EL MONTE — A relic from the city's rip-roaring past, the Old El Monte Jail held some of the most unsavory characters to ride in the dying days of the Old West. For 42 years, the jail held the desperadoes and delinquents lucky enough to escape the "El Monte Boys" and the vigilante justice they delivered.
Now, more than half a century after the jail's heyday, a campaign has started to have it designated as a Point of Historical Interest, the official state recognition for a local landmark.
The city Parks and Recreation Department and the El Monte Historical Society have begun to lobby county and state historical commissions. This month, the City Council went on record as supporting the effort.
Unless the groups meet a November deadline to submit their application to the state, the effort may be stalled until February, said Brian Ogden, city director of parks and recreation.
"We're just hoping we'll be able to make the deadline," Ogden said. "What we have is information on the past of law and order of El Monte."
The desired designation for the jail would fit into the city's plans to highlight its rustic past.
In November, the city was designated a state landmark for the part it played in California history as the end of the Santa Fe Trail. The hard-won designation coincided with the city's 75th birthday.
The jail was built in 1880 by William Dodson, a prominent citizen who donated it to the town of Lexington, which was later renamed El Monte.
At the time, El Monte was the main crossroad between Los Angeles, San Bernardino and San Pedro, attracting its share of gambling saloons, lynchings and shoot-outs. History paints it as a rough-and-ready place where trail-hardened men settled disputes with knives and guns.
Turn From Vigilante Justice
Helen Huffines, curator of the El Monte Museum of History, said the jail represented a turn from vigilante justice toward law and order.
"Hangings were not at all uncommon when the vigilantes were in charge, and early constables were declared to have had their hands full in handling the crime situation in El Monte," reads an 1948 editorial from the El Monte Herald.
Some of those who took the law into their own hands were dubbed the "El Monte Boys."
It is unclear who actually incarcerated whom near the turn of the century, but Constable Lester C. Burdick was appointed by the county to oversee the task in 1906.
Being the only law enforcement officer in town was did not exactly bring him a windfall.
Burdick was paid $1 for each arrest and got an additional administrative fee. It wasn't enough to support him, and he opened a plumbing shop as a sideline. He became chief of El Monte's still one-man Police Department in 1912 when the city incorporated.
The jail was built on Santa Anita Avenue where the Fire Department's main station is now located. The jail was moved to the site of the U.S. Post Office on Valley Boulevard, then relocated in 1973 to the El Monte Museum of History grounds on Tyler Avenue.
Plans call for the jail to be moved again, to Pioneer Park, which will include a covered wagon similar to those that rolled over the Santa Fe Trail to El Monte.
The jail's intended site will be just about where it was almost a century ago, on the banks of the Rio Hondo River.
"That was not known until we started looking into it," Ogden said. "By accident, it's going back to its old home."