Honey explains why we have the Silver Lake neighborhood in Los Angeles

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August 1, 2013 · Posted in Notes from Above Ground 

By Honey van Blossom

(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste.)
Today’s Libertarians would have found utopia in early American-occupied Los Angeles.  Americans – including among them new American citizens from Europe — stepped into the Mexican system of public and common lands and transformed the land through private entrepreneurship. Speculators created “Ivanhoe Town,” the boundaries of which roughly correspond to the Silver Lake district, towards the end of that free market idyll.  The Kenilworth tract adjoined, and that is now partly Los Feliz and partly Griffith Park.   Also, there were other tracts that adjoined the Ivanhoe area:  Golden Gates, Childs, Edendale.  Today’s Silver Lake neighborhood was to remain, however, mostly grazing land until the 1920s.

The early speculators acquired the former rancho land that comprised much of “Ivanhoe Town” because of the 1851 California Land Claims Act, which led to the former Mexican citizens’ loss of the ranchos that had thrived through peonage labor; that is, Indian labor that was close to slavery.   The Americans also used “free” Indian labor to build their capitalist city.


Rancho property often became the property of the rancheros’ lawyers, who sold the land to real estate speculators.  American property owners voluntarily taxed themselves to build roads, and speculators financed a complex system of privately owned interurban railways so that prospective buyers could reach home sites.  The Feliz family daughters sold off some of the land on the Feliz Rancho for $1 an acre to the family attorney and the son transferred most of the rest to him when he died, perhaps for legal fees incurred in claiming the rancho in American courts.


Griffith J. Griffith bought up those acres not already subdivided in 1882 and later bought Ivanhoe Town, which was comprised of both pueblo and Feliz rancho land.    A marker on Sunset Boulevard shows the northwest boundary of the former pueblo lands.   A map of the pueblo lands shows that the boundary to the Feliz Rancho ran in a straight line from that corner, which means that a large portion of Ivanhoe Town had been part of the Rancho.


Americans disliked taxes but needed public services.  In consequence, the Los Angeles Common Council sold off and gave away the Mexican land legacy.  Elysian Park is the sole remnant of the once extensive city-owned land from the original pueblo lands. The Council regulated roads rather than building them. The Los Angeles of the early 1850s was the most dangerous town in America. A volatile mixture of American and Irish gold seekers, Mexicans, Californios and Native Americans resulted in an astounding 44 homicides between July 1850 and October 1851 in a town with a population of about 1,600 people. During the tenure of Mayor Ygnacio Del Valle, a volunteer mounted police unit called the Los Angeles Rangers was established and partly funded by the state Legislature.  Volunteer fireman battled the city’s fires until 1886, when the City began paying firemen.   The City did not build the interurban railway system: private individuals, mostly developers did.


The 1904 electric car from downtown Los Angeles along Glendale and Allesandro to Glendale was privately owned.  The concrete pediments for the span over Fletcher Drive remain on the hillside above Fletcher Drive.  The old easement for the railway runs along the back of one of Silver Lake’s hills.

The Los Angeles County Railroad engine Ivanshoe is stopped at Sisters Hospital on Sunset Photo Courtesy USC


The train photos are of the "Ostrich Farm Railway" that brought passengers from downtown to Sanborn Junction along Griffith Park Boulevard (then Child's Ave) to Los Feliz Boulevard and into what is now Griffith Park. The Ostrich Farm Railway train, ca. 1889, Courtesy LAPL).

By the 1920s, when the railways had to compete with automobiles, the City decided against subsidies to the trolley system but instead used taxpayer money to build streets and, beginning in the 1930s, freeways.

The small Mexican and Indian population that occupied the pueblo and the surrounding rancho lands had adequate domestic and agricultural water from the Los Angeles River and artesian springs, delivered through ditches called zanjas.   The “zanjero” earned more money than the mayor


In 1868, the City leased the right to manage and control the city’s water to John S. Griffen, Prudence Beaudry and Solomon Lazard.   The three created the Los Angeles Water Company, which managed the zanja system.   Lazard was a Jewish-German immigrant entrepreneur who established the City of Paris clothing store, founded an international banking system, and was a member of the City Common Council in 1871, 1872 and 1873.  He was the 13th mayor, from 1874 to 1876.   He established the Bellevue Terrace Tract (drawn in 1874), an odd-shaped sector extending east to Olive Street and lying north of Sixth Street. The centerpiece of the tract was Bellevue Terrace Park. The Los Angeles State Normal School, a teachers college and predecessor to UCLA, was built on the grounds. After the school moved to Vermont Avenue, the elegant old building was razed. Today’s Richard J. Riordan Central Library was constructed there in the 1920s.  Beaudry, a French-speaking immigrant from Canada, was associated with the development of Bunker Hill, named for the centennial of the Battle of Bunker Hill (and subdivided in 1876). This tract of high-end homes sat atop the hills on the west side of Downtown. Views from these grand residences stretched to Pasadena and to the Pacific. Many of the Victorian era leaders of Los Angeles lived on Bunker Hill, as did Beaudry.


Fred Eaton – later a mayor — was a self-taught engineer who became the zanjero when he was 19. He gave a job to Irish-born William Mulholland as an assistant zanjero.  Mulholland attracted Eaton’s attention when he was a ditch digger and cleaner – the zanjas filled with weeds and trash.


The first transcontinental railroad to Los Angeles (1876) created what Carey McWilliams, in Southern California: an Island on the Land, called the “Rose Dawn.”  The transcontinental railroad was a private enterprise, albeit subsidized by the federal government.


Angelino Heights was developed at the height of the Southern California land boom of the mid 1880s. The completion of transcontinental railroads and a rail fares as low as $1 for a trip from the Missouri River to the West Coast helped trigger a land and population boom in the region. A flood of hysterical buyers and rampant speculation pushed some land prices up as high as 500% in one year.  Elysian Park – a backyard to the Angelino Heights elite residents – became a city park in 1886.


Map of Ivanhoe, Huntington Library

What was to be called “Ivanhoe” was surveyed and mapped on June 2, 1887 and consisted of 700 acres divided into 1,700 lots, ranging in size from one hundred foot frontages to five acres and priced from $150 to $750 dollars.   A free carriage ride went to the tract daily. Glenn Dumke, in Boom of the Eighties (1944), states that the owner (probably Griffith) recorded the subdivision but Dumke may be wrong because California local governments did not begin to regulate the recording of subdivisions until the turn of the century.    At any rate, the owner of Ivanhoe town had a survey completed on the date Dumke claims the area was recorded.


Also, although a carriage may have gone to the tract daily, the Los Angeles Ostrich Farm Railway Company got its franchise from the City in 1886.  Moses L. Wickes, one of the two early Ivanhoe Town speculators, was its first president, and so the railway may have been intended as a way to get people to buy home sites in Ivanhoe Town.    Municipal stairs lead up one of the two Silver Lake hills from Sunset at Parkman  (The City illegally privatized these stairs) and from Griffith Park at Landa, and there is a shorter public stair on Scotland.  Developers often contributed to building the stairs so that homeowners could get to the trolley; on the other hand, there is a municipal stairway from Silver Lake Drive to Kenilworth, and no trolley went down Silver Lake Drive.


Mike Eberts, in Griffith Park A Centennial History (The Historical Society of Southern California, 1996) states that Griffith was the one to name the Ivanhoe and Kenilworth tracts, but he may have inherited the names from Wickes and Mills.  Eberts states that Dr. Sketchley’s Ostrich Farm did a thriving business because of the railway that ran from downtown to the Kenilworth depot and from there to Burbank.  Ervin King, “Boys Thrills in Los Angeles of the 70s and 80s,” The Quarterly Historical Society of Southern California, CCC December 1948), p 309, wrote, that it was “a great boy thrill to ride on that swaying, rickety dummy train – the sudden jolts, what the boys saw and heard – and sometimes there was the evidence that an unfortunate sheep, horse or cow had met its fate in contact with the cow-catcher.”


Lick Street is a boundary to the present Warner Brothers film studios in Burbank.   Only the plots around Rowena have “Ivanhoe Tract” in their grant deeds.  Around Sunset and Griffith Park, property deeds show “Childs Heights Tract.”  Along Glendale Boulevard, the words “Edendale Tract” appear.

According to an interview with William Mulholland by the Los Angeles Times on May 8, 1927, the Moreno Highlands (The first houses in the Moreno Highlands were built in about 1926) was originally part of the Pueblo Land Grant of 1781.

“The romance of Moreno Highlands dates back to the old Pueblo land grant.  I know every inch of this beautiful property.  Forty years ago I lived within a half-mile of what is now Silver Lake and used to picnic along the stream that flowed through the meadows.  In 1903 I built the dam that made Silver Lake.  We used to walk to the top of the surrounding hills, which were considered the finest viewpoints in Los Angeles.

“About 1860 Syrus Lyons (sic, Cyrus Lyons.  Cyrus and Sanford Lyons purchased the stagecoach stop in Newhall in 1855.  It was a regular stop for early stagecoaches to and from Los Angeles. Cyrus Lyon was a Los Angeles Ranger.  During the 1850s, he also became one of the first American property owners in Los Angeles and the San Fernando Valley with purchases in the Ranchos Cahuenga, Los Feliz and Providencia. Cyrus was to have a son, Jose Enrique, known as Henry Lyon, whose mother was Californio native Nicolasa Triunfo, a descendant of one of the original 11 families who settled Los Angeles in 1781.) purchased the 153 acres now known as Moreno Highlands from the Pueblo estate for about $3 or $4 an acre.  At that time this as well as most of the land around Los Angeles was used to graze sheep.

“Somewhere along in the ‘90’s Mills & Wicks (sic, Wickes) real estate men, purchased this property from Lyons with the intention of subdividing it.  They named this property (Moreno Highlands?)  Ivanhoe Hills.  They named many of the streets after famous characters of Scotland, for example, Kenilworth Avenue, which is still used. (The speculators named streets after characters in Sir Walter Scott novels, e.g., Kenilworth, Ivanhoe, Waverly, and Rowena.)

“In 1886, G. J. Griffith obtained this acreage from Mills and Wicks.  During the next few years, Griffith sold parts of this land.  Five years ago (1921) Mrs. Antonio Moreno purchased Mr. Griffith’s remaining land and from other owners obtained the balance of the acreage.”

Catherine Mulholland writes in William Mulholland and the Rise of Los Angeles (2000 Regents of the University of California) that Muholland lived at a work camp in the Ivanhoe area, next to the Kenilworth tract, when he worked on the Crystal Springs (about where the zoo is) percolation project in 1890.   Her great-grandfather owned a farm in the Kenilworth tract, which adjoined the Ivanhoe Tract.


An 1887 survey map in the Huntington Library’s digital collection (“1887 survey map”) shows the Ivanhoe and Silver Lake reservoir about twenty years before it was built.  This map also reveals a portion of the train tracks for the “Ostrich Railway” that ran from the hospital then located on Beaudry and Sunset, along Sunset, down what is now Griffith Park Boulevard, but which was then called Childs Avenue, to Los Feliz Boulevard and from there to the ostrich farm located near the present day Crystal Springs picnic area.    It is worth looking at the map on the Huntington digital collections website because the library’s system allows you to open the map to see details.





After the land bubble burst in the late 1880s, the “dummy line”  — by then extended all the way downtown and out to Burbank and Santa Monica – collapsed.  Ebert cites Franklin Hoyt, “The Los Angeles and Pacific Railway,” The Quarterly Historical Society of Southern California, XXXV (September 1952), 261, “When the bubble burst it (the interurban railway) was left with a poorly constructed railway serving the virtual ghost towns of Sunset, Burbank, Cahuenga, Ivanhoe and Kenilworth.”


The 1887 survey map can be enlarged on the Huntington website.   It shows proposed streets, some of which were developed.  Some were not.


The City of Los Angeles acquired a portion of the land that is now the Silver Lake and Ivanhoe reservoirs in the 1880s and the remainder of the land in 1904 through a process of condemnation. William Mulholland is credited as the reservoir’s designer but as “Chief Engineer,” but in 1887, Mulholland was the Superintendent of the water company, and did not become the “Chief Engineer” until 1902.   The Department of Water and Power did not respond to my request for information about who initially designed the reservoir that shows up in the Huntington digital map survey of 1887.




The Los Angeles water company lease expired in 1898, but, because of litigation, the city did not take over the water system did not take place until 1902.  The City purchased back the lease for $2 million.   Herman Silver, a Prussian Jewish immigrant, was one of the first commissioners.   The commission – the predecessor to the Department of Water and Power — built the Ivanhoe and Silver Lake Reservoirs.  Mulholland proposed that the reservoir be named after Silver.   An Internet site indicates Silver planned the reservoir and the surrounding homes, but Silver did not arrive in Los Angeles until 1887, and he did not become Chairman of the Water Commission until 1902 – fifteen years after the 1887 map showed a plan for Ivanhoe that included the reservoir.


Ivanhoe Elementary School was established in 1894 according to its website but really in 1889 – in a farmhouse at its present location – according to a Los Angeles Times article.   LAUSD has no information on why Ivanhoe was built way out in the country where there could only have been a handful of children, and it has no photograph.   The Los Angeles Public Library, the UC digital library, and the Huntington also do not have information about Ivanhoe Elementary School.


The 1894 topographic map of Los Angeles shows two structures near the Hyperion reservoir on a creek, ten structures along Rowena and some along Sunset.   There appears to have been a creek or intermittent creek that ran between the two big hills, where the reservoir now stands, where Mulholland may have had the picnics he talked about in his 1927 interview, but this may have been a zanja ditch, and he may have been working there for the private water company.


The City annexed “Ivanhoe Town” in 1911, and there were then too few people living in “Ivanhoe Town” to oppose the annexation.


A 1920 LAPL photograph of Rowena shows that part of it was agricultural land.  A search of the Assessor’s maps of current properties shows the oldest house in Silver Lake is an 1895 Craftsman bungalow on Coronado, but there is a small blue and white house behind 2912 Rowena that is as old.    The Assessor’s office, at any rate, reports that one of the structures at 2912 Rowena was built in 1895.  The lot it is on is peculiarly shaped: it looks as if a rectangle were bitten out of the lot surveyed for the 1887 map, perhaps an informal subdivision before the Subdivision Map Act.   The blue house is vaguely Victorian.  Craftsman architecture in California developed partly as a reaction to late nineteenth century Victorian and as an antidote to its stuffiness so this little house may have been built earlier or may have been built out of older materials or from an older plan.


Fred Eaton promoted the city’s control of its water delivery system, but he had an agenda.   After the city took control, it could sell bonds, and Los Angeles residents voted to sell bonds to develop the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which brought water from the Owens Valley – negatively affecting the farms and community there – to the San Fernando Valley (to “Owensmouth.” present day Canoga Park) to enrich speculators in the San Fernando Valley.   Eaton, has secretly purchased land in the Owens Valley and demanded that he be paid extortionate sums for it.


The trolley system in general perished because the City refused to take over ownership and refused to subsidize it but instead paid for roads, streets and highways to further expand the city and further expand its tax base.


The private developers’ 1887 real estate speculation plan failed.  The privately owned Ostrich Farm Railway failed.  The privately owned water company never kept to the terms of its contract with the City.   Not until after the public built and paid for the reservoir, and after the public ownership of sewers and water, and after the public subsidies to the automobile through its road system, was the speculators’ vision realized.    The Libertarian dreams of 1850s Los Angeles elite did not succeed in the case of the Silver Lake neighborhood.


It was at least bold of Wickes and Mills or of Griffith to envision a community on steep hills without infrastructure and that looked down at a meadow that about 20 years later would become a reservoir would attract many buyers.






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