The Journal of San Diego History
Summer 1979, Volume 25, Number 3
Thomas L. Scharf, Managing Editor


Richard H. Peterson, Book Review Editor

Those Powerful Years: The South Coast and Los Angeles, 1887-1917. By Joseph S. O’Flaherty. Hicksville, New York: Exposition Press, 1978. II-lustrations. Index. Bibliography. 357 pages. $12.00.

Reviewed by John E. Baur, Professor of History, California State University, Northridge.

This book starts where O’Flaherty’s earlier (1972) publication, An End and a Beginning: The South Coast and Los Angeles, 1850-1887, concluded. The author, a senior executive in several technology firms and a former mayor of Rolling Hills, has been interested in California history since student days. He has produced a popular history of the Los Angeles area during a triple decade of fundamental economic, social, technological, and political change which emphasizes the excitement, color, and optimism of these remarkable events. The subtitle may lead San Diegans to think southern California is generally covered with considerable material on the southern-most section of the “South Coast,” but the word “Los Angeles” should warn them, for San Diego appears rarely, except during transportation improvements and booms to develop the Coronado and U.S. Grant hotels.

Although there is little new in facts or their interpretation for scholars, general readers should enjoy the author’s characteristically accurate and just narrative. O’Flaherty’s task is to deal with major factors which developed the imperial domain of Los Angeles from Boom to the First World War. He harvests the drama and deeds of real estate huckstering as well as the less flamboyant but pervasive developments in southern California’s banking, water facilities, agriculture, and hydroelectric power. The area’s only effective rapid transit system, the Pacific Electric, is well presented, as are advancements in sewer construction, street lighting, and road building. Not neglected are the famous publicists of that era, such as Charles F. Lummis, and civic improvers like Griffith J. Griffith and Exposition Park’s founders. With their controversies intact we meet less savory aspects of a rowdy, robust period, among these the “sin city”, Vernon, at century’s turn. The author neither neglects nor over-balances various ethnic groups’ culture, contributions, and problems. The unique land itself is a “power” as shown through the tourist, movies and aviation industries made possible by climate, and petroleum booms fostered by favorable geology. This was a time of almost legendary technological revolutions and American faith in their virtues. As a writer who understands and enjoys such events, O’Flaherty is skillful in presenting backgrounds for each enterprise. He simplifies without caricaturing complicated phenomena, while offering insights both enlightening and entertaining.

The period’s end saw the rise of Progressivism nationally and on the “South Coast.” We read of successful reforms of the Good Government League, the Free Harbor Fight, pro- and anti-unionist struggles, and temperance crusades. O’Flaherty is best when portraying the visionary, imperfect giants who built their metropolis. By following their careers neophyte “Coast-watchers” will become convinced that the region’s greatness was not inevitable but willed, planned, and mightily worked for. Of some interest are the occasional vignettes of Angelenos’ social life, manners and morals.

Although the author knows how to use quotation for moving imagery and humor, it would have been wiser to have identified fully some of the major informants quoted, surely unfamiliar to general readers. Chapter titles in the form of quotes are intriguing, but seldom give immediate clues to contents. Since O’Flaherty tries to cover virtually all aspects of his area’s multi-renaissance, he might have added more on developments in its literature, arts, music, and sports, and longer sections on education and medicine, whose dramatic and significant aspects warrant considerable attention. He made good use of Henry W. O’Melveny’s manuscript impressions of contemporary events.

This book contains a satisfactory bibliography and index. Its footnoting system may startle traditionalists, but it is effective. The more than sixty illustrations are appropriate, unhackneyed, mostly from early photos, and well-labeled.