Sunday, June 10, 2018

The Day Life Changed on Signal Hill

           An Excerpt from the book Prohibition Madness, by Claudine Burnett

First oil well on Signal Hill, 1921.
(Public domain photo)
Life on Signal Hill would never be the same after Thursday, June 23, 1921, when the Shell Oil Company struck oil at its well at Temple Avenue and Hill Street. At 9:30 p.m., the Shell gusher came in spraying oil for a radius of 300 feet.  The bringing in of the well sent the price of Signal Hill leases sky high with several leaseholders refusing as much as $8,000 an acre for their holdings.  Oil fever quickly spread.  Sandberg Petroleum Company, with massive Signal Hill oil holdings, was swamped with people wanting to invest in their company.  Within 48 hours of the Shell discovery, Sandberg sold $112,000 worth of stock.
            The possibility of sudden wealth had a universal appeal and an incessant flow of promoters, both honest and dishonest, were soon on the scene.  Real estate promoters around Signal Hill could barely keep up with sales.  Even the City of Long Beach, which owned 36 acres of land between the Shell and Sandburg holdings, had a grandiose dream---becoming the richest city in the world, a city that would end taxation.
            The oil bonanza of 1921 continued. Shell well no. 2, Nesa, on the west slope of Signal Hill, struck oil at 12:45 a.m. on September 2nd.  It came in with such an explosion that everyone thought an earthquake had struck. People as far away as Los Angeles were awakened by the blast.  Other wells struck black gold on October 26th, November 17th and December 13th.  On November 28th, the city owned municipal oil well hit pay dirt, shooting two hundred barrels of fluid above the top of the derrick.  For many years afterwards this single well brought $360 a day into Long Beach city coffers.
            Amid all of this oil Signal Hill, which had been renowned for its scenic grandeur, productive soil and magnificent homes, was transformed, with land prices soaring to undreamed of heights.  A 1906 advertising brochure had described it as “the most beautiful home site in Southern California.” But things had now changed. Building restrictions, paved streets and walks and curbs were supplanted by oil leases, oil stocks, derricks and drills.  Palm trees and rose gardens were trampled to make way for boilers, tool houses and speakeasies. Los Angeles Times reporter Syl MacDowell summed it up: “Where the oil monster sets its foot, beauty flees.”
Oil in the streets, Jan. 1922. 
(Public domain photo)
            It was now dangerous living on what was now called Porcupine Hill, because of its prickly appearance from all the oil derricks; people were regularly routed from their homes by blowouts from the oil wells.  Often it was so sudden residents fled like the inhabitants of Pompeii before the streams of lava.   Families escaped through the rain of greasy crude oil, leaving behind everything but the clothes they were wearing.  They would pile into their automobile, trying to drive to safety but finding it difficult to get through the oil that coated everything.  On returning home they found their once white residences now black, trees in their orchards destroyed, stripped of branches by the clinging oil, the contents of their homes worthless, and their houses, soaked with highly flammable oil, a fire trap in which no one could safely live.  
            H.F. Ahlswede described his experiences:

            “After the experience with the three gassers we knew that it was only a matter of time when we would have to move.  I want to tell you that it is very difficult to live as neighbor to one of these roaring gas wells.  The first gasser was something of a novelty and proved there was something under the ground that resembled what they had been drilling for. When the fourth gasser suddenly developed into an oil gusher and commenced to pour sand and rocks about our premises, we knew the time had come to leave Signal Hill.”

Houses, streets and sidewalks were often covered with sticky black tar; rocks that came up with the gushers hurdled through roofs and windows.  The time to leave had come.  Fortunately many left rich, having leased or sold their Signal Hill real estate.

Oil workers knew where to find the speakeasies.
(Public domain photo)
            It was a well-advertised secret where to go to “relax” after a hard day working the oil fields. Tucked between a real estate shop, and a wedge of brick wall plastered with movie posters advertising local theaters, was a dusty little store that never seemed to open for business. But if you were a Signal Hill oil worker you knew that the door was unlocked at night and that behind a screen of dirty stacked boxes was a bare-bones little speakeasy, a sofa, four tables, a plywood bar along the back wall, a fair supply of whiskey, and a bartender who slept on the sofa after the bar closed.    It was a new frontier, with its society of rugged men working themselves to exhaustion, and then taking their evening pleasures in speakeasies where music blared, girls danced, gambling flourished and the whiskey flowed.
            Working the Hill became more difficult as time went on.  At first the oil came naturally, almost gushing to the surface on its own momentum.  Later it had to be pumped.  By 1927 wells at Signal Hill were reaching five to seven thousand feet beneath the surface of the earth.  Despite the fact that finding oil was becoming a little more difficult and expensive, “oil fever” still flourished. 

           Throughout downtown Los Angeles, salesmen haunted intersections and doorways insistently accosting passersby with free tickets to the oil fields. In residential neighborhoods saleswomen trooped door to door distributing passes. Every morning hundreds and sometimes thousands of people would use these free passes to depart for the oil fields.  The buses arrived at the petroleum grounds by noon, and a free lunch was the first order of business.  Lunch was served in tents that resembled those of traveling evangelists. While eating in what locals called “sucker tents,” “lecturers” discussed the maps of the oil fields which covered the walls. Experienced promoters knew all sorts of tricks to entice investors.  Following the free lunch they would take a gullible group to a well with minimal oil production and show how it could be turned it into a gusher by inserting a small pipe connected to an air compressor. They advertised astonishing oil-finding devices that guaranteed against dry holes. These gadgets generated thousands of dollars in sales, but they didn’t live up to their claims.
Excursions to Signal Hill was a popular way to sell shares
 in future oil ventures. (Public domain photo)
A Sunday at the oil fields offered special treats.  Tent shows included parachute jumps and brass bands.  Some promoters hired clergymen, judges, politicians, and other figures of prominence to meet the crowds, reportedly paying these “respectable” people as much as $1000 a week for their endorsements.   When the lecture ended, “the slaughter of the lambs” commenced. Salespeople descended into the crowd. Audiences, primed by the afternoon’s promotion, responded avidly.  One observer commented that the people acted less like investors than an audience at some form of séance
. Intense emotion rather than cold calculation was the predominant note.
Real estate as well as oil investment became a booming business.  All of these newcomers had to live somewhere.  How about buying land for a home and keeping the oil rights under it?  Such was the sales pitch used to sell property in the California Heights tract (bounded by California, Orange, Wardlow and Bixby Road in Long Beach) which opened during the oil boom of 1922.
            When the Jotham Bixby Company placed 830 lots on the market on October 10, 1922, the real estate vultures descended in droves.  The tract was just 1,500 feet from the Wiley No. 1 oil well and lot purchases included oil rights.  Who was to say that oil wouldn’t be discovered under the new tract, making their owners wealthy? One ad stated:

            “You could stand on one corner of California Heights and with a 30-30 rifle shoot the lights off the top of dozens of rigs - where gushers are spouting thousands of
barrels of the liquid gold daily. THAT’S HOW CLOSE WE ARE TO REAL MONEY.
OIL has made more rich men in Long Beach, in a shorter time, than all other interests combined. Are you among them?  This is ‘Your Ship’ but you’ll have to step lively to get aboard.”

Within four hours, 185 lots were sold, within 24 hours 250. A syndicate of local businessmen who planned to drill for oil purchased twenty-five of them.
            There was a problem with building houses on top of a potential oil field. Why spend money on installing water and gas lines when oil might be discovered at any moment? Because the question of oil beneath the property remained unsettled, improvements in California Heights were slow.  It wasn’t until November 15, 1923, that water, gas, telephone and electric mains needed to build houses were complete.  Once these were in and it became evident that not much oil was under the tract, residential development began.  The Bixby Company got things off to a start by building 25 ready-made Spanish type bungalows that they sold on an “easy payment plan.” Other homes were built on a parcel-by-parcel basis, creating a variety of home styles including California bungalows, Spanish colonials and Tudor-style homes.

            Long Beach was anxious to annex this potentially oil rich territory, and in an election held December 28, 1923, California Heights and other territory surrounding Signal Hill (identified on annexation maps as “Greater Long Beach”) became part of the City.  However, residents of the Signal Hill area, now surrounded by Long Beach, were ardent opponents of annexation.  Why share the wealth with Long Beach?  Why not spend it on ourselves? This philosophy led to a new birth. 
            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 they were now the richest city in America.

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.