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Lucky Baldwin's Arcadia: A 'gambling hell and booze pleasure park'

by Robert Petersen | Off-Ramp®

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Photograph article dated January 31, 1963 partially reads, "The original object, of course, was not to create the youngest racetrack tout in American, but to impress on a soft, 6-year-old mind that gamblers die of malnutrition. This was the highly commendable purpose. Somewhere, in the paddock at Santa Anita perhaps, it went astray." Wells A. Twombly Jr. watching the horse race. Los Angeles Public Library/George Brich

Elias “Lucky” Baldwin died more than a century ago, but his name and legacy lives throughout L.A.: Baldwin Park, Baldwin Hills, Baldwin Avenue, Lucky Baldwin’s Pub in old town Pasadena, and the Baldwin’s Queen Anne Cottage at the arboretum, which looks out at Baldwin Lake.

Portrait of Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin.
Portrait of Elias Jackson "Lucky" Baldwin. Los Angeles Public Library
 

Baldwin was born in Ohio in 1828.  He came to Southern California in 1875 as a millionaire who had made his money in real estate, hotels, the stock market, and even selling brandy and tobacco to Mormons. Upon his arrival here, he bought 8,000 acres of land, then known as Rancho Santa Anita. It was the largest real estate transaction in L.A. County to that time.

But within five years of his arrival, Baldwin owned almost 45,000 acres in L.A. County, including parts of Arcadia, Monrovia, Sierra Madre, Temple City, El Monte and South El Monte, the City of Industry, Baldwin Park, West Covina, La Puente, Montebello, South San Gabriel, and Monterey Park.

Near the turn of the century, Baldwin turned city builder. After a failed venture to create a town named “Baldwin,” he launched a town site named Arcadia on part of his ranch land. But it was not until the Pacific Electric Railway announced a line from Pasadena to Monrovia that would pass through Arcadia that the idea of cityhood really took hold.

A double-long Pacific Electric Railway car travels on the Arcadia-Monrovia Line.
A double-long Pacific Electric Railway car travels on the Arcadia-Monrovia Line. Los Angeles Public Library

With visions of inflated land values, Baldwin signed an agreement with Pacific Electric and in 1903 happily started watching trains pass through Arcadia. Two weeks later, Baldwin filed a petition for the incorporation of Arcadia into a municipality. Opponents feared he wanted to turn the city into a “gambling hell and booze pleasure park,” and the Anti-Saloon League led the opposition.

The county authorized an incorporation election to be held, and 39 voters turned out to support  cityhood for Arcadia. When local newspapers printed a complete list of those who voted in Arcadia’s first election, it turned out that 75 percent of the names were readily identifiable as Baldwin’s relatives, business associates, and/or employees.

Baldwin was elected as the city’s first mayor , and while he'd promised the county supervisors he had no intention of establishing a town for the fostering of horse racing, gambling, and other kindred vices; that’s exactly what he did. One of Arcadia’s first ordinances was for licensing the sale of alcohol ... and Baldwin’s eldest daughter got the first liquor license.

Next came horse racing. In 1907, he opened Santa Anita Park on the site of today’s Santa Anita Golf Course.

Aerial view of Santa Anita Park and Racetrack, located at 285 W. Huntington Drive in the city of Arcadia; view is looking southeast.
Aerial view of Santa Anita Park and Racetrack, located at 285 W. Huntington Drive in the city of Arcadia; view is looking southeast. Los Angeles Public Library

On opening day, 7,000 people showed up. Baldwin put slot machines and roulette wheels in the lobby. There were rooms for poker games, bars dispensed Baldwin wines and brandies, and in the rear of the hotel there was a boxing ring.

But just two years later, in 1909, Baldwin got the flu, which developed into pneumonia. At 81 years of age, he died.

It was the end of an era. Santa Anita Racetrack closed its doors and horse racing was banned throughout the state. In 1912, liquor licensing was outlawed in the city. And Arcadia began to transition from a “gambling hell and booze pleasure park” to “suburban tranquility.”

By 1920, Arcadia boasted public gas, electric, and telephone services, and secured its first library, church, and bank, as well as a new city hall. But horse racing did return to Arcadia in 1934 with the opening of the current Santa Anita Racetrack.

Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016.
Baldwin Lake inside the Los Angeles County Arboretum & Botanic Garden in Arcadia on Tuesday morning, Aug. 23, 2016. Kevin Ferguson/KPCC

At the arboretum you can see one of the most interesting parts of Baldwin’s legacy – peacocks. All the peacocks here and in nearby Arcadia neighborhoods are descendants of the birds Baldwin brought over from a trip to India in the 1870s.

To learn more about Elias “Lucky” Baldwin make sure to listen to the story above.

Robert Petersen produces the podcast The Hidden History of Los Angeles and shares it with KPCC's Off-Ramp. 

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