This is the fourth and final installment of this post on the introduction of electric power to Los Angeles and Boyle Heights by Rudy Martinez, Advisory Board member of the Boyle Heights Historical Society. Research included scouring online newspapers, poring through many articles and books, and diligently searching through public archival records. Thanks, Rudy, for the expended extensive effort, which resulted in this very interesting post. – Paul R. Spitzzeri
Finally, tomorrow night, December 31, marks the anniversary (the 132nd) of the switching-on of the first Boyle Heights electric light!
Through the rest of the 1880s, several more electric light masts would be built in Boyle Heights. The Los Angeles Herald, on July 4, 1887, reported that a newly-erected, 185-foot light mast at the corner of New York (now New Jersey) and Soto streets, was the tallest in the city.
Though it’s difficult to determine exactly how many light masts were eventually installed in Boyle Heights, an article (more like an endorsement) in the L. A. Herald on February 16, 1889, about Edward R. Threlkleld’s reelection campaign for the city council’s Ninth Ward, listed among his achievements
, the securing of six electric lights (not including the First and Boyle mast) for Boyle Heights during his time in office. The article listed the location of each light mast.
However, the Los Angeles Times on May 25, 1889, reported people in the area of Macy Street, near the covered bridge [covered in a previous post on this blog—link here], were complaining that no lights had yet been placed on a recently-erected mast and that “the vicinity is in very bad condition.” It’s undetermined if the lights were ever placed.
The light mast at First Street and Boyle Avenue was also distinguished, along with the city’s other seventeen existing light masts, to have its location and elevation referenced in a table that was the result of a geodetic survey conducted by the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey (known today as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) and published in the L. A. Times on August 1, 1885.
Practically speaking, the light masts were never fully successful and had a reputation for unreliability. There were continued complaints that lights often burned out, and the company in charge was slow to replace them. In fact, within a few months, a new problem that was unique to this new technology soon came to light, so to speak – the L. A. Herald in June 1884, began to report about the large number of dead moths collecting in the globes of the light masts, so numerous at times it would cause the lights to go out.
Also, heading into the turn of the century many major cities, including Los Angeles, began to rapidly build skyscrapers that would literally overshadow the light structures, making them impractical for street lighting. Eventually, smaller light posts closer to the street and lamps suspended by wires above the center of an intersection, both lighted by the superior incandescent light, became the standard.
Boyle Heights appears to act as a bookend to the brief history of the city’s electric light masts. It served as one of the first areas in Los Angeles to have a mast for electric light, but it also had the last mast standing. According to O. W. Holden in the 1931 issue of The Intake, “The last mast to be removed was at Brooklyn and Cornwell Street which was taken out of service on October 27, 1924.”
It’s interesting to note that compared to other major cities, the story of the early beginnings of electricity in Los Angeles is so little known. In fact, in his book, The Wizard of Menlo Park, Randall Stross, after describing some of the city’s overly optimistic editorials about the need for a light tower, writes that “The towers in Los Angeles were never erected, averting certain disappointment.”
In San Jose, there is a 115-foot replica of the original moonlight tower at History Park. In San Francisco, there is a plaque where the first central electric station was located. The history of Detroit’s once-numerous moonlight towers is well documented, though none remain there today. However, in 1894, the city of Austin, Texas purchased thirty-one of Detroit’s original moonlight towers, and seventeen still stand today in Austin as registered historic landmarks (the towers are mentioned in the film, Dazed and Confused when Matthew McConaughey calls out, “Party at the Moontower!”). Finally, in Cleveland, Brush’s name lives on at Brush High School where the team name is the Arcs.
As for the father of Los Angeles’ first electric lights, Charles Howland and his business associates helped establish the Los Angeles Electric Railway in 1886, as well as purchasing a 280-acre tract by Rosedale Cemetery they named the Electric Railway Homestead Association. More a speculator and salesman than an inventor, Howland never really knew as much as he could have about electric light or railway technology.
His last two ventures were victims of the collapse in 1888 of the great land and population boom that erupted in the Los Angeles area a couple of years before. In a brief mention in the Los Angeles Times on August 20, 1894, it was reported that Howland died the previous day at “the soldiers’ home”, this being the federal home for Civil War veterans in Sawtelle (now the Veterans Administration complex in Westwood). Harris Newmark, noting Howland’s efforts to bring electricity to Los Angeles, wrote that Howland “was a prime mover in this project, but ill fortune attended his efforts and he died a poor man.”
Until now, little has been known about the history of the eight-story light mast that once stood in the area that is now popularly known as Mariachi Plaza and helped usher Los Angeles, and Boyle Heights, into the new age of electric power.