To begin with, a multiple article series on the rich of LA and their charities in last week’s Los Angeles Business Journal is superb, but only when it covers the rich... of today.
Alas, in covering the history of Los Angeles, no one in the media ever seems to get their facts straight. See below:
Los Angeles was founded in 1850 but its modern philanthropic history really began at the turn of the century with the establishment of the Pacific Electric Railway in 1901 by Henry Huntington, who ultimately strung together a 1,100-mile light-rail system that connected Los Angeles with outlying cities.
The system made Huntington one of the richest men in Southern California and he used his wealth to build a fantastic mansion, private library and museum in San Marino that was opened to the public in 1928.
Now the first mistake is, of course, stating that Los Angeles was founded in 1850... when it was actually founded in... 1781; a mere 69 years off the real date. The date of 1850 is when Los Angeles was incorporated as an American city.
Another part of what the article says about Henry Huntington is dead right, however. Even though Huntington did purchase the urban (as opposed to interurban PE) Los Angeles Railway in 1898, it was his 1901 establishment of the PE Railway (and his loss of getting the presidency of the Southern Pacific Railroad) that cemented the transfer of his business interests to Los Angeles. The PE interurban, though, was not what made him one of the wealthiest people in Southern California; the truth is the reverse.
A more accurate account would be:
Due to inheritances received by Henry E. Huntington (and his later, second, wife Arabella Huntington, who was Collis Huntington’s widow) of Southern Pacific stock and other holdings from his uncle, Collis P. Huntington in 1900, Henry Huntington arrived in Southern California already one of the region’s richest men and it was those inherited riches that enabled him to start the PE Railroad.
So, more accurately, Huntington’s pre-existing riches created the PE and not the other way around. However, due to the cash flow problems of the increasingly unprofitable PE interurban, Huntington sold his all his holdings in it only eight years later in 1910.
What money Huntington made in Southern California was largely from his real estate holdings (which, granted, greatly benefited from his development of the PE Railroad, even though it usually lost money itself) and from agriculture, the generation of electric power and the development of gas fields as well as from the urban Los Angles Railroad.
Additionally, I question whether Huntington really started LA’s modern philanthropic history.
Beginning in the 1850’s, there was a constant founding of various hospitals and universities such as the originally Methodist USC founded in 1880 by Protestants, Catholics and Jews, and the efforts of the French and the German and Jewish communities in charities of their own which continued into the 20th Century.
And even if one was to look at modern charity as starting in the early 1900’s - Huntington was not the sole pioneer of that era.
To take just two slightly earlier examples, there is the now virtually forgotten Dr. Norman Bridge who donated millions of turn of the century dollars into institutions as varied as the Southwest Museum and the then Throop University which was the precursor to today’s Cal Tech - and there is also the more well known William Andrews Clark, Jr.
Not only did Clark also found a major library - which he unwisely donated to UCLA - who later committed the unforgivable act of cultural vandalism by destroying his historic house for a... parking lot in the 1970’s - but Clark also founded the LA Philharmonic and single-handedly supported it from 1919 until his death in 1934.
Plus he also helped support the Hollywood Bowl during it’s early years and he was one of the two people to donate the money to purchase the site for the Pilgrimage Playhouse – which is now the John Anson Ford Theater, to name just a few of his many local philanthropic efforts.
Arguably, the breath of his cultural contributions to Los Angeles - which publicly begin before Huntington made his donation - is far more typical of modern philanthropy than Huntington’s which might make Clark more of a pioneer to the modern age than Huntington. At the very least though, he and many others, did what Huntington at the same time or even earlier.
My larger point, though, is that this is a city that does not at all know its history. Whether it’s the date LA was founded – or the history of its pioneers, no one ever seems to get the stories… straight.
And that is just one reason why Los Angeles - the only city of any size in this country without a museum dedicated to a history of itself - needs to rectify that lack... now.
So, if anyone might be interested in helping get such an institution started - contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org