Carson to El Segundo: city monikers explained

Times Staff Writer

City names’ origins are as diverse as the communities themselves. Some are traceable to Native American or Spanish words, others to local natural attributes. A few are whimsical, others puzzling.

Here’s how some of Los Angeles County’s 88 cities got their names, along with the years they incorporated:

Carson (1968)

This area was part of Rancho San Pedro, one of the few Spanish land grants to remain in the same family for generations. To this day, the Dominguez family has extensive landholdings in the area.


The community was named for George Henry Carson, who married one of Don Manuel Dominguez’s six daughters and managed the rancho after his father-in-law’s death.

The name Carson is said to have won out over Dominguez and the imaginative Carsolinguez simply because it was easier to spell.

Cerritos (1956)

This was part of former soldier Jose Manuel Nieto’s vast Spanish land grant called Rancho los Nietos. When the rancho was divided among heirs, Juan Jose Nieto retained the largest share, called Rancho los Coyotes. He called an area within the rancho Sierritos or “little hills.”

It incorporated as the city of Dairy Valley in 1956, referring to more than 400 dairies in the area. In 1967, it rechristened itself Cerritos.

Claremont (1907)

The community was created by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1887 and named for Claremont, N.H., to honor the birthplace of a corporate director of the Pacific Land and Improvement Co., a subsidiary of the railroad.

The next year, when a real estate boom went bust, the land company transferred the only hotel in town -- vacant, of course -- along with the vacant lots to Pomona College.


The college founders were professors and ministers who missed the lush New England landscape. They set about planting trees and naming streets Yale, Harvard, Dartmouth, Columbia and Amherst.

Commerce (1960)

In the 19th century, the area was known as Rancho San Antonio. It was owned by Don Antonio Maria Lugo, mayor of Los Angeles between 1815 and 1820.

Its conversion to an industrial area began in 1887, when the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway built its main line through the area.

The ranch remained intact until Arcadia Bandini de Baker, a descendant of Lugo and reputedly once the wealthiest woman in Los Angeles, sold some of it around the turn of the 20th century.

By the 1920s, factories had arrived. In the late 1940s, industrial leaders banded together with residents in the communities of Bandini and Rosewood and part of Bell Gardens to encourage commerce. They changed the name to match that goal.

Compton (1888)

Pioneers Francis P.F. Temple and Fielding W. Gibson purchased land at a sheriff’s sale in 1866 for 36 cents an acre and called the tract Gibsonville. In 1868, they flipped it for a whopping $5 an acre to two leaders of a wagon train of Methodist settlers from Stockton: farmer William Morton and temperance minister Griffith Dickenson Compton.


The settlers briefly called it Comptonville, but when the post office opened the next year, its name was shortened to Compton. There was already a Comptonville, in Yuba County.

Covina (1901)

When Joseph Swift Phillips subdivided 2,000 acres of farmland in 1884, he hired Fred Eaton to survey his land. One of them noticed abandoned grapevines and devised the name Covina from “cove of vines.” Others say the name is similar to a word in the language of the Gabrielino Indians. But oranges and grapefruit, not vineyards, made the town prosperous.

Cudahy (1960)

In 1902, Irish immigrant and meatpacking baron Michael Cudahy bought a winter home in Pasadena and opened a meatpacking plant in Los Angeles. The plant, near Macy Street and the Los Angeles River, burned down two years later.

In 1908, he sold his share of the Armour-Cudahy meatpacking plant in Omaha and bought a 2,800-acre ranch south of downtown Los Angeles. He called it the Cudahy Ranch Co. After his death in 1910, the ranch was subdivided into one-acre farms that eventually became today’s city.

Culver City (1917)

Real estate developer and promoter Harry Hazel Culver announced plans in 1913 to develop a town specifically for filmmakers near Ballona Creek. Local voters -- all 59 of them -- rejected annexation to Los Angeles in 1914.

Culver bought up land and laid out the town named for him. He trolled for prospective home buyers with buses that advertised “Free Lunch -- Culver City,” and gave a residential lot to the winner of a “prettiest baby contest.”


By the 1930s, the city boasted three major film studios, including MGM, and was called the Heart of Screenland. Sony has since replaced MGM. At one time or another, Hal Roach Studios, Pathe, Lorimar and Desilu all operated there.

Diamond Bar (1989)

The city’s bejeweled name derives from the Diamond Bar Ranch and its cattle brand, a diamond and bar.

Nestled in the meandering hills and valleys of Brea Canyon near Pomona, the ranch was started in 1918 by Frederick E. Lewis, who owned part of Rancho los Nogales (Ranch of the Walnut Trees).

It remained pristine until Transamerica Corp. purchased it in 1956. Development soon followed.

Downey (1956)

John Gately Downey, an Irish immigrant and governor of California from 1860 to 1862, founded this city.

He also helped start the first bank in Los Angeles and donated land for a university that became USC.


In 1859, Downey and a partner, James McFarland, bought the 17,600-acre Santa Gertrudes Ranch, which was later subdivided. In 1873, a 16-block portion became the center of the community. Ten acres was reserved for a railroad station.

Duarte (1957)

While patrolling the San Gabriel Mission property, Andres Avelino Duarte, a Mexican army corporal, frequently stopped to water his horse at the San Gabriel River. In 1841, he was granted nearly 7,000 acres by then-Mexican Gov. Juan B. Alvarado and named it Rancho Azusa de Duarte. Not long afterward, most of the rancho was divided into 40-acre plots and sold to help settle Duarte’s debts.

Today, across from City Hall, a bronze statue of Duarte astride a horse pays tribute to him.

El Monte (1912)

Capt. J.A. Johnson, a native of Lexington, Ky., led a wagon train of about 40 families to the end of the Santa Fe trail in 1851. He named the town they founded there Lexington. Trail-hardened Southerners settled in this lush valley fed by the Rio Hondo and built a rough-and-tumble community that became a hotbed for secessionists.

Earlier residents had called the undeveloped swampland the monte, meaning wooded spot. That name reemerged and took hold after the Civil War.

El Segundo (1917)

Before incorporation, this area was part of Rancho Sausal Redondo (Ranch of the Round Clump of Willows), where cattle grazed on wheat and barley fields. It acquired its current name in 1911 because it was the site of Standard Oil Co.’s second oil refinery. The company’s first refinery, in Richmond, Calif., had been christened “El Primero.”



Sources: “1000 California Place Names” by Erwin G. Gudde; “The Dictionary of California Land Names” by Phil Townsend Hanna; “The Boom of the Eighties” by Glenn S. Dumke; “Los Angeles A to Z” by Leonard and Dale Pitt; chamber of commerce and city websites; Los Angeles Times archives.