guest post

Pacific Electric Railway map of Mt. Lowe

Pacific Electric Railway map of Mt. Lowe is courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library.

By Peter Westwick

125 years ago, on September 24, 1892, Thaddeus Lowe led a party of local residents on horseback up Oak Mountain, about four miles west of Mount Wilson.  When they reached the summit the party decided to celebrate by renaming the peak in honor of their guide.  Lowe went on to build an inclined railway up his eponymous mountain, ending at a resort near the top; for four decades it was one of the most popular tourist attractions in Southern California, with over three million people riding the railway until fire and floods wiped it out in the 1930s.

Having a whole mountain named after you seems a pretty good way to get people to remember your name.  But Lowe might have left a more substantial if less familiar legacy in Southern California’s aviation and aerospace industry.   A New Hampshire Yankee, self-taught polymath, and a pioneering balloonist, Lowe built several balloons during the Civil War to spy on the Confederate Army, winning him official appointment by President Lincoln as Chief Aeronaut of the Union Army and the unofficial title of the most shot-at man in the Civil War.  In 1890 Lowe retired to Pasadena, where he built a giant mansion on Millionaire’s Row and started a bank, a gas works, and an ice supplier—and planted the seed of flight.   His friend and protégé, Roy Knabenshue, popularized balloon and dirigible flights in the area and also helped organize the 1910 L.A. Air Meet, a key catalyst for Southern California aviation.

Thanks to his service in the Union Army Lowe was sometimes called the grandfather of the U.S. Air Force.  He was also the grandfather of Florence Lowe, whom he took to the 1910 air meet when she was nine years old.  The spectacle of flight entranced the young girl, and she went on to acquire fame as “Pancho” Barnes, a pioneer barnstormer, Hollywood stunt pilot, industry test pilot, and later owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, the celebrated watering hole at what became Edwards Air Force Base in the “Right Stuff” era.  Lowe didn’t live to see it, having passed away in 1913, but he might have taken pleasure in knowing that many of the remarkable achievements of aviation and aerospace in the century to follow were conceived and built within sight of Mount Lowe.


Peter Westwick is director of ICW’s Aerospace History Project and adjunct professor of History, USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Science. He has published several books on the history of the Space Age, Southern California’s aerospace industry and surfing.


California_1854By Kevin Waite

When California was admitted to the Union as a free state on September 9, 1850, its troubles with slavery had, paradoxically, only just begun. Over the next decade, slaveholders would advance several schemes to settle their human property on the Pacific Coast. Meanwhile, Southern-born emigres quickly seized the reins of power within the state, giving California politics a distinctly proslavery cast. Among other initiatives, they opened legal loopholes that effectively suspended the free soil clause of the state’s constitution. To be sure, slave-based plantation agriculture similar to that in the American South took shallow root in California’s soil. But through their electoral and legislative maneuvering during the 1850s, slaveholders transformed the state into a political appendage of the cotton South.

As an Assistant Professor in American history at Durham University, Kevin Waite researches slavery and the Civil War in the American West.  Waite recently published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times titled “The struggle over slavery was not confined to the South, L.A. has a Confederate memorial problem too.”

This 1854 map of California is courtesy of the David Rumsey Historical Map Collection.



Christopher Isherwood courtesy of the Huntington Library.

Christopher Isherwood courtesy of the Huntington Library.

By Chris Freeman

Christopher Isherwood was born on August 26, 1904. His was a Victorian childhood, a story he told in his 1971 memoir about his parents, Kathleen and Frank. By the end of that long book he realized that the whole thing was “chiefly about Christopher.” That childhood ended, as the Victorian era did, with World War I. Frank Isherwood was an early casualty in that global crisis, the inauguration of modernism and of the twentieth century.

In 1999, James Berg and I published the first ever collection of essays about Isherwood, which we titled The Isherwood Century. The title was in part a response to a classic study of his best literary friend Wystan Auden (Samuel Hynes’s The Auden Generation). Auden died in the early 1970s but was one of the key voices of the Thirties Generation. Significantly, Isherwood lived another dozen years, and his whole twentieth-century life was a life of engagement, one in which he always seemed to be where things were happening: in Berlin in 1930, at the crossroads of the Weimar Republic and the Third Reich; in Hollywood in the 40s and 50s, working with friends like Aldous Huxley in the studio system and socializing with everyone from Greta Garbo to Charlie Chaplin; in the 60s and 70s, he wrote “openly gay” material, including his great Los Angeles novel A Single Man and Christopher and His Kind, a sort of gay autobiographical retelling of his Berlin and European peregrinations from 1929-39. That memoir and its publicity—he was somewhat famous because of the success of “Cabaret,” which was based on his “Berlin Stories”—made him a pioneering hero of the nascent gay liberation movement. And he lived long enough to comment about the AIDS crisis.

His long life was one of creativity, passion, and love. In 1952, he met a young man, Don Bachardy, at the beach and the two men built a life together. Bachardy, who was thirty years younger his partner, has now outlived Isherwood’s 81 years, and it makes him uneasy. He once told me that he knew what would happen up until that age; now he has no guide, but he too flourishes, in part because of the love and lessons learned from Isherwood.

A cryptic diary comment in Isherwood’s 1981 birthday entry illustrates his often tentative self-knowledge: “I have to admit that I felt curiously scared on my birthday yesterday, to realize I was seventy-seven. Why, I don’t know. The number must have some occult significance for me.” He was superstitious about numbers and dates, and I don’t think he expected to live so long. His mentor E.M. Forster made it to his nineties; Isherwood made it to eighty-one, a fulfilled, accomplished, and much loved man.

Chris Freeman teaches English and Gender Studies at USC. He is co-editor, most recently, of The American Isherwood and is finishing work on the forthcoming “Isherwood in Transit,” both with James Berg.

In connection with ICW’s “What Does California Mean?” conference in April 2008, then USC student Anna-Marie McLemore wrote a prize-winning essay, “Orange Country.” ICW reached out to Anna-Marie for her current thoughts on California and an update on her work. Below is McLemore’s update that mentions her third novel, Wild Beauty, due in October followed by an excerpt from her original essay from 2008.

By Anna-Marie McLemore

wildbeautycoverCalifornia became my family’s country. It became our home even when it broke our hearts. Even when it was drought-scarred. Even when wildfires turned the sun red. Even when I learned that growing up Mexican-American meant this country was both my home and a place I may never truly be welcome.

Wild Beauty is the story of women making a home on land they know may turn on them. It’s a story of women whose hands make gardens and whose hearts can be poison. Maybe it’s in my blood, the parts of Mexico my family came from. Maybe it’s from growing up a Latina girl in California. But the idea of home, the landscape of it, is both beauty and fear. It’s the understanding that anything can happen, and how that truth is both wonderful and terrifying.

Excerpt from “Orange Country” by Anna-Marie McLemore (2008)

ICW_2008_WhatDoesCAMeanCalifornia is the only place I know where the sky, just before the sun vanishes, flashes to the pink-red of the jamaica my great-grandmother made from hibiscuses and rose petals, but that my cousins and I mixed from packets we bought in the same grocery aisle as Kool-Aid and powdered lemonade.  California is the only country I know that my great-grandmother could have built from the magazines she found in her older sister’s dresser drawers, and that my father could have fallen in love with through the creased paper of citrus crate labels.  Those born in California – my mother, my brothers, me – find their heartbeat here.  But everyday the air between the clouds and the earth trills and vibrates with the life of thousands who, like my roommate, are finding their center of gravity in the current of the Santa Ana winds.

For all my enchantment with this country called California, I have never looked at an orange as though it held a teaspoon of stardust.  Maybe because I was born here, I am less likely to notice how oleander flowers, set in their dark leaves, move like clouds in the night sky, or how spring comes on so fast and warm that apricot trees blossom all at once, for only a few days.

SunbeltRising - 1By Michelle Nickerson

When Darren Dochuk and I convened the Sunbelt Rising conference in 2008, it was because we thought that the Bush-era political economic climate and recent scholarly developments demanded that we bring people together to rethink the importance of the Sunbelt as a twentieth- and twenty-first century region. In fact, the success of the conservative movement and our own research on the American right originally inspired a conference on “Sunbelt Conservatism,” but the burgeoning research on growth liberalism, civil rights reform, and the Global South caused us to expand the political scope while reaching intentionally towards economic themes. For the same reasons it made sense to be interdisciplinary, so four of our thirteen writers are political scientists: Sylvia Manzano, Daniel HoSang, Lyman Kellstedt, and James Guth.

For the presentations (which would ultimately be published) we wanted work that represented much needed updates on the region, so we chose authors who addressed the following: expansion of prisons and state power, the Latinoization of politics and economic life, the advancement of private and commercial property interests, migration of people and capital across the borderlands, growth of the energy sector and its impact on the Navajo, frostbelt to sunbelt migration, and the nexus of evangelical Christianity and capitalism.

We had two gatherings that year—at the Huntington in the Fall of 2008 and at Southern Methodist University in the Spring of 2009. In addition to generous funding and hospitality from ICW, we were part of an annual conference series sponsored by the Clements Center for Southwest Studies at SMU that develops presentations into essay volumes.

Our first meeting on that Friday in September assembled us into one of the Huntington’s Ahmanson classrooms for the first round of workshopping. Having read the first draft of each other’s essays in preparation for the event, we subjected them to sustained forty-five minute critiques. On Saturday, the scholars gave presentations to a lively audience in the Overseers’ Room. I have memories of a fantastic crowd—professors and students from the region sharing space with the curious public that often turns out for Huntington scholarly events. Our plan was to keep the presentations short, with four in one panel, which turned out to be perfect since it invited substantial audience participation. There were great discussions; and we left Pasadena energized and brimming with notes for our revisions.

Sunbelt Rising BookSeven months later we reconvened in Dallas for the repeat conference at SMU. Looking back, I realize that Darren and I demanded a lot from our scholars to make them meet twice, but the intensity of our September Huntington meeting made the Texas work session fun. I remember watching presentations by historians, bleary-eyed from margaritas the late night before. The multiple drafts forced by these gatherings, moreover, pushed our project swiftly along its schedule.

We are very proud of the volume it generated, ultimately published by the University of Pennsylvania Press in 2011, called Sunbelt Rising: The Politics of Place, Space, and Region.

Michelle Nickerson is an Associate Professor of History at Loyola University Chicago.

Screen Shot 2017-07-24 at 12.45.09 PM.png

Studio portrait of Aldous Leonard Huxley (circa 1942) from the Edwin Hubble Papers archived at the Huntington Library.

By Peter Richardson

On this day in 1894, Aldous Leonard Huxley was born into a prominent family of writers, scientists, and physicians. He studied literature at Oxford and established himself as a successful novelist, poet, and journalist. A member of the Bloomsbury Set, he also befriended D.H. Lawrence and later edited his letters.

Huxley’s fifth novel, the dystopian Brave New World, appeared in 1932. It was both a jab at the earlier utopian works of H.G. Wells and a complex response to the fast-paced, unreflective, and technology-obsessed mass society that Huxley saw around him. Brave New World brought him even more notoriety, but his outspoken pacifism alienated him from his British peers, and he decided to move to the United States.

In 1937, Huxley and his family arrived in Hollywood. Like many established writers, he considered the film industry a reliable source of cash. As David King Dunaway documents in Huxley in Hollywood (1989), he and his wife Maria led a busy social life that included Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard, Grace and Edwin Hubble, Gerald Heard and Christopher Isherwood, Igor Stravinsky, J. Krishnamurti, Jake Zeitlin, Anita Loos, and Greta Garbo. Huxley’s film credits included Pride and Prejudice (1940), but he also worked on Madame Curie (1943) and Jane Eyre (1944). His film career collapsed in 1952 after a cover story in Counterattack, a right-wing magazine, described him as a Communist dupe.

Intrigued by the links amongst drugs, consciousness, and art, Huxley persuaded British psychiatrist Humphry Osmond to dose him with mescaline in 1953. The Doors of Perception (1954) recounted Huxley’s experience on that day. Reviewers panned the book, whose title echoed a passage from William Blake’s The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, but Huxley was unfazed. He continued to trip several times a year for the rest of his life, and his book spread the word about the virtues of psychedelic drugs.

After Maria Huxley died in 1955, Aldous invited therapist Laura Archera to his home to guide a mescaline experience. Their relationship flourished—in part over their shared interest in hypnotism, psychedelics, and spirituality—and they married in 1956. Like Maria, Laura had romantic relationships with women, and the newly married couple bought a home in the Hollywood Hills close to Virginia Pfeiffer, her longtime friend.

In 1960, Huxley was diagnosed with cancer, but he managed to finish Island the following year. Frank Kermode called it “one of the worst novels ever written,” but along with Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land and Kurt Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle, Huxley’s fiction chimed well with the rebellious spirit of that decade, especially on college campuses.

In 1962, Huxley accepted a teaching position at the University of California, Berkeley, but his health declined quickly the following year. He died in Los Angeles the same day John F. Kennedy was assassinated. His former daughter-in-law noted, “As he got older, I think he became more and more available … By the time he died, he was very young.”

Peter Richardson coordinates the American Studies and California Studies programs at San Francisco State University.

Los Angeles City Water Company

The Los Angeles City Water Company headquarters sits just above the Plaza in this photo (circa 1890s). Photo courtesy of the Historical Photo Collection of the Department of Water and Power, City of Los Angeles.

By Tom Sitton

Here we are on July 20, the 149th anniversary of an important date in the history of supplying many of us with the necessary wet resource that kept Los Angeles growing. For on that date in 1868 the Los Angeles City Water Company received its thirty-year lease to provide the city’s residents with nature’s gift by operating its water system.

That event followed a number of years in the mid-1800s, when early water providers faced many difficulties in building crude infrastructure to distribute water from the Los Angeles River and other sources to thirsty Angelenos. By 1868 city officials were desperate for help, and three entrepreneurs offered to solve their problem. Although there were many critics of the final lease agreement, the city leaders saw no other solution to their dilemma and a majority of the common council agreed to a thirty year lease for distribution of the city’s water.

Conflicts between the city and the company began soon after the firm took over, as its directors fought to reduce their annual rent payments to the city, reneged on building promised infrastructure, and even challenged the city’s ownership of the water. While the company amassed generous profits from the business, residents complained of bad service, high rates, slimy water and low pressure. As the Los Angeles population boomed in spurts in the 1870s and 1880s, the protests became louder with the transformation of the area from primarily agricultural to commercial and residential.

By the time the lease period was ending in 1898, public outcry against a renewal of the lease had crystalized with a demand for the city to take over its water system. The lease became a major issue in the 1896 city election in which opposition candidates were successful. The new council members began negotiating, but the sales prices demanded by the company and the city were far apart and ended up in arbitration that still did not solve the problem. The council decided to build the city’s own infrastructure for distribution instead of purchasing the company’s system, which would leave the firm with pipes, pumps and such, but without water. Several lawsuits ensued and a compromise was finally worked out — the city took over the company’s property in 1902, almost four years after the lease had expired.

The transfer of ownership of the city’s water system from private entrepreneurs to the city was an example of the early reform sentiment in Los Angeles that would increase during the early Progressive era movement that was sweeping the nation at this time. The municipal ownership drive of urban reformers was a key ingredient in progressivism, particularly in owning natural resources and other necessities for residents. Los Angeles would soon have full control of its water supply and eventually its electrical, harbor, and airport services as it does today.

So Happy Anniversary, Los Angeles City Water Company, and thanks for your contribution to the early history of Los Angeles growth and its environmental and political history.

Tom Sitton is History Curator, Emeritus of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. For more on the Los Angeles City Water Company see books by Ostrom, Fogelson, Hundley, Karhl, Mulholland, and Soifer.