CityDig: This Map of L.A. Will Have You Missing the Good Old Days—1891, Specifically

Are those Victorian buildings rose-colored, or is it just the glasses?
Los Angeles 1891, Southern California Land Company, Cartographer H.B. Elliot, 1891
Los Angeles 1891, Southern California Land Company, Cartographer H.B. Elliot, 1891

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Of all the pictorial maps of any city, this one is a true classic. After the boom and bust of the 1880s, businessman/artist H.B. Elliot drew up this fantastic view of the growing city with an optimistic eye on the 1890s. Los Angeles was a mere 65,000 souls strong at this point, the 57th most populous city in the nation. It was poised to bloom, though, and it soon did—oil was discovered in 1892, one year after this map was published.

A few years prior, the great boom of 1887 and 1888—which was brought on by the connection of the Southern Pacific (1876) and Santa Fe (1885) railroads and the ensuing rate wars—brought thousands out to this edenic paradise. The growth ended with a thud, though, amidst bank failures. The Southern California Land Company, however, was undeterred, and it peddled real estate all over the (rather fancifully pictured) landscape seen on this map. To lure investors, the company even hosted “Talley-ho trips” to faraway places like the Adams Boulevard tract, where acreage awaited for just ten bucks a month, zero interest.

By 1891, Los Angeles was again growing at full steam ahead, unaware that the country was headed into one of its worst depressions ever (no less than 500 banks would fail in the panic of 1893). L.A. blissfully continued on toward dreams of prosperity, and this colorful map reflects the city’s confidence and opportunism. Everything important to a metropolis is carefully rendered: grand public buildings, fine hotels, railroad depots, and a harbor at the ready. The sweet basin, it appears, even had water sources, gas lighting, and block upon block of retail trade.

Victorian pictorials like this tend to ring the map with the insitutional forces of civilization. Here we see the wonderful infrastructure that allowed for job creating industry to grow the city. There are iron foundries, flour mills, breweries, orange orchards, vineyards, and reservoirs alongside public buildings like the great City Hall, County Courthouse, and two strong banks—Farmers & Merchants and the Hellman Brothers First National. Commercial blocks anchor the business districts: Stowell, Wilson, Phillips, Byron, Bonebrake, and the Baker Block (top right-hand corner), where the Southern California Land Co. kept their offices.

Awaiting visitors are deluxe hotels like the United States and the Hollenbeck (a distant cousin of the great burrito at El Tepeyac). As for education, the city boasts the fresh Los Angeles High School up on Castellar, the brand-spanking new University of Southern California, the Normal School, and—way out in the distance–Occidental College.

Maps like this one made the area all the more appealing, even if the geographic accuracy is a bit off. Downey sits near Riviera; Whittier, Long Beach, San Pedro and Santa Ana look like desert outposts; and Catalina Island looms like a mountain out at sea. The geography isn’t the only misleading aspect. The vibrant Los Angeles depicted here appears free of air and water pollution, and crime seems an impossibility in a place so heavenly. Though the dreamy view of Los Angeles presented on this map succeeded in drawing thousands out to the Southland, the reality was a bit less glossy.

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