Shades of L.A.: The Filipino American Experience

Thirty years ago the Los Angeles Public Library embarked on a ground-breaking, collection-building project – reaching out to the diverse communities of the region for family photographs that would provide depth and nuance to an understanding of this region’s multi-cultural history. The project and its results are called Shades of L.A. The support group Photo Friends of the L.A. Public Library was formed to assist in that effort. The group endures.

Los Angeles is a place literally built on the intersection of cultures: from the Tongva and other Native tribes that lived here for centuries to the Spanish, Mexican, and Black pobladores who established the pueblo in 1781, to the Hispanic and White cultures that duked it out for dominance in the early 19th century. As so often happens, the dominant culture, in this case the White American settlers, was quickly able to put their stamp on the historical narrative.

In the 20th century, Los Angeles has seen further waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America. Asian immigration has come in distinctive waves, beginning with Chinese in the late 19th century, to Japanese and Filipinos in the first part of the 20th, and, more recently, Southeast Asians, the refugees of the wars that decimated that region.

With major funding from Security Pacific National Bank and California Humanities, LAPL staff and volunteers were able to reach out to many ethnic communities and collect or copy over 7,000 images documenting family businesses, celebrations, religious and cultural traditions, and ordinary life. In addition, volunteers taped a dozen oral histories from participants. These photos and stories go far to balance the collection of the library. For a more detailed overview of the project, see

Filipinos in Los Angeles

Two persons who immigrated to this country from the Philippine Islands provided oral histories for Shades of L.A.: Royal Morales and Helen Brown. This essay is based in part on their stories. All photos are from the Shades of L.A.: Filipino American Community Collection unless otherwise indicated.

Men play cards at the Filipino Community Center in 1977. Herald Examiner Collection, image #00048180, Conrad Mercurio photographer.

The Philippines has a long, complicated history, including a unique melding of cultures and ethnicities and a special, if not always happy, relationship with the United States. For centuries the islands were subjects of the Spanish Empire. In 1898 the country was freed from Spanish rule only to become a far-flung territory of the U.S. Independence finally arrived only 75 years ago.

A benefit of American governance was that Filipinos could immigrate to the states more easily than other Asian peoples (at least until 1934 when immigration quotas were established). They were called “Nationals.” This was not the same as being a citizen; Nationals could not vote and faced similar discrimination as members of other ethnic groups.

In his 1993 interview, Royal “Roy” Morales described a center of Filipino activity in Central Los Angeles that moved about according to the changing demographics of the times, as well as urban development in the Bunker Hill area and freeway development. At the time of the interview, he describes the new Filipino Town as “the Union and Temple area to further down to Alvarado and west.” The area includes both the Filipino Christian Church and the Filipino Community Center (now the Filipino Cultural Center).


Royal Morales at his desk at Chapman College, City of Orange, about 1953.  Image #00003825.

Roy was born in Los Angeles in 1932, but moved to the Philippines with his family at the age of two. He returned to the states at the age of 18, alone, and enrolled in college. He earned a master’s degree in social work from USC and went on to a long career in the field, using his talents to help young Filipinos.  He sat for an interview with Amy Kitchener in 1993.

Arriving back in the Los Angeles area at the age of 18 was a bewildering experience for Roy:

I saw the big trees the big ocean. I saw the mountains and snow, very impressive, very clear, beautiful country. Seeing this vast, big country was very impressive. And then going directly to the campus, of course, that was my acculturation, the campus, the school. And right away the other connection was going to the Filipino Christian Church. That became my anchor.

Nativity play at the Filipino Christian Church, 1955. Image #00003678.


Helen (second from left) and friends received master’s degrees from UCLA in 1939. Image #00003946.

Helen Brown was born in Manila in 1915 to a Filipino mother and Caucasian American father, one of many mainlanders who went to the Philippines to teach in the early part of the century. Her family immigrated to the Los Angeles area in 1933 when she was a teenager. She graduated from UCLA and went on to receive a master’s in education from the university in 1939. Most of her working life was in schools, both in teaching roles and as an advocate for child welfare.

Although she counted white girls among her friends growing up, she often felt she was treated as a curiosity:

We’d have parties and sometimes we’d have slumber parties, and I remember we would be talking, sharing experiences. And, well, you know: “Where were you born?” I’d say I was from the Philippines and, well, that would start the frowns, you know. “Where was that?…Was it near Hawaii?” “No, a little bit further than that.” [Sometimes] I’d say I was from Hawaii, you know, or Czechoslovakia, or whatever.

Forbidden to Marry

Shortly after graduate school, Helen met Bill Brown, a Caucasian. Although she herself was half Caucasian, the couple were turned away when they went to get a marriage license in 1941. California still had a miscegenation law on the books, dating from statehood in 1850, which outlawed marriage between Caucasians and members of any other race. (Hispanics were considered white in this context.) The couple went to Nevada to marry. It was common at the time for mixed-race couples to marry out of state. Seven years later, the statute was struck down in the state Supreme Court case, Perez v. Sharp.


An ethnically mixed group of workers pose for a picture at the San Pedro Naval Supply Depot. Image #00025397, 1945.

Wartime Opportunities

World War II brought opportunities for ethnic minorities and women, groups that often faced discrimination in employment. Helen Brown trained as a welder and found work with CalShip (the California Shipbuilding Corporation) working on the Liberty Ships. CalShip and other yards had a mandate to turn out hundreds of new cargo ships to support, and sometimes carry, armed forces. Much of the work crew were women.

The work was also an opportunity for Helen, and others, to mix with women of other ethnicities.

I had gotten acquainted with the others — the Blacks and the Hispanics — and so I went to work with many of them in the shipyard. And I was assigned to weld the sides of the ships — they were called the bulk heads of the ships, these Liberty Ships — later called the Victory Ships. …  I was so interested because some of them were used to land the troops or the marines in the Philippines, as well as other islands.

There were all kinds of women, there was even one flapper kind of young thing, you know; she’d make us all laugh with all of her adventures, you know! And then also, I know that was the beginning of women’s empowerment, because it was the first time that women of color really had the chance to earn a good living, because the pay was very good. And enjoy themselves, and they learned this skill. First time they were out of their homes, you know.


Filipina American Tawa and her friend Ethel sport athletic sweaters at Roosevelt High School in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of L.A., 1944. Image #00025415.

Cultural Identity

The sixties was a turbulent decade in America, as many racial and ethnic groups organized to demand recognition and an end to discrimination in housing, jobs, and education. These movements also served to foster pride in ethnic identity and culture. Filipinos who may have come from quite diverse backgrounds in their home islands now began to see themselves as one group: Filipino Americans. Both Helen Brown and Roy Morales, who became friends and allies, were involved in establishing Filipino American associations.

Helen, who had been quiet and shy in her youth, recalls finding her voice and purpose:

We as a group were hearing the Blacks talk about their experiences. We Asians began to hear about the Chicanos and were saying to ourselves, “Hey, you know, we feel the same way. They’re saying things that we feel that we have never expressed.”

The terms “Pilipino/Pilipina” were adopted by many activists as a way of establishing self-identity, rather than the “Filipino/Filipina” ascribed to them originally by Spanish conquerors. Helen explains:

And then they gave us our name: Filipinos with an F. And we didn’t even have an F in our alphabet, see? And they’re defining who we are and everything.

Today both terms are used.

Cultural pride was a big part of changing times. Helen Brown felt unexpected pride when she first saw a dance troupe from the Philippines perform in Los Angeles:

I saw this for the first time at the Shrine Auditorium in 1954 when a dance troupe called the Bayanihan came to perform. So I went over to see it and I’m telling you, Amy, this was the most beautiful presentation that I’ve ever seen, you know. And it was all this Philippine music with all the dances and costumes and everything. It was just beautiful! And I said, “Hey, you know what, that’s part of me!” And that was really the beginning of my pride in being, you know, who I was.

The Bayanihan Philippine Dance Company perform “Wild Plumes,” balancing bowls on the dancers’ heads, in 1988. Image #00087675, Herald Examiner Collection, James Ruebsamen, photographer.

The group Pisante performs at the Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture, 1994. Image #00005705.

Royal Morales described some of the cultural traditions that received new recognition during the sixties and seventies as young Filipinos discovered their heritage:

Well, the ethnic studies and then empowerment, getting into certain positions of importance, getting further into the roots, heritage, a lot of the games, culture, kite-making, sipa [rattan ball and the game that utilizes it], parol making [a decorative Christmas lantern], poetry that is a combination of Pilipino and English. And artists, writers were coming up. A few books were beginning to be written … Drama, poetry, essays, articles, arts and crafts were all part of the seeking of roots.

A student in Roy Morales’ lantern-making workshop at the Filipino Community Center shows off his ‘parol’ in 1993. Image #00005701.

Acculturation, not Assimilation*

Helen Brown described the change in mindset that came about as a result of the ferment of the sixties and beyond:

So now, what they’re doing is to begin to think in terms of — yes, we are from different regions of the islands, but still we’re from the Philippines. And so, if we’re going to have more of a part of this country here in the United States that we’re making our home, we want to be a part of this, you know; we have to make our part known, too. It’s not assimilation, it’s more of an acculturation. So we keep our differences as Filipino, but we also become a part of the United States. This is the Philippine culture contributing to this society.

*Merriam-Webster defines acculturation as a blending of cultures, as opposed to assimilation which occurs when one culture is absorbed into that of the dominant culture.


Royal Morales and granddaughter are joined by Jennifer Paz, a star of the musical Miss Saigon at the 1996 Festival of Philippine Arts and Culture. Miss Paz is more recently heard in the cartoon series Steven Universe as the voice of Lapis Lazuli. Image #00005707.


Featured image: Tawa and George, a sailor, in Long Beach, about 1947. Image #00025404.

Heritage Reclaimed: The Story of Glenda Ahhaitty

Thirty years ago the Los Angeles Public Library embarked on a ground-breaking, collection-building project – reaching out to the diverse communities of the region for family photographs that would provide depth and nuance to an understanding of this region’s multi-cultural history. The project and its results are called Shades of L.A. The support group Photo Friends of the L.A. Public Library was formed to assist in that effort. The group endures.

Los Angeles is a place literally built on the intersection of cultures: from the Tongva and other Native tribes that lived here for centuries to the Spanish, Mexican, and Black pobladores who established the pueblo in 1781, to the Hispanic and White cultures that duked it out for dominance in the early 19th century. As so often happens, the dominant culture, in this case the White American settlers, was quickly able to put their stamp on the historical narrative.

In the 20th century, Los Angeles has seen further waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America. Asian immigration has come in distinctive waves, beginning with Chinese in the late 19th century, to Japanese and Filipinos in the first part of the 20th, and, more recently, Southeast Asians, the refugees of the wars that decimated that region.

With major funding from Security Pacific National Bank and California Humanities, LAPL staff and volunteers were able to reach out to many ethnic communities and collect or copy over 7,000 images documenting family businesses, celebrations, religious and cultural traditions, and ordinary life. In addition, volunteers taped a dozen oral histories from participants. These photos and stories go far to balance the collection of the library. For a more detailed overview of the project, see

Two Worlds

Young Glenda with her pet chicken at her grandparents’ home in Bakersfield. “That chicken acted like a dog. If you put your hand out, it would put its head out so you could pet its neck.” Image #00004628.

Glenda Griggs was born in 1941 in Texas to a Cherokee father and a French and English mother. The family moved to California in 1954 where her father continued his career in the oil industry. In 1994, Glenda sat for an interview with Sojin Kim for the Shades of L.A. project. She also donated a number of family photos and images of Indian ceremonies and cultural events. These have become part of the collection Shades of L.A.: Native American Community. All images below are from this collection unless otherwise indicated.

German-born photographer Herman Schultheis snapped this photo of oil derricks in the Long Beach/Signal Hill area in 1937. Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Image #00096720.

So he took the job in California and we came out here crying. We didn’t really want to leave [Oklahoma]. And this was such a strange place. We got here during the winter and Christmas day we went to the beach; it was 90 degrees. And we would do crazy things like drive around Long Beach to smell the oil wells.

Gradually Glenda learned to love the area, particularly the beach:

I fell in love with the ocean. When I was young I went surfing. That was a great adventure. My dad liked to surf. I had the opportunity to do that before it became a fad. My kids tease me about surfing on an ironing board.

A Navajo couple attend a pow wow hosted by the American Indian Employee Association of Rockwell International in 1976. Image #00004601.

Children perform at an event sponsored by the American Indian Employees of Los Angeles County, date uncertain. Image #00004600.

This 1965 photo shows the Mark Twain steamboat in Disneyland’s Frontierland attraction. The “Indian Village” is seen behind it. The “burning cabin” lies around the bend. By the 1970s, the narrative of “unfriendly Indians” torching the settler’s cabin and murdering its owner was replaced with a pirate theme; later the “burning” was completely doused. Herald Examiner Image #00105265.

The Disney Connection

As a teen, Glenda started working at Disneyland shortly after it opened. Many young Indians worked at the amusement park. Ironically, Glenda had to prove her Indian heritage in order to obtain a position at the park’s Indian Village; the proprietor was only hiring Native Americans, presumably for a bit of authenticity. Working at Disneyland was formative for Glenda in a number of ways. In addition to meeting her future husband there, she was, for the first time, introduced to other young people from indigenous cultures. She also experienced discrimination first-hand and became aware of labor and social justice movements:

Unfortunately, Disney never really treated the Indians very fairly…the entertainment management didn’t have much respect for the Indians who were performers. And they paid them less than they paid the people who were dancers in some of their other production shows…But they organized, and they went on strike, and when they had the audacity to strike Disneyland, [the park] closed the Indian Village and built Bear Country [instead]. So there have been no Indians at Disneyland since the Indians went on strike. And as close as they can get — which is very racist — is their “burning house” [cabin], and when they go around in their steamboat, they tell them, “look out, look out, wild Indians are attacking!” 

 Melvin Ahhaitty, Glenda’s husband, in his Marine Corps uniform. Image #00004615, 1959.

Marriage brings new perspectives

Glenda’s husband, Melvin Ahhaitty served in the Marine Corps, a fact he hid from Glenda at first due to her disdain for the young marines she had encountered. He was a full-blooded Native of Kiowa and Comanche heritage. When they married in 1961 Glenda became even more immersed in Native American culture. This was a contrast to her childhood, where, aside from family, she knew few Indians.

And it was really because of marrying him — [once] I married him, we did not have any social contacts that were not Indian…I mean, I am of mixed background and had a mixed background in how I had grown up, but my husband and I have been married 35 years and from his life point, I did not have contacts except with Indian People. The only contacts I had with non-Indian people were those that I happened to be with at work.

She also learned to understand the warrior tradition that led so many young Indians to join the armed services.

You know, Indian people are conquered within their own country, but there’s nothing more important to them than their country. So there isn’t an Indian event that doesn’t begin without the flag and the flag song being sung. And at the end of it they usually sing warrior songs honoring military veterans. Warrior songs that are sung talk about ancient battles, but they also talk about all of them from WWI forward. And in their words they’ll talk about the Battle of the Bulge or they’ll talk about the Tet Offensive in Vietnam.

Glenda Ahhaitty is pictured second from left at an Indian Youth Leadership event at Vandenburg Air Force Base, about 1975. They are holding a model of a satellite. Image #00004609.

Women’s Work

In her thirties, Glenda went to work in the aerospace industry, both at Rockwell International and McDonnell-Douglas. Starting as a file clerk, she worked her way into increasingly responsible technical positions, including drafting and programming.

When I started working at Rockwell they were doing the last of the Apollo space launches, which were the Apollo-Soyuz missions with Russia, and later on the space shuttle, so it was a very exciting time in our nation. The engineers I was working with at Rockwell, they were working with Russians; they were opening up a new frontier in technology….Women were just beginning to demand a presence in engineering. There were women who were degreed engineers who were classified as secretaries.  We fought very hard for women to have a technical presence in engineering. So I had the good fortune to benefit from some of that.

She joined Indian professional organizations and began to work on Indian causes and to mentor Indian youth. At the time of the interview, Glenda was serving with the Los Angeles City/County Indian C0mmission (now the Los Angeles City/County Native American Commission) as Executive Director. Her personal life revolves around her family: four children and three grandchildren.

My children have grown up singing and dancing. We have a drum group called Red Tipi and we travel all over for dances and pow wows. That’s very much a part of our lives.

Walter, Glen, and John of Red Tipi perform at the Hollywood Bowl, date uncertain. Image #00004605.

Glenda Ahhaitty experienced a turbulent period in the history of the Southland. She watched the Watts Riots unfold on her television screen while in labor with her daughter in 1965. She was closely involved with the booming aerospace industry of the 70s and 80s. And she took part in the fights for racial equity of the last decades of the 20th century. She continues to advocate for the rights of Native Americans.

Shades of L.A.: Strong roots – the photos and story of Alice Ito

Aiko Alice with her cousin Niki and brothers Hitoshi and Ise (Isamu) playing at the family’s flower farm in the Los Feliz neighborhood, about 1930. Image #00004245.


Thirty years ago the Los Angeles Public Library embarked on a ground-breaking, collection-building project – reaching out to the diverse communities of the region for family photographs that would provide depth and nuance to an understanding of this region’s multi-cultural history. The project and its results are called Shades of L.A. The support group Photo Friends of the L.A. Public Library was formed to assist in that effort. The group endures.

Los Angeles is a place literally built on the intersection of cultures: from the Tongva and other Native tribes that lived here for centuries to the Spanish, Mexican, and Black pobladores who established the pueblo in 1781, to the Hispanic and White cultures that duked it out for dominance in the early 19th century. As so often happens, the dominant culture, in this case the White American settlers, was quickly able to put their stamp on the historical narrative.

In the 20th century, Los Angeles has seen further waves of immigration, from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, East Africa, and Latin America. Asian immigration has come in distinctive waves, beginning with Chinese in the late 19th century, to Japanese and Filipinos in the first part of the 20th, and, finally, Southeast Asians, the refugees of the wars that decimated that region.

With major funding from Security Pacific National Bank and California Humanities, LAPL staff and volunteers were able to reach out to many ethnic communities and collect/copy over 7,000 images documenting family businesses, celebrations, religious and cultural traditions, and ordinary life. In addition, volunteers collected a dozen oral histories from donors. These photos and stories go far to balance the collection of the library. For a more detailed overview of the project, see

A Tradition of Flowers

This essay looks at the life of Aiko Alice Ito, a Japanese American woman whose family established an enduring flower growing business in the Loz Feliz area south of Griffith Park. Ito’s story parallels that of many Nisei – the first generation of Japanese Americans born in this country. After establishing their business, the family lost it precipitously when they were “evacuated” to a concentration camp during World War II. Unlike many, the family was able to return and reestablish the business which lasted until 1961. Alice and her husband continued in the floral profession by building and running a successful retail shop on Western Avenue. They were active in both flower industry associations and Japanese American organizations.

In addition to donating use of many family photos, Alice Ito sat for an oral history interview with project director Amy Kitchener in 1993. All the quotations below are her own words. All images are from the Shades of L.A.: Japanese American Community, unless otherwise indicated.

Kiyo Kuromi, Alice’s mother, circa 1915. Shades of L.A. image #00004921.

Between two homes

Alice’s mother, Kiyo Kuromi, arrived from Japan in 1906 as a child – “in the year of the San Francisco earthquake.”

“My grandfather used to come and go [from and to Japan]. An when he found that there were much better chances for his children, he brought all three of them and then mother stayed here and the others he took back again…She remained with her uncle and he grew flowers for quite some time and then he retired and went back [to Japan] and then she was on her own here.”

Alice’s mother married a man named Harue, but it appears that the couple chose to keep Kiyo’s maiden name, Kuromi, as their surname, a relatively common practice among Japanese when a family name was at risk of dying out. Together they opened a floral nursery in the Los Feliz area of the city, in the shadow of the Griffith Observatory. Here they grew sweet peas, chrysanthemums, ranunculus, and other popular varieties, taking the cut flowers to sell at the flower market on Wall Street in downtown L.A. Alice and her two younger brothers grew up roaming and playing on the flower farm.

Sailing day  in 1931. A crowd gathers to bid farewell to relatives returning to Japan. The Nippon Yusen Kaisha line also carried tourists to exotic locations before hostilities put an end to the trade. Image #00004246.

Alice’s grandfather continued to keep a foot in both countries. He embarked upon business ventures in Los Angeles, but returned to Japan every year or so. She recalled day-long excursions to see him off at San Pedro.

“If grandpa was going to Japan, it was by boat. We would see him off. We would take a picnic lunch. It was an all-day affair.”

Advertisement for N.Y.K. Japanese liners. Image # Travel_Poster-00118, Travel Poster Collection.

In 1939, when Alice was about 20, the entire family traveled to Japan to visit the ailing grandfather. Alice elected to remain in that country and attend college. In addition to beefing up her scanty Japanese language skills, she had the opportunity to study traditional arts which stood her in good stead later as a florist:

“It was a wonderful challenge. In addition to books, over the weekends I decided to fill in with flower arranging classes, the Japanese tea ceremony, silk painting, and calligraphy. There was lot there to learn! Silk painting was wonderfully relaxing. Flower arranging has been a wonderful influence because, as we went into business, I found that the basic lines were important to follow, even with the [fuller] arrangements that we have here. They do like the vines, but homes in America need a little more than the few flowers we use over there.”

Late in 1941, Alice’s sojourn in Japan was cut short when all American citizens were urged to return home. With war clouds looming, she had to scramble to find transportation back to Los Angeles.

“In my second year they asked that we return. When I was finally able to get a boat to give me passage, that ship was one of the last to unload its passengers here in San Pedro. The one right after that ship had to turn around and go back. So I was just lucky. Those friends of mine that were on that ship had to spend their lives in Japan during the war.”

Happier Times

Although the family worked long and hard at the flower farm, there were occasional outings. In addition to seeing her grandfather off at San Pedro, Alice recalls picnics small and large.

“Every so often we’d pack a picnic lunch and go either to the beach or to the park. What’s now Marina Del Rey used to be Del Rey Beach and many of the Japanese families would go down there and have their little picnics. They had a little canal* there and that’s where we used to find other Japanese American families. Another place was San Pedro — they called it White Point. We’d walk down the rocky craggy cliffs and find a spot, do a little fishing and abalone hunting. They used to have many of the prefecture [families with roots in a specific Japanese region] picnics there.”

*See our blogpost Grand Design: The Canals of Venice for a description of the canal.

Ready. Set. Go! Children line up for a foot race at a picnic sponsored by their after-school Japanese language program. Image #00004248.


The terms “evacuation” and “relocation” are euphemisms still often used to describe the forced upheaval of Japanese and Japanese Americans from the West Coast states during World War II. We described the process in our 2017 blogpost There and Back: Los Angeles Japanese and Executive Order 9066. In the spring of 1942, Alice and her family were sent first to the Santa Anita Assembly Center, a horse race track, and then to Gila River Internment Camp in Arizona.

“Well, as you know everyone had to be evacuated. And here we had this acreage and all our equipment. And so we put it into a barn, locked it up. But of course during the course of the war there wasn’t a thing left. Not one item was in there when we came back after the war. And so we started from scratch and were able to take over little bits of land which grew into forty-four acres again. And we were able to grow flowers until 1961 when the property was finally sold.”

Alice with her family at Gila River War Relocation Center, about 1942: Mother Kyo and Alice standing; father Harue kneeling center; Isamu at left; Hitoshi at right. Image #00004265.

Life in the camps was a series of indignities, including the requirement to bring one’s own eating utensils.

“They had a list of items [you could take with you]. For instance, for the mess hall they asked that we buy a tin plate and a cup so that we could get our food and line up and then — just the bare essentials. We just tried to take whatever we felt was necessary, mostly in clothing. And of course any items like knives or scissors or things of that nature were confiscated.”

In 1943 Alice was given permission to leave the camp to marry her fiancé, Arthur Ito, who was in the service. She was allowed to remain with him in Minnesota (far from the “exclusion zone”) and while he served overseas, while she taught Japanese to GIs.

Alice and Arthur Ito married on Valentine’s Day, 1943, in the base chapel, Camp Grant, Illinois. Image #00004253.

At war’s end, Alice’s family was allowed to return to Los Angeles where they managed to reclaim a portion of their land. Sadly, the family patriarch, Harue, took ill and passed away shortly after the return. Alice and Arthur took on the running of the business. When they sold the nursery in 1961, they opened a full-service floral shop, Flower View Gardens, on Western Avenue in Hollywood which was still open at the time of Alice’s 1993 interview.

The Itos became prominent in the flower industry and in the Japanese American community. Arthur rose to become vice president of FTD (Florist Transworld Delivery, as well as president of the Hollywood chapter of the JACL (Japanese American Citizens League). Alice became active in the Executive Women’s International, a women’s professional organization. Family papers make up 52 boxes in the Huntington Library archives.

Culture Clash

Toward the end of the interview, Alice is asked what she thinks of the many changes in Los Angeles. She describes the many waves of new immigrants and, while acknowledging the challenges population diversity brings, she sees hope for growing understanding and tolerance.

“I think we, too, as citizens have to learn [about] the cultures of all these other people that are here. However, it’s very hard to do that because it’s so completely different. For instance, the Asian community: we have the Thailand group, the Cambodians, the Vietnamese, of course mainland China; there’s a few in our area Taiwanese. And then, on the other hand, we have the Latino group and then from the Middle East we have many Armenians and I can’t even begin to tell you what nationalities are all in there. But I’m sure as citizens, it’s up to us to learn. As as business people we have to do that. We’re confronted with many of these problems because we don’t know, but I think in time, I hope, we’ll be able to understand each other a little better.”

The featured image at top shows an unidentified family in Japan, c. 1900, probably Alice’s mother’s family. Image #00004293.

Rancho Los Amigos: Meeting changing needs

The County Farm in 1928: the institution for the indigent, aged, and disabled was designed as a bucolic setting with winding roadways and shade trees. The superintendent’s house is seen at left. (On a side note, the house was used as the principal setting in the comedy horror film Bubba Ho-Tep in 2002.) Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00072843.

Since the dawn of time, we have struggled with the question of how best to help the unfortunate: the poor, homeless, sick, disabled, and elderly. One institution that has paralleled changing approaches to human services is Rancho Los Amigos, a sprawling complex in the city of Downey. Photos from the library’s collection document the life of this enduring public charity.

Beginnings – the Farm

Rancho Los Amigos had its origin as the Los Angeles County Poor Farm, a term that has fallen out of favor. In 1887 the county purchased open land near the town of Downey and built a large facility to handle an overflow of indigent and disabled persons from the county hospital. The first residents arrived a year later.

The poor farm concept was nothing new. It had its origin in the centuries-old Elizabethan poor laws and the idea that indigent people should work for their living unless they were completely disabled by age or infirmity. At the Farm able-bodied residents were assigned to work the fields, the orange orchard, or the dairy, producing food for the facility as well as for sale. By 1923 the charity had 400 acres of farmland and 150 milk cows producing 500 gallons of milk a day.

A “milk maid” prepares to milk a cow at the County Farm, circa 1923. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00072851.

Transitioning to a Medical Facility

In the decades that followed, the farm gradually pivoted toward serving more residents with chronic illnesses and severe disabilities, including mental illness. Ultimately the farm operation was abandoned and the institution became exclusively medical in nature. Name changes reflected the shifting focus: in 1918 the term “poor farm” was dropped in favor of the simple name Hondo, after the community and river in the vicinity. In 1932, the name changed again — to Rancho Los Amigos, “Ranch of the Friends.” More archaic terms, such as almshouse, insane asylum, and sanitarium, are fortunately largely forgotten.

The Rancho grew over the years, building new facilities on the abandoned farmland and expanding to the north where more modern buildings were sited. The institution earned a solid reputation for innovations in physical therapy, occupational therapy, and the use of medical devices, such as the iron lung and the halo vest. In 1982, the it became Rancho Los Amigos Medical Center; two decades later the hospital was given one more name: Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center, with modern facilities concentrated on the north campus. About the same time, the south campus was abandoned to become a curiosity for urban explorers and ghost hunters.

The property’s Spanish Colonial style administration building was completed in 1923. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00072850.



Job-training was a big part of the Rancho experience. In addition to farm and dairy work, residents could learn to operate laundry equipment, build furniture, or work a printing press. Others benefited from the facilities available at the Rancho. These young women, part of the New Deal’s National Youth Administration, press sheets in a large mangle in 1939. These women were employees, not residents. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00047239.

Public Health Crisis: the Polio Epidemic

Today we can hardly comprehend the fear that accompanied the polio epidemics that bedeviled the United States, and other countries, in the 20th century. It can compare only to other little-understood contagions such as AIDS in the 1980s and COVID-19 today. Poliomyelitis is a crippling, virus-driven disease with a history going back to ancient Egypt. Increasing urbanization, with crowded and unsanitary conditions in the late 19th and early 20th century led to widespread outbreaks. Unlike AIDS and COVID, polio hit young children particularly hard. While many of those infected suffered only minor symptoms, a significant number developed severe illnesses that included muscle weakness, breathing difficulties, and paralysis. Many died until the development of polio vaccines in the 1950s and 60s.

Schoolchildren with left arms bared prepare for inoculation against polio, San Pedro School, May 16, 1955. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00055422.

The vaccine came too late to prevent the worst outbreak in U.S. history, in 1952. Los Angeles saw serious outbreaks of polio throughout the 1940s and 50s. The Rancho opened a polio ward in 1944 with 32 patients, the start of what would become a premier polio treatment center offering the latest therapies.


The polio ward at Rancho Los Amigos, 1949. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00056927.


Newspapers and the public were fascinated with the strange contraption called the iron lung adapted for the use of patients with respiratory failure due to polio.  Photos of people confined to these tube ventilators, many for months or years, abounded. Here a Rancho boy confined to the machine is instructed in knot-tying by his Boy Scout buddies. A mirror placed at an angle allowed the patient to view something other than the ceiling. Valley Times Collection, Image #00123046, February 1, 1964.


This likely staged image from 1955 shows polio patients on a covered patio at the Rancho. A rocking bed, allowing for the patient to be repositioned such that gravity will assist respiration, is seen next to an iron lung. The nurse has access to a portable telephone allowing her patient contact with friends and family. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00047238, 1955.


A new polio center at the Rancho was dedicated in February, 1955, to meet the needs of growing numbers of disabled polio survivors. For the event, Mrs. Maezella Houdyshell demonstrated the model kitchen at the facility. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00047241.


Rancho Los Amigos may have been tucked away, but it was not forgotten. Many community charities and service organizations lent a hand. Here clowns entertain Rancho children at a Yule party in 1963. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00047236.

Today the modern Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center is a respected rehabilitation hospital serving approximately 2,500 people annually on an inpatient basis and many thousands more with outpatient services. Meanwhile, the old buildings of the original Rancho lie neglected behind chain link fencing, some of them already demolished. A number of plans have been proposed for these derelicts, everything from repurposing them for the homeless again to complete demolition. A proposal to replace the campus with county buildings was approved by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in June 2020, despite appeals from preservationists. While the complex is closed to the public, many photos of the decaying structures are available via a quick internet search.

Women and Outdoor Promotion: The Los Angeles Camera Club ca. 1900

In 1900, the inaugural issue of the West Coast’s first photography magazine Camera Craft, based in San Francisco, reported on a new organization in Southern California:

“The growth of the Los Angeles Camera Club, from an idea, six months ago, to an organization numbering over two hundred and fifty members at present, is the surprise of the year. It must be in the climate.”[1]

Over the course of the 1890s, the U.S. had witnessed the rapid formation of photographer societies due to recent inventions, like the dry plate process and the introduction of roll film cameras by Eastman Kodak, which made the medium accessible to wealthy amateurs. While sources document more than ninety American camera clubs across the country,[2] the most thriving activity was happening along the East Coast, notably within the avant-garde circle surrounding Alfred Stieglitz – as would most of the scholarly research conducted on this period later on.

To explore the widely unknown history of camera clubs on the West Coast, especially regarding activities in and around Los Angeles the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library provides an excellent point of departure. As for most European scholars of American photography, my research in the LAPL collection started online, as I typed in the words “camera club” in TESSA in 2016. Working on my dissertation on the San Francisco-based California Camera Club, I was pleasantly surprised to actually find relevant images – such as the print “L.A. Camera Club and bicycles,” ca. 1900. Although the image does not show the 250-member organization in its entirety, it does offer a rare glimpse of Southern Californian camera work: A group of 28 people, one-third of whom are woman (!), lounging on the side of a road with tripods and bicycles casually spread out in front of them.

L.A. Camera Club and Bicycles, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, #00047688

It is a rare photograph of a very common activity – an outdoor-photography excursion. For West Coast residents, perhaps more than for practitioners located elsewhere, excursions were a cherished pastime. As the announcement in Camera Craft implied, many organizations in California prided themselves on the regional climate they considered particularly apt to exploring landscapes, trying out equipment, and creating scenic views. As the photograph (and other images taken the same day) demonstrates, belonging to a camera club provided a sense of community and shared outdoor pleasures – for both men and women.

L.A. Camera Club on Bicycles, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, #00047686

While San Francisco’s camera club was established in 1890 and its well-equipped rooms had become a popular venue for local photographers, the Southern Californian scene that took off some ten years later also sought to advertise its offices. In November 1900, the Los Angeles Herald reported on an opening reception at the club’s new headquarters, praising the various dark rooms (six!), alongside toning-, enlarging-, and printing rooms.[3]

Wright and Callender Building, DWP Photo Collection, #1006049

The Wright and Callender Building on Hill Street (seen here in later years), whose top floor would be occupied by the Club in 1900, came to the attention of the club officers through Frank Wiggins, then director of the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. His assistant, commercial photographer Carleton O. Valentine, became the first official president of the Club in late 1899. He was joined by another professional photographer, Frederic Hamer Maude, who operated a business on West 1st Street and mostly documented Los Angeles and Southwestern landscapes (as this print of the Mount Lowe Mountains, ca. 1900, illustrates).

F.H. Maude, Mount Lowe mountains, ca. 1900, Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00035025

Although the label ‘camera club’ brings to mind a group of congenial amateurs with no intention of (or even explicitly opposed to) selling their work, Western clubs drew on the thriving local photography market in their membership. While the San Franciscan club was the result of such a dispute over commercializing prints (and then went on to embrace this practice), the Los Angeles Camera Club directly relied on the city’s professional network to display its work, disseminate it to larger audiences, and tout the latest equipment. The collaboration of regional boosters with the city’s photography scene does not come as a surprise as Jenny Watts, former curator of photographs at the Huntington Library, explains: “Southern California’s advocates needed photography to make words real, to demonstrate (or at least suggest) the authenticity of exaggerated claims about the future of a place like Los Angeles. Photography would be the rose-coloured glasses through which the country could glimpse this new city or, as some even claimed, this new civilization.”[4]

Like many Californian artists and writers of the time, Los Angeles Camera Club president Valentine then embraced exactly this booster rhetoric, notably in a piece in Camera Craft where he stated: “The Pacific Coast, from the orange and palm groves of Southern California to the pine-clad mountains of Oregon and Washington with caps of perpetual snow, forms the bountiful treasure-box of the camera devotee.”[5] With his business partner Arion Putnam, Valentine specialized in residence and architectural photography, and produced many picturesque scenes, for example the plaza and mission of Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles near San Gabriel, seen here in a print from the California Historical Society.

The Plaza and Mission [Nuestra Senora Reina de Los Angeles], Views of Los Angeles, California, PC-GS-Photographers-Los Angeles-Putnam & Valentine, California Historical Society.
As a regional collective with promotional aspirations, the Los Angeles Camera Club set up a dynamic agenda in which local landmarks like the missions occupied a prominent place. These excursions were covered not only in the photographic magazines of the day, but also in newspapers, as on February 17, 1900, when the LA Herald announced a club outing to San Gabriel Mission.[6] The LAPL collection includes several photos of the mission in 1900, produced by the camera club, most probably during that very excursion.

Mission Bells, San Gabriel, ca. 1900, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, #00079275


Mission San Gabriel, ca. 1900, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, #00079207

Five months later, in July 1900, another trip led members to mission San Juan Capistrano on a special “club car” booked on the Santa Fe railway. In the pages of Camera Craft, a club member described the particular attraction of the missions to Southern Californian photographers: “[T]he arches, broken columns, long corridors and ruined altar [afford] opportunities for the photographer, which fills his soul with a great joy and empties his pockets of loose change in the endeavor to secure sufficient plates and films on which to carry away all the best views.”[7] Thanks to the halftone printing process, these views would be reproduced in photographic magazines and thus reached a much broader audience across the U.S. and Europe.

While many camera clubs offered outdoor programs, the Los Angeles Club – through its association with the Chamber of Commerce – was particularly keen on contributing to the creation of a historicized Western landscape. As part of a dominant group of Anglo-American settlers, these Southern Californian photographers shaped a victorious narrative of the region in which conquest and conversion of indigenous peoples and Mexicans were romaniticized. The driving force behind this production was Mrs. Harrye Forbes, along with her husband Armitage S.C. Forbes of Pasadena.

Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, #00043839

A preservationist and author, Harrye Forbes was very active in civic life, participating in Southern California’s Women Parliament and serving as chairperson of the California History and Landmarks Committee (and later as vice president of the Southern California Historical Society). More importantly, Forbes was one of the first women to be appointed on the board of directors of a camera club in a time when photographic societies barely started to offer active (rather than associate) female membership. As the majority of San Francisco’s camera club women held afternoon tea receptions or decorated headquarters, Los Angeles photographers like Harrye Forbes occupied active roles, such as director of classes on retouching, developing, and lantern slide making. In the summer of 1902, she gained additional recognition as chairperson of first Los Angeles photographic salon.[8]

L.A. Camera Club member, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, #00047680

The May 1902 photographic salon, held at the club and co-organized by Forbes, was the first collective photography exhibition in Southern California. It included 550 prints submitted by 103 contributors, many of whom from San Francisco and Los Angeles, but also from Washington D.C., Philadelphia, and Louisiana. Club secretary Helen L. Davie, another active club woman, described the event in Camera Craft as “the first opportunity the Southern California amateur has had of comparing his efforts with those of the best-known workers throughout the North and East.”[9] Despite the emphasis on the “amateur” participation to demarcate the work displayed as artistic, many of the salon exhibitors were well-known professionals, like Charles C. Pierce, who showed nine prints of Southern Californian landscapes – similar to works in the C.C. Pierce collection at the LAPL.

C.C. Pierce, San Fernando, ca. 1890, C.C. Pierce Collection, #00023790

Forbes impact as a well-connected photographer and regional preservationist becomes tangible in the 1903 publication California Missions and Landmarks and How to Get There. Lavishly illustrated with images from her club colleagues and professionals – including C.C. Pierce, F.H. Maude, Putnam & Valentine, and others – the guide mixed historical information on the missions with hands-on tourist advice regarding train schedules and fares.

Mrs. Armitage S.C. Forbes, California Missions and Landmarks (1903). Illustration by Putnam & Valentine.

Opening to a picturesque depiction of the arches at San Juan Capistrano by Putnam & Valentine, Harrye Forbes’s introduction left little doubt about the goal of her guide: “First, to give the shortest and most direct routes whereby the traveler and student may visit the California mission buildings […]; and, secondly, to assist in creating further interest in the Mission buildings as Art treasures, hoping and trusting that ere long we, of the State of California, will learn to appreciate the legacy that Spain left to us and finally awaken to our responsibility – that of preserving and restoring the Mission Buildings.”[10]

The illustrations of crumpling arches and adobe facades amid roses insisted on the necessity of historic preservation with a sense of urgency and artistry. What Forbes and her colleagues considered authentic – the desired Spanish (i.e. white) lineage of the state of California – needed to be saved, and therefore promoted and made accessible in words, images, and practice. Marrying picture-taking and traveling, Forbes infused photography with historical and cultural meaning. To her, as to the many boosters in her circle, it was the ideal medium to internalize both a romantic European past and a dominant Anglo present – especially since cameras were mostly affordable by well-to-do Angelenos.

Despite this dynamic agenda of outings, exhibitions, and publications, the first Los Angeles Camera Club disbanded in 1904, after merely five years of activity, due to financial difficulties. By 1915, a second-generation Los Angeles Camera Club was underway. By the 1920s, the city would become a veritable photography hub, with organizations like the Southern California Camera Club, the Camera Pictorialists, or the Japanese Camera Pictorialists of California, all of whom organized exhibitions and provided venues for aspiring practitioners. Notable figures, like Edward Weston and Fred Archer (who went on to found his own school of photography after WWII), emerged out of this dense networks of clubs.[11]

Robert Douglas, Photography class, Fred Archer School of Photography, 1949, #00025303

While the impact of collective photography on regional promotion and the role of women in perpetuating such visual narratives in the early twentieth century require further examination, it is clear that camera clubs provided unprecedented participation in civic culture and the arts for many Westerners. Be it the state’s first photography exhibits, outings to missions and to the coast, or congenial strolls through the city, the Los Angeles Camera Club offered an attractive mélange of art, promotion, and historical instruction. Membership in the LACC gave female photographers, aspiring amateurs, and professionals an opportunity to leave their imprint on the cultural scene of the American West in the years before the film industry. The photo-collection of the Los Angeles Public Library provides a rare insight into these understudied decades and invites a closer look at how regional culture was shaped through collective picture-taking.

L.A. Camera Club at Point Fermin, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, #00047678


L.A. Camera Club members, Security Pacific National Bank Photo Collection, Image# 00047682


[1] “News of Clubdom,” Camera Craft 1, no. 1 (1900): p. 32.

[2] Walter Sprange, The Blue Book of Amateur Photographers 1893: The New Photographic Club Directory. American Societies (London and Beach Bluffs, MA: W. Sprange, 1893).

[3] “Los Angeles Camera Club Holds a Reception in Its Cosy New Home,” Los Angeles Herald, November 17, 1900, p. 9.

[4] Jennifer A. Watts, “Picture Taking in Paradise: Los Angeles and the Creation of Regional Identity, 1880-1920,” History of Photography 24, no. 3 (2000): p. 243.

[5] “Notes,” Camera Craft 1, no. 2 (1900): p. 65.

[6] “City News in Brief,” Los Angeles Herald, February 17, 1900, p. 6.

[7] “News of Clubdom,” Camera Craft 1, no. 4 (1900): p. 200.

[8] For information on Forbes, see Peter E. Palmquist, Shadowcatchers II: A Directory of Women in California Photography, 1900-1920 (Arcata: Eureka Printing Company, 1991), pp. 128-129; See also Carolin Görgen, “‘Out here it is different’: The California Camera Club and community imagination through collective photographic practices. Toward a critical historiography, 1890-1915” (PhD diss., Université Paris VII Denis Diderot and École du Louvre, 2018), pp. 184-185, 246-248.

[9] Helen L. Davie, “The Los Angeles Salon,” Camera Craft 4, no. 6 (1902): pp. 248-249.

[10] Mrs. Armitage S.C. Forbes, California Missions and Landmarks (Los Angeles: Official Guide, 1903), p. 9.

[11] See Michael G. Wilson and Dennis Reed, Pictorialism in California: Photographs 1900-1940 (Malibu and San Marino: The J. Paul Getty Museum and the Henry E. Huntington Library and Art Collections, 1994); Dennis Reed, Making Waves: Japanese American Photography, 1920-1940(Los Angeles: Japanese American National Museum, 2016).

Going up the Country: Tales of Topanga Canyon

Los Angeles is a city and county ringed by mountains where it doesn’t touch the ocean.  With the mountains come canyons, lots of ’em. Some of the most famous declivities are Laurel Canyon, north of Hollywood, Malibu Canyon, and Topanga Canyon. Images from the Los Angeles Public Library give glimpses of life and loss in Topanga Canyon, a winding ravine descending from Woodland Hills in the San Fernando Valley to the ocean between Santa Monica and Malibu. It is contained within the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area (SMMNRA).

Topanga Canyon has a checkered history combining bohemian lifeways, sensational crime, and environmental catastrophes such as fires and mudslides. No doubt the remoteness of the locale and relative inaccessibility contributed to all three. Through it all, folks come to Topanga for its natural beauty and breathtaking views.

Early Days

The name Topanga comes from the local native people, generally called the Tongva, who originally occupied the area in close proximity to the Chumash. Despite its remoteness and unsuitability for ranching or agriculture, Topanga Canyon was part of two Spanish land grants in the early 19th century. By the late 19th century enough families were settled in the canyon’s folds to justify a small one-room schoolhouse. The chief occupation was cutting wood to sell to flatlanders. The beautiful canyon and its beach soon began attracting day trippers.

A 1902 photo shows students from the Topanga one-room school. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00024675. Below teacher Bessie Greenleaf stands in the school doorway in 1915. The Greenleaf family has deep roots in Topanga. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00069672.



The creek that carved the canyon ends at Topanga Beach. A group of folks enjoy an interlude on the sand, amidst seaweed, about 1898. A small child plays at left, background. Although the picture is labeled “Topanga Beach Picnic,” there is no food visible. The party likely arrived by horse cart and may have traveled over “Old” Topanga Canyon Road which had just opened. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00069667.

Away from it All

In the 1920s, Topanga attracted Hollywood stars looking for a quick getaway from the pressures of celebrity. Some, like Cecil B. DeMille and actress Pola Negri, built homes here.

Like so many other canyons, Topanga came to be a mecca for artistic types in the 1950s and beyond. The remoteness and natural beauty attracted many musicians. Neil Young recorded his album “After the Gold Rush” in his Topanga Canyon basement. Canned Heat’s Alan Wilson was inspired to write the rock anthem “Going Up the Country” here. Linda Ronstadt and Jim Morrison were frequent visitors. Beach Boy Dennis Wilson had a home nearby. More on that later.

Artists and fringe types still shape the culture of Topanga. The community includes an outdoor theater founded by blacklisted actor Will Geer in 1973, fairs and music festivals, and an annual film festival. A famous nudist colony closed in 2002.

Linda Ronstadt accepts a Grammy in the “best Mexican-American Performance” category, February 22, 1989. Photographer, James Ruebsamen, Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00083175.

The Dark Side of the Canyon

In the spring of 1968 Dennis Wilson picked up a couple of cute girls on PCH and brought them to his home just outside Topanga State Park. A day or two later he came home to find his house overrun with a group of strangers — a man named Charles Manson and his “family.” This encounter set off a series of unfortunate events, beginning with the murder of Topanga Canyon musician, Gary Hinman, who had befriended the group. That act was the first (or maybe not!) in a murder spree that took the lives of seven people (and likely more), including actress Sharon Tate and her friends.

Charles Manson, in a rare shaven appearance, during the penalty phase of his trail in Los Angeles, March 23, 1971.  The swastika he carved into his forehead is visible. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00020778.

An earlier crime also involved the canyon. In 1951 Valley resident Barney Mapes dumped the bludgeoned body of his estranged wife in the ravine. In an unusual twist for the times, Barney was acquitted on the grounds of self-defense.

Fire and Rain

Wild fires are a perennial problem in the hills of Los Angeles. Topanga is no exception; spectacular and destructive fires have broken out many times.

 The fire in this 1948 image destroyed 25 homes. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00045944.


Firefighters battle the 1938 fire in Topanga Canyon. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00045945.


A group of fire fighters rest in the shade of their headquarters vehicle in Topanga Canyon, in November 1948. How many do you see? Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00057029.


Women with a child and pets wait to evacuate the canyon in the wake of a 1943 fire which destroyed their home. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00057132.


Families fleeing the 1948 fire gather at the Topanga Canyon shopping center waiting for evacuation. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00057062.

Where there are fires, can flash floods be far behind? Topanga has suffered from repeated cycles of floods and mudslides, sometimes trapping residents for days due to washed out roads. In recent years, mudslides have been an annual occurrence.


Five people and a dog walk past mounds of muck following a 1973 mudslide that closed the main road for several days. Photographer, E. Bruce Howell, Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00045957.


Several cars were washed fifty yards down the canyon in a 1974 mudslide, about a month after the photo above. Photographer, Mike Mullen, Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00045960.

Rocks and fossils: The Ecology of the Canyon

Old Topanga Road (possibly still called simply Topanga Road at the time), with Calabasas Peak in the background, in 1937. Topanga Canyon Boulevard, now State Route 27, was put in at about the same time. Works Progress Administration Collection, Image #WPA 147.

Topanga Canyon is a geologist’s dream. Cliffsides contain fossils, everything from scallops to whales, left by retreating ocean waters millenia ago. Sandstone structures, part of what is called the Vaqueros Formation, make dramatic appearances on the hills. Remnants of indigenous culture are found in the many bedrock mortars, man-made holes used to grind food products.

Vaqueros sandstone monoliths stand near Saddle Peak Road in Topanga Canyon, 1937. Works Progress Administration Collection, Image #00030237.

Vaqueros sandstone outcropping, 1936. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00030364.

Scallop shell fossils uncovered during road construction. Undated photo, Works Progress Administration Collection, Image #00030359.


USC Geology students carry a fossilized whale flipper and vertebrae out from a dig in Woodland Hills, circa 1920. The professor in charge, A.J. Tieje, may have been the photographer. Herald Examiner Collection, Image #00071898.


Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Photographers Collection, Image #00097866.

We’ll leave with this magical view of Topanga Boulevard taken by prolific German-born photographer Herman J. Schultheis in or about 1937.

Those Daring Young Men: The 1910 Los Angeles International Aviation Meet

110 years ago a remarkable event took place on Dominguez Hill in what is now the City of Carson, Los Angeles County. A scant six years after the Wright Brothers’ historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, an International Air Meet brought throngs to witness feats of aeronautical daring-do. The 11-day (January 10-20, 1910) meet featured lighter-than-air balloons and dirigibles, heavier-than-air monoplanes and biplanes, and some very experimental — and comical — machines that never got off the ground. The exposition was a media sensation, cementing the reputation of a number of aviation pioneers and establishing air flight as something more than a flash in the pan.

Photographs and images in the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection tell the tale. All images are from the library’s Security Pacific National Bank Collection.

The scene

The organizers of the event sought out a site where planes could fly safely and that was reasonably close to public transportation (no freeways in those days!). They found it on Dominguez Hill, a part of the Rancho San Pedro owned by the daughters of Manuel Dominguez. The family was persuaded to allow use of their land in exchange for free passes to the tournament. With financial backing from a number of eager sponsors, the organizers leveled out the area needed, now called Aviation Field, built a huge bandstand, set up areas for concessions, and improved the depot at Dominguez Junction on the Southern Pacific line, a half mile walk away.

Postcard commemorating the first International Air Meet in the United States. Image #00007970.

Lighter than air

The Los Angeles Examiner, a sponsor of the meet, stationed a balloon at mid-field. Part landmark, part advertising, the tethered balloon can be seen in many of the photos of the event. One side read “It’s all in the Examiner.” Image #00007966.

A balloon, probably the New York, with passengers, descends to its mark on Aviation Field. Image #00007977.

Labeled “Race of Dirigibles,” this photo shows two air ships, the nearer one piloted by Roy Knabenshue and the farther by Lincoln Beachey. The men control the machines while standing on the struts. Photo by C.C. Pierce & Co. Image #00007981.

Heavier than air

A biplane flies over the makeshift airfield at sunset. Image #00007916.


This image shows some of the principal aviators heading over to a photo op: from right are Hillery Beachey (brother of Lincoln Beachey), Charles Willard, Charles Miscarol, Louis Paulhan, Didier Masson, Glenn Curtiss, and Curtiss’ business manager, Jerome Fanciulli. Frenchmen Paulhan, Masson, and Miscarol brought the “international” to the international meet. Other participants were Americans. Notably absent were the Wright brothers who chose not to participate in the meet. Image #00007882.

Louis Paulhan, the French aviator, was the star of the show. He arrived in Los Angeles with two monoplanes, two biplanes, his wife, a mechanic, two students, and a poodle, not to mention a lawsuit alleging patent infringement that had been filed by the Wright brothers. Here he is celebrated for establishing a new flight endurance record, 110 miles. He also achieved a new altitude record of 4,164 feet, although he said he had gone higher. Paulhan is also remembered for giving a ride to William Randolph Hearst, no doubt sparking that man’s interest in aviation. Image #00007883.

Honorable mention

Any number of intrepid individuals made valiant efforts to show off their inventions at the meet. One of the more extraordinary sights was Professor J.S. Zerbe, an amateur inventor, in his five-tiered multiplane or “scalloped-winged” plane. Alas, the contraption never got off the ground. Image #00007930.

Those daring young women

Some of the aviators and aeronauts at the meet offered rides to lucky enthusiasts, these women among them. They happen to be Celeste Paulhan (left), wife of aviator Louis Paulhan, and Mrs. Dick Ferris, wife of the event manager. Mrs. Ferris was well-known in her own right — the stage actress and singer Florence Stone. While no female aviators flew at the meet, it was not many years before aviatrices Katherine Stinson, Edna Christofferson, Dorothy Heater, and others — not to mention Amelia Earhart — proved that women could indeed fly. Image #00007884.

High-flying imagery

Among the collection of images are a number which are clearly “photo-shopped” for the occasion. No doubt images such as the one below fooled many into thinking the skies were crowded with flying machines! Image #00007950.

Like the picture above, many images showed planes flying impossibly low over the crowd, which here appears unconcerned.


By all accounts, the event was a huge success, attracting some quarter of a million ticket-buyers. While there were any number of mishaps during the air show, no serious injuries occurred. Later meets were not so fortunate; only one year later aviator Archibald Hoxsey crashed and died in front of spectators at the second Los Angeles aviation meet, held at the same spot as the first. And at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition, Lincoln Beachey died when his plane fell into San Francisco Bay.

The media, of course, had a field day with the concepts and images of air flight. Many businesses were quick to capitalize on the event with special promotions and tie-ins.

Image #00007960.

More significantly, the air meet at Dominguez Field brought aviation home to the West Coast: Glenn Curtiss, Bill Boeing, and William Randolph Hearst are among the familiar names associated with airplane manufacturing who were at the show. On a more ominous note, the military took note of the possibilities flight presented; Army Lieutenant Paul Beck went aloft with both Curtiss and Paulhan where he tested the concept of aerial warfare by dropping sandbags on a target. Bullseye.



The Final Farewell — Funerals, Burials, and Memorials in Southern California

Southern Californians have panache. From the clothes they wear to the dishes they cook to the homes they make, they create their own style – often a mixture of tradition and innovation – and show it proudly. This flair for living does not stop once they stop living. As you can see from the photo archives of the Los Angeles Public Library, Angelenos leave this earthly realm and go to a final resting place with as much elegance or flamboyance as they had in life.

It seems that residents of L.A. are always ready for their close-up. A beautiful headshot of a recently deceased gentleman adorns his gravesite in a section of a Southern California cemetery serving the Chinese community (with all tombstone writing in Chinese).

chinese american gravesite

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1945.

While Southern Californians embrace the latest fashion in dress and style, cultural traditions are still important. A burial service for two Chinese-Americans is held at a cemetery in Southern California. As white is symbolic of death in East Asian cultures, the men attending this funeral wear white armbands over their dark suits.

chinese american funeral with white armbands

Harry Quillen Collection, photo taken by Harry Quillen on September 10, 1941.

At Eden Memorial Park Cemetery in Mission Hills, Rabbi Aaron Wise and Cantor Allan Michelson lead a procession bringing religious books (Tefillin) and religious objects (prayer shawls, for example) for the Sheymot burial. This type of burial is rare and occurs only when religious objects can no longer be used.

eden memorial park cemetery

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Bob Martin on February 20, 1965.

The Pacific Ocean is the final resting place of one who loved the water and endeavored to keep all beach goers safe. A boat scatters the ashes of a lifeguard in the waters off of Santa Monica beach while surfers look on.

surfer memorial

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken May 24, 1983.

Family and friends, from small children to senior citizens, gather for a graveyard funeral service honoring Ellen Rozier Crabtree and pose for a memorial photo.

african american graveside funeral

Shades of L.A.: African American Community, photo taken on February 5, 1932.

A man dances the Adewa (also known as Adowa and Adzewa), a traditional African dance, at the funeral of W.K. Anin, the father of Chief Nana Kofi Anin, a Ghanaian American. The dancer is wearing a costume of kente cloth, a silk and cotton fabric native to the Akan ethnic group of Ghana. The funeral is being held in the Crenshaw District of Los Angeles.

dancing the adewa

Shades of L.A.: Ghanaian American Community, photo dated November 7, 1996.

Here we see family members pouring liquids to invoke ancestral spirits, an important prayer tradition performed at traditional Ghanaian funerals.

african funeral traditions

Shades of L.A.: Ghanaian American Community, photo dated November 7, 1996.

Aimee Semple McPherson, the evangelist who founded Angeles Temple, broadcast sermons over her own radio station, and donated many hours and dollars to Southern California charities, was put to rest in October of 1944. Her funeral was attended by thousands of mourners, many who traveled great distances to pay their respects in person.

aimee semple mcpherson funeral

Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated October 9, 1944.

Francis Herman Pencovic was born in San Francisco in 1911. In April of 1948 he announced that he was the new messiah and claimed to have led rocket ships to Earth from an extinct planet. He founded the WKFL (Wisdom, Knowledge, Faith and Love) Fountain of the World cult in Simi Valley and changed his name to Krishna Venta. His group fought wildfires, fed the homeless, and gained national attention in 1949 when they were the first to offer aid to survivors of a commercial airline crash in Simi Valley. Krishna Venta was killed in a bombing carried out by two disgruntled former members of his church. Here we see his funeral in Chatsworth, California, attended by his faithful followers. (The cult ceased to exist in the mid-1970s.)

krishna ventna funeral

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by William H. Wilde on December 19, 1958.

Stately and elegant, Moritz-Harrell Funeral Home was built in classic Spanish style on West Whittier Boulevard in Montebello, California. (The building still houses a funeral home today.)

moritz farrell funeral home

Herman J. Schultheis Collection, photo taken by Herman Schultheis in 1938.

For convenience and comfort, the Ives & Warren Funeral Parlor in Pasadena provided private transportation via streetcar for funeral attendees.

ives & warren funeral home

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo undated.

Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. – the swashbuckling actor who portrayed Robin Hood, Don Juan, and Zorro in silent films – died on December 12, 1939 of a heart attack. His funeral was held at the Wee Kirk o’ The Heather Chapel on the grounds of Forest Lawn in Glendale. His remains were temporarily interred in Forest Lawn Glendale’s Great Mausoleum while his widow, (Sylvia, Lady Ashley), had a marble monument with a raised tomb built at Hollywood Cemetery (now known as Hollywood Forever). Sylvia moved her late husband’s remains to this spot in October of 1941.

Wee Kirk o’ The Heather Chapel, a reproduction of a 17th Century church in Glencairn, Scotland, is in the forefront of this photo. The tower in the background was the Tower of Legends which was demolished in 1948.

wee kirk o' the heather chapel

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo undated.

Pictured here is the Great Mausoleum at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Glendale. Douglas Fairbanks Sr. was originally interred here.

great mausoleum at forest lawn glendale

Herman J. Schultheis Collection, photo taken by Herman Schultheis in 1938.

Here is the raised tomb at Hollywood Forever Cemetery that is the final resting place of Douglas Fairbanks, Sr.

douglas fairbanks sr. tomb at hollywood forever

Carol Westwood Collection, photo taken by Carol Westwood in August, 1991.

Hollywood Cemetery (later known as Hollywood Memorial Park and then renamed Hollywood Forever in 1998) was built in 1899 on 100 acres. By 1920, 40 acres at the south end of the cemetery had been sold to Paramount Studios. Many prominent people from the entertainment field are interred on the grounds – Rudolph Valentino, Cecil B. DeMille, Fay Wray, Tyrone Power – as well as others including gangster Bugsy Siegel, L.A.P.D. chief Tom Reddin, and Griffith J. Griffith, donor and namesake of Griffith Park.

The entrance to the Hollywood Cemetery (now known as Hollywood Forever Cemetery) projects a collegiate air with its ivy-covered arch.

hollywood cemetery entrance

Cary Moore Collection, photo taken by Cary Moore on unknown date.

Forest Lawn Memorial Park has several locations throughout Southern California. Forest Lawn in the Hollywood Hills boasts a beautiful mosaic depicting events from the history of the United States. Here we see a Veteran’s Day event (which included a sacred torch rite performed by the American Legion) being held shortly after completion of the mosaic.

forest lawn hollywood hills

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken on November 11, 1964.

The Home of Peace Cemetery in East Los Angeles was created on 35 acres of land donated by Kaspare Cohn, a businessman who played a pivotal role in the development of the City of Los Angeles and also had a major role in developing Jewish religious organizations in the region. When the cemetery was being constructed, Cohn negotiated an agreement with the Los Angeles Railway Company to extend a street car line to the cemetery, making the graveyard more accessible.

house of peace cemetery

Gary Leonard Collection, photo taken by Gary Leonard on unknown date.

The original Calvary Catholic Cemetery (most commonly referred to as Old Calvary Cemetery but also known as Buena Vista Street Cemetery) was built on the site now occupied by Cathedral High School. Many prominent Los Angelinos are buried there, including General Andres Pico, the first-generation Californio who fought in the Battle of San Pasqual during the Mexican-American War, signed the Treaty of Cahuenga, and became a California State Assemblyman. The cemetery showcased the diversity of settlers in Los Angeles, boasting tombstones written in Spanish, English, Italian, French, and German.

Here we see a family plot at the Old Calvary Cemetery.

old calvary cemetery

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo undated.

The New Calvary Catholic Cemetery, located at 4201 Whittier Boulevard in East Los Angeles, covers 137 acres and is owned by the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It is the final resting place of many celebrities and dignitaries including oil magnates Edward Doheny and Harry F. Sinclair, Archbishop of Los Angeles Timothy Manning, boxer Jose Yarba (Mexican Joe Rivers), musician Ferdinand “Jelly Roll” Morton, and thespians Ethel Barrymore, Lionel Barrymore, Ramon Novarro, Irene Dunne, Lou Costello, and Pola Negri.

new calvary church

Cary Moore Collection, photo taken by Cary Moore in 1991.

A faithful horse receives a proper funeral with a bugler playing reveille, a horsewoman bringing a wreath, and a crowd paying their respects.

horse funeral

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1930.

Bringing the heat!

Man and boys horsing around at Santa Monica Beach. Image #00025341, Shades of L.A.: African American Community Collection, c. 1965.

The Los Angeles basin cannot escape the fact that it’s climate tends to extremes, particularly of the hot variety. Global warming and galloping urbanization have exacerbated the situation Temperatures have increased over the past century, while heat waves are becoming ever more common and last longer.

While the sunshine draws many to the region’s palm-lined shores, there are dark sides to the bright skies. In this post we’ll look at how Angelenos both meet and beat the heat. The essay features images from the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library and the captions that accompanied them when first published in the region’s newspapers.


This fellow has found a way to enjoy the beach while still keeping out of the direct sun under the Santa Monica Pier. “Beach temperatures in the 80s and highs in the 90s inland.” Image #00043682 by James Ruebsamen, Herald Examiner Collection.


Thanks to industrial pollutants, the sun is often visible in the daytime. “Visitors from France and Italy seek refuge from the heat and smog in the Hotel Bonaventure’s pool.” Image #00051486, Leo Jarzomb, Herald Examiner Collection, July 10, 1984.


“Vapor locks stall traffic: Hot impatient motorists pulled to side of Hollywood Freeway, enroute to Valley, as vapor locks caused by excessive heat stalled at least 200 cars. Later afternoon traffice was near standstill, with one lane blocked off for stalled cars. Extra police and tow cars were assigned to area.” Image #00058807, John Rinaldi, Valley Times Collection, 1955.


Quintessential Los Angeles in summer: Surf, sun, and youth. Except that this photograph was taken on December 21, 1972 at Will Rogers State Park. Image #00050694, Herald Examiner Collection.


Another classic beach scene — a bit sweatier than the one above. “The current Southland heat wave has sent thousands scurrying to local beaches, as witnessed here in Seal Beach. Another scorcher is on tap today, with temperatures expected again to eclipse the 100-degree mark.” Image #00083385, Chris Hosford, Herald Examiner Collection, June 28, 1976.


“Real cool pool: Little David Allan Siddon, 2 1/2, splashes happily in his plastic wading pool….while young David was cooling off, temperatures soared to highest this year — a scorching 107.” Image #00112664, Valley Times Collection, June 4, 1957.


Valley Times staff artist Bob Hyde gives us a hot dog. The accompanying article described a proposed “pooch cooler” at Hoover Dam in Nevada for dogs and other animals. It is unclear what the proposed cooler was to consist of and unknown if it was ever built. Today no dogs are allowed at the dam site, with the exception of service animals. Image #00112760, Bob Hyde, Valley Times Collection, May 19, 1961.


“Valley geyser gushes: The Van Nuys intersection of Oxnard Street and Ethel Avenue became the scene of a geyser-type eruption Monday afternoon when heat caused the concrete roadway to expand, breaking a valve of an eight inch water pipeline.” Image #00125918, W.F. Gaskill, Valley Times Collection, August 8, 1961.


Newspapers love to provide life hacks for “beating the heat.” Here “Charles E. Lambert, office manager at the Union Ice Co. in Van Nuys, beats record Valley heat which rose to 110 degrees outside with ice block chair in company’s ice storage building. Ice house’s coolest room registered 30 degrees below.” Image #00143286, Valley Times Collection, September 1, 1955.


“There wasn’t much point to the gag of placing a 100 pound block of ice on the sidewalk in front of the Valley Times office, but the hot weather stunt did give folks something cool to talk about.” Image #00143288, Valley Times Collection, September 7, 1955.


“Road collapses in heat: Valley heat proves too much for road patch at Sherman Way and Havenhurst. Blacktop gave way, dropping rear wheel of bus into three-foot hole.” Image #00143290, Valley Times Collection, June 28, 1956.


“Harold L. Schrock, Winnetka, takes amazed look at road at Saticoy and Mason avenue which was buckled by 105 degree temperatures in West Valley. Pavement rose two and one half feet above dirt bed.” Image #00143292, Valley Times Collection, June 19, 1957.


“Desperation over perspiration: Los Angeles City Councilment James Corman, left, and Lemoine Blanchard are just two of city’s officials about to break precedent and loosen collars and ties in heat wave that has ‘really hit City Hall.’ Officials say they have it in for weatherman, building’s executive elevator, and its air-conditioning system. Elevator is on blink, making men walk up to offices; air-conditioner is out of order, will be for three weeks, and weatherman, only one of three working, is busy predicting more heat.” Image #00144159, Dean Gordon, Valley Times Collection, August 4, 1960.


“Dog comforts heat victim: Kathren Noerr, 75, of San Fernando, lies on on concrete after being felled by Valley heat. Her dog, Cha-Cha, guards mistress. She was given first aid on scene.” Image #00154679, Valley Times Collection, July 16, 1957.



And finally, one lucky enough to have a private pool: “A resident polar bear at the LA Zoo cools himself off after a dip in the pool.” Image #00084299, Paul Chinn, Herald-Examiner Collection, August 2, 1987.


Tales of Deadman’s Island

Dead men do tell tales at times. Some have tales to tell about a small islet that once acted as a landmark in Los Angeles Harbor just off San Pedro. Photos in the library’s collection depict Deadman’s Island, or Isla de los Muertos, across nearly a century, while also giving glimpses at the rapidly evolving community of San Pedro. But don’t look for it now!

The earliest view we have of Deadman’s Island is this photo based on a daguerreotype by William Godfrey, dated 1850. Only the base of the island in the background can be seen. The very small collection of shanties is all that comprised San Pedro, at that time already the main port for the town of Los Angeles. Image #00033343, Security Pacific National Bank Collection.

Dana’s view

In 1836 Richard Henry Dana, a sailor by choice on the brig Pilgrim, described the island:

“…a small, desolate-looking island, steep and conical, of a clayey soil, and without the sign of vegetable life upon it; yet which had a peculiar and melancholy interest to me, for on the top of it were buried the remains of an Englishman, the commander of a small merchant brig, who died while lying in this port.”

Dana studied the island while guarding a stack of cowhides that his shipmates had just acquired from the local Californio ranchers. Hides and tallow were the lifeblood of commerce in Alta California, at that time a province of Mexico. It is likely that he heard the tale of the sea captain from the group of local men he spent time with that evening. He is able to provide lurid detail to the story:

“…the man died far from home; without a friend near him; by poison, it was suspected, and no one to inquire into it; and without proper funeral rites; the mate, (as I was told,) glad to have him out of the way, hurrying him up the hill and into the ground, without a word or a prayer.”

Dana must have speculated as to the cause of the man’s demise. His own skipper had a vile temper, and Dana describes many acts of cruelty, including floggings. He even admits to fantasizing about mutiny.


Detail from a WPA mural on display at Dana Middle School in San Pedro — It depicts sailors from Dana’s ship exchanging trade goods for hides. The Native Americans, in service to the rancheros, have brought the hides down by ox and cart to the seashore. In the background men are laboriously carrying the heavy hides down to the boats. The work of obtaining the valuable cowhides was called “hide-droghing.” Dana is famed for his book Two Years Before the Mast, a highly descriptive account of life in the days of sail. Works Progress Administration Collection, Adrien Machefert artist, c. 1929, Image #00070050.


Lost in translation?

Dana does not name the island and there is controversy about when and where the name “Deadman” or “Isla de los Muertos” (Isle of the Dead) first came into use. We know that sailing ships passed along the coast as early as the 16th century, including those of the well-known explorers Cabrillo, Drake, and Vizcaíno . It is possible, even likely that the islands and islets near to shore were used as convenient burying places for those who died at sea. We know that Cabrillo himself was likely buried on one of the channel islands, probably San Miguel, in 1543, after dying of gangrene.

Midshipman Robert Duvall of the USS Savannah believed he and his shipmates had first named the island. In his logbook, following the 1846 Battle of Dominguez Hills, he writes:

“Wm H. Berry, O.S. departed this Life from the effects of a wound received in Battle. Sent his body on “Dead Mans Island,” So named by us. Mustered the Crew at quarters, after which performed Divine Service.” [all punctuation sic]

There is also speculation that the original name of the rocky outcropping had nothing to do with death at all. One Narciso Botello (1813 – 1889), in his memoirs, refers to our island as Morrito. The editor of the published volume, Brent C. Dickerson, tells us that morrito is the diminutive of morro meaning “something jutting out” or simply “nose” or “snout.” One immediately thinks of the famed Morro Rock in San Luis Obispo County, a volcanic plug named by the explorer Cabrillo in 1642. According to the official website of the City of Morro Bay, the name means “crown shaped hill” in Spanish. If the 576-foot tall Morro Rock is a crown-shaped hill, perhaps the  55-foot tall Deadman’s Island was a smaller crown-shaped hill.

Yet other translations on offer for “morro” include dome, turban, and — perhaps the simplest of all — hill, in Portuguese. Cabrillo, after-all, was at least part Portuguese.


A similar view to that of the daguerreotype above, but taken some two decades later. A breakwater has been installed as an aid to navigation into the inner harbor and some temporary structures can be seen at the point where the island meets the breakwater. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00033342, 1873.

Our poor island’s name was taken in vain during the free port wars, beginning in 1889, when various interests vied for federal dollars to build port facilities at either San Pedro or Santa Monica Bay. Senator William B. Frye of the U.S. Senate Committee on Commerce had this to say about San Pedro:

“Deadman’s Island! Rattlesnake Island! I should  think it would scare a mariner to death to come into such a place! You people in southern California propose to ask the government to create a harbor for you, almost out of whole cloth. The Lord has not given you much to start with, that is certain. It will cost four or five million to build, you say: well — is your whole country worth that much?” (quoted in Hager, “A Salute to the Port of Los Angeles…”)

Despite the senator’s misgivings, San Pedro was chosen to be the deep water harbor for Los Angeles County. This decision ultimately sealed the fate of the little island, as we will see below.


This circa 1905 view of San Pedro provides a much clearer view of Deadman’s Island, now connected by rock jetty to Terminal (or Rattlesnake) Island. The port town of San Pedro, while still quaint, has docking facilities and rail service. A dredger works  at top left deepening the channel into the inner harbor. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00032600.

Toasting the dead

An interesting anecdote comes to us from one Horace Bell, a California ranger, who published his memoirs in 1881. It seems that Bell accompanied Juan Antonio Sepúlveda and a group of enthusiastic gentlemen on a little outing celebrating the Fourth of July in 1853. Sepúlveda was a prominent don who had served with José Antonio Carrillo in the California War. According to Bell:

“Don Juan, in the exuberance of his patriotism, had unearthed a venerable field piece which had enjoyed the silence of the grave since it had fired its last shot in defense of Mexican territory. Captain Sepúlveda mustered and embarked his command on a large boat and proceeded up Wilmington Bay, where he embarked his artillery and sailed for Dead Man’s Island, where, after infinite labor, he succeeded in mounting his battery on the highest point of the island, and all being ready, we let loose such a thunder as was never exceeded by one gun. It seemed that we would wake the seven sleeping heroes who so quietly reposed on the little barren rock…While paying our respects to our liquid ammunition, Don Juan proceeded to tell us how the seven sailors came to be killed. Their wooden head-boards stood in a line in front of us.”

The seven sleeping heroes were Americans who had been killed in the Battle of Dominguez Rancho, sometimes called the Battle of the Old Woman’s Gun, in October 1846. The battle between the American foot soldiers and sailors and a smaller force of mounted Californios had resulted in a rout of the Americans, largely due to the presence of an ancient piece of artillery brought to bear by the enemy (and later, allegedly, mounted by Sepúlveda on Deadman’s Island). It was the last true victory for the Californians before American forces made good their conquest of this outpost of the Mexican empire. One of the dead, a cabin boy, had been killed accidentally by friendly fire.

The little island, standing roughly where the the Americans’ ship, the USS Savannah, was anchored, proved a convenient place to deposit the remains of fallen comrades. The San Pedro coast was still closely watched by the enemy, not to mention coyotes.

This 1899 illustration depicts “San Pedro harbor as it will look when completed.” We can see a series of docks and jetties with Deadman’s Island clearly visible in the center, at the foot of the jetty connecting it to Rattlesnake Island. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00033175.

Reclaiming the dead

Primary and secondary sources detail a number of bodies interred on the island. Clearly the heroes of the battle were not alone. Some bodies were discovered in the late 19th century during the building of a jetty connecting the isle to Rattlesnake Island, really a large sand spit, just to the north in the harbor. Another story says that some young adventurers stumbled upon a coffin in 1893. At the time of the island’s demise, 1928-30, dynamite and bulldozers uncovered somewhere between 18 and 23 sets of remains. (The discrepancy could well be due to the intermingling of bones during or before the demolition.)

So who were these people isolated to a not-so-final burying place? Clearly all of them were buried far from home. Some may have lain in the ground for a century or more. Collecting up all the references we have been able to find, we come up with the following list (some duplication is entirely possible):

  • The six sailors and one cabin boy of the USS Savannah, killed during the Battle of Dominguez Rancho in 1846.
  • Black Hawk, one of the last members of the Nicoleño, the native people living on St. Nicholas Island in the Channel Islands who had been forcibly removed in 1835. Black Hawk died about 1845.
  • Two males who appear to have been Spanish soldiers based on their attire. Some have dated these remains to the 17th century or even earlier.
  • A blond female, buried next to the Spanish soldiers.
  • A white male, possibly a smuggler. According to a fourth-hand tale, he washed up on the island and died of starvation, his body found by local fisherman early in the 19th century.
  • An English sea captain.
  • The wife of an American sea captain, Mrs. Parker (or possibly Morton), who died of tuberculosis on shore at the same time her husband and crew were drowning at sea. The year was 1858 and the ship was the Laura Bevan, a clipper schooner bound for Santa Barbara.
  • A Native American woman.
  • A man with an arrowhead through his head
  • A passenger from a Panamanian ship in 1851.
  • And, of course, pirates!

The diversity of the populace hints at the storied history of the rock. Deadman’s Island was not merely a convenient place for burial. It served a number of purposes over the decades, including (briefly) a whaling station, a place of youthful exploration, a hideout for rum runners during Prohibition, a possible location of pirate treasure or smugglers’ contraband, and — in the 19-teens — a filming locale for several silent movies starring Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd.

What happened to the bodies? It is hoped that all the remains collected before and during the demolition of the island were re-interred elsewhere. Unfortunately, we cannot be sure. Certainly we can be sure that most were never identified. The earthly remains of the Americans from the Battle of Dominguez Hills are said to have been reburied at the Presidio in San Francisco. Others may have been repatriated to onshore cemeteries.

A dredger at work on the demolition of Deadman’s Island, 1928. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Image #00033162.

The hand of man

Deadman’s Island performed its last service as a sacrifice for the greater good. The building of breakwaters and jetties in the late 19th century had already taken a toll on the rock when the powers to be decided to remove it entirely to accommodate expanded port facilities. Dynamite and bulldozers did their work, leveling the islet and using the detritus as landfill to expand the flat Rattlesnake Island, at this time dubbed Terminal Island after the Los Angeles Terminal Railroad. The interests of commerce and industry were well-served: today the Port of Los Angeles, centered at San Pedro, is the top sea port facility in this country, measured by volume and value of goods shipped.

1928 aerial view of the harbor. Deadman’s Island is gone and a rectangular extension to Terminal Island is being created out of the remains. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, Spence Air Photos, Image #00033126.

Sources for this post include: