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The Legacy of Charles F. Lummis : Pioneer Newsman Who Helped Lay L.A. Groundwork

January 27, 1985|GRACE ELLEN STILES and DON SCOTT THOMPSON | Grace Ellen Stiles is a retired professor of education at the University of Maine. Don Scott Thompson is a playwright and free-lance writer

Charles Fletcher Lummis started down from Cajon Pass following the trickle of a little stream. He was glad to have left the unforgiving desert. Behind him also were the prairies of Indiana and Illinois, the hills of Missouri, the expanse of Kansas' plains, December's snows with piercing winds in the mountains of Colorado and New Mexico, and the delights and travail of Arizona, especially the Mojave.

He had walked every step of the way, almost 3,500 miles now, except when he loped along the railroad tracks, hitting only every other tie. It was 100 years ago. His date with destiny--destiny in the person of Col. Harrison Gray Otis, crusty owner-editor of the Los Angeles Times, was due Feb. 1, 1885.

Delirious With Pain He had made side trips, even after receiving Otis' telegram requiring his presence by Feb. 1. Sometimes he left the trail to hunt for food or for sport. On such an excursion in Arizona he fell and broke his left arm. He set it himself by tying his wrist to a tree and lunging backward. He fainted. Recovering consciousness, he walked 60 miles, delirious with pain, to Holbrook, where he rested in the unaccustomed comfort of a warm bed before he plunged on. The arm, it turned out, set perfectly.

In spite of the discomfort of his arm and the heat, he viewed the Grand Canyon, crossed the Mojave of Arizona and entered California at Needles only a few days before his date with Otis.

Advice Ignored At Daggett, he left the security of the railroad to set off south on a direct compass-bearing for the Cajon Pass--against the advice of natives. Albert Munier, a miner at Calico who was broke and sick (an unscrupulous employer had fleeced him) joined Lummis to walk to Los Angeles. Taking care of his companion and the heat of the desert slowed Lummis' usual pace of 30 to 40 miles a day.

Lummis was equal to the hazards of his walk from Ohio to California and to the mental discipline of writing weekly dispatches back to Chillicothe, Ohio, and ahead to The Times. His physique was toughened by workouts in the Harvard gym and by tramping the New England wildernesses. He knew woodsmanship and survival techniques. He undertook the walk for "joy and information" and not from necessity.

Before entering Harvard, his minister father had taught him Greek, Latin and Hebrew, preparing him for the rigorous classical education. His sharp observation, intellectual strength, honesty and determination made it possible to write his dispatches from settlers' kitchen tables or by flickering campfires. He frequently signed these vivid and dramatic accounts "Lum."

Lummis followed the trickle from the Cajon Pass until it became a brook. He detoured to watch Chinese laborers building the Santa Fe Railroad north up toward the Pass. Irrigated valleys where flowers blossomed and oranges ripened on the trees seemed a veritable heaven. He sped through Cucamonga, Ontario and Pomona with a light heart.

Under the landmark giant grape vine in San Gabriel (which is still growing at San Gabriel Mission), Col. Otis spotted a young man with his left arm in a sling, wearing low shoes, short trousers, a battered felt hat with a rattlesnake skin band and a duck jacket with many bulging pockets. Thus he met "Lum" of the dispatches.

Otis' Dreams They ate a good dinner while discussing Otis' dreams for the rapidly growing Los Angeles. He wanted to develop a free port at San Pedro and counter the lock held by the Southern Pacific Railroad on the port at Santa Monica.

"I'll walk. I don't want to spoil my record," Lummis explained when he refused to ride into Los Angeles. So the portly colonel walked with him the last 10 miles of the 3,507-mile tramp.

"It's only 11 o'clock on the 1st," Lummis announced gazing on the electric lights of the city, then boasting 12,000 inhabitants. "I've met my first deadline," he wrote in his account of his arrival.

"So you have," Otis agreed. "I like punctual men." These two would get along well together.

Lummis had a few hours with his wife, Dorothea, a medical doctor already practicing in Los Angeles, before appearing at his desk as city editor of The Times.

With characteristic energy and dedication, Lummis threw himself into his work. The Times was only 3 years old. Although it was financially shaky, Otis had already taken strong stands for the future of Los Angeles, frequently unpopular ones.

According to the account in the biography, "Charles Fletcher Lummis" by two of his children, Turbese Lummis Fiske and Keith Lummis, Otis had been supporting the chief of police, whom Lummis discovered to be crooked. When he reported that fact to Otis the brusque colonel said, "It's the policy of The Times to support the chief."

"I'm understanding it is the policy of The Times to tell the truth and be in the right," Lummis said. "If it isn't, take it and go to hell!" Bystanders quaked, expecting fireworks. Otis looked steadily at his fearless editor. He backed down. The colonel respected men who could stand up to him.

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