25 January 2014

Tonner Canyon's Future and Past, Part Two

With December's reporting in the Champion that the City of Industry was looking to buy outright the vast majority of Tonner Canyon, which its redevelopment agency had purchased over a period of years, but had to surrender due to the state's abolishing of those agencies, it seemed a good time to discuss more of the history of that canyon and its surrounding areas.

The last entry concluded with the end of a small growth boom in the Los Angeles area that collapsed in 1875-76, after which George R. Butler, who with his livery stable partner, Wilson Beach, had acquired the Rancho Los Nogales and adjacent public lands from the Vejar family, which had held those properties since the late 1840s.

Butler sold one-third interests to Beach, Spencer H. Wilson, and Charles M. Wright in June 1876.  Wilson, a native of Ontario, Canada, emigrated to Lewiston, New York, just over the border with Canada and immediately north of Niagra Falls and worked as a wheelwright.  Likely the California Gold Rush led him to migrate west, though he wound up in Los Angeles by the mid-1850s. 

He met another recent arrival, a Delaware native named Phineas Banning, who became a stage driver and then gradually acquired property near San Pedro.  Banning and Wilson, in 1856, founded a forwarding and commission business dealing with imported goods arriving by ship at the fledgling harbor and then being sent by stage to Los Angeles--Banning was a noted driver in his earliest years in the area.

Wilson then formed a partnership with Edward N. McDonald raising sheep on Santa Catalina Island, but with floods and then droughts wreaking havoc in the region during the first part of the 1860s, the business floundered.  Ironically, Catalina Island later become a possession of the Banning family, who turned it into a tourist haven that was expanded by chewing gum magnate William Wrigley, Jr.

Purchasing a part of Rancho Los Feliz, just northwest of the town of Los Angeles, Wilson became a stock raiser, perhaps sheep, and raised a family.  Aside from being a captain in a local militia called the Southern Rifles in the early 1860s, he lived a generally quiet life and then purchased his interest in the Los Nogales and nearby areas for $20,000 from Butler.  Only eight months later, though, in early February 1877, the 50-something Wilson died suddenly. 

When Wilson's estate, valued at $30,000, went into probate, his executor was John M. Griffith, a prominent lumber dealer in Los Angeles.  At the end of May 1879, Griffith engineered the sale of Wilson's one-third interest in Los Nogales and the public lands for just under $7,000 to Sedgwick J. Lynch of Santa Cruz, who just happened to be a former partner with Griffith in a Los Angeles lumber business that was highly successful during those boom years of the early to mid-Seventies.  Land values had clearly declined in the previous three years as the boom collapsed and the economy stayed sour until well into the following decade.

Lynch, a native of Sandy Lake, Pennsylvania, which was near the famed oil and coal regions in that state, was born in 1822 and apprenticed to a carpenter in his teens and then migrated to Cincinnati as a young man, working for a building contractor.  That firm sent him to Nashville to work on construction projects, but with the news of the Gold Rush reaching him, Lynch left and joined the migrating hordes to the west coast, where he arrived in October 1849.  He worked as a ship repairman on the Sacramento River and mail carrier between Sacramento and San Francisco and also built structures in the growing city by the bay.  Trying his hand in the gold mines, he made a small fortune and returned to San Francisco by summer 1850 and became a contractor.  He was a member of the notorious Vigilance Committee that took over San Francisco amidst rising crime, but then left the city.

In 1851, he relocated to Santa Cruz and opened up a carpenter shop, staying in the coastal town for a short period before running a wood planing mill in Oakland and serving on a state-sponsored surveying team that worked throughout California in 1854.  Returning to Santa Cruz, when that project was completed, Lynch returned to contracting and then formed a lumber mill, a lumber yard and a wholesale and retail store for selling the wood products.  He had a partner for many years, George Gregg, and the business prospered, to the point that branch locations in the southern part of the state were established at Los Angeles, Wilmington and the new town of Compton.

After Lynch and Gregg ended their partnership in 1870, Lynch started a new enterprise with the well-established John M. Griffith, who'd had a stage company serving passengers and freight with his brother-in-law, John Tomlinson.  They were the main competitors of the same Phineas Banning mentioned above until Tomlinson's death in 1868.  Griffith then turned to the lumber business just as the local boom was starting by the 1870s.  When Lynch joined forces with Griffith, the two rode the wave of economic growth, building a factory making sashes, doors, blinds and other general milling.

Lynch decided to retire by 1876, just in time for the bust that drove the economy into the doldrums and returned to Santa Cruz, where he continued with banking and other businesses before his death in May 1881, not quite sixty years of age.

In 1878, however, Lynch filed a foreclosure action against George Butler, Wilson Beach and local banker Isaias W. Hellman, of the famed Farmers and Merchants Bank, to the lands at Rancho Los Nogales and public lands Butler and Beach had purchased from the Vejars during the earlier part of the decade.  In early March, a mortgage sale was held and Lynch took over everything Beach and Butler once owned, except the interests of Spencer Wilson and Charles Wright sold to them by Butler two years before.  As noted above, Lynch then went through his former partner Griffith to acquire the Wilson portion.

As for Charles Wright, he kept his share of the Los Nogales property and, after Lynch's 1881 death, teamed up with the latter's widow, Jane, and former a partnership that ran the large Rancho Los Nogales (including the former public land), totaling near 10,000 acres for over a quarter-century.  More on that next time.

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