CityDig: How L.A. Went from Sleepy Pueblo to Urban Center

This 1884 map depicts the lay of the land as Los Angeles’ transformation got underway
Map of the city of Los Angeles, Henry J. Stevenson, 1884
Map of the city of Los Angeles, Henry J. Stevenson, 1884

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This plat map or cadastral (a public record of real estate ownership) is one of the most important maps in Los Angeles history. It identifies the owners of land in the city during a boom in population when rapid changes were transforming the old pueblo into a big city. The map was made by Henry J. Stevenson who, along with Henry Hancock and George Hansen, rode on horseback across hundreds of miles to survey the Los Angeles topography.

The cartography here is meticulous and logical, and certain landmarks help us get our bearings. Look for the Mott tract where the posh Bunker Hill was being developed (1), Chavez Ravine where the Dodgers now hit the horsehide (2), the tiny, oval-shaped plaza where the pueblo began (3), the rectangular plaza that today is called Pershing Square (4), the just seven-year-old Evergreen cemetery in Boyle heights (5), the Echo Park reservoir (6), and the area ironically labeled “West Los Angeles” around Exposition Park and fledgling USC (7). This is a city in the process of reconfiguration, a city shifting its focus away from the plaza and toward the new business centers on Spring, Broadway, and Main. The Southern Pacific railroad depot had just made its mark on the landscape, and the Santa Fe Railroad would arrive the following year. The year after that a rail rate war would would drive ticket prices so low, visitors could ride the iron horse from Kansas City all the way out to Los Angeles for a dollar.

This was a time of increasing multiculturalism in the burgeoning city, as evidenced on the map the diversity of property-owner names. Many of L.A.’s early immigrant entrepreneurs had names we still recognize: Solano, Griffith, Chavez, Prager, Scott, Solano, Wolfskill, Temple, and Hunter all appear as street and neighborhood names on today’s maps.

Now in a time when refugees and migrants are crossing borders and oceans around the world, we can learn from this map the role such people had in the formation of our city. Many new Angelenos of the 1880s were refugees escaping turmoil in Europe and other parts of the world. French-Canadian Prudent Beaudry developed Bunker Hill and many other downtown neighborhoods. Matthew Keller, an Irish immigrant and prominent vinter, planted some of California’s first orange trees. George Hansen was a quadrilingual Austrian civil engineer who surveyed much of Southern California. Isaac Lankersheim was a German who, along with his son, got the ball rolling in the San Fernando Valley. The Glassell family of Glassell Park and Orange had their beginnings in Scotland. The large Mexican Sepulveda family did well for themselves in the Southland. J. G. Downey, the seventh governor of the state of California, hailed from Ireland and was the only non-native born governor until Arnold Schwarzenegger. John Edward Hollenbeck made his money in Nicaragua before moving up to L.A., and now he is commemorated with a park and a great burrito.

Los Angeles Public Library map librarian Glen Creason shares a map from the Central Library’s collection at CityThink each week.