19 October 2009

Patrick Curran Tonner (1841-1900): Namesake of Tonner Canyon

Patrick Curran Tonner was born in Ireland in 1841 and, according to Frank Brackett's 1920 history of Pomona, he came to America as a child and was enrolled at a Roman Catholic school in Philadelphia. Indeed, in the 1860 census, there is a "Patrick Toner," age 19, from Ireland living as a seminarian in the Roman Catholic Church's archdiocesan seminary of St. Charles Borromeo. Notably, one the seminary's earlier rectors was Thaddeus Amat, a Spaniard who only served for about a year, before being assigned to be the bishop of the Archdiocese of Monterey (later Monterey and Los Angeles, when Amat petitioned to move the headquarters to the latter city) in California. Bishop Amat High School in La Puente is named for him.

As for Tonner, Brackett then stated that he ran away with some others from the seminary to join the Union Army during the Civil War, only to be returned at some length when the bishop of the Philadelphia archdiocese, James F. Wood, petitioned for Tonner's return. Undaunted, Tonner ran away again, this time traveling to far-flung California.

After a brief time in San Francisco, he is said to have taught Greek at a new college in Monterey, although nothing was located in a search of Catholic colleges there. Brackett stated that Tonner was fired from his position and "plunged into the ways of self-indulgence and masterful gain," meaning that he began to drink heavily.

In July 1869, Tonner was teaching school in Castroville, just north of Monterey and had been hired for an additional four months beyond his existing contract. At any rate, an 1889 history of Los Angeles County places Tonner as one of several educators migrating to Los Angeles during the years 1868-69. Finally, Brackett states that, when Tonner made, about this time, his first visit to Rancho San José, part of which later became Pomona, he was so enraptured with the area that he wrote a poem to celebrate it.

In October 1870, the first Los Angeles Teachers' Institute, a four-day conference for educators in the county, was held with Tonner as the recording secretary. He also made addresses to the attendees on reading and elocution and recited poems, including his own on Los Angeles. According to Brackett, Tonner appeared in Los Nietos, a township now encompassing the areas of Santa Fe Springs, Whittier, Pico Rivera, Downey and other areas, where he taught school. In Spring 1871, however, Tonner was teaching over 100 students at San Antonio township, closer to Los Angeles in what is now the Bell Gardens, Maywood, Cudahy, Vernon and Huntington Park areas, and was paid $80 per month.

By 1874, Tonner had relocated to the town of Spadra, now part of Pomona, and remained in the Pomona area the remainder of his life. Initially, he taught in the Palomares School District (named for Ignacio Palomares, one of two grantees, along with Ricardo Vejar, of the Rancho San Jose.)

In the 1880 census, Tonner, listed as 36 years of age, was in Pomona and married to Mollie L. Wear, a 26-year old native of Texas (the couple were childless.) By then, however, Tonner quit teaching and was admitted to the bar, opening his own law practice. This was in the days when lawyers did not necessarily attend law schools and when bar exams didn't exist. A prospective attorney would appear before a district (later, superior court) judge and submit to whatever questioning the judge saw fit to ask in determining the legal fitness of the candidate. Tonner became, in fact, a prominent attorney in Pomona (drafting, for example, the articles of incorporation for the city in 1888) and took on many young lawyers to work with him in his practice, some of whom became well-known in California legal circles.

In one notable case, Tonner defended, before the county school board rather than in court, a Pomona teacher accused of misconduct in the use of Palomares School District funds for purposes other than specified by state law. It turned out that the teacher had been given a $20 per month raise and that Tonner was loudly proclaiming (after pulling on the bottle?) that he was the teacher's "broker" and being paid $20 per month to be so. It turned out, however, that Tonner turned over the ten months' (the length of the school year at the time) worth of money, totaling $220, to the trustees of the district in order to reduce its debt. While this may have been a worthy cause, the problem was using state money for the purpose of paying debts not incurred by the state, but by the district. Consequently, the county board reprimanded and censured the teacher for his conduct, having no ability to do anything to Tonner, who'd left his $170 per month teaching position for the district for the more lucrative field of the law and real estate.

Meantime, Tonner began investing in land, owning several choice properties in Pomona, one of which he developed as a park, which he named Ganesha (after an Indian god of the arts and sciences, embodying intellect and wisdom.) This name was later applied to a road leading south from the park and to a high school in the city. Tonner purchased and ran an orange grove from Thomas Burdick, north of Orange Grove Avenue on what had been Palomares family land. In 1874-75, Tonner, Cyrus Burdick and Francisco Palomares (son of Ignacio) bought 3,000 acres from Louis Phillips, who had acquired the abajo, or lower, portion of the rancho from Ricardo Vejar's creditors, Hyman Tischler and Louis Schlessinger. Of this, about two-third was subdivided by Tonner with water rights he had with Burdick and Lugarda Palomares, which was bought from Concepción Palomares. He was the donor of the lot in downtown Pomona that became the home of St. Joseph's Church. He also owned some 250 acres in the Puente Hills on the former Rancho La Puente, which he bought for only $2,000 and which, in 1886, he said he would not sell for less than $500,000, because oil had been discovered in the area the previous year. In 1874, he and some partners formed the first water company in the locality, which eventually became Pomona's supplier.

Yet, most of Tonner's biography in Brackett's tome is dedicated to stories detailing the colorful Irishman's penchant for drink and to his poems, of which several are liberally quoted. Whether this was a contributing factor to his death in 1900 at the relatively young age of 59 is now known, but Tonner certainly lived a full and interesting life.

The question remains, however, "How did Tonner Canyon get named for him?"


David said...

Cool, I like this History.

Anonymous said...

interesting, I was born in 1948, my parents lived in Tonner Canyon. My father worked for Mobil oil. At that time there were 2 white cottages amongst the pepper trees. we lived in one of them for 18 years. I often wonder what happened with the environmental movement there.

Gina Garcia Brock said...

As a descendent of the Palomares and Vejar families, as well as several other prominent Californios "familias", I am disappointed that you did not included his corruption, deception, and betrayal, in the role as their attorney to benefit himself in the sale of parcels of Palomares family land, leaving the family and their descendants poor and disenfranchised.

Both noted in Bess Garner's "Windows in An Old Adobe" and Leonard Pitt's "Decline of the Californios" discusses the Federal Court cases where the Palomares family made the painful decision to renounce all RIGHTFUL claims to their land and fortune, in order to allow the settlers on the newly formed town of Pomona (formerly Rancho San Jose of Don Ignacio Palomares' La Familia) to retain the money they invested in their new homes, businesses and not decimate the entire community.

As Lugarda Palomares told her sons, "I do not want anyone who bought in good faith to suffer. Whatever your father meant to do we must do. I'd rather see my boys walk the streets of Pomona poor but honest than anyone to suffer at the hands of a Palomares. Mr. Tonner's way may have been legal. It may be that he would have made us much money. But we do not want such money. We will follow the laws of God."

Growing up in Anaheim Hills, I never knew who and what Tonner Canyon was. I never knew my heritage because it was something the American history had erased from the brilliance the Californios brought to the USA, until I attended UCLA at 30 and learned of MY families' brilliant contributions to California.

Patrick Curran Tonner was a Catholic, who became a Methodist, but used his upbringing to build a "trusting" connection to the Californios, and they never had reason to doubt him. They honored him till his dying day, even though in his own poetry he ridiculed the Spanish culture and revered the American pioneers and Manifest Destiny.

His Progressive Ideology of Theodore Roosevelt, and later Woodrow Wilson that decimated the Spanish culture in the early 20the Century, should be a lesson for all people. When you take away everything a person has to believe in and leave them with nothing, they may appear to assimilate or accommodate, but eventually they will find their roots again, and make a comeback: Hence the Chicano Movement of the 1960's.

Paul said...

Hello David, Margaret and Gina, thanks for your comments.

Margaret, I don't know where the cottages you lived in were--probably on the southern end toward Brea. There were people who lived and ranched out there before oil was discovered, so maybe the houses date from then or from use by the early oil companies?

Gina, my intention of the pretty lengthy post was to give a general biography of Tonner rather than get into too much detail about much of the specifics of his life. As a former caretaker of the Phillips Mansion (formerly Vejar property) and board member of the historical society in Pomona, I am certainly aware of the history of the Palomares and Vejar families. I would also add that their misfortunes were not only due to the avarice of some Americans and Europeans, but to bad luck, flood and drought, disease, and unfortunate business decisions. That said, history tends to be more complicated and complex than is usually stated. Still, I would certainly not seek to minimize anything that Tonner did that might have been unethical, if not illegal. As you probably noticed, I did remark on his questionable defense, due to conflict of interest, of a Pomona teacher and upon his proclivity to drinking. Finally, by way of clarification, I'd like to note that the townsite of Pomona was actually founded in 1874-75 on lands held by Louis Phillips (who obtained them from Tischler and Schlesinger, who foreclosed upon Ricardo Vejar in about 1863.) The Palomares lands involving Tonner were not part of the original townsite, but were annexed at a later date. Thanks for your contribution.