On the occasion of Union Station’s 75th anniversary, Metro created a special commemorative publication, Union Station: 75 Years in the Heart of LA, featuring eight written and five photographic essays that celebrate the station by authors John C. Arroyo, William D. Estrada, Stephen Fried, Rafer Guzman, David Kipen, Marisela Norte, D. J. Waldie, and Alissa Walker. The book is on sale now at the online Metro Store. All essays will also be posted on The Source in the coming weeks. The series was edited by Linda Theung, an editor and writer based in Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Union Station: A Portal Through Time
by William Estrada
The arrival of the Southern Pacific Railroad in 1876 ended Los Angeles’ long isolation from the rest of the country, if not the world. Since then, other gateways to the city, including the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Los Angeles International Airport, U.S. Routes 101 and 66, U.S. Interstates 5 and 10, and, of course, Union Station, have connected Los Angeles to the nation and defined its role in the global economic and cultural marketplace. But more than a transportation hub, the Union Station site has been witness to the unfolding chapters in the city’s history. They are stories that are worth remembering, especially as the station looks back on its own history and with an eye to the future.
Native American Homeland
The Union Station site is located in the oldest and most historic section of the city, adjacent to the Old Plaza and the Los Angeles River. It is also within close proximity to the site of the ancient Tongva/Gabrieleño Native American village, which informed Governor Felipe de Neve’s decision to locate the pueblo in 1781. The site was traversed by the first people of Los Angeles for food gathering and access to the river. Native Americans later worked in the adobes, horse stables, orchards, and vineyards of the pueblo residents who occupied the area.(i)
Mexican and Early American Eras
During the Mexican and early American eras from the 1830s to the 1870s, the Union Station site was home to some of the leading families of the city with vineyards dominating the landscape. Among them was the adobe of Don Juan Ramírez and his wife, Doña Petra Avila, which faced present-day Alameda Street.
These respected Californios gave Los Angeles some of its most distinguished citizens. Their son, Francisco Ramírez, was founder and publisher of El Clamor Público, the first independent Spanish-language daily newspaper in the city. Their daughter, Isabel Ramírez, married Antonio Pelanconi, an Italian-born vintner. Their two-story brick residence, the Pelanconi House, is the oldest extant fired-brick building in the city and home to Casa la Golondrina, the famous Mexican restaurant on Olvera Street. After Pelanconi’s death in 1879, Isabel married his business partner, Giacomo Tononi. By 1887, Giacomo had acquired a large parcel of the Ramírez vineyard, while Isabel held a neighboring strip of property. (ii)
Other major viticulturists at this site were Mathew Keller, Jean Luis Vignes, Juan Ballesteros, and Máximo Alanis.
At the corner of present-day Alameda Street and Avenida César Chávez was the twelve-acre orchard and vineyard of Benjamin D. (B. D.) Wilson. Born in Tennessee, “Don Benito,” as he was known, came to Southern California from New Mexico in 1841 with the intent of traveling on to China. His plans changed when he married Ramona Yorba, the daughter of a prominent Mexican family and owners of Rancho de Santa Ana.
Wilson’s home was among the earliest frame houses in Los Angeles. It was brought in sections from New York by ship via Cape Horn. In 1851 he became the second mayor of Los Angeles in the American period. In 1853, after Ramona’s death, Wilson married Margaret Herford and they moved to present-day San Marino, California, where he prospered in ranching and served as a state senator. In 1856 Wilson’s frame house was purchased by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul, an order of Roman Catholic nuns dedicated to serving the poor. The order established the Los Angeles Orphans’ Asylum in the building and soon added a second structure for a girl’s school and hospital. By 1891, they outgrew the buildings and moved to a new site in Boyle Heights. (iii)
Union Station was once the site of the city’s first Chinatown. Chinese settlers came to Los Angeles during the Gold Rush years of the 1850s. They were recruited as railroad workers, house servants, and orchard hands. Chinese labor opened landlocked Los Angeles to the nation with the grading of the Newhall Road and digging the difficult San Fernando Tunnel that allowed the Southern Pacific Railroad to roar into town in 1876.
By 1870 a community of over two hundred Chinese was living on the eastern edge of the Plaza, along Calle de los Negros and into the adobe-and-brick structures of what is now the site of Union Station. Many settled on Juan Apablasa’s grazing grounds and vineyards, later controlled by his widow. However, the inability to gain citizenship or own property would have dire consequences for Chinese Angelenos in the twentieth century, but in the nineteenth century they faced the very real threat to their survival as a community. (iv)
The 1850s and 1860s were arguably the most turbulent decades in the city’s history, where it was said that a murder occurred every day, giving Los Angeles the unenviable distinction as the most violent city west of Santa Fe.
Most of the vice and violence was centered on Calle de los Negros, a block-long row of adobes on the eastern edge of the plaza and within a few feet of the Union Station site that housed several saloons and prostitutes’ “cribs.”
But it was on the evening of October 24, 1871, when lawlessness and rampant violence reached a new low as the city witnessed its most callous act of racial violence—the notorious Chinese Massacre.
After an Anglo in the company of a local police officer was shot in crossfire between two rival Chinese companies, or “tongs,” a mob of over five-hundred people took part in a bloody assault on Calle de los Negros, leaving nineteen Chinese men and boys dead. (v)
Despite being barred from owning land and the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—which restricted the immigration of Chinese laborers—by 1900 the population of Old Chinatown numbered about 3,000 in what was one of Los Angeles’ poorest, most neglected and least understood neighborhoods.
Between 1890 and the 1910s the community was comprised of about fifteen streets and alleys and roughly two hundred building units, which included an opera theater, several Buddhist temples, schools, and a newspaper and telephone exchange office.
While drawing the ire of social reformers and public health officials who focused their attention on often-exaggerated reports of opium dens, gambling houses, disease, and poor sanitation, writers and artists were captivated by the look and feel of Chinatown as inspiration for exotic narratives.
During the golden years of silent film from 1910 to 1930, Chinatown provided important scenery for film legends Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Buster Keaton. In Chaplin’s 1921 classic, The Kid, the distinctive trio of triangular roof ornaments of the Tin How Mui Temple, at the corner of Juan and Apablasa Streets, and the Chin Woo building, on Marchessault Street, served to enhance the comedic drama for Chaplin’s destitute character, the Little Tramp, and his child costar, Jackie Coogan, as both tried desperately to escape from poverty and the police. (vi)
Union Station and the Old Plaza
The story of Los Angeles’ Union Station is inexorably tied to that of the Old Plaza across Alameda Street.
Early in its planning the plaza was actually selected as the most favorable site for the new passenger station, which would have meant the complete demolition of the historic heart of Los Angeles, but eventually, the plaza site was dropped in favor of a site that would mean the relocation of Old Chinatown to a new location along Broadway. This allowed the consulting architects, John and Donald Parkinson, in collaboration with railroad architects H. L. Gilman, J. H. Christie, and R. J. Wirth, along with landscape architect Tommy Tomson, to design Union Station’s exterior in the distinctive Spanish Colonial Revival/Art Deco—or “Mission Moderne”—style. (vii)
The architects were cognizant of the historical and aesthetic significance of the area. To them, the Spanish Colonial Revival motif complemented the adjacent plaza area across Alameda Street to the west and the Terminal Annex Post Office, which flanks the station on the north.
Even so, the irony about the deference to the “Spanish past” was evident in the fact that, by 1929, the surrounding Mexican community, just as with their Chinese neighbors, was seen as an eyesore and impediment to the new station and other development projects and was subsequently removed.
Finally, in 1931, after twenty-five years of political and legal conflict between the city, state, and the railroads to consolidate and improve rail services linking Los Angeles with the rest of the country, a court decision cleared the way for Union Station to be built on the site of Old Chinatown.
The destruction of Old Chinatown began in December 1933 and continued until 1939. As the bulldozers plowed through their community, many Chinese Angelenos moved south from Chinatown to the City Market area on San Pedro Street, east to Central Avenue, and as far south as Jefferson and East Adams Boulevard. Other displaced families, led by developer Peter Soo Hoo, settled several blocks to the northwest on the 900 block of North Broadway and created New Chinatown on land owned by the Santa Fe Railroad in 1938, while others settled in the adjacent China City project which opened three weeks before. (viii)
Between May 3 and 5,1939, a half million people attended the opening of Los Angeles Union Passenger Terminal, today known as Los Angeles Union Station.
The event culminated in a mammoth “historical” parade featuring horsemen, Plains Indians and cowboys, muleskinners, vaqueros and dancing señoritas, marching Boy Scouts, horse trolleys, Army trucks, and an 1869 locomotive to connect the past with the present. Everyone in this real and imagined historical narrative was there to welcome the new station. Noticeably absent from the parade were the recently uprooted residents of Old Chinatown. (ix)
Looking Back, Moving Forward
The opening of a nationally linked railroad station in twentieth-century Los Angeles underscored the precarious future for railroad travel throughout the country.
In its peak years during World War II, more than sixty trains passed through Union Station per day, with many cars carrying soldiers on their way to or from the battlefields of Europe and the Pacific. However, railroading was already on the decline when the terminal opened. The combination of affordable air travel and a national Interstate Highway System in the 1950s left the nation’s great rail stations, including Union Station, in the shadows of their former grandeur. Union Station was built on a grand scale and became known as the last of the great railway stations built in the United States.
Today, Los Angeles Union Station is a major transportation hub for Southern California. It serves thousands of passengers a day with Amtrak long-distance trains, Amtrak California’s regional trains, Metrolink commuter trains, and Metro Rail lines. Through the Patsaouras Transit Plaza, on the east side of the station, pass dozens of bus lines operated by Metro and a number of other municipal carriers.
During the construction of the Los Angeles Metro Rail in the late 1980s, archaeologists assigned to monitor the project excavated a large collection of artifacts covering a critical period of the site from the 1880s to 1933.
The excavation, combined with new historical research, countered prevailing myths by documenting that Old Chinatown was a complete community “with families, businesses, social and ceremonial organizations, and an internal structure.” Field work and laboratory analysis also produced a large volume of “non-Chinese” artifacts that countered yet another myth: that Chinatown was isolated from the larger community. (x)
What these excavations revealed, just like the ancient striations of the region’s geologic, fossilized, and prehistoric past, is that the contemporary Union Station site contains layers upon layers of successive dreams of the people who made Los Angeles their home—some fulfilled, others denied or forgotten.
As the station recognizes its seventy-fifth year, and as it reflects on the past and with hopes for the future, it is important that we remember what was here before.
i Estrada, William David, The Los Angeles Plaza: Sacred and contested Space, (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008), 29-31.
ii Gray, Paul Bryan, A Clamor for Equality: Emergence and Exile of Californio Activist Francisco P. Ramirez, (Lubbock: Texas Tech University Press, 2012).
iii Engh, Michael E., S.J., Frontier Faiths: Church, Temple, and Synagogue in Los Angeles, 1846-1888, (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1992).
iv Estrada, The Los Angeles Plaza, 71-79.
vi Bengtson, John, Silent Traces: Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin, (Santa Monica: Santa Monica Press, 2006), 195-205.
vii Estrada, Los Angeles Plaza, 175-181.
viii Ibid, 218.
ix Ibid, 226.
x Greenwood, Roberta S., Down By the Station: Los Angeles Chinatown, 1880-1933, (Los Angeles: Monumenta Archaeologica 18, Institute of Archaeology, University of California, Los Angeles, 1996), 5-8.
William D. Estrada is Curator of California and American History and Chair of the History Department at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. He holds a doctorate in history from the University of California, Los Angeles, and is a social and cultural historian, specializing in nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Los Angeles. He is currently working on a research project about Los Angeles’ early twentieth century Italian, Jewish, and Mexican communities.
Related story: Essay by Alissa Walker
Categories: Metro Art