I am finally getting around to reading a fascinating book that’s been lingering on my “to get to” list for far too long: Cadillac Desert by Marc Reisner. Some passages are too good not to share. I figured I would tantalize you with some snippets and maybe you’ll be inspired to pick up a copy for yourself. Here’s the first:
“Corn and cabbages sprouted next to oranges, avocados, artichokes and dates. The capitalists of San Francisco did not remain oblivious; the Southern Pacific ran a spur line to Los Angeles, in 1867, finally linking it to the rest of the world. On this same line, huge San Bernardino Valencias found their way to the 1884 world’s Fair in New Orleans, there they attracted crowds. No one could imagine oranges grown in the western United States. It was then and there, more or less, that the phenomenon of modern Los Angeles began.
They came by ship, they came by wagon, they came by horse. They came on foot, dragging everything they could in a handcart, but the real hordes came by train. In 1885, the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe Railroad linked Los Angeles directly with Kansas City, precipitating a fare war with the Southern Pacific. Within a year, the cost of passage from Chicago had dropped from $100 to $25. During brief periods of mad competition, you could cross two-thirds of the continent for a dollar. If you were asthmatic, tubercular, arthritic, restless, ambitious or lazy — categories that pretty well accounted for Los Angeles’ first flood of arrivals — the fares were too cheap to pass up. Out came Dakota farmers who despaired at the meager profit they made growing wheat. You could grow oranges. Out came Civil War veterans lookng for an easy life, failures looking for another chance, and the usual boom-town complement of the slick, the sharp, and the ruthless.
The first boom began in the early 1880’s and culminated in 1889, when the town transacted $100 million worth of real estate — in today’s economy, a $2 billion year in Idaho Falls. Fraud was epic. Hundreds of unseen, paid-for lots were situated in the bed of the Los Angeles River, or up in the nine-thousand-foot summits of the San Gabriel Range. The boom was, predictably, short-lived. In 1889 a bank president, a newspaper publisher, and the town’s most popular minister all fled to Mexico to spare themselves jail terms, and a dozen or more victims took their own lives. By 1892, the population had dropped by almost one-half, but the bust was followed quickly by an oil boom, and enough fortunes were being made (the original Beverly Hillbillies were from Beverly Hills, then a patch of jackrabbit scrub overlying an oil basin) to pack the arriving trains again. Los Angeles soon drew close to San Francisco in population and was crowing with glee. “The ‘busting of the boom’ became but a little eddy in the great stream,” enthused the Los Angeles Times, “the intermission of one hearbeat in the life of…the most charming land on the footstool of the Most High…the most beautiful city inhabited by the human family.” Only one thing stood in the way of what loooked as if it might become the most startling rise to prominence of any city in history — the sarcity of water.”
(Emphasis in italics is that of M. Reisner; emphasis in bold is my own.)