What’s in a name? Clues to a city’s past

Times Staff Writer

Every city has a story to tell — and in Los Angeles County, that means 88 of them.

Los Angeles incorporated in 1850, becoming the first city in the county. The most recent was Calabasas, incorporated in 1991.

Many cities were carved out of sprawling ranchos that dominated the area in the early 19th century. One was named for a dentist, another for a scoundrel. Some names won out simply because they were easier to spell and pronounce than the alternatives.

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

Agoura Hills


Once part of a 16,880-acre sheep ranch owned by Frenchman Pierre Agoure in the 19th century, the area was called Independence Acres in the 1920s. Briefly, it became Picture City because of the nearby movie studios’ back lots. In 1928, the name was changed after residents petitioned for a post office. Some say the “e” in Agoure’s name was changed to make it easier to pronounce but postal officials say it was just a typo.

Since 1940, a 14-foot-tall statue of an Indian chief has served as the town’s landmark. Created as a tribute to the Native Americans who first inhabited the area, it has stood sentinel atop a rocky ledge overlooking the Conejo Valley community. Alas, the artist modeled the statue on a warrior of the Seminoles, an Eastern tribe. Apparently, the artist had heard about a nearby resort called Seminole Hot Springs and made an errant connection.



It was named by the city’s “founding father,” Benjamin D. Wilson, who bought the land for $2.50 an acre in 1874 from the Indian widow of landowner Hugo Reid. Wilson’s daughters had been reading Washington Irving’s “The Alhambra,” about the legends of the Moorish palace in Spain, and suggested the name for its romantic quality.



A flamboyant hotelier and incorrigible womanizer, Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin made his fortune in Nevada’s Comstock Lode. He purchased Rancho Santa Anita for $200,000 in the 1870s, declaring, “By gads! This is paradise.” More than a decade later, Baldwin and his business partner, Hiram Augustus Unruh, laid out the blossoming area they called Arcadia for the pastoral region in ancient Greece, famous in poetry for rural simplicity.



Founded in 1875 on a remote portion of Rancho los Coyotes, the area was named by farming settlers from Iowa and Maine for its abundance of artesian wells, which they used to irrigate vast fields of sugar beets and vineyards. Dairymen soon replaced the farmers, and not so much as a dribble remains of the artesian wells, which dried up in 1928, according to city water officials.



George Shatto, a real estate speculator from Grand Rapids, Mich., purchased 21-mile-long Santa Catalina Island in 1887 for $200,000. He soon created the village of Avalon with the island’s first hotel and pier. The one-square-mile plot of land was named by Shatto or family members for the legendary island paradise where King Arthur was taken after death.



Despite comedian Jack Benny’s joke that the name means “everything from A to Z in the USA,” it is most likely derived from the Gabrielino Indian word asuksagna, meaning “skunk place.” As early as the 1850s, the town was a jumping-off point for those who caught gold fever and headed up Azusa Canyon in a mini gold rush. Developer Jonathan Sayre Slauson discovered another kind of gold when he subdivided the area during the 1887 land boom.

Baldwin Park


Originally known as Pleasant View, the area became Vineland in 1880. In 1906, land tycoon Elias Jackson “Lucky” Baldwin bestowed his name on the area, creating Baldwin Park.



The post office and train station were called Obed until 1898, when the founders of the town — James George Bell, a cattle farmer from Kentucky, and his son, Alphonzo Edward Bell — changed the name to match theirs. The origins of “Obed” remain a mystery. The younger Bell went on to discover oil on the family’s Santa Fe Springs property and parlayed his profits into developing other properties, including Bel-Air. His son, Alphonzo E. Bell Jr., represented Los Angeles’ Westside in Congress for eight terms, from 1961 to 1977.



The town site originated in 1904 on Somerset Ranch, owned by Jotham Bixby, “the father of Long Beach.” He deeded the right of way through his property to the Pacific Electric Railway and its Red Car trolley system, connecting the area to Los Angeles. The U.S. Post Office rejected the name Somerset because a town with that name already existed in Colorado.

Bellflower was adopted in 1909 after apple grower William Gregory suggested the name to link the town to his orchard of Bellefleure apples, meaning “beautiful flower” in French.

Bell Gardens


When the area was a vast orange grove in 1924, developer John Joseph Woodworth built himself a mansion, intending to build more. He envisioned a community to rival Beverly Hills but had to scrap his ambitious efforts because of the Depression. The town soon became known as Billy Goat Acres, a derisive reference to the many Dust Bowl refugees who sought a better life there but ended up living in cardboard piano boxes and tents on vacant lots. Later, vegetable gardens that had been developed by Japanese entrepreneurs were subdivided and named after nearby Bell.

Beverly Hills

(1914)A developer laid out a 36-block village in the area in 1869, intending to call it Santa Maria. During the 1880s, promoters planned a town called Morocco, which never materialized. Then, in 1906, oil tycoon and city founder Burton Green, who was from Wisconsin, named the community after Beverly, Mass., a quaint Atlantic Coast town 25 miles north of Boston. By 1911, only six houses — on estate-size lots — had been built on the 4,539 acres of lima bean fields. The homes sold for $300 to $1,000.



His name may be better known for the Bradbury Building downtown, a national landmark. But Lewis Leonard Bradbury, a silver- and gold-mining millionaire turned real estate developer, made his biggest mark here when he and his wife, Simona, bought 2,750 acres of Rancho Azusa de Duarte in 1892. Today, the area is a hillside sea of wealth, tranquillity and horseflesh tucked against the San Gabriel Mountains.



David Burbank, a Los Angeles dentist and real estate tycoon from New Hampshire, knew how to cut a great deal. In 1867, he bought the land that would become much of the city of Burbank for $9,000. He sold it 16 years later for $250,000. Burbank is the only city in the county named for a dentist.



Legend has it that when a 19th century farmer named Antonio Jauregui headed for Los Angeles along El Camino Real, the state’s first “highway” — a meandering dirt path linking the missions — he spilled his oxcart full of pumpkins or gourds.

The scattered squash grew wild, and the area became known by the Spanish word “Las Calabazas.”


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