This is the second of four posts by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez on the early 1880s introduction of electric street lighting to Los Angeles, including an arc lamp built at First and Boyle in Boyle Heights. The third and fourth installments will be posted next week. – Paul R. Spitzzeri
By early 1882, claiming too many streets were still murky and unsafe, Los Angeles citizens were now demanding a more comprehensive light system replace the inefficient gas lamps. Also, the city’s influential business class was now insisting on better illumination for their stores and properties because of its potential to lure more outside capital investment. This demonstrated that Los Angeles displayed such big-city ambitions as having public lighting, in addition to other public works like a new city hall and courthouse, both completed in the late 1880s.
As early as January 5, 1882, the Los Angeles Daily Times, which began publishing in December, 1881 and was renamed the Los Angeles Times in 1886, published an enthusiastic story about the “wonderful tower in San Jose” with the headline “ELECTRIC LIGHT – Los Angeles Wants and Must Have One.” Four days later, the newspaper published its first-ever photo, a photograph of the San Jose light tower. On May 18, 1882, a Times editorial declared, with some annoyance, that “Eastern cities of the same size, and much less importance than Los Angeles, notably, Aurora, Ill., were already lighted with electricity.”
In July 1882, the Brush Electric Company, seeing Los Angeles as “ripe for electric tapping,” sent its San Francisco representative, Col. Charles H. Howland, to sell the city electric lighting. On September 9, Howland successfully obtained a two- year contract from the city council to provide lighting by December 1st. The Times and the Los Angeles Daily Herald reported that Howland proposed to introduce electric light to Los Angeles with seven 150-foot tall, uniquely-designed “light masts,” at $1,000 per mast per annum.
To be placed in the heart of the city and its nearby settled suburbs that were just a horse-drawn trolley ride away, each mast would carry three arc lamps with a total of nine thousand candle power each. The contract stipulated the masts were to be lighted every night except on the night of a full moon, and two nights before, and two nights after. Closely resembling a re-purposed ship’s mast, the Los Angeles City Directory 1886-1887 described the structures as “two sections of poles made of spars from Puget Sound, being about twenty inches in diameter at the ground and tapering to six inches at the top.” Furthering the resemblance to a ship’s mast, existing photos show a worker’s platform on the light mast seventy-five feet above the ground.
Approved by the city council on October 26, the project’s ordinance established the seven locations for each mast. One was “on Boyle Heights, at the corner of Aliso and First Streets.” There is also a Boyle Heights connection to the light mast on the corner of Main and Commercial streets in downtown; it was at this location that Andrew Boyle owned Boyle’s Shoe Store from the late 1850s to near his death in 1871. As noted in the store’s advertisements that ran in the Los Angeles Star newspaper in 1864, he also took orders on this site for his wine, which he named after the vineyard’s location, Paredon Blanco, established by the López family in the Mexican period, which was developed as the suburb of Boyle Heights in 1875 by Boyle’s son-in-law, William H. Workman.
According to the illustrated pamphlet The Beautiful Highlands of Los Angeles, published in 1899 by the Ninth Ward Improvement Association. Boyle Heights resident and City Council member Burdette Chandler was a strong proponent for his neighborhood as a location for a light mast:
Mr Chandler stood for over a year and a half the sole champion for electric lighting in our city, with the other fourteen members of the Council arrayed against him. When the franchise was granted he inserted a claim for a mast light to be placed on the corner of First Street and Boyle avenue. Walter Moore, the genial fire chief, used to refer to this light as the light of Leon Los Nietos. However, under its rays have grown one of the most flourishing resident portions of our rapidly growing city, and this section will not soon forget its debt to Mr. Chandler.