25 photos of the San Fernando Valley before it joined LA in 1915

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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published in March 2015 and has been updated with the most recent information.

People have lived in the San Fernando Valley for thousands of years. The Tongva, Tataviam, and Chumash people lived inhabited the place long before the Spanish arrived in the 18th century and built the Mission San Fernando. Mexicans established ranchos there in the 19th century, and the white Lankershims and Van Nuyses arrived in the 1870s.

But the great, suburban Valley we know today officially began on March 29, 1915, when 681 residents voted to join the city of Los Angeles (25 people voted against).

Valley scholar Kevin Roderick describes the enormity of the addition: “In one stroke, Los Angeles more than doubled in size. The San Fernando Valley is large enough to hold all of Boston, San Francisco and Washington D.C.”

Los Angeles got all that land and the Valley got access to the sweet water of the Los Angeles Aqueduct, which had opened in fall of 1913.

The circumstances surrounding the Valley’s annexation are slightly less scandalous than Chinatown would lead you to believe (the movie is also set much later), but the broad strokes are not so far off.

Valley Week

This story is part of Curbed LA’s Valley Week, a celebration of culture, real estate, architecture, and neighborhoods in the San Fernando Valley. You can view all of our Valley Week stories right here.

Before the aqueduct arrived (and in some cases before it was announced), some of LA’s richest and most powerful men bought up the still-dusty San Fernando Valley at bargain prices, then divided it up into new towns and sold it off with the promise that water would be arriving soon.

Major players in the speculative land grab included Moses Hazeltine Sherman, who also happened to be a water commissioner, and Harrison Gray Otis, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times, who used his paper to hype the Valley’s future.

And while the Los Angeles Aqueduct gave Los Angeles far more water than it could use (squeezing the Owens Valley dry in the process), it couldn’t sell the water to anyone outside the city limits.

Here’s Roderick in his book San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb:

[T]he city’s biggest powers had another idea. They put it in the form of an ultimatum to the Valley: agree to be annexed by Los Angeles or stay dry. Some Valley ranchers with good wells resisted, preferring independence. Voters in Burbank, San Fernando and, initially, Owensmouth and Lankershim declined to be annexed. But on March 29, 1915 … some 170 square miles of the old range that belonged to Pio and Andres Pico became part of Los Angeles. The newly annexed section, including Mission San Fernando Rey itself, more than doubled the city limits.

And with that, here’s a look back at the San Fernando Valley as it was before 1915—before it became the epicenter of sprawl and malls, and backyard pools filled with blue water:

Valley landscape
1873: The first known photo of the San Fernando Valley, showing the Mission San Fernando Rey de España.
Los Angeles Public Library
Van Nuys houseVan Nuys house
1882: “Exterior view of the residence belonging to Mr. Van Nuys.”
Los Angeles Public Library
San Fernando Valley old photoSan Fernando Valley old photo
1889: “Photograph of students and teachers outside of a Lankershim Ranch School in bunkhouse.”
USC Libraries
san fernando valley old photosan fernando valley old photo
1889: A group of students at the Lankershim School.
USC Libraries
old photos San Fernando Valleyold photos San Fernando Valley
1886: Cacti bed near Mission San Fernando Rey de Espana in Mission Hills.
USC Libraries
old photos San Fernando valleyold photos San Fernando valley
1890: Panorama “at what would become the site of the Hollywood Country Club” in North Hollywood.
USC Libraries
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1886: Giant pumpkins growing in the San Fernando Valley
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos San Fernando Valleyold photos San Fernando Valley
1890: A group of agricultural workers, possibly in the Toluca Lake area.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1890: Horse-powered hay-baling.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1892: Jackrabbit roundup.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1894: Orchards in Toluca Lake.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1900: Three teams of 10 horses power a combine harvester.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos San Fernando Valleyold photos San Fernando Valley
1891: Intersection of Lankershim and Chandler.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1895: Mission San Fernando and two fan palms.
USC Libraries
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1898: “San Fernando Mission chorister, gathering the fruit of the cactus for food.”
USC Libraries
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1909: View across the San Fernando Valley
USC Libraries
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1910: A canal providing water to the San Fernando Mission
USC Libraries
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1912: A property along Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood.
USC Libraries
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1913: Bird’s eye of Universal City.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1901: “The A. B. Moffitt home in the 1100 block on what is now the south side of San Fernando Road.”
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1914: An artist’s rendering of the Leonis Adobe, which still stands in Calabasas.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1911: Celebrating the arrival of the Pacific Electric Railway.
Los Angeles Public Library

old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
1912: The first tract office opens in Van Nuys with lots starting at $350.
Los Angeles Public Library
old photos san fernando valleyold photos san fernando valley
Date unknown: A young boy delivers newspapers riding atop a donkey.
Los Angeles Public Library

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