Los Angeles started out as El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reyna de Los Angeles del Rio de la Porciuncula in 1781. It was the idea of Spanish Governor Felipe de Neve who wanted a pueblo, a town, to provide food for southern California. He recruited 46 people from the state of Sonora in northern Mexico to settle there. While the town was well irrigated, the surrounding area turned out to be quite arid, and not well populated. Ten years after its founding there were 139 inhabitants in the town, by 1820 only 650.
When the United States took over California after the Mexican-American War Los Angeles was still rather neglected. In the 1850s there were less than 2,000 people in the town, and 8,329 in Los Angeles County overall, the majority of whom spoke Spanish, and half of whom were Native American. There were no schools or newspapers. In 1876 L.A was also connected to the rest of the state by a railway line built by the Southern Pacific Railroad that required a $602,000 bribe from the city.
The growth of Los Angeles really took off in the 1880s due to two main causes: a new railroad and the activities of promoters. In 1885 the Santa Fe railroad entered southern California. This set off a rate war with the dominant railway line of the area, the Southern Pacific. Rates dropped to as low as $1 for a trip from Midwest cities such as St. Louis and Kansas City to Los Angeles. The lower rates led to a massive increase in the number of people coming out to Los Angeles, as many as 120,000 by way of the Southern Pacific in 1887 alone. Meanwhile, promoters published books, pamphlets and articles about how great life was in southern California. They talked about the healthy, Mediterranean-type climate that was said to cure sicknesses like pneumonia, the fertile farm land and tourist sites related to Helen Hunt Jackson’s best selling novel Ramona and the California missions that were being written about by people like Charles Lummis.
Los Angeles now became a booming American city. A city hall, services, schools, and newspapers were all established. The population went from being predominantly Catholic to Protestant. A real estate boom started in the 1880s that developed Los Angeles County. In 1886 an acre of land there went for $100. The next year it was worth $1,500. From 1884 to 1888 roughly 100 new towns were planned, and in 1889 Orange County was broken off due to the population growth. The boom went bust by the end of the 1880s, but prices eventually recovered and continued to rise into the 1900s. Los Angeles also got its own major port in 1897 in San Pedro. In 1903 the city began confronting corruption when it passed a new city charter that included the ability to have recall elections to remove politicians.
Los Angeles’ success strained its natural resources by the early 1900s, particularly the need for water, a problem which was solved with the construction of an aqueduct. From 1890 to 1900 L.A.’s population grew from 50,000 to 100,000 and five years later it was pushing 200,000. This rapid growth led city and county politicians to propose building an aqueduct. Plans were laid to bring water from the Owens Valley in the Sierra Nevada Mountains over 230 miles away. Developers bought the land necessary piecemeal and secretly to keep the prices down and after five years of construction the aqueduct opened in 1913.
This was great not only for the new residents, but for the booming business of the southland as well. Agribusiness; huge, corporate run farm industries sprouted throughout the region, making California the largest agricultural producer in the country. In 1876 the first oil well was dug in Pico Canyon, and by the 1920s the state had the largest petroleum industry in America. The movie business also relocated from the east coast to L.A. County to escape making patent payments to Thomas Edison. Finally, the Pacific Electric (PE) Railway line was built as public transportation to connect Los Angeles to all of the new cities and countries around it. It also sold off property that it owned to create new towns such as Huntington Beach named after the PE Railway owner Henry Huntington. The growth of Los Angeles continued into the following decades, eventually making it the political, economic, and cultural center of California, and eventually the second largest city in America.
- Students explain how California became an agricultural and industrial power, tracing the transformation of the California economy and its political and cultural development since the 1850s.
- Students analyze the relationship among the rise of industrialization, large-scale rural-to-urban migration, and massive immigration from Southern and Eastern Europe.