by Paul R. Spitzzeri
It can be easy to take for granted the convenience of our various utilities, including the delivery of water, gas and electricity; that is, until there is an interruption in service or the imposition of rationing. Then, as our lawns and gardens turn brown or our computers and other appliances go dark, we realize just how vital these elements of modern life are.
Speaking of dark, in 1860s Los Angeles, the setting of the sun meant that the dirt streets and lanes of the town were virtually plunged into a form of darkness we can only relate to if there is a widespread power outage. Indoors, people used oil lamps, though the visibility they provided was less than desirable. Outside, however, it proved to be dicier when moving through town and criminals, naturally, found night-time conditions more amenable to their pursuits.
In March 1866, the Los Angeles Common [City] Council issued an exclusive 20-year franchise to a new firm, the Los Angeles Gas Company, for the purpose of providing gas for indoor use. Presumably, the organizers of the enterprise made grand promises about how many fixtures would be installed and the benefits that would redound on the Angel City when gas lamps provided their light.
It took a while for the company to be incorporated, perhaps because gathering the necessary capital proved to be a challenge, but, at the end of June 1867, that goal was achieved and shortly thereafter work began to build a modest little plant on the west side of Main Street—actually, the entrance was on New High Street, the street to the west that ran along the base of Fort Moore Hill—and lay pipes along Main. Its first superintendent and long-time president was lumber company owner, William H. Perry, and, later, business partner, Wallace Woodworth managed the company. Other founders included wagon-maker John Goller, James Hagan, and George J. Clarke.
At the end of November, the first delivery of gas for lighting took place in commercial structures, like hotels and stores. By the end of the year, a new five-year contract was drawn up specifically for the provision of twenty-five street lamps and the lighting of city hall. The region was then on the verge of its first significant period of sustained growth and development, so the challenge for the firm was to be able to deliver both on the terms of the contracts but also the quality of the product. By July 1869, Perry reported that there were 43 street lights operational in the system.
There being substantial deposits of brea or tar nearby on the obviously-named Rancho La Brea, west of town, that was the main fuel source, along with wood and grape pumice, in lieu of coal, which had to be shipped in from far-away sources. Tar, while it burned easily, also generated lots of smoke and the quality of the light was inconsistent. Shortly after beginning service, the company, receiving mounting complaints, decided to import coal from Australia by way of San Francisco. This, of course, led to an increase in prices, which also upset the City and other customers.
The street lighting project, moreover, did not get anywhere and, when that contract expired in 1872, it was not renewed for four years. After that, there finally were some lamps installed and utilized. Meanwhile, the region’s nascent oil industry, launched in 1865 with the Pico Oil Company in the San Fernando field in the mountains in modern Santa Clarita, began to develop small quantities of oil by the mid-Seventies, including a large strike by the Star Oil Company in 1876, just prior to the new street-lighting contract.
By 1874, the directorate of the company included merchant Charles Ducommun, whose namesake company is still in existence and headquartered in Orange County; Stephen H. Mott, who was secretary of the private water company and a director of Perry’s lumber business; and the banker Isaias W. Hellman, a former partner of William Workman and F.P.F. Temple and managing cashier of Farmers and Merchants Bank.
The use of oil-lit street lamps, however, proved to be short-lived. In 1879, Thomas Edison invented the incandescent light bulb and the way was paved for electric lighting to compete with and, within a relatively short time, overtake gas as the dominant source for lighting.
Three years later, in September 1882, the City Council decided to replace gas street lamps, of which there were 136, with electric ones and the new Los Angeles Electric Company was awarded a contract, starting with massive arc lights on 150-foot tall poles, the first of which was switched on at the end of the year, marking a new era for illumination in the city.
The end of the Los Angeles Gas Company was nigh, despite the firm’s assurances that it would improve and upgrade its services. At the end of 1885, just before the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway completed the first direct transcontinental railroad line to the city, ushering in the great Boom of the Eighties, a plan was released by the firm, but it proved unworkable and the massive growth that ensued was far beyond its means.
The following year, the 20-year franchise agreement ended and the field was opened to others. Thaddeus S.C. Lowe, a remarkable figure and who later built the Mt. Lowe Railway, had a patent on what he called “water gas,” referring to a more efficient process of converting coal into gas. He formed the Consumers’ Gas, Light and Power Company in 1886 and two years later, established his namesake firm, Lowe Gas and Electric, with a plant at Alameda and Seventh streets.
In 1889, these two companies were acquired by Pacific Lighting Company, which then completed a trifecta by taking over the long-struggling Los Angeles Gas Company. Toward the end of November, a new enterprise was created with the merger of the four firms and was called the Los Angeles Lighting Company, later Los Angeles Gas and Electric.
Its works were on Aliso Street near where U.S. 101 ends in downtown and a massive expansion to meet growing demand during yet another huge growth boom was undertaken in the 1920s. The huge storage tanks were, for years, landmarks in downtown for their height and size.
Service was significantly improved in 1905 when the Los Angeles Electric Company and San Gabriel Electric Company inaugurated a city-wide system of ornamental street lighting. By about that time, natural gas, an outgrowth of the huge expansion of the region’s oil industry began to be commonly used. Two decades later, in 1925, the city’s Department of Public Works established the Bureau of Street Lighting, which manages the massive system today, although far more efficient light bulbs have been introduced in recent years, as they have throughout the region.
On 28 June 1967, Southern California Gas Company, the successor company to Los Angeles Gas and Electric, dedicated a plaque at the site of the original Los Angeles Gas Company plant in honor of the centennial of the delivery of the first gas service in the little city. Today, the site is part of the LA Plaza Cultura y Artes.
Today’s post features a quintet of coupons from bonds issued in the 1870s by the Los Angeles Gas Company to raise capital. The coupons were signed by company secretary John M. Elliott, later the long-standing president of the prominent First National Bank of Los Angeles and who owned a large citrus ranch at North Whittier Heights, renamed Hacienda Heights about 1960.
Interest on the bonds was due on 1 June 1878 and each of them were redeemed, with a stamp from the Anglo Californian Bank of San Francisco indicating that the interest was paid out on 31 May. Only the coupons are in the Museum’s holdings, so there is no way to know who the original owner of the bond was.
Still, these rare items are representative of a few important elements of the growth of Los Angeles from a town with limited infrastructure to a small city that was in the early stages of that key indicator of future growth, the reliable provision of utilities which greatly enhanced modern life.