Creating advocates for history through the stories of greater Los Angeles.
by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Few indications of how much frontier Los Angeles was changing from a remote isolated town to a small, growing city during its first boom from the late 1860s to the mid 1870s are more noteworthy than the introduction of the region’s first railroad.
The Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad was largely the brainchild of Phineas Banning, whose investments at his town Wilmington and efforts to improve the rudimentary harbor that was adjacent to it were persistent. As a state senator, Banning was able to secure a bill from the legislature allowing him and fellow investors, like his long-time partner Benjamin D. Wilson as well as ex-governor John G. Downey, David W. Alexander (a close friend of William Workman), John S. Griffin, Mathew Keller and others, to build the 22-mile rail line.
The project was completed in fall 1869 and ran from Wilmington (technically not San Pedro, though an extension was built later) to a depot at the corner of Alameda and Commercial streets, just a bit south of today’s 101 Freeway. The county of Los Angeles chipped in with $150,000 worth of bonds and the city of Los Angeles added half that amount to provide a partial public subsidy for the project.
The local line provided the means for regional farmers, ranchers and business people to ship and receive goods and passengers headed for steamers to take them to and from the area also benefited from the line’s existence.
Through the lobbying of Banning and others, federal support, which became more readily available after the end of the Civil War, was secured to build a breakwater and jetty at the harbor, which was the first major effort to dramatically improve the facility. Between that work and the railroad, it was clear that the prospects for Los Angeles and its environs were also improving greatly.
However, the independent life of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad was quite short. Locals realized that the future development of the area depended on a connection to railroads that would link Los Angeles to other parts of California and the nation generally. The only way that could be done, however, was to make a deal with the Southern Pacific Railroad, which dominated California’s rail transport system.
Initially, the Southern Pacific, having been rebuffed in its demands about what it would take to build a spur line to Los Angeles as it worked south from the Bay Area and then looked to turn east towards Arizona and points east, decided to avoid Los Angeles entirely to teach the little town a big lesson.
But, Los Angeles’ lobbying with the federal government proved surprisingly effective and Congress passed a bill requiring the Southern Pacific to build through Los Angeles. This, however, came at a price. The Southern Pacific demanded and received a substantial subsidy, which Los Angeles County voters decided on at an election in November 1872.
The deal involved 5% of the county’s assessed property value and the bonds held by the county and city with the Los Angeles and San Pedro, transferring ownership of the local line to the powerful Southern Pacific. The transfer became official at the end of 1874.
The Homestead has an interesting little item in its collection, being a receipt issued by the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad Company in April 1873, about six months after the subsidy deal was approved, but a year-and-a-half before the Southern Pacific took control.
The document is signed by William Matthews, the Los Angeles depot clerk, and who’d been in the company’s employ since at least 1870. The receipt was for goods shipped by “C&E,” this being the Los Angeles mercantile firm of Caswell and Ellis, whose quarters were nearby on Main Street. The partners were Massachusetts natives Samuel B. Caswell and John F. Ellis.
The goods involved were 11 1/2 bales of wool weighing about 340 pounds, a reflection of the region’s rapidly growing sheep industry, which became a major economic engine after the great drought of 1862-64 wiped out most of the cattle stocked on the area’s ranches. The receipt indicated that the items were to be sent to San Pedro on the railroad and then forwarded by ship to San Francisco and there consigned to other parties, whose names are tough to read but might be “McNaughton” and “Call.”
Items like these from the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad are hard to find. Accompanying this post are other images, including a circa 1920s reproduction showing the “San Gabriel”, a locomotive operated by the company and a detail from an 1882 map showing the line when it was under the control of the Southern Pacific.
What is now known as the Alameda Corridor is probably the most visible and lasting element of the modern legacy of the Los Angeles and San Pedro Railroad. The modest little line is to be remembered as the first in our region, which now has a significant system of rail lines to transport goods from the ports at Long Beach and Los Angeles through our region and elsewhere in the United States.