Honey finds where the Portola monument should be
NOTES FROM ABOVE GROUND
By Honey van Blossom
(Honey is a Belgian Marxist former strip-tease artiste)
One Sunday morning, river activist, urban adventurer and Los Angeles County Beach Commissioner Anthea Raymond and I met at Nick’s Café. Our mission for that day was to look for the real site of the August 2, 1769 Portola expedition’s campsite.
Gaspar de Portolá i Rovira led the first European land exploration from San Diego to San Francisco. Father Juan Crespi accompanied the expedition, and it was either from the campsite or very near it that he saw the land he recommended for a mission and large settlement, which became the City of Los Angeles.
Nick’s Café is at 1300 North Spring Street in an area that was probably alongside the agricultural lands first established in the grasslands Father Crespi saw.
The zanja (irrigation ditch) that probably nine of the pobladores – two of the eleven men were described as “useless” — built in the late summer and early fall of 1781 went through the area popularly called “the Cornfield,” now the Los Angeles State Historic Park, and before that, beginning in 1876, the Cornfield was occupied by the Southern Pacific train yard. In the early 1850s, the land was comprised of deeded land after E.O.C. Ord’s August 1849 survey. Before the 1850s, the land was comprised of farms.
The first significant building in the area was wealthy ranchero and businessman Abel Stearns’ flourmill, a three-story adobe. Stearns drew water from the zanja to power his millstones. In 1860, a successor enterprise rebuilt the mill. In 1883, the Levi family took over and named the business Capitol Milling. For a time, the Downey Avenue Viaduct rose from what was then called Sonoratown – now Chinatown – and the Los Angeles Cable Railway traveled over it towards the river and then over the river to Lincoln Heights. The structure still stands, now below the Metrolink overpass.
The zanja waters flowed from its impoundment on the river, and the extensions of the zanja served Los Angeles until 1903. The city licensed a private water company to rebuild the zanja system and to build a brick and cement conduit. Excavation at the site of what had been Joe’s Italian restaurant, which faced an entrance to Chinatown, revealed a big piece of the conduit.
The toma the settlers’ children built to impound the water was located around the bend of the last Elysian Park hill that faces the river, north of today’s Metrolink storage structures and either at or a little below the confluence of the Arroyo Seco and the river. The toma had to be rebuilt often, but its location remained the same until 1903.
The Los Angeles Public Library photograph collection picture of the entrance to Elysian Park near the Fremont monument in about 1900 shows a trolley headed over the Buena Vista Bridge, which crossed the Los Angeles River. The Buena Vista Bridge was rebuilt in 1909, and it is now the Broadway Bridge.
For a time after Southern Pacific built the train yard, a myth arose that the Cornfield was given the name because kernels of corn fell from the freight trains. A more likely explanation is that people had once grown corn in the agricultural plots before the train tracks were laid.
Nick opened the café in 1948. By then, the rectangle of the first farming plots the first settlers dug and double-dug into the grasslands south of today’s Broadway Bridge in 1781, and the grove of olive trees planted about ten years later to the west were gone.
Eric Brightwell’s Pendersleigh & Sons hand drawn map of the North Industrial District shows North Spring Street. A house icon on Elmyra Street is Nick’s Café. Use the dog compass at the bottom corner to figure directions out.
Nearby Naud Street, to the southwest, is about the place where the early agricultural fields ended.
Phelipe de Neve (1724 to 1784), the first governor of Alta California described his measurements (using the Spanish Colonial vara as the unit of measurement) for the farmland in his 1781 Reglamento. By the time of his death, the developed farm plots were much smaller then the Cornfield area, as may be seen in the copy of the first map of the pueblo of Los Angeles, available at the Bancroft Library on the UC Berkeley campus.
The original map was destroyed, along with the rest of the Provincial Archives in the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. Thomas Savage, a researcher for H. H. Bancroft, or one of his assistants, copied this map in 1876. Fortunately, Bancroft sold his library to the Bancroft in 1905.
Savage (or his assistants) also copied a map of the pueblo as it was sometime after 1790. That map shows that the pobladores next allocated farm plots a little to the north of the first plots, above the North Broadway Bridge, in an area that is probably under today’s concrete-lined Los Angeles River. These lands were flooded with river sand in the 1801 and 1815 floods and abandoned.
In the late 18th century, the river – when it did not flood – was 14 yards across. Today’s river channel is deeper and wider. A history of the river may be found in Blake Gumprecht’s The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth (2001 John Hopkins University Press.)
The Metro Gold Line tracks run across the top of The Cornfield, the popular name for the Los Angeles State Historic Park. Solano Canyon was first settled in 1860. To the north of Solano Canyon is Dodger Stadium, which occupies what were once the three neighborhoods of Chavez Ravine, which Julian Chavez purchased in 1844. The City established Elysian Park, which surrounds Dodger Stadium and Solano Canyon, in 1886. Solano Canyon, Chavez Ravine and Elysian Park were previously known as Stone Quarry Hills. The 1952 film noir Without Warning shows the wooden shack that the fictional serial killer lived in at the top of Radio Hill in Elysian Park – in the film, the location is Chavez Ravine – above Solano Canyon.
Nick’s Café, during the years SP operated the train yard, often served people working for the Southern Pacific Railroad. SP’s River Depot was built in 1876. The train yard carved a banana slug shape out of the first agricultural land to accommodate the projected curves of its tracks. The 1942 film noir This Gun for Hire includes scenes shot in the former SP train yard.
The unofficial name of the area to the south-southwest of the Cornfield after 1880 was Dog Town.
Anthea believes, that if Spanish borderlands historian H. E. Bolton was correct about the location of the campsite, that the Portola expedition August 2, 1769 camp site may well have been at the Downey Recreation Center at 1772 North Spring Street, based on Spanish borderlands historian Herbert E. Bolton’s comment in a footnote to his biography of Father Juan Crespi that the first European land expedition in California was on at one-time Downey Avenue, now North Broadway on the east side of the river.
In 1777, Neve chose the site for a pueblo in Los Angeles based on Father Crespi’s recommendation. There was already a mission by then, the San Gabriel Mission. The first mission in the area was established in 1771 and in 1776, relocated to its present location.
The probable location of the first pueblo proper (the first plaza and the surrounding home sites or solares, the granary, two administrative sites and a guard house) was at the base of the southern Elysian Park hill, and the route to it from the San Gabriel Mission forded the river where the North Broadway Bridge stands. This route is the same one that the Portola expedition took to ford the river in 1769, before there was a mission; that is, at a location on the Pendersleigh & Sons’ map above the North Broadway Bridge, which is now the Metrolink storage area.
California marker no. 655 located on North Broadway on the western bank of the river on North Broadway reads:
“NO. 655 PORTOLÁ TRAIL CAMPSITE (I) – Spanish colonization of California began in 1769 with the expedition of Don Gaspar de Portolá from Mexico. With Captain Don Fernando Rivera v Moncada, Lieutenant Don Pedro Fages, Sgt. José Francisco Ortega, and Fathers Juan Crespí and Francisco Gómez, he and his party camped near this spot on August 2, 1769, en route to Monterey.”
Jay Coreia, State Historian III of the California Office of Historic Preservation, wrote in email correspondence to Phyl van Ammers on August 16, 2016:
“CHL No. 655, designated in 1958, appears to be based entirely on Herbert Eugene Bolton’s Fray Crespi, Missionary Explorer, 1769-1774. (Page 146ff)”
The California Office of Historic Preservation received a letter from historian Lynn Bowman (Mrs. John C. Bowman) on about June 28, 1972, stating the historical marker was misplaced. From Mrs. Bowman’s letter:
“When Capt. Gaspar de Portola in his expedition of 1769 — the first party of exploration up the California coast — came to the Porciuncula River, they camped for the night. According to diaries of members of the party, they stopped before crossing the river and then, the next day, crossed it. Their encampment therefore would be on the east side of the river, where as marker by the Elysian Hills notes the spot as on the west side…..
“W.W. Robinson, the historian, agrees with me that undoubtedly the difficulty of placing the marker among the railroad tracks on the east side caused it to be put where it is.”’
Jay Correia attached a copy of this letter in his email correspondence with Phyl van Ammers on August 17, 2016.
- W. Robinson (1891-1972) wrote many pamphlets, articles and books on Southern California History. His papers are located at UCLA: Library Special Collections, Charles E. Young Research Library. Robinson wrote Land in California: The Story of Mission Lands, Ranchos, Squatters, Mining (University of California Press, 1979). He moved to Los Angeles in 1919 and worked as a professional property title researcher for the Title Guarantee and Trust Company and was later its vice president.
He was qualified to give an opinion about the campsite’s location but, other than the belief – supported by Father Crespi’s diary entries on August 2, 1769 and on August 3, 1769, when the expedition forded the river, the description in Mrs. Bowman’s letter is only a little helpful. That is, Robinson believed the tracks on the east side of the river made it difficult to locate the marker in its true location.
Southern Pacific Railway tracks on the 1902 map on the LAPL website crossed the river – as it was before the channel was dug deeper, the sides of the river extended, and the water contained in concrete – in three places. Other tracks ran up along the eastern edge of the river. On a 1912 map, marked United States Department of the Interior, Geological Survey, G.E. Rockhold, County Surveyor, the tracks cross at the same three places, and tracks come up from the south and run along the eastern edge of the area designated the LA River, but the river is in this map dwindled to a stream. The 1966 U.S. Department of the Interior Geological Survey map also shows tracks running along the edge of the Los Angeles River.
Matching the areas covered by tracks with Father Crespi’s description places the location in an area on the eastside anywhere between Downey Recreation Center and the Ed P. Reyes River Greenway.
Anthea’s and my search for the location of the campsite entangled with a search for the location for the first pueblo proper.
Governor Neve did not describe the location of the pueblo proper, at least, not in any document the researchers copied and not in the letter he wrote to Viceroy Bucareli about his choice of site.
Inasmuch, however, as the toma was located a little to the north of today’s Broadway Bridge, and as the zanja was dug from it, skirted the pueblo proper, and went south from there, and as an additional ditch dug after 1786 from the zanja called “Acquecia” on the later map (later called the Zanja Madre), the road was probably where the Broadway Bridge now crosses the river, and the pueblo proper was built against the flank of the Elysian Park hill nearest the bridge.
The probable location of the pueblo proper suggests that in 1777 Neve followed the same route as did the Portola expedition, and that he located the pueblo in the place Crespi recommended on August 2, 1769.
The Los Angeles Times, Magazine Section, from September 7, 1898 to October 30, 1898, published a translation of Father Crespi’s diary. (Laura C. Cooley, “Selected List of Source Material in the Los Angeles Public Library. California from the Discovery to the End of the Spanish Period,” Annual Publication of the Historical Society of Southern California, vol. 11, No. 11, pp 91-101, 1918).
James Miller Guinn (1824-1918) arrived in Los Angeles in 1886. His papers may be found at the Huntington Library. In Guinn’s A History of California and an Extended History of Los Angeles and Environs Volume 1, (1915)(Historic Record Company, Los Angeles, Paperback Classic Reprint September 26, 2016), p. 356 in the original, wrote:
“Portola’s explorers, the first white men who trod the soil of Los Angeles, crossed the river at this point or bluff.” Guinn referred to the bluff overhanging the river to the north of today’s Broadway Bridge where the city once dug a tunnel intended to convey water from a hill reservoir to the Zanja Madre. The tunnel failed. Guinn then copied Crespi’s text from his diary.
Guinn had previously cited Crespi’s description of the crossing in 1907 in the Southern California Quarterly, volume 7.
Father Crespi’s diary entry for August 2, 1769, after the expedition of 78 men, their horses and mules had camped somewhere to the west of today’s City of Alhambra:
“We set out from the valley in the morning and followed the same plain in a westerly direction. After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from the north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill, it went on afterwards to the south. Toward the north-northeast there is another riverbed that forms a spacious watercourse, but we found it dry. This bed unites with that of the river, giving a clear indication of great floods in the rainy season, for we saw that it had many trunks of trees on the banks. We halted not very far from the river, which we named Porciuncula. Here we felt three consecutive earthquakes in the afternoon and night. We must have traveled about three leagues today. This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement. As soon as we arrived about eight heathen from a good village came to visit us; they live in this delightful place among the trees on the river. They presented us with some baskets of pinole made from seeds of sage and other grasses. Their chief brought some strings of beads made of shells, and they threw us three handfuls of them. Some of the old men were smoking pipes well made of baked clay and they puffed at us three mouthfuls of smoke. We gave them a little tobacco and glass beads, and they went away well pleased.” https://pacificahistory.wikispaces.com/Portola+Expedition+August+2,+1769+Diaries. (Retrieved 11/20/2016).
Father Crespi on August 3, 1769, wrote:
“At half-past six we left the camp and forded the Porciuncula River, which runs down from the valley, flowing through it from the mountains into the plain. After crossing the river we entered a large vineyard of wild grapes and an infinity of rosebushes in full bloom. All the soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit that may be planted. We went west, continually over good land well covered with grass. After traveling about half a league we came to the village of this region, the people of which, on seeing us, came out into the road. As they drew near us they began to howl like wolves; they greeted us and wished to give us seeds, but as we had nothing at hand in which to carry them we did not accept them. Seeing this, they threw some handfuls of them on the ground and the rest in the air….” Id, for the August 3 diary entry.
A Spanish colonial league in 1769 is accepted as 2.63 miles. This means that the expedition traveled about 1.3 miles until they came to “the village of this region.” It is about 1.3 miles from the Broadway Bridge fording place to today’s Los Angeles Civic Center. The Tongva village often referred to as “Yang-Na” (The Franciscan missionaries at the San Gabriel Mission referred to this village as “Yakip,” and it had other names as well.) was located at about the area near or at today’s City Hall to the Triforium in the Los Angeles Mall/Fletcher Bowron Square.
Foremost Spanish Frontier historian Herbert Eugene Bolton printed the Crespi diaries as the primary source for Fray Juan Crespi, Missionary Explorer on the Pacific Coast, 1769-1774. (Berkeley, California, University of California Press, 1927). In an asterisk below his copy of Father Crespi’s August 2, 1769 entry, at page 78, Bolton concluded that the campsite was near Downey Avenue.
http://www.lapl.org/ button “Visual Collections” opens to “Map Collection.” Click on Map Collection. The Kirkman-Harriman Pictorial and Historical Map of Los Angeles County 1860-1938 is the first map. Click on MAP-00001, and it gets bigger. Using the little magnifying glass icon, you can follow the trail of the Portola expedition. Text at the bottom indicates the map, copyrighted in 1938, shows that George W. Kirkman created it with help of the librarians. One of the roads shows the Portola expedition road. The campsite is marked with a flag on the eastern side of the river. It looks like Mr. Kirkman – I haven’t been able to figure out who he was – drew that route by following H. E. Bolton’s biography of Father Crespi. There is no explanation for why he called it “Los Angeles County 1860-1938.” The Portola expedition was in 1769. The Indian villages Kirkman designated with little tepees had been around long before 1769.
Land ownership was determined after surveyor E.O.C. Ord’s 1849 survey in the large rectangle, and everywhere else as well in the “Four Leagues Square” of land belonging to the then City of Los Angeles. When Los Angeles was under Spain, all land belonged to the crown. Land was possessed under the right of usufruct, which was the right to use the property short of destruction or waste. After Mexico gained its independence from Spain, people continued to build adobes and to farm the agricultural plots, and they sometimes transferred land, which meant they had come closer to the English and American ownership rights of fee simple absolute. There had been no surveys until Ord’s.
County Assessor Antonio Coronel collected the information about ownership in a book in 1854. The property descriptions are not useful. The descriptions are often, “huerta” – meaning either an orchard or garden. He included a category for market value, but he didn’t explain how he determined it.
Coronel was a large property owner in Los Angeles but the biggest owner was Yankee Abel Stearns. This book may be seen in Special Collections in the Library at California State University Northridge.
From a survey in the 1850s, a road went around the back from what is today downtown Los Angeles called Toma Road. The toma was the dam or intake that impounded water for the Zanja Madre, which irrigated the land. That dam was located up river from today’s bridge. Alameda merged into Toma Road. That’s now North Spring Street. The top of Toma Road was removed as part of the Southern Pacific River Depot train yard, so it doesn’t exist now.
SP bought a portion of the agricultural lands in the flat area for the train yard, first surveyed in 1875. That portion resembles a big banana slug and is now the Los Angeles State Historic Park, popularly called the Cornfield. The land was cut out of the land in that peculiar shape to accommodate the shape of the train tracks.
Anthea and I walked to the probable location of the 1781 plaza and home sites.
Metrolink buildings occupy the area, and train tracks go through it as well. The Metrolink guard would not let us go into the area.
There were only 12 home sites in 1781. Pobaldores gradually built adobes away from the first plaza along the ledge that faces the flat area once a train yard into today’s Chinatown.
Today, Amtrak trains emerge from Union Station and travel below the Cornfield, below as well the anonymous warehouses, industrial structures, yards filled with old equipment, below Nick’s, behind the William Mead housing project, built between 1941 and 1942 on an oil refinery and a hazardous waste dump. The land was badly contaminated. http://articles.latimes.com/2003/may/31/local/me-william31, Jocelyn Y. Stewart, “Housing Project Site’s History of Oil Storage Still Haunts the City,” Los Angeles Times. May 31, 2003.
Eric Brightwell’s map shows the tracks as they emerge from Union Station, pass the housing project and head north at Mission Junction. He wrote “Metrolink” alongside the tracks, but this is the route Amtrak trains travel.
During the 1890s, the area comprising the “North Industrial District” was “Dog Town,” a community of run down homes owned by poor Irish, Italian and Mexican immigrants. The Los Angeles City Dog Pound had been located there in 1885. The City razed the houses in a 1952 development project.
I took the Coast Starlight the day after Anthea and I looked for the August 2, 1769 campsite. The train continued past Dog Town along tracks that pass the Metrolink structures and then it crosses the river on a bridge near the confluence and heads north on the eastern side of the river to the Glendale station, paralleling San Fernando Road. I leaned over my seatmate to see the Metrolink property through the train window. The buildings were built close to the rise of the Elysian Park hills. There is a notch in the hills with other Metrolink buildings.
My seatmate and I then leaned back and fell asleep.
To get a good seat, you have to be at Union Station before nine in the morning. For me, that meant waking up at six a.m. to pack and wash and dry my clothes. Father Crespi was a Franciscan monk. He woke at 2 a.m. to begin his prayers. I have no idea whether they washed their clothes on their land journey from San Diego to Monterey. I suspect the members of the Portola expedition were pungent except for the Indian guides. Male Indians in Southern California went naked although they developed an obsession with textiles in time.
I woke around Calabasas to see the rock formations filmed in early silent Westerns and went to the observation car, where you can see the sky as the train moves through it, and after Ventura, officially the City of Buena Ventura. Father Junipero Serra – Father Crespi’s close friend – founded the Mission San Buenaventra in 1782.
E.O.C. Ord’s plan/map/survey of Los Angeles, completed in August 1849, named the street now called Broadway “Fort Street.” That route was at that time under the hill — excavated in 1960 — called Fort Moore hill, which loomed above “Sonoratown” (now New Chinatown).
Lincoln Heights, considered to be the oldest suburb of Los Angeles proper, dates to the 1830s and was perched on bluffs overlooking the Los Angeles River.
In 1890, the name of Fort Street from First Street to Tenth Street as changed to Broadway. The rest of Fort Street, from California Street (California was formerly “Sand Street”) to First Street was renamed North Broadway. The City created a tunnel through Fort Moore Hill in 1901, connecting it with what was then called Buena Vista Street at Bellevue Avenue, now Cesar Chavez Avenue.
In 1909, construction began on a bridge across the river to connect Buena Vista Street to Downey Avenue, which ran from the river to Mission Road.
In 1909, the City of Los Angeles changed the names of Buena Vista Street and Downey Avenue — which was on the east side of the river in today’s Lincoln Heights district — to North Broadway. The junction of North Broadway and Downey Avenue had been at Avenue 18 until the city changed the name of Downey Avenue to North Broadway. (See, “A Literary Fog,” Los Angeles Times, November 30, 1909, page II 4.)
Professor Bolton may have relied on maps earlier than 1909 in locating the campsite on Downey Avenue, which, by 1927, was named North Broadway.
The route from the San Gabriel Valley location — which Bolton identified as “west of Alhambra” — corresponds to Crespi’s description of a journey along today’s Huntington Drive to North Mission Road, over North Broadway (Once Downey Avenue on the eastern side of the river.)
Father Crespi’s description of the August 2, 1769 location shows that the campsite was south of the Arroyo Seco, at a location on a bluff where he could see the confluence to the north-northeast of where they stopped for the night, in today’s Lincoln Heights district.
Anthea and I then crossed the bridge and walked through littered broken streets to Downey Park, at the end of what is the east side’s North Broadway, likely the route taken by Portola. It’s a flat area, big enough for Portola’s Spanish men and Indian men and their mules and horses, and you can just see the Arroyo Seco confluence a little above, and you can look behind and see Crespi’s low-lying hills.
From a hump in the 1909 Broadway Bridge we saw straight ahead about a mile and a half in the distance to the west the high rises on Bunker Hill, which shone in the gray light.
We had segued to the present from our imagination of the time Portola and Rivera and their servants on horseback, twenty-six or seven cueros – soldiers in leather jackets – Indians on foot, muleteers, two priests allowed to ride horses because it was a long journey, the engineer fiddling with his navigational devices to calculate where they were stopping on the eastern side of the river.
The members of the Portola expedition looked across the river to grassland and hills. Riparian trees grew along the river. Smoke rose above the trees from an Indian village. River birds some very large flew them. Fish still swam in the river that flowed down from the valley and around Griffith Park through the swampy narrows.