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LA County 101: A Little More History

LA County 101

As you may be aware, given the number of folks who’ve asked me “What do counties actually run?” and “What do County Supervisors actually supervise?” I decided to craft a series of essays on this amazing 4000+ square miles of invention and variety.

In two earlier essays, I set out a list of the myriad areas under County supervision–from healthcare to education, from transportation to art and everything in between.

So here’s essay number three, a bit more about the history of this county, which is larger than all but seven states, with a population of almost 10 million people, speaking 140 languages and dialects, and a budget of almost 25 billion dollars, (overseen by five Supervisors), written in the hopes that folks interested in politics, history and public policy will enjoy knowing more about it .

There’s Gold In That There Valley

In the mid-1800s, after two years of hostilities with Mexico ended, the area that is now Los Angeles County came under U.S. Control. The Treaty of Cahuenga, signed in 1847, ended the war in California, followed by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848, adding Los Angeles and the rest of California to American territory.

Before California’s annexation, however, rumors of areas overflowing with gold just waiting to be plucked from rivers and picked up off the ground brought thousands of adventurers and immigrants pouring into the west. Think they went first to Sutter’s Mill? Not at all.

Contrary to popular myth, California’s great Gold Rush actually began in the hills southwest of the Antelope Valley in 1842, before annexation, when Francisco Lopez, stopping for lunch while searching for stray cattle, pulled up some wild onions and found flakes of gold clinging to their roots in the area known today as Placerita Canyon. A subsequent gold strike in the mountains to the north of LA brought more adventurers and many of the newly prosperous prospectors settled in our area. By the time everyone moved north to the new strikes at Sutter’s Mill, more than $100,000 worth of gold had been taken out of LA County ground.

The Boom After The War

After the Civil War ended, there was a great influx of migrants into the Los Angeles area. Large Mexican ranches were divided up into small farms, and many towns sprang up, including Compton, Downey, Norwalk, San Fernando (a city in the Third Supervisorial District, founded in 1897), as well as Santa Monica (also in the Third District, founded in 1899) and Pasadena.

Growth and More Growth

The railroads changed everything, of course. The Southern Pacific completed its Los Angeles route in 1880, followed by the Santa Fe Railroad six years later. Citrus farming grew, along with tourism. There was a huge “Go West” marketing campaign, bringing hoards of land speculators and a new land rush. An instantly created industry of real estate agents transacted more value in land sales than the entire worth of all the land in the County only a few years earlier.

Unfortunately, but predictably, this speculation bubble couldn’t last, and it all collapsed in 1889. Landowners went broke overnight. People abandoned the Los Angeles area in vast numbers, sometimes as many as 3,000 a day. The county, as a whole, however, had actually benefitted from the boom in the form of improvements left behind by the growth bubble, including new irrigation districts. Even given the great population flight, the numbers of residents had grown from 11,000 in 1880 to 60,000 in 1890.

There’s Gold in That There Canyon…..Black Gold

In 1850, the first salable petroleum in California was found in Pico Canyon near San Fernando. The real boom began in the 1890s when Edward Doheny found oil at the intersection of Second Street and Glendale Blvd., as well as in downtown Los Angeles. By 1897, the area had 500 derricks and, by the turn of the century, it was 1500. In 1910 the area near Santa Monica Blvd. and Vermont Avenue was a wild oil shantytown. In the 1920s, major oil finds were made in Whittier, Montebello, Compton, Torrance and Inglewood. The largest strikes were in Huntington Beach, Santa Fe Springs and Signal Hill. Pumping continued over many decades. In the time between 1952 and 1988, over 1,000 wells in the County produced over 375 million barrels of oil. Of course, oil and natural gas production continues in the County even into the present (witness the conflicts over “fracking”).


By the early 1900s, agriculture had become a big part of the County’s economy. The City of LA annexed the San Fernando Valley to bring the value of agriculture into the city and, with the (then) ample and reliable water supply, land elevation of about 1100 feet above sea level and the enjoyment of over a foot of rain a year…the Valley was ideal for many crops: wheat, fruit, alfalfa, apricots, asparagus, barley, hay, beans, beets, cabbage, corn, lettuce, melons, peaches, potatoes, pumpkins, squash, tomatoes and walnuts, all benefitting from the irrigation systems put in place by the missions.

Olives flourished in the Sylmar olive groves, producing 50,000 gallons of olive oil and 200,000 gallons of olives every year. We had dairy farms, too, including the world’s largest Guernsey herd in the 1920s.

But Citrus was king, with prices of land for orange and lemon groves going for as much as $5,000 an acre, more than eight times the cost of other kinds of land. Four packinghouses shipped more than 500 boxcars of lemons and oranges every year.

Predictably, however, there began to be a fear that population growth and the continuing demands of the agriculture industry would make it necessary to find new sources of water. And so it did…..

Next: Hollywood and the Water Barons make us what we are today.