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Now those were go-go '80s

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THIS was a boom you could actually hear.

Steam trains rumbled in from the East, from the Midwest, from the mining camps of Arizona and from the grand metropolis of San Francisco. Sometimes four a day, they disgorged fresh legions of dreamers and schemers. Before it was over, circus elephants trumpeted in parades down the once tranquil streets. Brass bands, like so many pied pipers, led crowds into orange groves. Marchers carried banners. Preachers moonlighted as barkers, if they could shout loud enough to be heard.

Later, people would also remember the clattering wagons that jammed the streets with loads of green timbers, and the incessant din of hammers and saws that spread through the basin.

Los Angeles was roused out of slumber in the '80s to greet its future.

The real estate boom of late 1886-88 was like nothing ever seen here, never before and not since.

Whenever you find yourself shaking your head at today's giddy run-up of housing prices, when you start daydreaming about your paper profits, when you kick yourself for not getting in sooner and extending yourself further, and when you start feeling a little queasy about where it might end — well, you're living out a raucous hometown tradition that began in the winter of 1886-87 when a perfect storm of hope, avarice and opportunity converged.

In the years just prior, visitors found Los Angeles a drowsy burg. An account in The Times described "a quiet, slow-moving, half-way frontier town" with a population of just over 11,000. Yes, there had been violent outbursts in Chinatown, but most accounts of the era recalled something closer to a pueblo ambience, beginning with the adobe Spanish quarter and extending to the modest, gaslight business district, where every improvement was a news event. Outlying lands were planted in oranges and barley, with vast herds of sheep and cattle grazing on hillsides.

Los Angeles was served by the Southern Pacific Railroad, but travel to the edge of the continent remained expensive.Then, the Santa Fe Railroad arrived. And it happened.

A second railroad touched off a fare war. Prices of tickets from the chilly Midwest and East plunged, and plunged still more. A promotional ticket reportedly went for $1 on March 6, 1887.

In turn, each visitor seemed to want to outdo the other in reporting back home about this landscape of sunshine, open space, mountains, ocean, orange blossoms and opportunity.

In the history "Los Angeles: Epic of a City," Lynn Bowman tells of one. Frank Wiggins arrived ill and was carried off the train on a stretcher. He recovered rapidly. It was a miracle he credited to the climate. As it happens, his occupation was publicity agent. "From then on his mission in life was to tell the rest of the country how wonderful Southern California was."

Thus began a boom that historians describe as washing over the city in two distinct, thunderous waves.

The first surge brought people who had uprooted themselves and boarded the trains with settlement in mind. In addition to glowing newspaper accounts, letters and word-of-mouth, these homesteaders also were coaxed West by the feverish promotion of Santa Fe Railroad magnates, who had the foresight to scoop up tracts of property ahead of their customers. Worried about water for your property in this arid landscape? One fanciful brochure showed an entirely fictional scene of steamships navigating the San Gabriel River.

As word of the boom spread, a second wave crashed on the city: speculators and scalawags. Among them were veterans of land rushes in Iowa and Kansas. The tantalizing smell of free money had drifted across the continent.

As one historian put it, Angelenos "could not have been blamed for visioning the world coming their way."

The region's first automobile was still a decade away, but our destiny was foretold as far-flung cities were sketched out like tick-tack-toe games on open maps throughout the basin. Leonard and Dale Pitt's "A to Z: an Encyclopedia of the City and County" recounted that the Santa Fe Railroad alone sited 25 towns with 75 others planned by subdividers and syndicates. Among those subdividers was Horace Henderson Wilcox, who carved 120 acres into lots under the name "Hollywood." A whole alphabet of other communities sprang into life, from Azusa to Whittier. A new county, named Orange, was formed.

By the summer of 1887, residential lots were selling and then being resold two and three times a day. People waited in line all night for a chance to be the first bidders on new subdivisions. In a phenomenon that has been ritualistically repeated since, a sizable fraction of the population printed up business cards as real estate agents.

For a brief interval, there really was a free lunch. If you followed one of the many organized parades out to one or another of the newly platted "cities," you could count on getting a meal as well as a sales pitch.

Of course once you arrived, as has been the case ever since more or less, Southern California required a certain amount of imagination to fully appreciate. The difference between a prosperous new city and a dusty orange grove was a lineup of white survey stakes.

Lots that had sold for $150 in mid-1886 fetched $8,000 a year later. The greater region mushroomed to a population of 50,000, some said 80,000 or even 100,000. Assessments reportedly soared from $3 million to $103 million.

Col. Griffith J. Griffith had not yet bequeathed a park in his name. But to amuse visitors he opened an ostrich farm and dude ranch on a portion of his property, ostriches being a peculiar fascination of the day. Not incidentally, the popular attraction led people past his Los Feliz subdivisions en route.

The rootstock businesses of the community — including this newspaper — boomed too. Boy, did they ever. The Times sounded a boosterish voice throughout the period, extolling Southern California's natural blessings and enumerating, sometimes street by street, the astonishing profits that came from quick turnovers of land.

With ballooning advertising and circulation, The Times ordered new steam-powered presses and broke ground on a new building.

The euphoria extended beyond Los Angeles. The number of registered businesses in San Diego tripled from 1886 to 1887, as did the price of land.

The dim, the foolish and the unlucky never imagined an end to the westward flow of newcomers hungry for a piece of the action.

The bust came with hardly a sound. Just the splat of raindrops that brought floods and dampened the promotional imagery of endless sunshine, not to mention interrupting rail service. Perhaps if you listened carefully, you might have also heard the sobbing of families who were rich beyond their dreams one day and destitute a month later.

By spring 1888, it was over.

Some returned home, if they could afford a ticket. Others looked for work. Significantly, though, the business elite of the city survived without calamity. Not a single bank went bust.

This wasn't like the Gold Rush in Northern California 38 years earlier. When the gold was gone, the boomtowns emptied. Here, the treasure remained intact. Lots could be had at fire-sale prices, and homes too. Plus, a ready labor pool was on hand. This suited some shrewd, far-sighted investors just fine.

On the motion of Times publisher Harrison Gray Otis, business leaders voted to establish the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce. A metropolis sat on the horizon, they were sure of it.

Summing up the mood of the city fathers on April 12, 1888, The Times took the roller-coaster ride in stride, editorializing: "The wild speculative craze … has subsided, and we are very glad of it…. The gambling era having drawn to a close, the era of development has fairly set in."

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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