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History of Whittier


Before Whittier California became a place where people lived it was part of the 10,075 acre Rancho Paso de Bartolo, a place where livestock were raised as they grazed under the watchful eyes of the padres of Mission San Gabriel. In 1835, as part of the secularization of mission lands Alta California Governor Jose Figueroa granted Rancho Paso de Bartolo to Juan Crispin Perez, a manager at Mission San Gabriel. In 1843 Bernardino Guirado, a worker at the mission, acquired 876 acres of the rancho from Perez.

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One of the last battles of the Mexican-American War was fought on Rancho Paso de Bartolo on January 8, 1847. So desirable was the land that after the war ended in 1848 the recent former Governor of the Alta California Mexican Territory, Pio Pico, began purchasing pieces of the 10,075 acre rancho from the heirs of Juan Crispin Perez and as of 1852 Pico had acquired nearly all of the rancho apart from the 876 acres still owned by Guirado. Together the Pio Pico and Bernardino Guirado ranchos comprised a significant portion of present-day Whittier.

Pio Pico Casa & State Historic Park – listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Don Pio Pico - former Governor of Alta California
Don Pio Pico

In 1852 Don Pio Pico built a modest adobe home to serve as the Rancho Paso de Bartolo ranch house. It was replaced in 1883-84 by a larger structure where Pio Pico continued to live until 1892. That property was entered into the  National Register of Historic Places on June 19, 1973 – read more about its historical significance and about the extraordinary life of Pio Pico here, and see the National Register of Historic Places images of  Pio Pico Casa here.

Pio Pico Casa, Whittier CA - listed in the National Register of Historic Places
Pio Pico Casa

On December 2, 1868 Jacob F. Gerkens filed a claim to 160 acres just south of the Pio Pico rancho under the provisions of the United States Homestead Act of 1862. He paid $234 ($1.25 an acre) plus a $34 filing fee. This quarter section today lies north of Hadley St. and east of Greenleaf Ave. Before the filing date Gerkens, who was a  sheep rancher, had built a small redwood cabin on the property.  On March 25, 1870 Gerkens deeded the land to R.M. Town for $3,000 and moved to Los Angeles where he became a twice-elected member of the City Council and the first Los Angeles Chief of Police.

In 1880, though foreclosure, the Town property was acquired at a public auction for $4002 by John M. Thomas, a farmer and rancher from Indiana,  who  assembled a 1259 acre ranch during 1880-81 through a series of land acquisitions. In 1886 John Thomas sold his ranch to three investors for $33,000. The following year the lead investor, Dr. J. Mills Boal, President of the Los Angeles County Homeopathic Medical Society,  met Aquila Pickering of Chicago, member of the Chicago Board of Trade and elder member of the Society of Friends who, at age 67, had come to California to establish a Pacific Coast Quaker Colony.

A deal was forged and Pickering together with Jonathan Bailey, Hervey Lindley and John Painter formed the Pickering Land & Water Company to purchase the Thomas Ranch property for $69,890.

Jonathan Bailey House - Whittier Historic Landmark #6On May 11,1887 Jonathan Bailey and his wife Rebecca, recently arrived from Ohio, moved into the little white house on the property and became the first residents of the Whittier Colony of Quakers.  The following Sunday they held a religious service on their front porch. Soon the Bailey House became the center of Whittier’s business, social and religious activities.  Members of the Bailey family continued to live in and/or own the house until 1973 when the Whittier Heritage Association was formed to “Save the Bailey House” and Jonathan Bailey House - Whittier CAthe property at 13421 Camilla St. was purchased, restored and deeded to the citizens of Whittier on January 7, 1975 and renamed the Jonathan Bailey House and Park. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places on August 29, 1977. Read more detail here and see the National Register images here.


Hervey Lindley was experienced in real estate subdivisions. At his direction surveyors Baldwin, Jessup & Co. prepared a subdivision map of the John Thomas Ranch dividing 160 acres into town lots to be sold at $100 each with the balance of the property broken into 5 and 10 acre parcels to be sold at $100 an acre on the condition that buyers agreed to make $1,000 worth of improvements.

Pickering Land & Water Company Subdivision_sm
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A gridiron plan oriented around the primary intersection of Greenleaf and Philadelphia Streets was designed with lots designated for residential, commercial, educational, religious and recreational uses. The core development area was bounded by Hadley Street to the north, Painter Avenue to the east, Penn Street to the south and Pickering Avenue to the west. The 5 and 10 acre parcels surrounding this core were designated for agricultural use. Residential development primarily occurred north of Penn Street. The principal north-south avenues and east-west streets were named after concepts and places ( e.g. Friends & Philadelphia), board members and company investors (e.g. Pickering, Painter, Bailey & Hadley) and it was agreed that the colony itself would be named for the famed poet, John Greenleaf Whittier.Renown Brand - Whittier Citrus Assn.

Their first parcel sale was advertised in the papers to be held at Hervey Lindley’s Los Angeles office at 75 North Spring St. at 9am on May 19. There was a long line before the doors opened. That night, after the crowd dispersed, Hervey Lindley and Jonathan Bailey were two tired men. They had sold nearly 250 lots and taken in $34,000, getting back nearly half their land costs with many fewer than half their lots sold.

Upon notification that this new Quaker colony had been named for him John Greenleaf Whittier thanked the Founders “for the high compliment” noting “I am glad to know that a settlement of Friends is established in the loveliest section of Southern California with a climate of unsurpassed healthfulness and a soil of marvelous fertility, where mountains, vale, and ocean combine to render it ‘beautiful for situation.’”


Jonathan Bailey School
Jonathan Bailey School

1884 – A small shack was converted into a schoolhouse near what is now Painter Avenue. This first school in Whittier was used for only two years until the Evergreen School was built on the corner of Painter and County Road (Whittier Blvd.). It, too, was  quickly outgrown and construction began on the Jonathan Bailey School in 1889.

1887 – The first Quaker meeting house was built on the corner of Comstock Ave. and Wardman St.

Whittier College -1902
Whittier College -1902

1887 – The Pickering Land and Water Company set aside a 20-acre parcel of land for the development of a college.  Progress on developing the college was sporadic due to a collapse in the land boom but on July 30, 1896 the Whittier Academy, operating since 1891, officially changed its name to Whittier College with 100 students enrolled. By 1906, Whittier College had become an educational institution with laboratories, boarding halls, a large gymnasium and athletic fields.

1888 – A Southern Pacific Railroad line to Whittier was completed. Soon more passenger and freight lines connected Whittier to other regional population and job centers and to the Port of Los Angeles. In 1904 Pacific Electric opened the trolley line known as “Big Red Cars” from Los Angeles to Whittier. In its first two decades of operation over a million passengers a year rode to and from Los Angeles on the Whittier line.

Pacific Electric Line Map
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Four Bricks by C.W. Harvey - corner of Greenleaf & Hadley, Whittier
Four Brick Buildings, Whittier, 1893. C.W. Harvey’s hotel on Painter St. is at the foot of the Whittier Hills in the background.

1888 – Real estate developer C.W. Harvey built four identical two-story brick buildings at the intersection of Greenleaf Ave. & Hadley St., one for himself and the other three for Hervey Lindley and two of Lindley’s business partners, Moses Ricker and George Mason. The four buildings became known as “The Four Bricks” that marked a prominent entry point into Whittier’s Uptown commercial district from the County Rd. – later named Whittier Blvd.

  • The Lindley Building at the SW corner was the first to be completed. Over the years the Hazlitt family grocery was among its best known occupants. When damage caused by the 1987 Whittier Narrows Earthquake required its demolition some of the clay bricks used in the original building were reused in the façade of the new replacement building.Moses Ricker Building -The Whittier News
  • The building at the SE corner was built for Moses Ricker. Initially it was a post office, then a newspaper office, then torn down to become a service station which was replaced by a donut shop.
  • George Mason’s NW corner building was used as a meeting house in 1889 and demolished in 1904. The Whittier Christian Church has occupied the site since 1923.
  • Harvey’s NE corner building began as a commercial building then in 1913 it was doubled in size, covered by stucco, Italianate features were added and the building was converted into twelve apartment units known as “The Harvey Apartments”. After the 1987 earthquake it too had to be demolished and rebuilt.

Greenleaf Hotel on Painter St., Whittier, CA1888 – C.W. Harvey built the stylish Greenleaf Hotel on a large site located on Painter Ave. between Broadway and Beverly.  A story titled “A Whittier Evening” that ran in the January 27, 1889 edition of the Los Angeles Herald described the opening event:

On Friday evening a trainload of people left Los Angeles for Whittier, where Mr. C. W. Harvey gave a reception at the opening of the Greenleaf Hotel. This hostelry is beautifully located and commands a view of the mountains surrounding, the valley beneath and the ocean in the distance. On the clear days, which are many, the port of San Pedro, with its shipping, can be plainly seen. The hotel and grounds were handsomely arranged for the occasion, and at nightfall the illumination of the same made it appear, from a distance, like an illuminated castle.

Inside nothing had been left undone that might have contributed to the comfort of the guests. Mr. and Mrs. Frank Wiggins, the host and hostess were untiring, in their efforts to set everybody at ease, and they succeeded so well that all voted that they would be pleased to try another evening at Whittier under the same circumstances. Dinner was served at half past six o’clock, and it eclipsed anything of the kind to be found in Los Angeles. There were about fifty dishes on the bill of fare, and as they had been prepared by a master hand the guests were more than charmed with their surroundings. The bright new carpetings, luxurious furniture and tasteful decorations of the hotel were admired by every one. During the evening music was furnished for those who desired to dance, and at midnight a charming supper was served.

The breakfast yesterday morning was as good, if not better, than the dinner, and the guests, when they boarded the train for the city, felt as if they were fully able to cope with any difficulty that might lie before them.”  Years later, as Whittier’s Uptown central business district became more fully developed, The Greenleaf Hotel was moved to the corner of Greenleaf and Bailey.

February 12, 1890 – State Reform School Dedication Ceremony 
The Whittier State Reform School - Fred C. Nelles School8,000 people from all parts of the county and state joined the 585 residents of the Whittier Colony as well as former State of California Governors John G. Downey, George Stoneman and Pio Pico, former Lieutenant Governor, John Mansfield, members of the California State Legislature and judges of the courts to celebrate the establishment of the State Reform School and to hear talks by California Governor R. W. Waterman, Secretary of State W.C. Hendricks, Lieutenant Governor Stephen M. White and by the Chairman of the Board of Trustees, pursuant to the March 11,1889 Act of the California Legislature that authorized the establishment of a school for juvenile offenders, Hon. Hervey Lindley.

Following its establishment in 1889 the Board had appointed Dr. Walter Lindley as the founding Superintendent of the State School with responsibility for all phases of the project–from concept, design and construction to curriculum and management. He was well suited to the task. In 1879 Dr. Lindley had been appointed Chief Health Officer of the City of Los Angeles. In 1880 he was elected a member of the Board of Education. In 1881 he was elected president of the Los Angeles County Medical Society and in 1889 he was unanimously elected president of the State Medical Society of California. Dr. Lindley had been a life long advocate for the proper care of orphan and delinquent children. During his travels to England and France he had visited orphan homes where orphans were placed with families and learned a trade and in 1880 he had helped found the Los Angeles Orphan’s Home, serving as its first president.

In 1885 Dr. Lindley had been one of the founders of the College of Medicine at the University of Southern California and later became its Dean. In 1887 Dr. Lindley decided to build a hospital in Los Angeles which would be owned and operated by physicians. It was the first building in California especially invented for medical purposes, a project that Walter Lindley had supervised at every stage of its design and construction. By 1902 what is today known as California Hospital Medical Center had turned into the largest and best-equipped physician-owned hospital west of Chicago.

Southern Pacific Railroad TransportationOn Feb 12, 1890 transportation to Whittier was provided by the Southern Pacific Railroad Company with trains from Los Angeles, Norwalk and Santa Ana. The Los Angeles train, consisting of ten coaches, nearly 1,000 people, started the first of its multiple departures to Whittier at 9am. At Whittier 1,000 long tables had been setup on the school site for the celebration.

The main building, factory building and barns of the school officially opened on July 1,1991 at a construction cost of $144,022. It’s opening population was 300 boys. That grew to about 1000 youths during the school’s peak years. The State School was in continuous operation for 103 years and was closed in 2004. Canadian Fred C. Nelles was the school’s superintendent from 1912 to 1927. Nelles and his colleagues applied the latest most advanced  methods based on traits and behaviors to analyze and treat delinquency. In his honor, in 1941, the Whittier State School was renamed the ‘Fred C. Nelles School for Boys.’  In January 2017, after many years of study, community meetings and controversy,  the Whittier City Council approved  plans  for the redevelopment  of the seventy-five acre Fred C. Nelles School site.

Whittier State School - Fred C. Nelles School for Boys -1890 Dedication
Whittier State School – Fred C. Nelles School for Boys -1890 Dedication

1891 – In 1887  Detroit businessman Simon J.  Murphy and his friend John P. Sanborn had purchased 200 acres of the Ramirez Rancho  located east of the town of Whittier planning to subdivide the property. Soon the current land boom had burst so they decided to grow oranges – but that required a predictable supply of water. In Fall 1888 Mr. Sanborn hired engineer Arthur C. Reed to report on the feasibility of development of a water supply from an artesian area west of the San Gabriel River near El Monte and transporting it to their East Whittier property. Schematic plans were approved for a gravity flow conduit.  Mr. Murphy purchased 60 acres of the artesian land and in 1890 Mr. Reed was hired to prepare detailed plans and supervise construction. The project was completed by the end of 1891.

Murphy and Sanborn had formed the East Whittier Land & Water Co.  At the time,  even though water was in great demand and short supply in Whittier, the project, which had come to be known as Murphy’s Ditch,  was not popular with Whittier Colony residents where a pumphouse had been setup at the corner of Walnut and Bright to deliver water to the new Whittier State School.  Since Murphy’s Ditch provided a  more than ample water supply for their East Whittier properties, East Whittier L&W had water available for sale. Pickering Land & Water Co. was a ready buyer.  It built a small reservoir and pumping station near the foot of Hadley St.  to provide the water required for the expansion of the  citrus groves that was required for the continued viability and growth  of the Whittier Colony.

1897 – Following the sale of land in the Puente Hills to the Central Oil Well Company  Whittier became an important oil industry center. Soon Murphy Oil, Standard Oil, Union Oil, and Richfield Oil as well as other smaller local companies had constructed oil wells in the hills above Whittier. The incorporation of Whittier in 1998 affirmed the city’s ability to sustain itself through a predominately agricultural and oil based economy.

Oil Wells Dotting the Whittier Hills in 1911
Oil Wells Dotted the Whittier Hills in 1911

1898 – Whittier was incorporated as a sixth-class city. Petition presented Jan. 3; election held Feb. 19.

1900 – Municipal water bonds were sold to build a water plant.

1900 – Sunset Telephone & Telegraph Co. began service in Whittier. In 1906 Sunset T&T was acquired by Pacific Telephone and Telegraph, later known as Pacific Bell.

Whittier High School -1905
Whittier High School – 1905 – click for larger version

1900 – Whittier High School was established on the upper floor of the Jonathan Bailey School with 47 students in attendance. Classrooms included a study hall, a library, a recitation room, a science laboratory and there was a principal’s office. In 1905 a new building was opened at the corner of Philadelphia and Lindley, which is the current site of WHS today.

1900 – The Whittier Board of Trade was organized.

1901 – The Whittier Citrus Association was formed to promote collaboration between fruit growers, distributors and railroad companies. Packing houses and canneries were developed along railroad right-of-ways and “Quaker Brand” citrus had become known  worldwide.  As of 1906, 650 carloads of oranges and 250 carloads of lemons were shipped annually by rail. Also at that time Whittier was known as the largest walnut growing area in the United States.Quaker Girl - Whittier Citrus Ass'n

1902 – The second Quaker meeting house was built on the corner of Philadelphia St. and Washington Ave.  A new building was constructed of brick on the same site in 1917. Seating 1,700 it featured mahogany paneling and pews.

1903 – Whittier granted a 50-year franchise to the Pacific Electric Co.

1904 – Report of school census: total children 946; population of Whittier 3,250

1906 – Output of oil was 96,000 barrels monthly. Approximately 80 men were employed in the oil industry.

1906 – Pacific Electric ran 27 cars to Whittier daily. Whittier had two national banks and two savings banks.

Andrew Carnegie Library – Whittier Public Library - 1907
Carnegie Library – Whittier Public Library – 1907 – click for larger version
Carnegie Library - Whittier Public Library -1907 - Interior
Carnegie Whittier Public Library – 1907 – click for larger version

1907 – A Carnegie Library opened at the corner of Greenleaf Avenue and Bailey Street with a $12,500 grant from Andrew Carnegie.

1910 – City band concerts were established in Central Park.

1911 – Four electric street lights were installed. One on Painter, north of Broadway; one on the Washington Avenue bridge; one at Philadelphia Street and Lindley Avenue; and one on South Berkley Way.

1912 – Whittier established election precincts and polling places.

1915 – Whittier had 72 places of business; 1,000 homes and businesses had electricity; 30 miles of gas main; 18 miles of blacktop roads; and 23 miles of sidewalks. Thomas Edison visited Whittier.

1919 – Total amount of citrus shipped from Whittier: 3,281 cars. Amount paid to growers was $4,842,570

1920 – Population of Whittier: 9,000. Area of the city: 3.21 square miles. Water rate: $1 a month.

Santa Fe Springs Oil Wells1921 – Santa Fe Springs oil fields were discovered.

Murphy Memorial Hospital - Whittier CA
Murphy Memorial Hospital – Whittier CA

1921 – The Murphy Memorial Hospital site was donated by Simon Murphy Jr. in honor of his parents. The hospital opened May 21.

1925 – Citrus and agriculture belt grew to 10,000 acres of citrus; 2,000 acres of walnuts. Over 2,000 tons of fruit and nuts, valued at $30 million, shipped annually..

1933 – Population of Whittier: 15,000. Tax rate $1.64 per 100 assessed value.

1936 – Federal Building built to house Whittier Post Office.

Paradox Hybrid Walnut Tree
Paradox Hybrid Walnut Tree – a National Landmark

1950 – Count of Whittier trees: 30,000.  Among the trees was the  famous Paradox Hybrid Walnut Tree which had been planted in 1907 by the University of California Dept. of Agriculture (Experimental Station) on land the State acquired in 1886.  Currently the tree has a spread of 100 feet and is 40 feet tall. The Tree is a National Landmark as well as State  Historical Landmark 681 and it’s on the Whittier Local Register of Historic Resources.

1955 – New City Hall dedicated.

1959 – Presbyterian Intercommunity Hospital opened.

Whittwood Heights located on Citrustree Rd., Whittier CA 1953
Whittwood Heights located on Citrustree Rd., Whittier CA 1953

1961 – Parts of East Whittier annexed to Whittier. The 1950s housing boom in Southern California triggered the development of East Whittier orange groves into new homes.  Leading the way was the prolific builder, John D. Lusk, who in 1951 set up his offices on the former Leffingwell Ranch where his Lusk Company began rolling out phase after phase of Lusk trademark 3-bedroom 2-bath ranch-style homes to meet the demand for new suburban housing.

In 1958 Lusk also developed the Whittwood Center, the largest shopping mall in the area. At the time these new developments occurred the area was still unincorporated, not subject to city taxation or benefiting from city services and local government. After several years of study and debate, in 1961 the City of of Whittier annexed portions of Whittier Blvd. and East Whittier, adding over 28,000 people to its population, bringing the total to about 67,000.

1970 – Population of Whittier: 73,400.

1981 – The Whittier Museum was acquired for $250,000 at Newlin and Philadelphia Streets. Opened to the public in 1983.

1987 – Whittier Narrows earthquake strikes with 5.9 magnitude.

2001 – U.S. Census  shows Whittier Population at: 83,680.


Celebrating the History and Historic Homes of Whittier, CA