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Patt Morrison on Abraham Lincoln's SoCal legacy

by Patt Morrison | Off-Ramp®

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Lincoln Heights circa 1980. Today, the neighborhood where a top Confederate general once lived is called Lincoln Heights. In 1917, residents voted unanimously to change the name from "Enchanted Hill." LAPL photo archive

Abraham Lincoln loved the idea of California, that far away place, the terminus of the Transcontinental Railroad he helped to create but never lived to see.

When he heard that a friend was heading back to California, Lincoln wrote:

"I have long desired to see California. The production of her gold mines has been a marvel to me — and her stand for the union. Nothing would give me more pleasure than a visit to the Pacific Shore. I have it now in purpose, when the railroad is finished, to visit your wonderful state." 

Only a handful of hours before he was assassinated, he spoke to his wife Mary about journeying to California when they left the White House. And on that very same day, Lincoln buttonholed the Speaker of the House, Schuyler Colfax, who was leaving for the Golden State, and asked him to tell California's miners:

"I shall promote their interests to the utmost of my ability. Because their prosperity is the prosperity of the nation and we shall prove in a very few years that we are, indeed, the treasury of the world." 

Lincoln, like Moses, envisioned the promised land yet was destined never to see it. 

But California remembered him. All sorts of Golden State spots like roads and schools are named for Honest Abe. Lincoln Boulevard, for one, is a stretch of Pacific Coast Highway that runs alongside Los Angeles International Airport and into Santa Monica. It's only about eight miles long compared to Washington Blvd.'s 27 miles, but George Washington had a big head start. He died 10 years before Lincoln was even born.

But the paradox is that, during the Civil War, Los Angeles was a Confederate town. 

Of its 5,000 residents, as many as half had come from the South. In the presidential election of 1860, Lincoln got barely 25 percent of the vote. As the war was underway, Confederate troops advanced into Arizona with an eye on the California gold fields.

Then, a couple of pro-Union businessmen — one of them the grandfather of General George S. Patton — handed over a piece of land to the Union Army. Dixie sympathy and state secession talk didn't disappear from L.A., but it held its tongue.

But another piece of L.A. real estate would give Lincoln a posthumous triumph. It's probably the city's oldest suburb, more than 150-years-old, and situated on the bluffs of the L.A. River. It was called East Los Angeles, and the man who helped to develop it into a fine neighborhood called it Enchanted Hill.

He was John Griffin and his brother-in-law was Albert Sidney Johnston — General Johnston — until 1861 the commander of the U.S. Army Department of the Pacific. Johnston was living with his relatives on the Enchanted Hill when war began. He quit the U.S. Army, joined the Confederacy and escaped from L.A. before he could be arrested.

Today, that neighborhood where a top Confederate general once lived is called Lincoln Heights. In 1917, residents voted unanimously to rename their neighborhood for the assassinated president and for the new high school already bearing his name. East Lake Park became Lincoln Park and the Eastside police station became Lincoln Heights police station.

Washington was the nation's first president. But Lincoln became the first to leave a lasting mark on the state he never got to see. 

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