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California History: It All Comes Together in Exposition Park

July 09, 1986|WILLIAM S. MURPHY | Murphy is a Times photographer. and

Literary and pictorial treasures that the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History has been acquiring since its founding in 1913 are now housed in a recently completed storage and library facility at the museum in Exposition Park.

The collection, called the Seaver Center for Western History Research, contains a wide range of rare volumes tracing the state's past from the era when it was under Spanish rule, through the period when the Mexican flag flew over its presidios from San Diego to San Francisco, and finally its acquisition by the United States.

One of the museum's prized works is a three-volume edition written by Capt. George Vancouver, "A Voyage of Discovery to the Pacific Ocean and Round the World," published in London in 1798.

Focused Attention on Area

During a three-year voyage in his vessel Discovery, Vancouver made new explorations on the coast of Australia and New Zealand, visited Hawaii, then called the Sandwich Islands, and mapped the Pacific coast from San Diego to Cook's Inlet, Alaska.

While his impressions of California occupy but a small segment of Vancouver's narrative, the geographical knowledge obtained by his voyage was to have an ultimate effect upon California's future. It focused attention on an area of the world that still remained a mystery to most Europeans and Americans.

The Discovery sailed through San Francisco's Golden Gate on Nov. 14, 1792. A boat sent ashore returned with a Franciscan priest and a sergeant who was acting commandant of the presidio. The English received a warm welcome and were given fresh provisions. A work party was sent to procure wood and water. Vancouver and his officers went into the adjacent hills to shoot quail. The captain was also making notes on the weakness of fortifications in San Francisco, its inadequate armament and the small size of its garrison. He would continue this at other California posts, and include this data in his narrative. It would have strategic value to his nation should Britain attack Spanish settlements in California.

Vancouver visited Monterey, Santa Barbara and San Diego during a leisurely stay along the coast before returning to Hawaii. He would write excellent descriptions of life in the Franciscan missions and the Spanish pueblos, always including observations of their vulnerability against foreign attack:

"Santa Barbara is a post of no small consequence, and might be rendered very tenable, by fortifying a hill conspicuously situated on the north-west side of the roadstead; yet they have only two brass nine-pounders, placed before the entrance into the Presidio. . . . With little difficulty St. (San) Diego might also be rendered a place of considerable strength, by establishing a small force at the entrance of the port where, at this time, there were neither works, guns, houses, or other inhabitations nearer than the Presidio, which is at a distance of at least five miles from the port, and where they have only three small pieces of brass cannon. . . ."

'Nothing Was Perceived'

Vancouver considered Los Angeles an insignificant community and had doubts that it existed. Off San Pedro, he noted in his log on Sunday, Nov. 24, 1795:

"I had been given to understand that a very advantageous settlement is established on a fertile spot somewhere in this neighborhood within sight of the ocean, though at the distance of some miles from the coast called Pueblo de los Angeles; 'the country town of the Angels,' formed in the year 1781. This establishment was looked for in all directions, but nothing was perceived that indicated either habitations or inhabitants."

In addition to rare books, the center also has a collection of more than 200,000 photographs and negatives tracing the development of Los Angeles, Southern California and the West. Errol Stevens, associate curator of historic records at the museum, is in charge of non-book material in the library, which includes photographs, daguerreotypes, maps and film. He removed a folder from a cabinet, placing a number of photographs it contained on a table. It was a panoramic view of the growth of Los Angeles that could be arranged in a chronological sequence.

First there were pictures showing the city when the roads converging on it were wagon traces, and the downtown streets were unpaved; dusty during the dry season and quagmires when it rained. The horse and buggy and stagecoaches were the principal conveyances until the early 1900s when automobiles made their appearance. Horse-drawn streetcars would be replaced by electric trolleys that would be developed into a network of interurban trains, which would accelerate the growth of communities throughout the Southland.

Important Event

One of the most important events in the city's history took place on Sept. 6, 1876, when the Southern Pacific crossed the Tehachapis and joined Los Angeles to San Francisco by rail. The Bay City was the western terminus for the transcontinental railroad that spanned the continent.

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