This is the third of four posts on the coming of electric lighting to Los Angeles and the Boyle Heights neighborhood by Boyle Heights Historical Society Advisory Board member Rudy Martinez. The fourth and final installment will be posted tomorrow. – Paul R. Spitzzeri
In October 1882, Charles Howland incorporated the Los Angeles Electric Company and built a small brick power plant on the southeast corner of Alameda and First streets to house the Brush-licensed equipment. Soon after the structure was completed, work started quickly to erect and station the poles and to string the wires along the streets for the seven light masts.
A brief description of the construction of the light mast at the Boyle Heights location appeared in the Los Angeles Herald on November 19, 1882:
Boyle Heights was yesterday the scene of the usual curious crowd about the electric light masts where the top-mast was being put in place. Early next week the other masts will be completed and the lights put on. It is expected that in three weeks, at most, the effulgence of the new method illumination will cheer the way…
The Herald reported on Sunday, December 31, 1882, that on the previous evening, after Mayor James R. Toberman toured the power plant, he switched on the lights at 8:20 p.m. and “in almost an instant, the brilliant white light of electricity flashed out over the city.”
Omar W. Holden, employed for fifty years as a street lighting engineer, wrote a lively account of the evening in 1931 for The Intake magazine, describing the scene:
simultaneously two mast tops burst into brilliance before an admiring crowd of spectators. What a contrast with the dim murky light of the gas posts which for 16 years had served the city streets.
As indicated in this description, Howland was unable to have all seven light masts ready on the same day due to the delay in equipment arrival; thus, the mayor only switched on the light mast at Main and Commercial streets (where the 101 freeway now runs through) and another on First and Hill Streets.
The following evening, New Year’s Eve of 1882, with much less reportage and ceremony, and only twenty-four hours after electric lights were introduced to Los Angeles, the electric light mast at First Street and Boyle Avenue was switched on. Boyle Heights, only seven years in existence, was now part of the electric age.
The other four locations, (using present-day street names) were Avenue 22 and North Broadway in Lincoln Heights (the area was then called East Los Angeles), First Street and Central Avenue, Fourth Street and Grand Avenue, and Sixth and Main
It’s interesting to briefly note the planning decisions of the locations for the initial light masts. The city’s elite no longer considered the Plaza area the heart of the city (which was mostly Mexican and Chinese) and the ascendant Anglo business class had now begun to establish a new bustling civic center south and west of the Plaza, with new modern services following. And by this time, investors were already developing and subdividing tracts of land in two emerging and fashionable suburbs close to downtown, Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles (now Lincoln Heights).
Property developers around the First and Boyle area in Boyle Heights were quick to tout the new light mast, featuring it in newspaper advertisements in both the Herald and the Los Angeles Times as early as February of 1883. It would be a fixture in their daily advertisements for several years.
The Times reported on September 8, 1888, that
a good natured rivalry was taking place in Boyle Heights, between the electric mast people and the car-stable interest, each claiming that they were the head center and business section of the Heights.
Apparently these masts were quite sturdy. The Times observed on July 21, 1888, that a runaway hay wagon pulled by a four-horse team crashed into the Boyle and First street light mast, and the wagon broke in half.
In a map published in 1889 of the William Workman property and vineyards, the “Electric Light” mast is plainly seen and identified on the upper left. These maps were generally produced to promote a subdivision, neighborhood or city and prominent features, like the light mast, were given attention as part of selling a well-planned and suitably outfitted area for potential buyers of property and structures.