Signal Hill

Signal Hill

Signal Hill

One of the first to settle on Signal Hill was Henry Clay Dillon.  Dillon brought his family to Long Beach from Denver in the spring of 1887 because of insomnia, the Los Angeles Herald of December 4, 1892 reported.  There he purchased 160 acres from Jotham Bixby on what was then called “Cerritos Hill” for $150 an acre.   The land was covered entirely with sage brush and mustard plants, but in the spring there were wild flowers.  The Dillon’s first built a barn, in which the family lived until the house was finished.  Reservoirs had to be built and windmills installed and orchards planted — oranges and lemons, walnuts, olives and lots of guavas and figs. Dillon named  it Colorado Orchards.   By 1892 he had divided his land into five 20 acre lots and one 40 acre home tract and sold several to prominent Denver business men.  Dillon retained, however, the 40 acre tract and one 20 acre lot. On it there were seven orchards, segregated into various fruit varieties.  There were 2000 fig trees, 2000 olive trees, 1250 Eureka lemons, 120 navel orange trees, 300 walnut trees, 200 apple trees, 500 plum, 500 peach and apricot, 3500 guavas.  All in all there were over 30,000 plants fertilized with sewerage from the house and stable.

Josephine Dillon once married to Clark Gable, grew up on Signal Hill
Josephine Dillon once married to Clark Gable, grew up on Signal Hill

Lemon growing was an extensive, though unprofitable, industry in the Signal Hill area in the 1890s.  Judge Dillon’s lemon grove was between Vine and Cherry Avenues, south of Catalina Street.  Thomas Wall and W. Patton Wilson each owned a ten-acre lemon orchard in the triangular block which came to a point at Pacific Coast Highway and Temple, with Ellis Avenue along the northerly side.  Gerard Wall told reporter Walter Case in 1933 that his father bought the land in 1893 at $250 an acre.  On the west side of Temple, Charles Thornburg and W. H. Reider had five acres of lemons each.  Further afield, William Galer had a four-acre grove at Sixth and Alamitos. The grove owners formed a co-op warehouse on Obispo Avenue, north of Pacific Coast Highway.  From the Obispo packing house boxes of fruit were hauled in wagons to one of two warehouses owned by the Alamitos Land Company, east of Alamitos Avenue and between Broadway and Appleton.  From here the lemons were transferred to Southern Pacific freight cars for shipment.   Because of the low prices on imported lemons, the lemon growing business came to an end. The land was subdivided for residential development, though the palm trees surrounding the groves on Pacific Coast Highway remained for a time.

Josephine Dillon told reporter Walter Case (Sun 3/22/1934), she remembered growing up on Signal Hill among yellow violets, Indian paintbrush, poppies, wild onions and lots of cactus.  There were “robber caves” in the canyons, and a “haunted cave” where there were old horse bones, and an “Indian scout path” down which to run and play.  The other great play place was the basement of the Dillon house.  It ran underneath the entire house and had a big gas machine where light for the house was generated and which the six Dillon children were told must never be approached on pain of spanking.  But the safe end of the basement was perfect for a theater and it was here that many shows were performed.  Josephine remembered a big house, square, with a veranda on all sides, and long, French windows, and a fireplace in each room and the grand times they had sitting around them while her father read Dickens to them or their mother played Mozart or Beethoven.

There are numerous references to H. C. Dillon in early newspapers.  He was the one responsible for clearing the legalities of building the Pine Avenue Pier in 1893—the first municipal pier in California.  He also served as District Attorney of Los Angeles County from 1892-1894 and was a national delegate to several Democratic conventions.  In 1900 he left the legal field to go into the oil industry, joining the Hartford Oil Company of Los Angeles.  Born November 6, 1846, in Lancaster, Wisconsin, where he received his early schooling, he later graduated from Racine College in 1872, and was admitted to the bar by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin two years later. In 1876 he married Florence Hood of Denver. He died April 10, 1912.

Dillon did live to see the resurgence of housing development on Signal Hill.  E. P. Dewey, assistant city engineer, was hired to survey residential lots near the top of Signal Hill.  While plotting the Hill, Dewey was approached by an old man.  The stranger asked his assistance in locating a monument he had placed on the summit 50 years earlier.  The two men searched for the stone, but it took a few days to locate it, and only then it was discovered by accident.  Engineer Dewey, at the summit of the hill, attempted to drive a stake into the ground and found the monument two inches below the surface.  It was granite, 8 inches square and 18 inches long with a drill hole exactly in the center.

The summit of Signal Hill today - Hilltop Park
The summit of Signal Hill today – Hilltop Park

The old man introduced himself as John Rockwell, a visitor to the city. He told Dewey he had been a member of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey crew whose mission was to plot latitude and longitude of prominent points in California after it became a state in 1848.  The first few years they spent plotting points for light houses, but by 1853 they started to concentrate on other high points including the hill then known as “Los Cerritos.”  At the summit, at an elevation of 364 feet, they planted one of their markers.  They built a fence around the marker to keep out the horses and cattle that roamed everywhere.  The also posted several handbills printed on cotton cloth written in both English and Spanish, telling the public the marker was the property of the United States and requesting that it not be disturbed.  Evidently the fence and signs didn’t work, since the ground around the marker was plowed many times.

Purchased as part of the 28,027 acre Rancho Los Alamitos in 1881 by the Alamitos Land Company (composed of I. W. Hellman, Jotham Bixby and John W. Bixby), all but 100 acres of Signal Hill had been subdivided by the firm.  (These 100 acres on the eastern portion of the hill were deemed too steep for subdivision.  They subsequently leased it to the Shell Oil Company, which discovered oil on the site on May 23, 1921, making the heirs of the original owners millionaires).  With the boom brought on by the Pacific Electric, early purchasers of lots began to cash in.   In the fall of 1902, Frank Shaw began subdividing the 20 acre Duque farm on the Hill into one acre lots.

Practically all of the unoccupied land on the summit of Signal Hill, embracing seventy-eight acres, was purchased by the Hoosier Real Estate company in September 1904 for $28,000.  They also purchased thirty-five acres on the west and north slopes from the Ward estate, giving them the entire control of the summit.  Their first course of action was to pipe water to the property. Circular roads would then be constructed about the summit.

By 1905 additional tracts were popping up.  The May 7, 1905 Los Angeles Herald reported:

“Another recent big thing for the beach is the platting of 150 acres on and around the top of Signal Hill, two miles north and east of the city. Signal Hill is 353 feet above the sea level, and from the summit a view of twenty-seven towns can be had. Much of the development and improvement work has been completed and soon the lots will be on the market. Lots are of uniform size, 60 x 130 feet. The prices will range from $500 to $1800 each. On the crown of the hill a space of four acres has been set apart for a park and the site for a big hotel. President G. V. Hughes, and Secretary F. A. Crowe are at the head of the Signal Hill Improvement Company having the Signal Hill enterprise in charge.”

LA Herald 5/21/1905
LA Herald 5/21/1905

Opening day was a rainy one but still, the Los Angeles Herald reported (5/28/1905), over 500 people attended the opening and $60,000 was realized from sales.

Soon another subdivision opened— the Palm Vista tract, which advertised itself as “nestled among the orange and lemon orchards of Signal Hill.” Lots could be purchased for $500 and the magnificent views of the ocean and mountains were thrown in for free.  On June 6, 1905, property in the Signal Heights subdivision at the corner of Willow and California were placed on the market.  Lots were 100 x 130 feet and could be purchased for $450 to $600.  There was also Sunny Slope on the corner of Atlantic and Willow.  Lots sold for $600 to $800 and the developer vowed to plant a date palm every 40 feet along the street.

The Dillon’s sold their home (located at the corner of Twenty-first and Cherry) in May 1906 to Samuel Brown of Exira, Iowa, according to the Los Angeles Times. The 60 acres were to be subdivided into half-acre villa lots with a park in the center and “romantic’ scenic drives through the subdivision.  (Author’s note: The lovely old house, according to Josephine Dillon, was later turned into a boarding house for oil workers before it burned to the ground. Josephine went on to become and actress, and the first Mrs. Clark Gable.  Sisters Florence and Viva became opera singers, sister Fannie a composer, brother James a lawyer.  Sister Anna married, producing the only grandchild in the family).

Lying between Cherry and Vine, nestled at the foot of the south slope of Signal Hill, in an orchard full of fig and olive trees, was Jackson Park.  Opening April 1907, lots were 170 feet deep by 50 feet wide.  They faced on 90 foot streets, complete with cement curbs and sidewalks.  Water, as well as electric lights, telephone poles and gas mains, passed through the alleys to the homes that would be built.

In 1905, the Signal Hill Improvement Company decided to set aside a 60 x 130 foot area on the summit as a public park. In the center of the trees and flowers rested the monument John Rockwell had placed there in the 1850s, along with a tablet telling its history.  Also included were the coordinates: Latitude 33 degrees, 48 minutes north; longitude, 118 degrees, 9 minutes, 46.7 seconds west from Greenwich; height above mean sea level, 365.64 feet.

Life in Long Beach and on Signal Hill would never be the same after Thursday, June 23, 1921, when oil was discovered on Signal Hill.  Read about this, the creation of the City of Signal Hill, illicit speak easies, and murders on the Hill in my book Prohibition Madness.   Interested in ghosts?  There’s a section in my book Haunted Long Beach 2, about Signal Hill hauntings.