908.

Zaninetti, a large real estate holder in Delta, Colorado, had been in Long Beach seven months when he received a letter threatening to assassinate him. The letter writer claimed Zaninetti had misrepresented his intentions to the real estate agents in the city. At first they thought he wanted to buy local property when instead he was cutting in on their market by trying to sell his Colorado real estate. The anonymous writer went on to state “you may pay dearer than you think for your free rides, for we fellows will pound you all up the first time we catch you downtown after dark. You will get your just deserts before you leave this town.” (LB Press 5/14/1908). Zaninetti claimed the circular mentioning the prospects in Delta County was just pulled out to show people where he came from. He avowed no ulterior motives, but the threat spooked Zaninetti and his family. They returned to Delta, Colorado, as quickly as they could.

As real estate sales in the southern portion of the state declined, one of Long Beach’s banks, Citizens Savings Bank, was forced to close its doors.  There were also rumors that the finances of the city were not as they should be.  Hard times were ahead and would remain so until after WWI.