Monday, January 29, 2018

How Signal Hill Got Its Name and Some Mysteries

What Name??    

  Most histories of Signal Hill report the name came about because early California Native Americans used the hilltop for signal fires. But all this was disputed back in 1941 when pioneer family members, Philip and Llewellyn Bixby voiced a different story.
     They told reporter Walter Case (Sun 7/24/1941) they believed Signal Hill was so named because for many years ships at sea took their bearings from a large landmark tripod which stood atop the hill. Both Bixbys remembered the tripod, but it was so long ago they couldn’t remember about its placement. Case questioned sailors about this fact and they said it would have been entirely practicable to have established such a point atop Signal Hill where, with a glass, it could be seen from long distances in various directions.
There is no tripod on the Hill,
 but you will find this monument.
     Also noted was the fact that in early days the Hill was known as “Cerritos Hill.” In her book Adobe Days Sarah Bixby Smith mentioned that the Spaniards called the Hill “El Cerrito” (the Little Hill) and she expressed keen regret over the change of the name to Signal Hill.
      My own research discovered another hill in Los Angeles (at the head of First Street) named “Signal Hill.” I also found that it wasn’t until 1892 that the term “Signal Hill” came to replace “Cerritos Hill” in the press. From 1890-1892 the two names were both used to describe the same location, after 1892 only “Signal Hill” was used. I haven’t been able to find anything else about the tripod on the Hill, but I did come across a story about a survey marker.

Survey Marker

     Residential development of Signal Hill began in May 1905, but shortly before then E. P. Dewey, assistant city engineer, surveying residential lots near the top of Signal Hill was approached by an old man. The stranger asked his assistance in locating a monument he had placed on the summit 50 years earlier. The two men searched for the stone, but it took a few days to locate it, and only then it was discovered by accident. Engineer Dewey, at the summit of the hill, attempted to drive a stake into the ground and found the monument two inches below the surface. It was granite, 8 inches square and 18 inches long with a drill hole exactly in the center.
     The old man introduced himself as John Rockwell, a visitor to the city. He told Dewey he had been a member of the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey crew whose mission was to plot latitude and longitude of prominent points in California after it became a state in 1848. The first few years they spent plotting points for light houses, but by 1853 they started to concentrate on other high points including the hill then known as "El Cerrito.”
In 1905 the summit of Signal Hill became a park.
    At the summit, at an elevation of 364 feet, they planted one of their markers. They built a fence around the marker to keep out the horses and cattle that roamed everywhere. They also posted several handbills printed on cotton cloth written in both English and Spanish, telling the public the marker was the property of the United States and requesting that it not be disturbed. Evidently the fence and signs didn't work, since the ground around the marker was plowed many times. In 1905, however, the Signal Hill Improvement Company decided to set aside a 60 x 130 foot area on the summit as a public park. In the center of the trees and flowers rested the monument along with a tablet telling its history. Also included were the coordinates: Latitude 33 degrees, 48 minutes north; longitude, 118 degrees, 9 minutes, 46.7 seconds west from Greenwich; height above mean sea level, 365.64 feet (Evening Tribune 5/3/1905).

Mystery of the Spanish Armor & Buried Treasure

     I came across two interesting stories I have been unable to substantiate in the book Southern California Treasures (1969) by Jesse Rascoe.
     Rascoe states that Southern California papers reported an interesting find in 1937, saying in part, “A Spanish breast plate from an old suit of armor was found near Signal Hill two weeks ago. It was identified as belonging to the period of the 1770s and 1780s.”
Did the Spanish explore the Hill and leave armament behind?

     I did a thorough search through California and national newspapers and found no such story. Could it have been true?
     In the days before flood control the area north of Signal Hill was marshy and known as “water lands.” It wasn’t an area early explorers would generally choose to visit unless  they needed to survey the terrain and sea. In fact when Dana Burks and Henry Barbour obtained an option on land in the west part of Long Beach in 1905 they considered dredging the existing slough around Signal Hill to Alamitos Bay. Long Beach would have become an island. Instead Burks and Barbour decided to build a harbor. It would have been lovely if Rascoe had included a bibliography or footnote in his book to trace the story, but he did give a citation to another.
     In the Association Newsletter, Oscoda, Michigan, January 1969 issue, Rascoe received this report: “K/B reports that her son-in-law found a dandy catch of silver and gold coins with his detector on Signal Hill near Long Beach, California. K/B lives in Colorado and her son-in-law lives in California.”
    Again, a search through local and national newspapers, did not report the story. I’m sure it’s a story the local press would not have overlooked. So....did Spanish explorers once visit the Hill and did they, or someone else, leave behind a catch of valuable coins? Well, Signal Hill would have been relatively hard to get to in earlier times, but that in itself might have made it a recognizable and relatively safe place to leave behind armor and treasure. What do you think?


Wednesday, June 28, 2017

The Pioneer Librarian of Signal Hill: Mary Maud Trodd

     Today Signal Hill is building a brand new library scheduled to open in May 2019 and supported by an active group of Friends.  But few realize that it owes its existence to Mrs. Mary Maud Trodd.
Mary Maud Trodd at work (photo: Signal Tribune)
 Mary and three of her four children settled on Signal Hill shortly after her husband Fredrick died in 1913. She had married the 35-year-old widower, who had a 9-year-old son, in 1894. The following year the family, which now included baby daughter Violet, immigrated from England to the United States. Fred was a blacksmith and the family moved around quite a bit before they settled in California.  It was hard for Mary to get to know people since her husband was always looking for a better place to live and work.  Books and reading became Mary’s friends.   Wherever they moved Mary found a library to educate not only herself but her growing family which now included son Victor born in 1897 in Indiana, and son Verner born in Oklahoma in 1904.  
     Her step-son William stepped into his father’s shoes after Fred’s death, convincing his mother to move the family from Compton to Signal Hill.  He found a house for them to live in located at 1919 Hill Street.  The home was close Mary’s daughter Violet, who had married, and not far from William’s job as a machinist.  Their new neighbors included Masaichi Shibata, a fruit and vegetable seller and his family and the Jutoro Kido family who farmed Signal Hill.
Mary's neighbors were Japanese farmers
(photo: free domain)
     Before the city was founded on April 24, 1924, Mrs. Todd used the Burnett Library in Long Beach, but when Signal Hill became a city Mary campaigned for its own public library. The city, surrounded by oil wells and hidden speak-easies needed a little culture, Mary Trodd believed. She went before the City Council and asked that they organize a library. They just laughed and said “Who would read books in Signal Hill? Nobody here is interested in anything but oil.”  Trodd replied telling them “Plenty of people would read books if they had the books and a place to read them.”
     She approached W. E. Hinshaw who had just built a brick building at Twenty-first and Cherry, and asked him to give her a room rent free for a library. He agreed.  With space for a library guaranteed she managed to cajole the City Council into giving her $30 for shelving. She then went from door to door collecting magazines and books. The library, with its few shelves of books, opened in March 1926.

  At the time Mary Trodd’s story was told in the Press Telegram in August 1941, she still had a yellowed record showing that the total book circulation of March, April and May of 1926 was 26 books.  She worked without salary until 1929 when she was given $10 per month. It was eventually raised to $50 a month, and by 1941 it was considerably higher.
Signal Hill's temporary City Hall after the 1933 earthquake (photo: Signal Tribune)
  The library eventually expanded, placed on the top floor of Signal Hill’s new City Hall at 2175 Cherry in 1934. The new building replaced the original City Hall at 2120 Cherry, which didn’t fare well in the March 1933 Long Beach earthquake.  Seventy-two year-old Mrs. Trodd still worked at the library when interviewed by the Press Telegram in 1941. She proudly told reporters the library now had 4000 books, and regularly received 35 magazines and three newspapers.Monthly circulation averaged 625 volumes.  She knew--she kept her own records--she didn’t need a secretary.
   Mary Maud Chandler Trodd continued working as Signal Hill Librarian until shortly before her death on December 6, 1943, at age 74.  The woman who so loved books was living with her widowed stepson William Trodd, still in Signal Hill, at a house at 1287 23rd Street.  Her other sons and daughter lived nearby. There were no Japanese neighbors. What few remained after oil was discovered had been placed in “relocation” camps because of the war.
The old library at 1770 E. Hill Street (photo: author)
   Mary would be very happy to learn the old library at 1770 E. Hill Street, located in the city’s former 1931 fire station, is being replaced. The small steps she had taken to create the Signal Hill Public Library have payed off. Finally Signal Hill will have a library in a brand new building, all its own, thanks in no small part to Mary Maude Chandler Trodd’s dream.  

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Gold and Other Forgotten Facts About Signal Hill

     Though “black gold” would be discovered on Signal Hill in 1921, did you know that the “glittery stuff” was also found there in 1905?  In my research I’ve come across a number of interesting discoveries and “might have beens” about Signal Hill.  Here are a few of them.

Gold was found on Signal Hill in 1905.

Gold found on Signal Hill
     The years following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake had been difficult for Signal Hill real estate promoter George W. Hughes.  Following the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, property sales in Southern California came to a virtual standstill.  Finances once available for development were funneled northward to rebuild the city.
     Hughes, a real estate agent, had purchased 35 acres on the summit of Signal Hill in September 1904 for $20,000.  In October 1904 he formed the Signal Hill Improvement Company, of which he was president, to develop the land and make it “one of the beauty spots of the coast.”   On May 25, 1905, Hughes placed the lots he had subdivided on the market. 
     The May 7, 1905 Los Angeles Herald reported:

“Another recent big thing for the beach is the platting of 150 acres on and around the top of Signal Hill, two miles north and east of the city. Signal Hill is 353 feet above the sea level, and from the summit a view of twenty-seven towns can be had. Much of the development and improvement work has been completed and soon the lots will be on the market. Lots are of uniform size, 60 x 130 feet. The prices will range from $500 to $1800 each. On the crown of the hill a space of four acres has been set apart for a park and the site for a big hotel. President G. V. Hughes, and Secretary F. A. Crowe are at the head of the Signal Hill Improvement Company having the Signal Hill enterprise in charge.”

     Opening day was a rainy one but still, the Los Angeles Herald reported (5/28/1905), over 500 people attended the opening and $60,000 was realized from sales. Hughes had made sure that Signal Hill “happenings” were prominently in the news. Much was going on at Signal Hill, according to the news reports funnel to the press by Hughes.  A vast gravel deposit (of the finest quality, the Evening Tribune reported) was discovered in February 1905 and an artificial stone factory was being planned in August 1905.  A trolley line up the hill was in the works in November 1905, but it later failed to materialize because of the steep grade up the hill.    But by 1910 development had slowed.  There had been growth as 13-year old Mable Anderson of the Burnett school, wrote to the Los Angeles Herald in January 1910.

 On the very top of Signal Hill is a very nice house which has a very nice yard. There are also 2 or 3 other little buildings. In the spring it is pretty and green and here there are a few wild flowers. Here and there in little ravines you will see some cactus growing.

     The “very nice house: Mable Anderson mentions belonged to George Hughes.  The sales brochure. Signal Hill: the most beautiful home site in Southern California, describes the home:

At the apex of the hill is located the palatial home of Mr. George W. Hughes, unquestionably one of the show places of Southern California. Facing the south, the mansion looks out upon the quiet and beauty of the ocean; commands a magnificent view of the city of Long Beach which lies at the very foot of this charming mountain retreat...

     But more than nice flowers and a few buildings were needed to keep the real estate market on Signal Hill alive.
     Coincidently, perhaps, an amazing discovery was unearthed on Signal Hill on September 21, 1910, on property owned by no other than George Hughes.  Hughes, convinced that there was gold in the west slope of Signal Hill, took a Los Angeles assayer to the site to pan for the valuable mineral.  To verify the claim Hughes asked Jonah Jones and James A. Miller to witness assayer Nelson in action.  Nelson proceeded to pan gold out of dirt taken from the side of a hole which had been dug 10 feet into the ground on Hughes’ property near Cherry Avenue.  The witnesses swore it had not been salted. The assayer confirmed gold was present, but went on to add that at this particular point there wasn’t much of it. Considerable excitement followed the announcement of the discovery, according to the Long Beach Daily Telegram. However, nothing more was heard of Hughes’ gold discovery after the initial article appeared in the press, and there are no records to indicate if sales in Signal Hill increased because of the possibility of gold. George Hughes was not one to give up.  If money wasn’t available for housing development why not build a university?

UCLA at Signal Hill?
UCLA being built in 1919. It could have been
on Signal Hill.

     In 1910 a campaign was started to establish a Southern branch of the University of California.  It was pointed out at the time that Los Angeles County alone had more high school students than San Francisco and Alameda Counties and that 25 per cent of the high school students of the State were in Los Angeles County.  Mark Keppel, then County Superintendent of Schools pointed out that the University of California had just made a request for $5 million to increase its facilities at Berkeley. He pointed out that if a Southern California branch were authorized, it would not be necessary to enlarge the institution at Berkeley. 
     George Hughes proposed Signal Hill as an ideal location for such an institution.  Garner Curran, President of the Los Angeles Federated Improvement Association, was asked to look at various locations; he agreed with Hughes that there was no better place than Signal Hill. On May 30, 1911, Hughes offered to sell 30 acres of land at Signal Hill, valued by him at $100,000 at a low figure. He also agreed to make a personal donation of $10,000, if Signal Hill was chosen as the site of the future University of California, Los Angeles.  Despite Mr. Curran reiterating his preference for the Signal Hill location, Westwood was chosen.
     Just think if UCLA had been built on Signal Hill instead of Westwood.  The revenue from oil in the 1920s and later could have paid most of the expenses of the entire UC system!

View of the Gods – The Trackless Trolley
This was the nation's first trackless trolley,
 built by Charles Spencer Mann in 1910 to promote vacation lots in Laurel Canyon.

     The Pacific Electric Company began the construction of a line up the Hill in 1906, but gave it up because the grade was too steep. In December 1910, our friend George Hughes, real estate promoter extraordinaire, convinced Signal Hill property owners that if the Pacific Electric couldn’t run trains up the Hill perhaps a trackless trolley system was needed.
     The plan called for busses equipped with 20-horsepower motors, capable of carrying a load of 3600 pounds. The motors would be heavy enough to take such a load to the summit of the Hill.  Electric lights were to be used throughout the 22-foot long, 6 foot wide cars, which would be able to hold 24 people.  The roof was to extend from the rear door to the dash, with a ladder either at the side or rear for access to the roof. Another detail according to historian Walter Case was that “the driver’s seat would be in a position back of the steering wheel, which would accommodate one person and would be trimmed with split leather or cushion and back trimmed with hair.” (Sun 12/3/1937)
     At this December 12, 1910, meeting George Hughes announced that a Los Angeles resident wanted to establish a telescope on the summit of the hill, also a lunch room, and, just possibly a dance floor. Hughes said he was willing to lease to the prospective developer a space of not more than 100x150 feet at any desirable point.
     But neither the trackless trolley nor the telescope pavilion became a reality.

Aerial Tram
     While the trackless trolley plan was being discussed another more spectacular idea was suggested to Hughes.  Los Angeles resident Fletcher E. Felts decided it was time to construct an aerial tram from Long Beach to Los Angeles and also to Pasadena. 
     His proposal was for what he called a “Suspended Auto Motor Railway,” consisting of a rail track from which would be hung cars that would have a clearance of at least 14 feet from the ground.  Towers which would provide supports for the track would be constructed “at intervals of whatever distance may be required.”
     The cars would be propelled by either electricity or gasoline and hang from wheels clamped to the rail. It would be possible said Mr. Felts, for the cars to climb almost any grade, but he stated that if the grade became as steep as 60 percent the use of cogs to prevent slipping would be advisable.
     On such a road, he maintained, a speed of two miles a minute could be obtained with no danger to the passengers. He estimated the trip from Long Beach to Los Angeles would be made in 15 minutes and that a ride from Long Beach to Pasadena would not take more than 25 minutes. Cars could be provided, he said, to carry from 20 to 100 passengers each, but he advised 50 passenger cars on the Long Beach-Los Angeles line.
     He told interested parties he had contracts by which the delivery of such cars here for the line would be assured. Such cars, he added, were then being operated in Germany. His holdings, he said were covered by 152 patents.
     The fact that the per-mile cost of the undertaking was estimated at from $20,000 to $50,000 depending on the character of the terrain on which the towers would have to be constructed contributed to the futility of Mr. Felts’ efforts to make Long Beach aerial-railway conscious.

       All of Hughes’ dreams about Signal Hill would have come true if the Hill hadn’t been so steep.  None other than Henry Huntington planned on building a large hotel costing no less than $100,000 on the summit, but he backed out when the Hill proved too steep for his electric railway.  The Los Angeles Herald (10/30/1904) reported that 115 acres of the Signal Hill tract would be open for development, while five acres would be reserved for the hotel. In addition fine gardens and many attractions were planned. But as this blog has shown, Hughes was not one to give up easily.  He lived to see the Hill transformed almost overnight when oil was discovered in 1921.  What would have happened to the hotel, university, and trackless trolley system if they had been built?  We will never know.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

The Signal Hill Cucumber War

Japanese Settle on Signal Hill
        For many years Signal Hill was part of the vast rancho of Los Cerritos settled by Japanese who established wonderful berry and cucumber farms on its heights.  Like many settling in the Long Beach/Signal Hill area, the Japanese were relatively new arrivals, many came via Hawaii.
         In the latter part of the 19th century, Hawaii began luring Japanese laborers to work on its booming sugar plantations. This was because native Hawaiians, introduced to the diseases of white men, were dying faster than they were being born.  There was a severe labor shortage on the Pacific coast when the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was implemented. Wages were substantially higher than in Hawaii.  As a result, many of the Japanese left Hawaii for California when their contracts ran out.
         In all of Southern California there were only 58 Japanese in 1880,  but by 1900 that number had increased to 481.  Among those 481 were twelve men from Wakayama, Japan, who had arrived in the San Pedro area in March of that same year.  One of the men happened to turn over a boulder, near the beach, and, to his astonishment, found an abalone.  From this find sprang a Japanese community that eventually thrived on Terminal Island.
       Japanese farmers came to the area around 1905, many of them tilling the soil in small plots of land around and on Signal Hill.  Not content to remain farm laborers, the Japanese began to buy up agricultural lands, which the Chinese had rented for years, and to organize the industry on a highly efficient basis.  By 1913 the Japanese population of Los Angeles County was listed as 11,500. Farm land owned in California by Japanese, 12,726 acres, assessed in 1912 at $609,605. Farm land leased by Japanese was 1800 acres (LA Herald 4/22/1923).

        Whites, threatened by Japanese success as independent farmers passed the California Alien Land Law of 1913 which banned those born in Japan (known as Issei) from purchasing land in California, but it did allow them to lease acreage for up to three years and keep the land they held if under a corporation.  Subsequent state laws in 1920 and 1923 did away with this corporation loophole, and in 1924 the Federal Immigration Act of 1924 banned all immigration from Japan.

New Method of Raising Winter Crops Originates on Signal Hill
Plasticulture, shown here, originated on Signal Hill

        Many of the Japanese who farmed  Signal Hill lived between Orange and Temple and Orange and Cherry.  Their surnames included Kato, Ujeda, Niito, Yamada, Shimizu, Uyemotto, Shimazu, Nishimurri, Suzuki, Uehero, Horano, Minesake, Tanaka, Yasadeke, Kodayashi, and Ogimatsu, according to the U. S. Census. In 1912 these Signal Hill gardeners decided to implement an idea given them by A. G. O’Brien who had come up with a novel way to make money during winter.  The Los Angeles Times (3/24/1912) described the scene on Signal Hill:

            As fast as long strips of sheer cotton can be stitched together, the sides of Signal Hill are being clothed with white. Already thirty-eight acres are screened from chilling dew and a sometimes too-ardent sun for the growing of tender vegetables and strawberries for the winter market. In the past two weeks 132,920 yards of cloth have been sewn together and tacked to frames over seed and plants in the ground. The areas of whitened gardens present a strange sight. It does not require a very great stretch of the imagination, passing the gardens in the moonlight, to liken them to snow-covered hillsides.

        The cost of covering the ground with the muslin cloth was around $200 an acre. O’Brien, the Times reported, had made a profit of $4000 on two acres of cucumbers and strawberries under cloth within the last two months alone. This new idea required hardly any cultivating. After irrigation, the ground kept in moisture. The process of covering the ground was fairly easy:

  •         A one-inch plank was placed around the area to be enclosed and at intervals of every six feet, cross pieces were placed to support the cloth.
  •        Eyelets were then placed along the edges of the cloth, fitting on hooks in the planking, to help remove the muslin during irrigation, cultivation and picking.

        When O’Brien took his cucumbers to the Los Angeles market in late January, his produce was snapped up at prices four times greater than during the summer, when cucumbers were normally being harvested. He kept his secret for over a month before a Japanese farmer who had leased six acres adjoining O’Brien’s decided to copy him. The idea soon spread.  By March 1912 there were about 25 acres of cucumbers, and over ten acres of strawberries under cloth. (Muslin would later be replaced by plastic, aka plasticulture) 
       In August 1916 the Los Angeles Times reported the Signal Hill Cucumber Association was asking for bids on 20,000 yards of muslin and 300 cucumber crates. This would make Signal Hill the largest agricultural district in the country growing crops under cloth.  The Times went on to reveal that Signal Hill growers had furnished more cucumbers the previous year than any other area of the country with the exception of the Imperial Valley. However, during the coming winter Signal Hill farmers were expected to exceed Imperial Valley’s record when they put seventy additional acres under muslin for the raising of cucumbers.  When this was done the south slope of Signal Hill would be almost completely covered with muslin. This additional covered acreage would allow Signal Hill farmers to increase the previous year’s output of 320 carloads of cucumbers to 500.
         The July 4, 1920 Los Angeles Times pronounced Signal Hill the cucumber capital of the state.  In 1920 alone 60 acres produced 55,000 boxes.
        How was the cucumber crop harvested? It took between 50-70 days from planting to picking. Several crops could be planted on the Hill during the year with the use of muslin.  During the heat of the day they would lift the edges of the cloth to provide ventilation. During harvest Japanese pickers would go through the fields with sacks capable of holding 40 pounds of cucumbers draped across their shoulders. A packing shed was set up at the edge of the field with Japanese women doing most of the packing, in addition to helping in field work.

The Cucumber War
        Like other communities, the Japanese settlement on Signal Hill had disagreements that often resulted in violence.
       In May 1917 ten armed guards were ordered by Sheriff Cline to watch the ranch of Tsuchisaburo Kato, a Japanese Signal Hill farmer, who claimed that $20,000 of damage had been done to his crops by enemies who employ "poison plotters.” Investigators for the district attorney sought evidence against those who allegedly poisoned Kato’s cattle and ruined his crops by spraying the plants with poison and tearing acres of plants up by the roots. Kato charged that other Japanese had formed a blackmail syndicate and that unless he joined their organization the poison war would be continued against him. Kato claimed that efforts were made to have him join the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers Association and that when he failed to comply he was told that he would be ruined financially. (LA Herald 5/17/1917)
      At issue was the fact that Kato’s cucumbers grew so well on Signal Hill that they were the first ones to make it to market.  As a result his produce commanded top prices.  Other retailers were upset that he would not hold back on selling his produce so all could share equally in the profits. Kato preferred to remain independent, particularly since his soil and location made it possible for him to harvest the earliest cucumbers.

    After a search which lasted for more than two weeks, H. Kanzaki, was arrested in Coachella Valley. S. Fujishimi, president of the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers Association, and J. Inukai, secretary of the body, were called as witnesses before the grand jury. Following a grand jury investigation, Kansaki, director of the Signal Hill Cucumber Growers’ Association, was charged with having participated in the $20,000 destruction of the crops and fined.
Farmland 1924

       Life was not easy for the new immigrants.  In January 1917, the body of Nagiach Nishizaun washed ashore in Long Beach.  Nishizaun, a well-educated member of an aristocratic Japanese family, had left notes indicating he was going to commit suicide.  His friends said he brooded over the fact that he could never be anything but “a little brown man” in America.
   The Signal Hill Japanese community suffered another setback in December 1918 when a devastating fire hit the residence of cucumber farmer T. Kiama who resided at Summit and Temple on Signal Hill. The Japanese custom of using direct heat applied under the tub for heating bath water caused the tragedy. The floor of Kiama’s home caught fire. He was nearly caught in the conflagration, but managed to escape from his home scantily clad, arousing neighbors. The flames from the house soon spread to the other buildings, consuming three small cottages and a barn before they burned out. In addition to the houses and furnishings a quantity of hay and $l500 worth of new cloth, to be used to protect cucumbers from frost, was burned. Situated outside the city limits, the local fire department could not get to the fire very quickly.  Fortunately no one was injured.    (LA Herald 12/28/1918)
     However, there were frequent joyous moments in the Japanese community.  In July 1918, for example, 30-year-old H. Imamura, who had lived at Pine and Nevada for 16 years, left for San Francisco to claim his bride.  They had grown up together in Japan, and vowed when 14-year-old Imamura left Japan, that they would wait for the other.  Imamura arrived in California penniless.  He worked hard, saving enough money to buy a truck.  He then used the truck to gather fruits and vegetables selling them at a profit. In 1918 he leased 40 acres of land north of Willow Street on Signal Hill to grow potatoes.  He decided he was now settled enough to ask his girl to join him.
Cucumber Patch Becomes America’s Richest Town
       The July 6, 1924 Los Angeles Times featured this headline: “Cucumber Patch Becomes America’s Richest Town: Signal Hill, Garden Plot of Three Years Ago, Now Marvel of Petroleum World.” In 1916 sunrise Easter services began to be held on the summit of Signal Hill, worshipers climbing or driving up the winding roads and narrow trails to sing praise to the risen Christ.  But in 1921 things changed.  Black gold was discovered.  Houses, streets and sidewalks were covered with sticky black tar; rocks that came up with the gushers broke through roofs and windows.  The time to leave had come.  Fortunately, many left rich, having leased or sold their Signal Hill real estate.  Yet things remained the same in the adjoining gardening district for a while.  In the shadow of the derricks, farmers in 1921 were still tilling the land and planting their crops.  Celery was the big cash crop of the year, grown along with berries to the east of the hill where the soil was favorable to such produce.  To the west of Signal Hill acres of muslin could be seen covering acres and acres of cucumbers.  The thin material helped diffuse the rays of the sun and accelerated the growth of the vine. Recent rains assured the farmers of a plentiful year and they were wearing smiles just like those of their new neighbors whose oil wells had just “spudded in.”

Discovery well, Signal Hill

     But by 1924 things had changed. In 1921 there were 11,000 square yards of muslin protecting the shoots in the cucumber beds, and Signal Hill was one of the most noted cucumber growing areas in the country.  All this was before the farmers and home owners who loved the beauty of the Hill were aware of the oil that lay beneath them.  Soon the Japanese farmers were displaced, their farm leases not renewed, many moved to Torrance, Downey and Artesia. Within three years of the oil bonanza the farm fields were gone replaced by oil wells and a new city---Signal Hill.
     The 3-square-mile city of Signal Hill was born April 22, 1924. The vote on incorporation was 334 in favor and 211 against. With an assessed valuation of $35,000,000 it was the wealthiest city, per foot, in America. Having only 1500 population, the town’s per capita wealth, based on the assessed valuation, was $23,333.   Mrs. Jessie Elwin Nelson was the new city’s mayor---the first female mayor of Southern California. Trustees included Dr. Arthur E. Pike, Lloyd Williamson, Vernon W. Vore, Ray J. Miller, George H. Cooper, who was also City Clerk; and Anna Goodyear, Treasurer.
       City Attorney Don C. Bowker explained their goals: “We want a good modern town when the derricks are gone. We contemplate building a city hall, a fire department, a library, schools and a jail, maybe.”
        Oil operators said their wells would be producing for fifteen years or a little longer. When the oil derricks were gone even a small lot which sold for $20,000 or more when the oil boom came would be worth a handsome amount as home sites. Reporter Syl MacDowell described the future city: “Homes in a hilltop city, set apart like an Andes kingdom and overlooking a panorama of harbor and industrial activity such as early settlers never imagined.”

Monday, December 19, 2016

Creation of a City

An Excerpt from my book Prohibition Madness

         On April 7, 1924, the City of Signal Hill was created when voters in the oil district cast 348 ballots in favor of incorporation and 211 against.  Because of oil discovered on the "hill" in 1921 they were now the richest city in America.
            Forty-eight year-old Mrs. Jessie Elwin Nelson was elected mayor and won the distinction of becoming the first female mayor in Southern California.  The Jessie Elwin Nelson Academy on Signal Hill is named in her honor. 
         A correspondent for the Long Beach Press Telegram, Jessie Nelson’s story was the first to describe the initial discovery of oil on Signal Hill, the “spudding in” of the Shell oil well on June 23, 1921.  She evocatively captured the scene in the Press Telegram:

            “Gravel, shot from the vortex of the roaring gas spout, stripped the insulation from nearby electric wires.  The resultant sparks ignited the gas and writhing jets of flame set a lurid light over the landscape.” 

            The Tennessee native had lived on Signal Hill for twenty years in an old fashioned yellow frame house set among a ragged cluster of trees with a grand panorama.  Pigeons cooed about the home at Cherry Avenue and Hill Street and a bay mare had the back lot all to herself. When the Nelsons settled on the Hill in 1904 only eight houses could be counted on the plains below. Jessie’s husband, Zechariah T. Nelson, had relentlessly sought to preserve Signal Hill as a residential district, unmarked by industry.  It was he who was instrumental in securing a scenic drive on the hill and other improvements. Perhaps it was the discovery of oil and the altering of the place he loved that caused him to die of a heart attack on July 4th 1922, at the age of seventy-three.  But Jessie accepted the changes fate had brought and explained it was “taxation without representation” that forced the Hill to incorporate:

            “We paid $20,000 to the county for library tax, but we had no library. We paid the county road tax of 35 cents per $100 valuation, making a $140,000 road fund. We paid $500,000 a year to Long Beach for schools, but we had no schools.  We want a good, modern town when the derricks are gone.”          

Signal Hill City Hall after 1933 earthquake

            But it was no longer a place where many people chose to live.  The 1500 people who called the Hill “home” in 1924 resided in three residential areas, apart from the derricks.  However, they had to live with the hissing sound of escaping steam and  a constant whine of noise from the pumping of machines.  Signal Hill was by day an industrial landscape, sown with derricks springing like monsters from the earth.  By night, when accumulations of natural gas burning with a muffled roar illuminated the sky, Signal Hill became a Dantesque landscape of flares and shadows, filled with the drone of still pumping machinery.   Mayor Nelson  resigned in 1925, broken health given as the reason. (Press Telegram  3/17/1925), though others thought it was because of what the city had become (Press Telegram 3/11/1925).  But as an independent city it could cast its own future, and it did---one that went easy on gamblers, bootleggers and crime, until urban development in the later part of the 20th century made it a respectable and desirable place to live once again. 

Walter Case's History of Long Beach and Vicinity (1927), also used as source for this story.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Signal Hill Model T Climb


         Many of you may remember the Model T Hill Climb held every year from “around” 1957-1977 on Signal Hill.  I say “around” because the dates are disputed, though an article from the March 11, 1957 Press-Telegram about the hill climb stated it was the 3rd such event, pushing the start of the annual climb to 1954, the same year the Long Beach Model T Club was formed.  Subsequent news accounts of the climb pinpoint the date at 1956 or 1957.  Also in dispute is the date of the last climb. Some say it was in 1978, but the final article I can find in news sources is 1977.  In any case, Model T enthusiasts may be disappointed to learn that it wasn’t a Ford Model T that first made it up the steep grade on Hill Street between Obispo and Temple on Signal Hill.  It was a Maxwell stock car in September 1920.

Mary Pickford owned a Maxwell
           The Maxwell was known as “the car that laughs at hills,” according to a March 1915 ad in the American Motorist:

          “The Maxwell is the car in which “Wild Bill” Turner made the world-record climb up Mt. Hamilton to the famous Mt. Lick Observatory. The Maxwell is the car that Billy Carlson drove 9 miles up Mt. Wilson, California, over snow and ice, around sharp dangerous curves, climbing 6,000 feet in 29 minutes and 1 second, breaking the previous record of 42 minutes.”

            The ad went on to state that “every man that owns a Maxwell is able to laugh at hills.”

From the Los Angeles Herald 9/25/1920
           For four years cars of all sorts had tried to make the difficult and dangerous climb up Signal Hill the Los Angeles Herald of September 25, 1920 reported, but had failed. There was a curving road up Signal Hill from Cherry Avenue which was easily climbable by automobiles, but it had long been termed “impossible” directly from the foot of the hill up its steep side to the top. There was no grade on the road. The only markings on the route were made by autos trying futilely to reach the summit. For years there had been tales of cars that had to be towed back to a garage after attempting such a climb.  In fact the grade off Hill Street between Obispo and Temple had even been described as Southern California’s own Mount Everest (Press-Telegram 5/21/1973). It was E. H. Stenninger and his sturdy Maxwell that first successfully made the grade.  He began at a standing start since there wasn’t room for a running start. He had invited some of the men from the Long Beach Maxwell dealership to ride with him, all refused.  They did, however, agree to come out and watch as Stenninger pushed his machine up a grade of 40 per cent.  Just to prove his car had “taken” the climb with no ill effects, Stenninger went down the hill and repeated his performance.

Model T's ready to climb Signal Hill
            Not many Maxwell stock cars are around anymore, but you will still find the Model T.  One reason might have been the price.  A 1916 Maxwell, for example, sold for $655, while a Model T could be purchased for $360.  This was when the average annual household income was $708.
     Ronald MacWillie, president of the Long Beach Model T Club in 1955, told reporter Dave Emery that there was a reason Henry Ford sold 15 million of the T’s from 1908 until 1927. “They were marvelous cars,” MacWillie said. “They start quick and they’ve got better visibility than modern cars. With the top down, it’s just like sitting in the middle of the street in a bathtub. Model T’s are like little toys, you open the hood and there is nothing there. Anyone could fix anything that went wrong. It’s like a little sewing machine motor – 22 horse power. (Press Telegram 6/30/1955).  MacWillie, who drove a 1914 Model T touring car and a 1914 Model T pie wagon, held Model T Club meetings in the big garage he built to house his classic machines.
                The Signal Hill climb was the only known one of its kind in the United States for Model T Fords, officers of the Long Beach Club told reporter George Robeson in 1961. They also revealed a few things you had to remember about the design of a Model T before you could drive it uphill.  For instance, if the gas tank wasn't full or nearly full, you would run out of gas halfway up the hill. Model T's had no fuel pump - the gas was gravity-fed to the carburetor, and when the car started up hill the tank was lower than the carburetor.  One way to get around this issue was to drive your Model T backwards up the hill, something many participants in the Signal Hill climb did every year!

            Signal Hill was also known for its Soap Box Derby races, though they used Palm Drive instead of Hill Street.  All was to come to an end in 1977.  It seemed skateboarders had gotten in the way.
Skateboarding Hill Street
              In 1975 skateboarding was hugely popular and the producer of ABC's television program, The Guinness Book of World Records wanted to shoot a skateboarding event for the show. The annual Model T climb of Signal Hill and the steep incline was remembered. It seemed the natural place to hold a skateboarding event.   For the next few years the Hill Street incline became the site of some of the most dangerous skateboarding on record. Wild parties, daring stunts and many accidents led the City of Signal Hill to cancel future events on Hill Street, including the Model T hill climb.  Though there was talk in 1981 and 1988 of resurrecting the Model T hill event, nothing happened.  It seemed the Long Beach Grand Prix, with its fast cars and action had upstaged the slower paced Model T’s.
Hill Street today

           If you have comments or memories please feel free to share them with others reading this blog.  I’ve included several links below to take you to others who remember the Signal Hill climb.

ONLY IN LB By Steve Harvey


Friday, September 16, 2016

Early Signal Hill Settlers - The Dillon Family

Henry Clay Dillon 1846-1912

            One of the first to make Signal Hill their home was the Dillon family.  They transformed their 140 acres of sage and mustard into one of the most beautiful and productive farms/orchards in Southern California. Their beautiful home became one of the centers of social life in the area. 
           The patriarch of the family was Henry Clay Dillon. H. C., as he was known, was born November 6, 1846, in Lancaster, Wisconsin, where he received his early schooling. He later graduated from Racine College in 1872, and was admitted to the bar by the Supreme Court of Wisconsin two years later. In 1876 he married Florence Hood of Denver, Colorado. Henry and Florence brought their family to what was then known as "Cerritos Hill" in the spring of 1887. They had come from Denver to settle outside the new town of Long Beach.  Here Dillon wore two hats, one as a farmer, the other as an attorney.
View from Signal Hill 1901
        Theirs was the "finest farm in this part of Southern California" according to the Los Angeles Herald of December 4, 1892.  It was "admirably situated on the south slope of Signal Hill, three miles from Long Beach and commanding a beautiful view of the surrounding mesa and the sea." Dillon's 140 acres had been purchased from Rancho Los Cerritos owner Jotham Bixby for $150 an acre in 1887.  The land was covered entirely with sage brush and mustard plants, which had to be cleared. There was much work to be done. They first built a barn, where they lived until the house was finished.  Reservoirs were then built, windmills installed and orchards planted --- oranges and lemons, walnuts, olives and lots of guavas and figs. They called their farm Colorado Orchards.  

            H. C. was elected Long Beach city attorney in 1889, a position he held until October 1891, but the job didn't pay much. By 1890 the Dillons had spent more than $100,000 on improving their land. To support his farm, and family, H. C. resigned as Long Beach city attorney and opened a law office in downtown Los Angeles, spending the week in the city but returning to his farm on weekends.  By 1892 H. C. had made a name for himself in the law circles of Southern California.  He was encouraged to run for District Attorney of Los Angeles County, which he did.  To help finance his campaign, which Dillon won, the family divided their land into five 20 acre lots and one 40 acre tract and sold several to prominent Denver business men.  The Dillons retained, however, the 40 acre tract and one 20 acre lot. On it there were seven orchards, segregated into various fruit varieties.  There were 2000 fig trees, 2000 olive trees, 120 navel orange trees, 300 walnut trees, 200 apple trees, 500 plum, 500 peach and apricot, and 3500 guavas. Their lemon grove, consisting of 1250 Eureka lemons, was between Vine and Cherry Avenues, south of Catalina Street. All in all there were over 30,000 plants fertilized with sewerage from the house and stable.  (Los Angeles Herald 12/4/1892)
Most of the area was farmland

             Josephine Dillon shared her memories of growing up on Signal Hill with reporter Walter Case in March 1934.  She remembered yellow violets, Indian paintbrush, poppies, wild onions and lots of cactus.  There were “robber caves” in the canyons, and a “haunted cave” where there were old horse bones, and an “Indian scout path” down which to run and play.  The other great play place was the basement of the Dillon house.  It ran underneath the entire house and had a big gas machine where light for the house was generated and which the six Dillon children were told must never be approached on pain of spanking.  But the safe end of the basement was perfect for a theater and it was here that many shows were performed.  Josephine recalled a big house, square, with a veranda on all sides, and long, French windows, and a fireplace in each room and the grand times they had sitting around them while her father read Dickens to the children or their mother played Mozart or Beethoven. (Sun 3/22/1934)

            There are numerous references to H.C. Dillon in early newspaper accounts.   Following the April 14, 1890, Long Beach election for trustees, the “wets” in Long Beach gained the upper hand.  This, the Los Angeles Herald reported, was due in large measure to H.C. Dillon, who went to a political meeting at the Methodist Tabernacle the evening before the election and won them over to his cause by reading numerous verses from the Old and New Testaments in which the use of wine was commended.  At the meeting, Dillon talked about strong Biblical grounds in favor of wine and personal freedom.  In fact, drinking wine was commended in the scriptures, Dillon remarked, if one cared to look.  Also pointed out was the belief that if a liberal alcohol policy was adopted in Long Beach thousands of people who previously traveled to competing beach communities such as Santa Monica or Redondo Beach, where they could indulge in intoxicating beverages, would come to Long Beach.  Dillon’s command of the language and knowledge of the Bible knocked his reverend adversaries silly, according to the press.  At the meeting four spoke against the liberal stance contemplated on alcohol, three of them preachers.  Despite the Reverend  Parkhill calling the supporters of the alcohol measure "representatives of Satan," the measure passed.  Dillon's oratory skills had won the day. But this was not to be the end of the battle over alcohol.  As the prohibitionists feared, the way had just been opened to allow a saloon into their midst. This saloon would divide the city, and lead to the City of Long Beach disincorporating in 1896 (more on this in my book Murderous Intent?). 
          Dillon's legal acumen was responsible for clearing the legalities of building the Pine Avenue Pier in 1893---the first municipal pier in California.  He would serve as District Attorney of Los Angeles County from 1892-1894 and was a national delegate to several Democratic conventions.  In 1900 he left the legal field to go into the oil industry, joining the Hartford Oil Company of Los Angeles. But he did not give up the legal profession altogether, becoming a lecturer at the University of Southern California College of Law, which officially opened in 1901.  He was also one of the first members of the Long Beach School Board, served as Long Beach city attorney from 1889-1891, and was a commissioner of the Los Angeles Juvenile Court. 
Josephine Dillon was the first Mrs. Clark Gable

     The family sold their home (located at the corner of Twenty-first and Cherry) in May 1906 to Samuel Brown of Exira, Iowa. The 60 acres were subdivided into half-acre villa lots with a park in the center and “romantic" scenic drives throughout the subdivision.  The lovely old house, according to Josephine Dillon, was turned into a boarding house for oil workers before it burned to the ground. Josephine went on to become an actress, and the first Mrs. Clark Gable.  Sisters Florence and Viva became opera singers, sister Fannie a composer, brother James a lawyer.  Sister Anna married, producing the only grandchild in the family.
Henry Clay Dillon died April 10, 1912 and is buried at Calvary Cemetery in Los Angeles, along with daughter Florence.