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:

Bringing It Down and Building It Up: Los Angeles Through the Lens of L. Mildred Harris

The online photo archive of the Los Angeles Public Library (TESSA) contains many photos taken by professional photographers, including images from Rolland Curtis, Lucille Stewart, Herman Schultheis, Gary Leonard, and Ansel Adams. These artists worked for magazines, advertising firms, newspapers, studios, and even government agencies. (Stewart worked for Fletcher Bowron, Mayor of Los Angeles from 1938 to 1953.) These photographers were well known and well-respected for their craft.

The collection also, however, showcases snapshots taken by people who did not have the title or training of a professional photographer but whose photos capture a moment, document an event, or memorialize a spot in sunny Southern California. These folks captured the history of the City as much as the professional photographers.

Not much is known about L. Mildred Harris. She was a secretary who worked for a Methodist church somewhere in greater Los Angeles. She took many photos of the City between the late 1940s and the early 1970s. These snapshots became a visual record of developments in Los Angeles – construction, renovations, additions, and demolitions – during the post-WWII boom years. Her photos wound up with her employer, a minister, whose daughter brought them to the Los Angeles Public Library and noted, “She [Harris] was my dad’s secretary and we have these photos. Do you want them?”

The Library took the images only to discover that they provide viewers with a stroll down memory lane and a chance to see places and parts of the City which no longer exist. Photography may have been Ms. Harris’s passion or perhaps just a hobby. She may, possibly, simply have had the habit of taking a stroll with camera in hand. No one knows for sure her motivation, but what is certain is that she captured Los Angeles at a time of great growth and change.

NOTE: All photos in this blog post are from the L. Mildred Harris Slide Collection of the Los Angeles Photographers Collection and were taken by L. Mildred Harris.

Fort Moore Hill was the original site of a U.S. military fort utilized during the Mexican-American war. Providing panoramic views of what is now downtown Los Angeles, Elysian Park, and Hollywood, it was situated above what is now the juncture of the Hollywood Freeway and Broadway Street. The fort was decommissioned in 1853 and the hill became the site of a cemetery, then a saloon, and later one of the toniest neighborhoods in the area – Bunker Hill. A tunnel was bored through Fort Moore Hill in 1901, with construction being so noisy and disruptive that wealthy residents abandoned the area and left their homes to become boarding houses. Most of the Hill was removed in the 1930s with the remainder leveled out in 1949 for the Hollywood Freeway. Ms. Harris wrote an article about the history of Fort Moore Hill for the Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly (Volume 32, No. 2, June 1950, pages 133-138) which can be found in the Reference Section at the Los Angeles Public Library or can be previewed and/or downloaded from the JSTOR database.

Ms. Harris was looking southeast from the L.A. Board of Education Administrative Offices when she took this photo. In the foreground, one can see Fort Moore Hill being removed. In the distance, one can see (from left to right) the U.S. Post Office and Courthouse, City Hall, and the Hall of Justice.

U.S. Post Office and City Hall in Los Angeles

August 2, 1949

Standing on the site of Fort Moore Hill during its excavation, one could look east and see the Post Office Terminal Annex (left), which was the main post office in Los Angeles. Built in the California Mission style in 1938, it processed over 4,000,000 pieces of mail daily until its decommission in 1994. Behind the Annex (in the distance) is Los Angeles County General Hospital.

fort moore hill removal

August 2, 1949

Many Victorian mansions on Bunker Hill were turned into hotels after their owners left them. From left to right in this photo, we can see the Melrose Hotel “Annex”, the original Melrose Hotel, and a glimpse of the Richelieu Hotel. All these hotels were on South Grand Avenue.

Melrose and Richelieu Hotels

April 16, 1955

Ms. Harris photographed the upper terminus of Angels Flight at its original location (juncture of Olive and 3rd Streets). Angels Flight, a funicular railway, opened in 1901 and ran for two uphill blocks, from the west corner of Hill Street at Third to its Olive Street terminus. The buildings on either side of the station were boardinghouses which would be demolished by the late 1960s during the redevelopment (and commercial construction) of Bunker Hill. This redevelopment also caused the dismantling of the original Angels Flight.

Angels Flight Original Station

April 16, 1955

The demolition of the Health Building at 167 W. Temple Street is seen here. On the left is City Hall and behind the demolition site is the original Hall of Records (which would eventually face demolition itself).

Health Building in Los Angeles

April 15, 1955

Here Ms. Harris captures the demolition of the Hall of Records in September of 1973. (If you click on the photo, you will see an enlargement that shows the California State Building just to the right. It would be demolished three years later.)

Los Angeles Hall of Records Demolition

March 22, 1973

The California State Building was a government office that opened in 1931 and stood at the corner of Broadway and 1st Street. (Its official address was 215 West 1st Street.) Forty years after it opened its doors, it was heavily damaged by the 1971 Sylmar Earthquake and became structurally unsafe. The 13-story Art Deco building was demolished in 1976. In this image, Ms. Harris captures the venue in all its glory (with City Hall peeking over its shoulder!)

california state building

May 11, 1950

Looking west from the City Hall, Ms. Harris points her camera at the future site of the Los Angeles County Courthouse, conceived as part of the 1947 Civic Center Master Plan which was to transform a large part of Bunker Hill into an axis of government buildings. The Courthouse formally opened on January 5, 1959. In 2002, it was renamed the Stanley Mosk Courthouse after former California Attorney General and California Supreme Court Justice Morey Stanley Mosk.

Los Angeles County Courthouse Construction

February 18, 1955

In this photograph, the imposing Los Angeles County Courthouse (designed to last 250 years!) is seen in the background of the construction site for the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration. Like the County Courthouse, the Hall of Administration would later be renamed in honor of a prominent Los Angeleno. The Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration was named after “Kenny” Hahn, a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors for forty years.

los angeles county hall of administration

May 25, 1957

Another bit of history that Ms. Harris captured was the construction of the Department of Water and Power Building. Completed in 1964, the building cost over $26,000,000. The building was renamed the John Ferraro Building in 2000 after long-serving Los Angeles City Council member John Ferraro.

department of water and power building

January 25, 1964

One week after Thanksgiving in 1970, Mildred focused her camera northwest from City Hall and snapped a shot that featured (from upper left to right) the DWP Building, the Music Center, the Los Angeles County Department of Health Services, Hall of Administration, the new Hall of Records, the Criminal Courts Building (shown under construction), and the old Hall of Records (in foreground with spiked roof).

panoramic view of 1970 downtown los angeles

December 3, 1970

West Coast Radio City, an NBC radio facility designed in the Art Deco style, is seen here during the early stages of its demolition. (It would be replaced by a bank building in 1967.) Further south on Sunset Boulevard one sees the Sunset Vine Tower, the first skyscraper built in Los Angeles after the city repealed it building height limit of 14 stories.

west coast radio city

May 3, 1964

sunset vine tower

May 3, 1964

The Police Administration Building is captured in this photo, taken shortly after its completion. This police headquarters building was located in downtown Los Angeles and would serve as the main police station for over 50 years. In 1966, the building would be renamed Parker Center after Police Chief William H. Parker. (Alas, it also faces demolition to make way for a 28-story office building.)

police administration building

June 1, 1955

The Crocker Bank Tower was designed by architect William Pereira and is located at 611 West 6th Street in downtown Los Angeles. Ms. Harris took this photo a few months before its completion in 1967.

crocker bank tower

June 2, 1967

The Paramount Theatre, which opened as Grauman’s Metropolitan Theatre on January 26, 1923, with the premiere of the film “My American Wife” (and an in-person visit from the film’s star, Gloria Swanson), ranked as the largest movie theater in Los Angeles for many years, having the largest balcony and the longest projection throw in the city. In this image, Ms. Harris catches the grand dame as she makes a final bow.

Paramount Theatre in downtown los angeles

March 10, 1962

The statue of Felipe De Neve stands in the plaza of Los Angeles’ historic Olvera Street district. In the background is the Methodist Headquarters Building.

NOTE: It is possible that the Methodist Headquarters, later renamed Biscailuz Building, was the site of Ms. Harris’s employer, though this is not known for certain. She could have worked next door in the Plaza Methodist Church which was built on the site of the adobe owned by Augustin Olvera (the man for whom Olvera Street is named).

felipe de neve statue

March 16, 1956

Palm trees are being planted in Plaza Park (aka Father Serra Park) in downtown Los Angeles at the site which formerly housed the Dragon’s Den Restaurant and Casa de Lugo, the residence of Don Vincente Lugo, an early Los Angeles landowner and highly accomplished equestrian.

father serra park

November 2, 1955

Standing at the construction site for the Santa Ana Freeway (which commenced construction in 1947, was finished in 1956, and encompassed Interstate 5/US 101), Ms. Harris could look northeast and see (from left to right), Los Angeles Transit Lines street cars and the United States Post Office Terminal Annex. (Clicking on the photo enables you to see a Los Angeles Gas Company gas holder and La Plaza Church on the right side of the photo.)

santa ana freeway construction

May 8, 1950

Ms. Harris captures the crossover spot for the Hollywood, Santa Ana, Harbor, and Pasadena freeways (near the Los Angeles Civic Center) on St. Patrick’s Day. This is a truly historic photo as the freeways are open and THERE IS NO TRAFFIC! (Could it be that everyone was somewhere celebrating?)

los angeles freeway interchange

March 17, 1956

Thank you, L. Mildred Harris, for capturing L.A.’s history while it was being made!

So … what’s in your camera?

It’s Cool, It’s Hot, It Swings, It Slides … It’s Jazz (and it’s in L.A.)

Whether you want it hot or cool, swingin’ or slow, Dixieland or experimental, there’s jazz to fit your mood, mellow you out, pick you up. Jazz was born in New Orleans – the only place in the U.S. in the 1800s where slaves were allowed to own drums. This ability to own drums led many African slaves (particularly those from West Africa) to play their traditional music in order to keep their musical heritage alive. As New Orleans was a huge seaport, this traditional music became mixed with rhythms heard from ships coming from Cuba, the Caribbean and other islands, as well as from Europe. This hybrid music often incorporated lyrics from slave songs and spirituals.

When slavery was abolished in 1865, many slaves began musical careers, bringing this American-born and ever-evolving musical style to other parts of the country and later to the world. The word “jazz” – originating from the slang term “jasm” which meant pep or energy – came to encompass this new style of music. (The earliest written use of the word “jazz” is in an April 2, 1912 article in the Los Angeles Times. Ben Henderson, a pitcher for minor league baseball team Portland Beavers, described his pitch as a jazz ball “because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it”.)

Jazz – considered to be America’s classical music – found a home in Los Angeles. The photo collection at the Los Angeles Public Library documents jazz in the City of Angels – clubs, concerts, big names, local bands – and shows that jazz is as diverse as Los Angeles itself.

[NOTE: Please click on individuals photos to view enlarged images and obtain more information about photo.]

In 1915, the California Eagle – an African-American-owned Los Angeles newspaper – began to refer to Central Avenue as the “Black Belt of the City”. Local businesses and churches promoted the area to African Americans and their efforts spurred a steady increase in African-American ownership of stores, restaurants, and other businesses as well as homes during the 1920s and 1930s. The 1940s, however, was a watershed moment for Central Avenue. Over 50,000 African Americans moved into the area during WWII – many to work in munitions factories and other defense-related jobs – and took up residence in and around the area south of downtown. Central Avenue, often referred to as “the Avenue”, boasted jazz clubs that were the place to hear live jazz performed by newcomers, up-and-comers, and jazz greats. Legendary music producer Quincy Jones stated, “I didn’t know where Sunset Boulevard was when I moved to L.A., but I sure knew Central.”

Club Alabam (originally titled The Apex Room) was a very popular jazz club located next to the Dunbar Hotel on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. Owned and operated by Curtis Mosby – “the mayor of Central Avenue” – it was one of the ritziest clubs in the area and was often visited by Hollywood’s elite as well as regular folk who wanted to enjoy a live show as well as good food.

A group enjoy a night out at Club Alabam.

club alabam

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1941.

A view of the luxurious interior of Club Alabam.

interior of club alabam

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1945.

Lionel Hampton (far left), a jazz musician, bandleader, and philanthropist, poses in a Cadillac convertible in front of the Alabam Club to advertise his upcoming shows at the Lincoln Theater, also known as “the West Coast Apollo”.

lionel hampton at club alabam

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1953.

A group of women enjoy jazz in the company of a group of sailors at The DownBeat Club, a popular nightclub at 4201 South Central Avenue in Los Angeles. The DownBeat was one of the first clubs to feature bebop music, was a favorite hangout for gangster Mickey Cohen, and was the scene for West Coast jazz great Charlie Parker’s return to performing after serving a stint in prison.

the downbeat

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Collection, photo taken in 1944.

A group of women enjoy a night out at the Casablanca, a jazz nightclub on Central Avenue.

casablanca night club

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1942.

Clubgoers enjoy a night out at the Last Word, a Central Avenue jazz club across the street from The DownBeat Club.

the last word

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1941.

A jazz band plays at Dreamland Café on Central Avenue just south of downtown Los Angeles.

dreamland cafe

Shades of L.A. Collection: Mexican American Community, photo taken by Victoria Studio in 1922.

The Ferris Jazzland Revue Band – which featured a female drummer and female banjo player – poses for a portrait. Bandleader Bismark Ferris is at the far right (playing a saxophone).

ferris jazzland revue band

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1925.

The Lighthouse, a club/café in Hermosa Beach, began showcasing jazz in May of 1949. Featuring traveling groups and also its own Lighthouse All-Stars, the venue (known as the home of modern jazz on the West Coast) was the site of many recordings which captured the brilliance of musicians including Cannonball Adderly, Art Pepper, Ramsey Lewis, Mose Allison, and more. The Lighthouse featured an annual Easter Week Inter-Collegiate Jazz Festival in the late 1950s.

College age patrons enjoy jazz on the day before Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter Sunday) in 1959.

the Lighthouse in Hermosa Beach

Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated March 21, 1959.

Bassist Howard Rumsey (second from right) and his Lighthouse All Stars prepare to judge a competition at the Inter-Collegiate Jazz Festival held at the Lighthouse, an event that would draw hundreds of jazz fans.

lighthouse all stars

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken by Howard Ballew on March 21, 1959.

A group of musicians (names unknown) play jazz during a performance at an unknown venue.

jazz musicians

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1945.

Jazz pianist Nat King Cole prepares to play a song at NBC Radio City West, which was located at Sunset and Vine in Hollywood.

nat king cole

Shades of L.A. Collection: African American Community, photo taken in 1949.

Albert Shearing was a British-born jazz pianist who relocated to the U.S., became a citizen, and wrote over 300 jazz songs including Lullaby of Birdland, East of the Sun (and West of the Moon), and September in the Rain. He recorded for various record labels and formed his own band, the George Shearing Quintet. Here we see him preparing to tape a radio show in his Toluca Lake home. Blind since birth, Shearing first began playing jazz while performing with an all-blind band in London.

albert shearing

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by George Brich on March 7, 1963.

Actress and chanteuse Dorothy Dandridge performs a jazz set with the Count Basie Orchestra in Los Angeles.

dorothy dandridge and count basie orchestra

Shades of L.A.: African American Community, photo taken by Ted Merriman in 1950.

Jazz musician Stan Getz (left with saxophone) performs with Astrud Gilberto, a female singer from Brazil, and Gary Burton, an American jazz vibraphonist. Getz was known as “the Sound”, Gilberto made her vocal debut with the hit song “The Girl From Ipanema”, and Burton developed the four-mallet technique of playing vibraphones and later pioneered fusion jazz. The trio performed at Shelly’s Manne-Hole, a small club in Hollywood, and drew standing-room-only crowds plus block-long lines.

stan getz

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Steve Young on July 15, 1954.

Shelly’s Manne-Hole was a very popular (but very small) jazz club on Cahuenga Boulevard in Hollywood that hosted big names and little knowns.

shelley's manne-hole

William Reagh Collection, photo taken by William Reagh in 1970.

Jazz saxophonist Louie Armstrong (left) receives a plaque from Los Angeles council member Billy G. Mills.

louie armstrong

Roland Curtis Collection, photo taken by Roland Curtis on October 26, 1966.

Pianist Milcho Leviev (left) confers with fellow musicians during a rehearsal for the Olympic Jazz Festival, part of the citywide arts festival that preceded the Olympic Games being held in Los Angeles.

olympics jazz festival

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken by Lisa Hatalsky on August 4, 1984.

Leonard Feather wrote extensively on jazz. He penned magazine articles, wrote musical reviews, compiled an encyclopedia on jazz, and also collaborated with comedian and radio/tv host Steve Allen in the creation of The Jazz Story: As Told By Steve Allen, a three-disc sound recording that captured various jazz performers performing various types of jazz between 1926 and 1957. Feather moved from London (his home town) to L.A.’s San Fernando Valley in 1960 with the goal of composing songs. In this photo, he and his wife Jane pose in their Southern California home.

leonard feather

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by George Brich on December 12, 1960.

If you wanted to look at jazz as well as listen to it, you would turn to jazz photographer Bob Douglas. Douglas began photographing local jazz clubs in Detroit before moving to Los Angeles in 1948. Working as a freelance photographer for various newspapers and private clients, he captured the L.A. jazz scene including the historic Central Avenue clubs, immortalizing jazz greats such as Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, and Charlie Parker. Here the camera is turned on him.

bob douglas

Los Angeles Photographer’s Collection, photo taken by Roland Charles in 1996.

Jazz drummer Arnold Frank keeps the beat while Cleopatra, a 350-pound lioness, listens and relaxes at Drum City in Van Nuys, California. Arnold Frank was the owner of Drum City, selling new and used drum sets and providing drum instruction. Cleopatra was onsite to advertise an upcoming event for teenagers (which included jazz and drums but not lions). In jazz lingo, Cleo and Arnie are a couple of cool cats.

frank's drum shop

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by George Brich on March 23, 1963.

A Silent But Vibrant Life: Honoring the Deaf Community During National Deaf History Month

In March of 1996, two deaf employees at Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library in Washington D.C. taught American Sign Language to their coworkers. This exercise spurred a week dedicated to deaf awareness at the library. The National Association of the Deaf suggested the week become a month, and in 1997 Deaf History Month was launched. Deaf History Month runs from March 13 through April 15, a period which encompasses three key dates in deaf history: the founding on April 8, 1864 of Gallaudet University, a private university for the education of deaf and hearing-impaired students; the appointment of the first deaf President to Gallaudet on March 13, 1988; and the opening of the American School for the Deaf, the first public school for the deaf, on April 15 in 1817.

The Los Angeles Public Library has books and other resources which chronicle the history of deaf people in society and provide information on the deaf community and its contributions. The photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library provides a chance to see Southern California’s deaf residents as they live their lives, capturing them in settings ranging from schools to swimming pools.

Louise Treadwell Tracy (wife of actor Spencer Tracy) watches as a deaf student attending the Leadership Training Program at Valley State College (now California State University, Northridge) utilizes the newly invented telephone for the deaf. The student is able to send a message to a friend in another state via the telephone, thus making it possible for him to have a conversation over the phone. Tracy founded the John Tracy Clinic (also known as the John Tracy Center), a non-profit educational resource center for the deaf based in Los Angeles, naming the facility after her son, John, who was born deaf.

telephone for the deaf

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Gordon Dean on January 28, 1964.

Esther Arnold teaches a Sunday School class of deaf students at Emmanuel Lutheran Church in North Hollywood.

deaf sunday school

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by George Brich on August 26, 1961.

Connie Tidwell, a teacher at the John Tracy Clinic, demonstrates to the clinic’s Northridge guild how she is helping four year old Patty O’Haver learn to speak.

teaching the deaf to speak

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Steve Young on October 23, 1964.

Deaf students attend special classes at Saticoy Street School in North Hollywood. These classes were designed to prepare hearing-impaired children to attend classes with students with normal hearing. Hearing aids enable deaf students to participate in class discussions and (in this photo) spelling instruction.

saticoy street school

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Larry Leach on December 2, 1963.

Three preschool children in the Los Angeles area utilize hearing aids at the John Tracy Clinic.

preschool deaf children

Valley Times Collection, photo taken on May 14, 1964.

Muriel Hersom leads a group of deaf congregants in silent worship at MacArthur Memorial Bible Church in Burbank. Using hand movements, body rhythm, and expressive signs, Hersom conveys the meaning of hymns, sermons, and songs.

 

religious services for the deaf

 

silent worship for the deaf

Valley Times Collection, both photos taken by Bob Martin on April 25, 1964.

Richard Joy, Jr., a blind and deaf Boy Scout, is awarded the rank of Eagle Scout by Los Angeles County Supervisor Warren Dorn. Joy’s parents watch proudly as their son is given the certification scroll.

deaf eagle scout

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Jon Woods on July 20, 1960.

Bob Follosco (standing in pool) teaches John Lewis how to swim while Joann Munson and Kathy Garcia await instruction. These three students are deaf. Follosco, the pool manager at San Fernando Municipal Pool, hailed them as the best students he had ever taught.

swimming lessons

Valley Times Collection, photo taken on June 27, 1961.

Lori Le Sage, a seven year old patient at the John Tracy Clinic, poses with two members of the Northridge Guild of the John Tracy Clinic, as plans for a luncheon and fashion show are being discussed.

fundraising for john tracy center

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by George Brich on October 24, 1962.

Attorney Charles Mepham uses American Sign Language to confer with his client, Walter Lee Meiners, before going to court. american sign language used in court

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Dean Gordon on February 21, 1957.

Quarterback Steve Scolaro uses sign language to give orders to his football team at California School for the Deaf.

deaf football players

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken by Joe Rustan on November 17, 1965.

A delegate representing a member club of the American Athletic Association of the Deaf uses sign language to deliver a speech during a four-day National Basketball Tournament held in Los Angeles.

american athletic association of the deaf

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by George Brich on March 30, 1963.

Four coworkers at Community Rehabilitation Industries in Long Beach chat with each other during a coffee break. As all four are deaf, they use American Sign Language to converse.

deafness in the workplace

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken on October 1, 1960.

Deaf actress Marlee Matlin is exuberant as she uses American Sign Language to give her acceptance speech at the 59th Academy Awards ceremony in downtown Los Angeles. Matlin won an Oscar for Best Actress for her performance in the film Children of a Lesser God.

marlee matlin

Los Angeles Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken by Paul Chinn on March 31, 1987.

NOTE: For additional information (include ordering) on any photo, simply click on the photo and you will be taken to its information page.

Campo de Cahuenga: Overlooked Landmark

This undated postcard in the Security Pacific National Bank Collection, labelled “Fremont house, Hollywood, Cal.”, purports to show the original adobe on the grounds of Campo de Cahuenga in North Hollywood, with Cahuenga Peak behind it. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00070855. Photographer, M. Rieder Studio.

Nestled at the juncture of North Hollywood, Studio City, and Universal City, at the north end of the Cahuenga Pass, sits a small fenced-in heritage park.  Campo de Cahuenga is in the care of Los Angeles Recreation and Parks in partnership with the Campo de Cahuenga Memorial Association. It is believed to be the location of the signing of the Treaty of Cahuenga (otherwise known as the Capitulation of Cahuenga), a landmark event in the history of California. The treaty, which ended hostilities between American armed forces and the resident “Californios,” was signed 172 years ago, January 13, 1847, long enough past to make memories hazy. It effectively made the Mexican state of Alta California a military-ruled territory of the United States and, three years later, a state.

The Significance of the Treaty

Folks like to refer to the Campo as “The Birthplace of California.” However, there is much more to the tumultuous history of the Golden State. Prior to the treaty signing, the territory that is now the state of California had endured decades of shifting claims of authority: Spain until 1822, Mexico from 1822 to 1847. Russia established a short-lived colony at Fort Ross in northern California. Of even shorter duration was the California Republic in northern California, the dream of a ragtag band of American settlers with support from John C. Frémont and his soldiers. This “Bear Flag Republic” lasted 25 days in the summer of 1846. And let us not forget — for six days in 1818, the town of Monterey sat under an Argentine flag! All of these authorities ran rough-shod over the rights of the indigenous populations.

The story of the Bear Flag Republic speaks to the character of Frémont , one of the most famous men in both the history and mythology of the American West. By all accounts, Frémont was an ambitious man who saw himself as a major player in the future of California and perhaps the nation. He had burnished a reputation as an explorer, surveyor, Indian fighter, and man of destiny, specifically manifest destiny. In 1846 he was asked to bring his motley crew of mountain men, freebooters, and Native Americans into the fight for control of California.

Frémont is pictured here late in life standing next to a giant redwood tree, the so-called Frémont Tree. A legend that Frémont encouraged has it that he and a group of his men took shelter in the burned-out roots of this tree during a driving rain storm in 1846. The tree still stands in Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park in Santa Cruz County. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00043846, undated.

The second man in our story is Andrés Pico, the brother of Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-controlled Alta California. Andrés Pico led the last stand of the Californios in Los Angeles. As Frémont and his California Battalion closed in from the north, and the American military commanders Stockton and Kearny approached from the south, Pico made the decision to surrender to Frémont , expecting greater leniency from that quarter than what had been rumored to be in store for him and his men from Stockton and Kearny. Through fast-riding intermediaries the outlines of a peace plan were sketched out and an appointment made to meet at “a deserted rancho at the foot of Couenga [sic] plain.” (Edwin Bryant journal) The rancho in question was a property connected to, though some distance away from, the Mission San Fernando Rey, where Frémont and his men were encamped.

A studio portrait of Andrés Pico. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00043874, undated, likely 1870s.

A Woman’s Touch?

Much has been made of the story of Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez, a widow living in Santa Barbara when Frémont and his men trudged into that town at the very end of 1846 on their way to Los Angeles. In Frémont’s memoirs, written forty years after the fact, he mentions that a woman “of some age” (she was 42) came to him and advised him to be lenient in his dealings with the Californios he was sure to conquer.

“In the interview I found that her object was to use her influence to put an end to the war, and to do so upon such just and friendly terms of compromise as would make the peace acceptable and enduring.”

Frémont gives the lady some credit in persuading him to act graciously toward the soon-to-be vanquished. He goes on to write, “Here began the Capitulation of Couenga [sic].”

Historians and journalists have latched onto this anecdote, adding much detail both possible and decidedly unlikely: Bernarda has been credited with everything from swaying Frémont from leveling the town of Santa Barbara to personally dictating the terms of the Treaty of Cahuenga. Many versions of the story have Bernarda traveling with Frémont and his men to Los Angeles and witnessing the signing of the treaty. This writer has yet to find evidence to back up this assertion in the primary sources.

 

An early hand-drawn map of Campo de Cahuenga, showing the as yet unchannelized Los Angeles River, the Camino Real running diagonally from top to bottom, meadows (llanos), and a field of chamisa plants, sometimes called rabbitbush, a yellowish flowering plant which may have provided fodder for cattle. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00031280.

Whether or not Bernarda was present in body at the signing of the treaty document, she was there in spirit. The terms agreed upon by both sides that rainy Wednesday were quite generous to the vanquished. They were to be allowed life, liberty, and property, as well as the right to remove themselves from the territory should they wish to. They would, of course, have to forfeit their weapons and swear off further violence.

The Treaty, or Capitulation, of Cahuenga was remarkable in that it had no official sanction from the superiors of either side, yet it was generally accepted and even became the model upon which the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the  pact that officially ended the wider Mexican-American War in 1848, was based.

The Significance of the Campo

Campo de Cahuenga is one of the lesser-known landmarks in the Los Angeles basin. Nonetheless the site offers a wealth of historical and archaeological significance. What was an abandoned structure at the time of the treaty signing continued to weather away until it was completely demolished in the 19-teens to make way for Universal City. It has been the site of a number of archaeological excavations, beginning with the efforts of a group of high school students in 1931 who uncovered a portion of foundations and some floor and roof tiles, enough to establish a rough approximation of the forgotten adobe and to qualify it for landmark designation by the State of California in 1935. A few years later the City of Los Angeles built a replica structure on what they believed was the footprint of the adobe. This structure and surrounding gardens were made available for use by the community.

This photo from 1928 shows the city-built walls surrounding a small memorial park. The original adobe structure of the Campo was long gone at this time, but a new structure was built about 1950 to serve in its stead. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00032431.

Sixty years later progress on a Los Angeles Metro project was halted when digging uncovered additional flooring materials under the street and sidewalk outside the new Campo gates along Lankershim Boulevard. Professional preservation practices were called into play resulting in the excavation of the original footprint of the adobe running crosswise to the re-imagined structure. These efforts uncovered artifacts of both Native American and Mexican/Californio origin.

Today, while the original foundations have been re-buried, one may see the outlines of the adobe walls adjacent to the reconstructed building and extending out onto the boulevard! An iconic bell-shaped markers identifies the spot as a location on El Camino Real, the original dusty road that connected the California missions and their growing communities.

Mrs. A.S.C. Forbes, the “Mother of the Campo.” Mrs. Forbes was a well-known advocate of preservation of California mission-era structures. She is credited with tracing the route of El Camino Real, the road that linked the California missions. She is sometimes known as the “Bell Lady” for designing and installing antique-looking bells along the route of the Camino, including at the Campo de Cahuenga. Her influence is credited for preservation and interpretation of the Campo site. Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00043839, undated.

 One of the famous El Camino Real bells, designed by Mrs. Forbes, marks the site of Campo de Cahuenga. Herman J. Schultheis Collection, #00010012, c. 1937.

A Place for All

Although not well known to the general public, Campo de Cahuenga has been popular with a number of civic and heritage-minded groups in the San Fernando Valley area. A sampling of photos from the Los Angeles Public Library gives us a peek at the many happenings that have taken place at the Campo over the decades.

 

For many decades, the Campo de Cahuenga Memorial Association has held an annual re-enactment of the treaty signing at the adobe. Here James M. Sutton, left, of the Los Angeles Parks Department, and Geoge E. Shipley of the Memorial Association dust off the plaque on the in preparation for the event in 1963. Valley Times Collection, #00114275. Photographer, Bob Martin.

 

The Pan-American Friendship Club, North Hollywood chapter, celebrates Mexican Independence Day in 1957. The man standing at left is a representative of a Mexican airline, probably Mexicana. Valley Times Collection, #00124747.

 

A meeting of the San Fernando Valley Historical Society takes place at Campo de Cahuenga in 1959 with musical entertainment by Rudolph M. Garza. A plaque commemorating the treaty signing can be seen on the wall. Valley Times Collection, #00133101. Photographer, William H. Wilde.

 

The Daughters of the American Revolution, Peyton Randolph chapter, learn to duck and cover from Major William Koons, an Armed Forces Information Officer. The news article accompanying the photo was entitled “Learns atomic test lore.” Valley Times Collection, #00141406, 1957.

 

Ingrid Goude, a 19-year old starlet from Sweden, demonstrates how to re-set your sundial for the end of daylight savings time, September 29, 1956. Ms. Goude went on to find fame, of a sort, as the star of “The Killer Shrews” in 1959. Valley Times Collection, #00143191.

 

The Kappa Delta Sorority Alumnae Association, San Fernando Valley chapter, held Easter egg hunts at the Campo during the 1950s. This photo appears to be staged for publicity of the event which was to be the next day. Valley Times Collection, #00142142, 1955. Photographer, Dave Siddon.

 

Sculptor Henry Van Wolf presents a scale model of a proposed sculpture commemorating the Cahuenga Treaty signing to women representing the San Fernando Valley Historical Society and the North Hollywood Women’s Club. Van Wolf offered to create a full-scale monument for display at the Campo at his cost. It does not appear that the work was ever carried out. Efforts to interest the federal government in a national park at the site foundered. Valley Times Collection, #00133104, April 3, 1965. Photographer, Gordon Dean.

 

Sources consulted for this essay include Memoirs of My Life and Times by John C. Frémont (1887); What I saw in California, the journal of Edwin Bryant (1848); The Private Journal of Louis McLane, U.S.N., 1844-48; Bear Flag Rising by Dale L. Walker (1999); Old Spanish Santa Barbara, From Cabrillo to Frémont by Walker A. Tompkins (1967); “Doña Bernarda Ruiz de Rodriguez, Santa Barbara’s Forgotten Heroine” by William G. Lockwood, in Ancestors West: Santa Barbara County Genealogical Society, Fall 2009/Winter 2019; “San Juan to Cahuenga: The Experiences of Frémont’s Battalion” by William H. Ellison in the Pacific Historical Review, August 1958; “When the System Works, The Campo de Cahuenga,” by Roberta S. Greenwood, in the Pacific Coast Archaeological Society Quarterly, Spring and Summer 2002; the website CampodeCahuenga.com;

Death of a Gentleman – The Unsolved Murder of William Desmond Taylor

The temperature in Los Angeles was just above freezing on the morning of Thursday, February 2, 1922. Henry Peavey was glad to get to his workplace – a stylish bungalow in the affluent Westlake district – as it would surely be warm inside. What’s more, he genuinely enjoyed his job as cook and valet for silent film director William Desmond Taylor. Mr. Taylor was very good to him, both as an employer and as a fellow man. Peavey unlocked the front door and stepped inside, ready to draw a morning bath and cook breakfast for Taylor. He ultimately did neither, as he found the director lying on his back in the living room, a pool of blood on the floor. The quiet of the morning was shattered by Peavey’s screams as he ran into the courtyard.

Thus began the saga of the murder of William Desmond Taylor – a crime unsolved to this day. Viewing images from the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library, we can learn not only of the crime and the crime scene but also of the era – a time (in spite of prohibition) of cocktails, cocaine, illicit affairs, scandals, public outrage, and powerful studios that orchestrated events (and people’s lives) the same way they made movies.

William Desmond Taylor began life as William Cunningham Deanne-Tanner on April 26, 1872, in Carlow, Ireland. After an argument with his father (who frowned upon his son’s interest in the theater), he was sent at 18 years of age to become a gentleman farmer in Kansas. After a year and a half, young Tanner moved to New York City, where he met Ethel May Hamilton, a stage actress. They married in 1901 and became part of New York society. In 1908, he disappeared with neither a word nor a warning, leaving behind Ethel May and a young daughter. His wife, unable to locate her errant husband, obtained a divorce in 1912.

william desmond taylor

Portrait of William Desmond Taylor, Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated.

Taylor’s ex-wife, Ethel May Hamilton, reported that Taylor worked as an antiques dealer in her father’s establishment while she worked as a stage actress. Taylor was a wonderful husband and father but had bouts of amnesia during which he would wander off and forget where was his home. He wandered off in 1908 and never returned. Years later, Hamilton and her (and Taylor’s) daughter, Ethel Daisy, were watching a film in which Taylor appeared onscreen. Pointing to the screen, Hamilton exclaimed, “That’s your daddy!” While Taylor and his wife never reunited, they did meet in Los Angeles and remain friends with Taylor supporting and staying in contact with his daughter until his death.

 

ethel may hamilton

Photograph of Ethel May Hamilton, the ex-wife of Deanne-Tanner (later to be known as Taylor).
Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated.

ethel daisy deanne-tanner

Photo of daughter Ethel Daisy Deanne-Tanner as a young woman.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated.

Around the same time his wife was divorcing him, Tanner (who by that time had changed his name to Taylor) arrived in San Francisco. He had purportedly spent the time since his departure from New York traveling and working at various jobs – gold prospector, builder, soldier, horse trainer – in locales ranging from the Pacific Northwest to Alaska. With financial help from friends, he moved to Los Angeles and started acting in film. With his equestrian expertise and good looks, he was in high demand and worked with the stars of the day, but his true desire was to direct. In 1914, he directed his first film, The Awakening. Taylor was to direct 50 more films before that cold morning he was found dead.

film director william desmond taylor

Taylor directing a film. Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated.

william desmond taylor in automobile

Taylor at the wheel of his automobile. Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated.

The Alvarado Court Apartments in which William Desmond Taylor resided were located on South Alvarado Street in the (then) swanky MacArthur Park neighborhood. The apartment complex contained eight two-unit bungalows situated in a U-shape around a central garden. (It was into this garden that Taylor’s valet, Henry Peavey, ran screaming after he discovered Taylor’s body.) Taylor lived in Apartment 404B on the east side of the complex. (The complex was razed in the 1950s.)

alvarado court apartments

Photograph of bungalow home of William Desmond Taylor. Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1937.

Peavey’s screams awoke and attracted neighbors. Verne Dumas and Neil Harrington, who both worked at Cal-Mex Oil Company and lived in 408A, ran to see what was the matter, both of them still in their bathrobes. Emile Jesserun, the Jamaican-born designer and manager of the apartments, left his sick bed to go to Taylor’s apartment. Douglas MacLean, an actor who had appeared in movies directed by Taylor, joined the crowd forming at the apartment, noting that he and his wife, Faith, had heard a loud noise (which they attributed to a car backfiring) the night before and, upon looking out the window, had seen a man exit Taylor’s apartment, step back into it for a few minutes, then leave the premises. The man did not seem suspicious or strange, so the MacLeans returned to their card game.

One thing that all the men noticed was how tidy the body seemed. Except for blood beneath his head, Taylor looked as if he had willingly lain down, smoothed his clothes, and combed his hair. The position in which the body lay would be impossible for someone to achieve by simply falling down. Moreover, nothing in the premises seemed to have been disturbed. The back door was still locked, windows were closed and secured, Taylor’s wallet contained money, his watch was still on his wrist, his gun and traveling bag were undisturbed.

william desmond taylor traveling bag

William Desmond Taylor’s boots, gun, and traveling bag. Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1922.

Another neighbor who awoke to Peavey’s screams that cold February morning was Edna Purviance, a leading lady of Charlie Chaplin films living in 402A. When she learned of Taylor’s death, she promptly made calls to Famous Players-Lasky (the studio for whom Taylor worked) as someone there would definitely want to know of Taylor’s demise.

studios in hollywood 1922

Film studios in Hollywood — Famous Players-Lasky is on the right of the photo.
Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1922.

charlie chaplain

Charlie Chaplin cast Edna Purviance as his leading lady in over twenty films. He intended to
marry her but was forced to marry Mildred Harris when she became pregnant with his child.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1932.

When he calmed down, Henry Peavey contacted Harry Fellows, Taylor’s assistant director, who promptly called Charles Eyton, general manager of Famous Players-Lasky. Meanwhile, Taylor’s landlord notified the LAPD, who promptly sent Detective Thompson Zeigler, a 30-year veteran, to Taylor’s home. Upon his arrival, Zeigler called a doctor. The physician showed up, declared that Taylor had died from a stomach hemorrhage, and immediately left.

While the doctor was performing his quick examination, studio manager Eyton arrived at Taylor’s bungalow and began to question others on the scene. As there was no evidence of a crime and Eyton represented Taylor’s employer, Detective Zeigler saw no reason to object to any investigation on Eyton’s part. While Eyton concurred with the doctor’s diagnosis that Taylor had died of stomach ailments, MacLean began to question if the noise he and his wife had heard the previous night might not have been a car backfire but rather a gunshot. This made Eyton nervous. Regardless of the cause of death, Eyton wanted as little press as possible regarding Taylor’s death. At the time, the film industry was being labeled a bad influence on the public at large. The rape/manslaughter trial of Fatty Arbuckle was casting a shadow on entertainers, studios were losing money due to dwindling movie audiences, and various factions were demanding censorship of the cinema. Eyton wanted to avoid any whiff of a scandal in the case of Taylor’s death.

NOTE: The Fatty Arbuckle scandal began when Virginia Rappe died on Friday, September 9, 1921, four days after she claimed that Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle had raped her during a three-day Labor Day party held at the St. Francis Hotel in San Francisco. Her bladder had ruptured (causing her death) and this was supposedly due to Arbuckle’s weight and the harshness of the assault on Rappe.

Arbuckle’s rape/manslaughter case would be tried in court three times – the first two times resulting in a hung jury, the third time resulting in acquittal and a note from the jury stating “there was not the slightest proof adduced to connect him in any way with the commission of a crime”.

After his arrest and during the trials, many theaters refused to show Arbuckle’s films and most footage of him was destroyed. Despite the courts finding him innocent of all charges, Arbuckle’s acting career was permanently ruined. (William Hays, Hollywood’s chief cinema censor and the creator of the Hays Code, banned Arbuckle from appearing onscreen for several months after he had been found not guilty.) Arbuckle eventually worked as a director, using the name William Goodrich. He died in 1933 of a heart attack at age 46.

roscoe "fatty" arbuckle

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle as seen in the 1921 film “The Dollar-A-Year Man”.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated. 

 

virginia rappe

Virginia Rappe, the woman who accused Fatty Arbuckle of sexual assault.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated.

arbuckle trial

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle confers with his legal team in a San Francisco courtroom.
The three court trials cost Arbuckle a total of over $10,000,000 in current day dollars and
resulted in his acquittal as well as the end of his career. Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1921.

To avoid another scandal of such magnitude (and possible financial repercussions), Eyton ordered others present on the scene (Taylor’s neighbors, many of whom were in the film industry and would obey Eyton’s commands) to remove any evidence of impropriety — love letters, liquor, racy photos, lingerie — lest the press find it when they inevitably showed up.

Before any reporters showed up, the coroner arrived and turned over the body. A bullet hole showed that Taylor did not die of stomach ailments (as suggested by the mysterious doctor) but rather was murdered. The apartment was now a crime scene. Thanks to Eyton’s quick actions, damaging (and possibly crucial) evidence had been removed. (Although Eyton did later turn over some of the removed materials to the police, there were things removed from Taylor’s apartment that remained under wraps by the studio.) The police, nonetheless, began an investigation.

william desmond taylor crime scene

Diagram of crime scene showing the location of Taylor’s apartment, his neighbors’ apartments,
and the purported route taken by the assailant. Herald Examiner Collection, image created in 1922.

The last person (besides the killer) to see William Desmond Taylor was his good friend Mabel Normand. Known as the female Charlie Chaplain, Normand was the reigning queen of comedy in silent films. Moreover, she was one of the first women to be a screenwriter, director, and producer. At one point, she had her own movie studio and production company (set up for her by ex-lover Mack Sennett). She and Taylor had been friends for years, and it was Taylor who helped Normand overcome her cocaine addiction, going so far as to threaten the drug dealers who supplied Normand with the white powder. She had gone to see Taylor on the evening of February 1 after he contacted her to tell her he had two books to give her. (The books were a translation of Nietzsche and a romance novel by Ethel M. Dell). She gifted him a bag of peanuts. They had enjoyed cocktails (Prohibition be damned!) and discussed literature. She had left at a reasonable hour.

Police questioned Normand but never considered her a suspect (although Henry Peavey did). A frequent onscreen collaborator of Fatty Arbuckle, she had recently suffered scrutiny in the press, with journalists freely writing of her addiction and questioning her morality. Although cleared by police detectives, she was viewed with suspicion and her popularity on the silver screen waned. Two years after Taylor’s death, Normand’s chauffeur Joe Kelly (who was actually Horace Greer, a man who had possibly escaped from an Oakland jail) shot Normand’s boyfriend (with Normand’s gun). The press, populace, and studios turned against her, denigrating her reputation and removing her movies from theaters. She married actor Lew Cody in 1926, retired from acting in 1928, and died of tuberculosis in 1930. One of her last utterances was, “I do hate to go without knowing what happened to poor Billy Taylor.”

mabel normand and walnut elephant

Mabel Normand, silent screen comedy queen and friend and confidante of William Desmond Taylor,
poses in front of the walnut elephant sent from Los Angeles to the Chicago’s World Fair in 1893.
Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1925.

mabel normand studios

The Mabel Normand Feature Film Studio Company stood on these grounds (now 4319 Effie Street).
Normand directed the feature film Mickey in 1916 at this studio. (The film was released in 1918.)
Roy Hankey Collection (Los Angeles Photographers Collection), photo taken by Roy Hankey in 1980.

Mary Miles Minter (nee Juliet Reilly) was a child actress whom Taylor had directed in films including Anne of Green Gables, Nurse Marjorie, and Huckleberry Finn. Forced to work as an actress at an early age (Minter used the birth certificate of a dead cousin to appear older than she actually was and thus be allowed to work) and ruled over by a domineering stage mother (Charlotte Shelby), Minter fell in love with the attentive and gentlemanly Taylor after first working with him. It is disputed whether or not he returned the affections of Minter (who was 30 years his junior) or was simply looking out for his protégé, but love letters from Minter were found in Taylor’s apartment, thus making her a suspect in his murder. The resulting scandal ended Minter’s film career.

mary miles minter

Police found love letters from Mary Miles Minter to Taylor (and a pink negligee supposedly belonging
to Minter) in Taylor’s home after his murder. Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1921.

Fifteen years after Taylor’s murder, Mary Miles Minter was called before a grand jury to discuss her diaries. She stated that there was nothing in the diaries that would be of any value to anyone investigating the case. While she was never tried for Taylor’s murder, the insinuations that she may have been involved (Charles Higham’s book suggests that she was the killer) caused Famous Players-Lasky to decline to renew her contract. Minter attempted a career as a stage actress but eventually left show business behind.

mary miles minter's diaries

A 35-year old Mary Miles Minter poses in her Beverly Hills home.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated May 6, 1937.

Mary Miles Minter’s mother, Charlotte Shelby, was also a suspect in the William Desmond Taylor murder. A consummate stage mother, Shelby controlled every aspect of her daughter’s life and was enraged when she discovered her daughter (who was also her prime source of income) had feelings for Taylor. (Whether or not Taylor returned her affections was apparently immaterial to her.) Shelby had once threatened to shoot Taylor if he did not leave her daughter alone and many felt that she had indeed gone through with her threat. (In A Cast of Killers, Sidney Kirkpatrick theorizes that Shelby was Taylor’s killer and paid off attorneys and influential people to stay out of prison.)

charlotte shelby

Charlotte Shelby is flanked by her attorneys during a court case (unrelated to the Taylor murder).
Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated January 2, 1933. 

Taylor’s former valet, Edward F. Sands, had forged Taylor’s signature on checks and had stolen money and valuables (including a car) from Taylor’s home while the director was out of town on vacation in 1921. Investigators tracked Sands to a locale in Northern California but learned that he had quit his job and disappeared the day of Taylor’s murder. Sands was never found.

edward sands

Edward Sands, former valet of William Desmond Taylor. Herald Examiner Collection, image undated.

In spite of thorough investigation, the police were unable to make any arrests in the Taylor murder case. While none of their leads proved successful and no suspects could be charged, there were confessions to the killing.

In 1930, Russo Rinaldo, a 41-year old accountant, confessed to killing William Desmond Taylor. He stated that he was a friend of a movie actress with whom Taylor had argued and that he had gone to Taylor’s home to reprimand him for treating the actress so poorly. According to Rinaldo, Taylor drew a revolver, the two men scuffled, and the gun went off, killing Taylor in the process. Rinaldo’s estranged wife, a music teacher in Glendale, California, was questioned and told police that her husband had suffered trauma as a soldier during WWI and only knew about the murder from what he had read in newspapers. Rinaldo was released from police custody shortly thereafter.

russo rinaldo

Russo Rinaldo, accountant who confessed to killing William Desmond Taylor.
Herald Examiner Collection, photo undated.

Harry Fields claimed to have been part of a plot to kill Taylor. Fields claimed he drove the vehicle which transported the assassins (two man and one woman) to the director’s home. The killing was in retaliation to Taylor’s interference with drug trafficking in Los Angeles. Fields was in a Detroit jail when he confessed; his ex-wife told authorities that he was an inveterate liar as well as an opium user.

harry fields

Harry S. Fields during his incarceration in the Wayne County Jail,
Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1922.

J. G. Barrett was serving time in Folsom Prison when he confessed to murdering Taylor. He stated that he acted on behalf of another man. His story was discredited by a grand jury.

j.g. barrett

J. G. Barrett claimed to have murdered William Desmond Taylor at the request and
payment of another man. Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in 1926.

William Desmond Taylor’s funeral was held on February 7, 1922, at St. Paul’s Pro-Cathedral, after which he was interred in a mausoleum at Hollywood Forever Cemetery. Despite a number of suspects, various leads, innumerable tips, and a rash of confessions, the identity of the murderer of William Desmond Taylor remains unknown.

Taking a Peek at The Pike: Long Beach’s Oceanfront Amusement Zone

William Willmore had a brilliant idea. He was going to create a farming community on the coast of Southern California. He bought 4,000 acres of Rancho Los Cerritos and subdivided the land into plots which comprised Willmore City. Living there would be idyllic, with plenty of sunshine all year round and cool ocean breezes in the summer. People would flock there to live! Unfortunately, his plans did not pan out and he was bought out by the Long Beach Land and Water Company. His erstwhile agricultural paradise became the City of Long Beach.

Five years later, a huge bath house opened at the spot in Long Beach where the Pacific Electric Railway’s Red Car ended its traverse from Los Angeles. People did flock to the area, coming to bathe (many people did not have bathtubs or showers [or even indoor plumbing] at the time) and afterward enjoy a stroll along the Long Beach Municipal Pier. The bath house was known as the Plunge and the nearby boardwalk as the Pike.

The Pike attracted people of all ages and developed from a simple wooden boardwalk along Pine Street to an amusement zone complete with food stands, gift shops, and carnival rides. Also known as Silver Spray Pier, Nu-Pike, Queens Park, and the Walk of a Thousand Lights at various times, the Pike was an amusement extravaganza that attracted fun seekers for over 75 years. While we cannot visit it today (it was demolished in 1979), the photo collection of the Los Angeles Public Library enables us to take a stroll down the Pike and enjoy the pleasures of its past.

The Plunge – the bath house located near the Long Beach station at the end of the Pacific Electric Car line – featured a shallow wading pool, a deep water section, a slide, and a balcony with spectator seating.

the plunge bath house

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1920.

This photo shows the variety of entertainment one might seek at the Pike, with facilities including a theater, cafeteria, hotel, and dance hall (not to mention the roller coaster!) In the background can be seen warships on the ocean.

long beach amusement park

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1920.

The carousel at the Pike was enjoyed by all –those riding on it and those simply watching it.

carousel at the pike

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken by Winstead Photo Studio in the 1930s.

Sailors on shore leave enjoy a meal at a café on the midway of the Pike.

cafe on midway of the pike

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken by Inman Company in 1937.

Jack Rabbit Racer was a roller coaster built on a pier extending into the ocean. It ran from 1915 to 1930 when it was replaced by the Cyclone Racer. The flying airplanes were another ride located by the entrance to the Jack Rabbit Racer.

jack rabbit racer

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1918.

Native Americans in traditional dress enjoy a roller coaster ride at the Pike.

 

native americans on roller coaster

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1930.

Seen in the background of this photo, the Cyclone Racer replaced the Jack Rabbit Racer in 1930. A dual-track roller coaster (two trains could run at the same time), it was 94 feet high, had 17 hills and drops, and could accommodate 2,400 riders per hour. The coaster was designed by Frederick Church, built by Harry Traver, and regarded as one of the greatest wooden roller coasters ever constructed. It was featured in the hilarious climax of the movie Abbott and Costello in Hollywood. It ran until 1968.

cyclone racer

William Reagh Collection (Los Angeles Photographers Collection), photo taken in 1963.

In the early 1950s, the Pike was still a destination for many locals but began to face stiff competition from nearby Knott’s Berry Farm (a restaurant/shop complex which added a carnival aspect in the 1950s) and the newly opened Disneyland. Moreover, the Pike had gained a free-for-all reputation which dissuaded many families from visiting the park. The amusement zone underwent a renovation, installing a Kiddieland with children’s rides plus a petting zoo. Discounts and coupons were offered to families and various facilities (the bathrooms, for example) were upgraded to give the area a more modern look. A write-in contest was held to find a new name for the amusement park, with Nu-Pike being the winner.

For those who want an aerial view (and are not afraid of heights), the Hi Ride at Nu-Pike offered excitement and unobstructed observation of the Long Beach pier and its surroundings.

hi-ride

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken in the 1970s.

The Looper was a popular ride at Nu-Pike that featured cages where one or more people would sit and be looped about (leaving you feeling loopy!)

 

the looper

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken sometime in the 1970s.

People of all ages enjoyed visiting Nu-Pike and strolling down the Midway. Note the sign directing families with children to Kiddieland.

families at the pike

William Reagh Collection (Los Angeles Photographers Collection), photo taken in 1966.

Orphans take a ride on the “Bud” Hurlbut miniature train at Nu-Pike. The train ride kicked off a week-long benefit to raise funds for the Los Angeles Orphanage.

bud hurlbut miniature train

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken by Robert Perkins in 1950.

The sideshow on the midway of the Pike offered visitors a myriad of curiosities including a sword swallower, a snake charmer, a mystery girl, and other magnificent marvels. (NOTE: A real oddity was discovered at the Pike during the 1976 filming of an episode of the television show “The Six Million Dollar Man”. The Laff in the Dark Ride featured a hanging corpse, presumably made of fiberglass and leather. When someone on the set accidentally pulled off one of its arms, a physician examined it and discovered it to be an actual human corpse. Investigation revealed that it was the body of Elmer McCurdy, a bank robber whose corpse had at one point been displayed by a wax museum onsite at the Pike. The museum closed and McCurdy wound up in the carnival ride. An autopsy revealed that he had been killed by a bullet and had a 1922 penny in his mouth. His remains were shipped back to Oklahoma.)

sideshow at the pike

William Reagh Collection (Los Angeles Photographers Collection), photo taken in 1950.

Madame Anna was available to those visiting the Pike who wished to utilize scientific palmistry to improve their lives and avoid future mistakes and tragedies.

fortune teller madame anna

William Reagh Collection (Los Angeles Photographers Collection), photo taken in 1973.

The Pike attracted people of all ages and stages in life from 1902 until 1979.

1916 midway of the pike

Security Pacific National Bank Collection, photo taken in 1918.

 

family fun at the pike

William Reagh Collection (Los Angeles Photographers Collection), photo taken in 1966.

Al Brown (whose family owned Looff’s Concessions which offered pinball and various other games to visitors of the Pike) holds up a photo of the Pike as it was in its heyday. In the background is the site of the former amusement park.

photos of the pike

Herald Examiner Collection, photo taken by Mike Sergieff on February 11, 1988.

Should you wish to peruse more photos of Nu-Pike, see Stephen Brown’s book The Pike (Past Its Peak) available at the Reference Desk of the Art and Recreation Department at the Central Library branch of the Los Angeles Public Library.

 

Fly Me to the Moon — in a Bathtub: Southern California and the Race to Space

Mankind has always looked to the sky and wondered what is up there and how to get there. Southern Californians are no different. Long before Neil Armstrong stepped on the moon in July of 1969, scientists, soldiers, engineers, designers, and space exploration enthusiasts in and around Los Angeles were making plans, asking questions, drawing blueprints, and building machines in order to reach that last frontier. TESSA, the online photo archives of the Los Angeles Public Library, has images showing the commitment, creativity, and curiosity surrounding the space race and Southern California’s involvement in it – in universities, research laboratories, military bases, and basement workshops.

Allyn B. Hazard, Senior Development Engineer at JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, managed by CalTech and owned by NASA), poses in a space suit that he designed. The suit – referred to as the moon suit – was being examined by UCLA biology students.

moon suit

Valley Times Collection, photo dated February 16, 1961.

After completing their missions, astronauts could glide back into Earth in the “Flying Bathtub” created by the Experimental Aircraft Association, an organization of pilots and engineers dedicated to designing and building the aircraft of the future at their homes in their spare time.

flying bathtub

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by George Brich on August 29, 1964.

Dr. William Pickering (standing), Director of JPL for 22 years, discusses a satellite with Albert Hibbs, a renowned mathematician who became known as “the voice of JPL” and who took a break from graduate school to try to beat the casinos at roulette.

satellite

Valley Times Collection, photo dated March 5, 1958.

Two scientists at a physics research laboratory in Canoga Park utilize a hypervelocity chamber which simulates conditions experienced in outer space – including temperatures of 80,000 degrees Fahrenheit.

physics research

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Dean Gordon on March 20, 1965.

Emil DeGraeve, Managing Director of Litton Industries’ Space Research Laboratories, explains to Naval Reserve officers the function and fashion of a space suit designed by Litton.

litton industries moon suit

Valley Times Collection, photo dated February 26, 1960.

Three scientists display a model of Explorer I, the first U.S. satellite successfully launched into orbit on January 31, 1958, and discuss the data obtained from this satellite’s foray into space. The panel includes Dr. Henry Richter Jr., JPL’s Group Supervisor of Explorer Design and Development; George Ludwig, a graduate student of Iowa State University who would become a chief research scientist for NASA and JPL; and Phyllis Buwalda, a JPL researcher who determined the surface topography of the moon.

explorer 1

Herald Examiner Collection, photo dated February 13, 1958.

The Dyna-Soar Project was begun in 1960 and was a collaboration between NASA and the United States Air Force. Its mission was to place a man in orbit and then return him to an exact selected spot, with the aircraft available for reuse. In this photo, Air Force Captain William J. Knight stands next to an F-104 Fighter at Edwards Air Force Base. This aircraft was used for the project. No aircraft was ever able to reach the altitudes needed for orbital flight, and Project Dyna-Soar was cancelled in 1963.

dyna-soar

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Jeff Goldwater on April 16, 1962.

A spacecraft engineer from Lockheed-California Co. displays a model of a vehicle with mechanical arms created by the aerospace company. This vehicle could build low orbit satellites and rocket boosters and make repairs in outer space – an invaluable service for solar system exploration.

robot for space repairs

Valley Times Collection, photo dated August 14, 1960.

Seda Garapedian, an Armenian immigrant, was active in many organizations that assisted Armenian-Americans including the Armenian Allied Arts, the Armenian Film Foundation, and the Armenian Professional Society. A renowned flautist, she taught music in Los Angeles high schools and married Martin Marootian, a pharmacist who spearheaded the class-action suit that forced New York Life to honor insurance policies bought by victims of the Armenian genocide. In this photo, Miss Garapedian poses next to a rocket engine during a tour of JPL (which was building rockets before NASA even existed).

rocket engine

Shades of L.A.: Armenian-American Community, photo taken in 1948.

A mannequin wearing an X-15 flight suit is strapped to a test sled to test equipment operating at speeds of 1,700 mph. The testing took place at Edwards Air Force Base’s speed track in Lancaster, California, and was part of a rocket testing program.

speed test dummy

Valley Times Collection, photo dated August 17, 1960.

Miss Gregory of Hollywood, a fashion designer, checks the fit of the space suit she designed for an employee of the Aro Corporation. Miss Gregory also designed the model (left) on which space suits are fitted.

miss gregory of hollywood

Valley Times Collection, photo taken July 31, 1964.

Robert Stegen of Canoga Electronics in Van Nuys looks at the company’s antennae which (hopefully) will be picking up transmissions from John Glenn’s Mercury satellite which is scheduled to be passing over Southern California shortly after this photo was taken.

mercury satellite communication

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Jeff Goldwater on February 13, 1962.

Donald May (far right), a chief engineer at Rocketdyne and also President of the Valley Amateur Astrophysical Society, speaks with two members of Reseda High School’s American Rocket Association.

valley amateur astrophysical association

Valley Times Collection, photo dated June 7, 1960.

While attending a meeting of the Valley Amateur Astrophysical Society in Northridge, Daniel W. Fry discusses his contact with an alien space craft which gave him a ride from White Sands, New Mexico, to New York City in less than 30 minutes. Fry, an explosives expert who worked a variety of jobs in the rocketry industry, wrote a book about the incident (The White Sands Incident) and founded an organization (Understanding Inc.) to promote understanding and cooperation among all people – those on Earth and those living on other planets.

white sands incident

Valley Times Collection, photo taken by Alan Hyde on October 30, 1961.

In Remembrance of Carolyn Kozo Cole (1943-2018)

Carolyn Kozo Cole (left) and Kathy Kobayashi with Shades of L.A. photos.

Photo Friends is saddened to share the news that our founder, Carolyn Kozo Cole, passed away from complications due to Alzheimer’s on December 6th.

Carolyn began her career as a librarian on the East Coast, working in public, school, and corporate libraries. An avid fan of photography and a fourth-generation photographer herself, she served as an exhibit curator with the Seattle Public Library. When the Security Pacific National Bank Collection was donated to the Los Angeles Public Library in 1981, she became an exhibit consultant and began a nearly 30-year career with LAPL.

In 1990 she became the Senior Librarian of the Photo Collection and immediately established Photo Friends, the support group that assisted in launching the Shades of L.A. project. Carolyn was the driving force behind this landmark effort, working with Kathy Kobayashi to record Los Angeles’ culturally diverse history through the collecting of family photos. During her two decades in the position Carolyn also started the Photographer’s Eye lecture series (now in its 20th year), and spearheaded two photography projects to document contemporary L.A. neighborhoods and industries. Always a phenomenal ambassador for the Photo Collection, she brought it international attention.

She retired in 2009 and moved to San Diego to be near her son, daughter, and five grandchildren. At this time, services have not been scheduled. Messages of condolence can be sent to her son and daughter, Chris and Justine Kozo, at ckozocole@gmail.com

If you would like to make a donation in Carolyn’s memory, please consider donating to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Those of us fortunate enough to work with Carolyn knew her as a generous and compassionate person who loved Los Angeles and always sought for others to experience the city at its best. Her work with the Los Angeles Public Library Photo Collection and Photo Friends laid the foundation for these organizations to continue to grow and share the history of our city with the world.

Playa Del Rey: The Last Beach Town

Surf, sand, sun: the key ingredients for a California beach town. Playa Del Rey has all these in abundance. Yet the tiny community also has had perhaps more than its share of fallout from both the force of nature and the hand of man. What was once a vast complex of wetlands south of Santa Monica, and the estuary for the Los Angeles River, is now a narrow slice of coast squeezed between man-made Marina Del Rey on the north, the huge upscale housing complex known as Playa Vista to the east, and LAX so close on the south that jets soar directly over the beach.

Fredie Martel gets sand between his toes, 1942. Although the photo is labelled Playa Del Rey, it could easily be another beach community. The confines of Playa Del Rey have changed so much over the decades that names tend to get lost in the mix. Photo, Shades of L.A. Collection – Mexican American Community, #00002789.

Water, water, everywhere

Playa Del Rey is a community defined by water. Ballona Creek, once a major river, cuts through the landscape as it courses from the Santa Monica Mountains down to the sea. Two centuries ago, the creek bed also channeled the Los Angeles River before that water course jumped its banks about 1825 due to earthquakes and flooding and began flowing south to San Pedro. Even without the waters of the L.A. River, Ballona Creek was a formidable stream, creating swaths of freshwater wetlands upland and saltwater wetlands as it approached the sea. A wide estuary ballooned into a lagoon surrounded by sand dunes, an ideal spot for recreational boating.

A century ago entrepreneurs dreamed dreams of pleasure pavilions, hotels, car-racing and other attractions. About the turn of the 19th century, an abortive effort was made to dredge out the wetlands and create “Port Ballona” where the railroad would meet shipping lines. Storm and tide foiled this effort and the port of Los Angeles went to San Pedro.

Dreams of a resort town had more success. The first decades of the 20th century saw a hotel and pavilion built on the lagoon with a pier on the oceanfront. Palm trees were trucked in from Santa Monica. Storm gates shielded the lagoon from ocean currents. The Pacific Electric Railway brought day trippers to the shore on its Red Cars. A funicular railroad took the adventurous straight up the bluffs. Housing started going up on the hills and along the shore to the south.

By the 1930s, things started to go sideways. The Great Depression played a part, but there were other factors. Oil was discovered in Venice, just to the north, bringing pollutants and unpleasant smells. At roughly the same time, Ballona Creek was straightened and channelized with concrete, reducing the threat of flooding, but forever changing the character of the wetlands. The lagoon shrank to a fraction of its former size. Two decades later, massive infrastructure projects to the south put the squeeze on the little beach town: the Hyperion Wastewater Treatment Plant, the Scattergood Steam Plant, and, of course, the expansion of Los Angeles International Airport. In the mid-1960s, the airport had hundreds of homes in the Surfridge neighborhood of Playa Del Rey condemned. The runways never extended quite as far as that beachfront community; one can still see ghost sidewalks and streets through a chain-link fence along Vista Del Mar, the coast road. The 1946 construction and 1955  expansion of the Hyperion plant dumped tons of sand and sediment off the coast of Playa Del Rey. While this may have compensated somewhat for beach erosion, it permanently stunted the already sleepy lagoon, cutting it off from all ocean tides.

The most significant change for Playa Del Rey, however, came when the Army Corps of Engineers began work on the project to be known as Marina Del Rey, a huge dredging project that created berths for 5,000 pleasure boats just across the Ballona Creek channel from the heart of Playa Del Rey. In effect, the Marina project, completed in 1965, cut off Playa Del Rey, geographically and ecologically, from its sister beach towns, Venice and Santa Monica, and from the northern lobe of the lagoon. The massive project destroyed 900 acres of wetland; in addition, tons of earth dredged out for the boat channels were deposited off Playa Del Rey. Once again the town became a dumping ground.

In more recent years, residents have had to fight to keep even a small portion of the wetlands that defined the community from falling to development. Beginning in 2002, the Playa Vista development threatened to destroy a good chunk of the remaining freshwater wetlands for upscale housing, businesses, and offices.  Negotiation and mitigation has allowed for the preservation and interpretation of some 600 acres of wetlands, now in the care of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Plans are afoot to restore the much changed wetlands to some version of their former selves.

Meanwhile, in the lowlands, the little community of Playa Del Rey retains a relatively low profile among beach towns.

Watching change unfold

Photos from the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection show the startling transformation of Playa Del Rey over the past century.-

Del Rey Lagoon (aka “Lake Ballona”) with canoes, about 1902. Photo, Graham Photo Company, Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00022968.

 

The reconfigured lagoon with a pleasure pavilion (left), ocean pier, and hotel, 1907. Throngs of people along the shore provide the scale. The Hotel Del Rey, pictured center right, burned to the ground in 1924 killing two dozen, including 22 young people. At the time the wooden structure was being used as a home for special needs girls. While stories vary, it appears that the fire was started by one of the teenagers living in the home. Photo, Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00022975.

 

A contemporary photo, taken from roughly the same angle, shows the much reduced size of the lagoon. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

 

Real estate developers have set up shop at the base of the bluffs along Culver Boulevard, 1925. Dickenson and Gillespie had their headquarters in the large building at middle right, between Pershing Drive and Vista Del Mar Lane. This structure, the Dickenson & Gillespie building, still stands, though much altered, and is the home of Tanner’s Coffee. The small huts in the photo, adjacent to a grandstand, were temporary structures set up to be used by salesmen. The photo appears to be taken during some event, likely the advertised “New Model City Addition” sale held August 2, 1925. During land “booms,” prospective buyers were often lured in to hear a sales pitch with free transportation, food, and other incentives. Dickenson and Gillespie dubbed Playa Del Rey “The Last of the Beaches.” Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00023000.

 

Pacific Electric street cars bound for Playa Del Rey and points south. Photo, Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00006774.

Remnants of the old Pacific Electric street car tracks can be spotted in the Ballona Saltwater Wetlands. A viewing platform atop the piers allows school groups and others to get a close up look at the flora and fauna of the wetlands. The yachts and condos of Marina Del Rey can be seen in the distance.

“All year play ground of happy healthy children: Palisades Del Rey.” So reads the slogan written on this photo dated 1930 in the library’s collection, perhaps a bit of promotional literature. Photo, Security Pacific National Bank Collection, #00070514.

 

Oil spills and the resulting sludge are common problems on California beaches. Playa Del Rey is no exception. This photo of Ileana Sanchez was taken in 1979. Photo, Toru Kawana, Herald Examiner Collection, #00044224.

 

Playa Del Ray beach about 1938. A crude rock jetty extends into the sea at left. Photo, Herman J. Schultheis Collection, Los Angeles Photographers Collection, #00022982.

 

The structure is called the McGurk Beach Jetty, for reasons unknown. It was likely built to protect swimmers from high tides. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

 

The Playa Del Rey Stables were a fixture in the community from approximately 1910 to 1988. The last days of the riding stables came when the land was optioned for a retirement home that never materialized. Here, one Jim Doggett rubs down his horse, Beau, April 30, 1988. Photo Leo Jarzomb, Herald-Examiner Collection, #00084387.

A circular area of trampled grounds is what’s left of the riding stables. Local lore has it that a young Elizabeth Taylor trained for her role in National Velvet in this corral. Photo, Alan Humphrey.

Bridge over Ballona Creek near its outflow, 1941. The photo is taken after the creek has been channelized and before the creation of Marina Del Rey. The channel is swollen due to torrential rains. Photo, Herald Examiner Collection, #00043329. (The photo shows editor’s crop marks.)

 

Today’s Ballona Creek Bridge, used by bikes and pedestrians only, links Playa Del Rey to a jetty and bike path. A wide boat channel on the other side of the jetty leads to the eight basins of Marina Del Rey. Photo, Alan Humphrey.