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Hidden History: Is this a mile marker in Pasadena? Or a tombstone?

Robert Petersen is the host of the podcast The Hidden History of Los Angeles, and he shares his discoveries with KPCC's Off-Ramp.

I’m standing near the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Holliston Street in Pasadena, in front of a McDonald’s. In front of me is a 3-foot tall concrete tablet that looks like a tombstone. On the face of the concrete tablet is the number 11 with a circle around it, the numbers 220 and 200, and the letters “F” and “B.” That’s it. What is this thing?

Even though it looks out of place, this is probably the oldest thing on the corner, and it's actually a long-lost ancestor of the GPS system in your phone -- a great-great grandfather of Google maps, Waze, even the Thomas Guide.

Near the turn of the last century, during the 1890s, people traveling outside of urban areas faced a difficult challenge: finding places. There weren’t addresses as we know them today. A newspaper editorial from 1892 put it like this:

“If you are a stranger in Hog Hollow and ask the way to Colonel Liberty Lumm’s place, it doesn’t greatly help you to be told to “go a mile, but maybe its nigher two to the old Seth Pratt farm. Seth’s dead, but his darters run the farm. Turn to your right till you come to Pogne’s Woods. Take a short cut thru the medders tell you come back to the highway … Take the first road to the east after you pass where the old Indian burying ground used to be, and Colonel Lumm’s is the first white house beyond the haunted house north of the David pasture

In comes Albert Little Bancroft and his “Ten-Block System for Numbering Country Houses.”

Born in Ohio, the brother of California historian Hubert Howe Bancroft, Albert Bancroft moved to California in 1858 and bought a farm in Contra Costa County, about 27 miles northeast of San Francisco. He split his time between the farm and his Victorian mansion in San Francisco. Living at the farm made him aware of the lack of addresses in rural areas. In 1890, Bancroft read a newspaper editorial criticizing a proposal to number rural houses just like city homes. The editor argued that, while naming roads and putting up directional signs were good ideas, the eventual construction of new buildings between those already numbered in succession would ruin the proposed system.

As a new rural dweller, Bancroft took it upon himself to find a solution and what he came up with was the “Ten-Block System for Numbering Country Houses.” The plan was as follows:  Addresses were assigned to the land, rather than to existing structures. Each mile of  road would be divided into ten imaginary blocks of 528 feet. Two numbers would be assigned to each block, an odd number on the left side, and even on the right. Each structure on a non-urban block would have its own address depending on the location of its entrance on the road. A home built afterwards would receive the block number assigned to the land on which it was built.

Bancroft tried the system in Contra Costa County, then moved to LA  and spent years cajoling members of a citizens commission to adopt his plan, and it ended up adopting many of Bancroft’s proposals.

The commission named and measured roads, acquired right of way agreements and land needed for road expansion and realignment, and erected concrete milestones, which identified the name of the road and the distance from the county courthouse, which was the starting point for the numbering system. By 1908, the commission had completed its work on six major thoroughfares, including Foothill Boulevard.

In 1907, the LA Times remarked on the progress of the block system:

“Concrete milestones have been placed on six of the main roads of Los Angeles County, which run from the Courthouse to the county line. The system is to be continued until every major road in the county is properly marked. This means much for autoists …The work is being pressed forward as rapidly as possible.”

After all Bancroft’s work, and a good start, LA County created a new highway commission, and it dumped Bancroft’s plan. All we have left of Bancroft’s  System is this 111–year-old concrete tablet sitting in front of a McDonald's in Pasadena.

And those markings on the tablet? The number 11 with a circle around it tells us that we are 11 miles from the old county courthouse – today the site of the Foltz Criminal Court Building in downtown L.A. The “F” and the “B?” They tell us that we are on the old Foothill Boulevard Route. And the 220 and 200 tell us the block numbers.

It’s ironic that people often assume that this concrete tablet is a tombstone because, in a way, it is. It is the grave marker for Bancroft’s Ten Block System for Numbering Country Houses – the great-great grandfather of that navigation system in your pocket.

The corner of Colorado and Holliston in Pasadena is another place where you can find the hidden history of Los Angeles.