It was “one of the toughest hang-outs in the West”
It was Christmastime in Los Angeles in 1902. The Los Angeles Times sent a reporter out to the saloon-lined intersection of First Street and Los Angeles Street, more commonly known to Times readers as the “Hobo Corner,” epicenter of Victorian LA’s Skid Row. “It was the toughest night of the year on the “Hobo Corner,’” the sensation-minded reporter wrote. “The tenderloin was literally swarming with tramps. Most of them were beastly drunk and the rest were sorry they weren’t. They were filthy dirty; some of them fairly squirmed with tenants—their steady company as it were.”
Such was the patronizing, romanticized, and often cruel language that Angelenos used to describe the itinerant population that arrived in the city with the coming of the railroads.
In 1876, Los Angeles became the end of the line of the transcontinental railroad. According to historian Glen Creason, the railroads were constructed east of LA’s historic core. That year, the main Southern Pacific Rail Yard and passenger terminus, known as River Station (now the site of the Los Angeles State Historic Park), opened. In 1888, it was joined by the Arcade Station at Fourth and Alameda.
Thousands of men, many displaced veterans of the Civil War, began to “ride the rails,” stowing away in empty boxcars and jumping trains. Because of this, many cities saw a great increase in the number of transient visitors.
They tended to congregate around or nearby the rail yards in cheap hotels, saloons, and brothels which sprung up to service them. In 1889, it was reported that 18 “tramps” had been arrested at the Southern Pacific Yard in one morning and would be forced to work on the chain gang, ironically building roads for the city.
LA leaders knew what to blame for this “tramp harvest”—the increased mobility offered by the railroads.
“Those who have looked into the question,” the LA Times intoned, “claim that the railroads are largely responsible for the annual hobo curse of Los Angeles.” Angelenos also blamed their own glorious weather and abundance, always eager to boost the city even when they were complaining. As one observer wrote in 1889:
Southern California is getting to be something of a Mecca for the genus tramp of colder localities. There is something very tempting to those gentry in a climate where the sun furnishes about as much fuel as is needed for comfortable warmth, and where great orange orchards are convenient to ease their hunger.
But it was not just Southern California that was faced with this new influx of itinerant visitors. All across the country a new slang emerged to describe this emerging facet of American life.
The “hobo,” according to one fellow rail rider, was the “creation of the railroads,” a seeker who lived to travel and see new faces. The “fly bum” was a city dweller, who lived in cheap hotels and was kept alive by handouts from religious and charitable organizations. Then there was the “dynamiter,” who made his meager living as a journeyman laborer. These men found ample work in the agricultural fields and vineyards that surrounded Los Angeles:
In the summer he finds employment during the harvest season, later in the hop fields, and in the fall on the vineyards. During the winter he may get a job plowing on a ranch, or chopping wood. When he is discharged he comes to town with his “dough” and proceeds to enjoy himself.
By the 1880s, the place many of these men often congregated was the “Hobo Corner,” and the neighborhood surrounding it. On the edge of “Hell’s Half Acre,” the corner was a stone’s throw away from the Plaza, and only a little over a mile from the Southern Pacific Yard.
The men who congregated here lived and drank at single room occupancy hotels like the Lowe’s on Los Angeles Street and at bars like the notorious Original Mug Saloon on Main Street, which one visitor described as little more than a “great, bare room, with a bar along one side.” One “Hobo Corner” bar was singled out for being “picturesque” by the LA Times:
It had an old decrepit piano with the keys scorched and stained where the lighted cigarettes of bygone “artists” have been laid as they performed. Occasionally someone strolls in, berry-nosed, bleary-eyed and half drunk and sits down at the piano. And the soggy little joint rings with the mournful melody that tells of a wrecked life.
By the turn of the century, First and Los Angeles was legendary in LA lore. “With the exception of the Barbary Coast in San Francisco,” one reporter wrote, “this is one of the toughest hang-outs in the West.”
On Christmas Day in 1901, it was reported that dozens of men had been arrested for drunkenness by the end of the holiday. “All day long the corner was so crowded with toughs and bums that one had to fairly elbow one’s way through, and you could feel your watch creep up close to you for protection. In the morning they were reasonably sober, but all of a sudden they all seemed to get drunk at once.”
Regulars on the corner became fodder for a particularly gross kind of man-on-the-street moralizing journalism. Stories were written about one-armed Jack Ryan, an alcoholic bully who was known to terrorize his fellow corner dwellers. There was Parson Williams, the “hobo preacher,” who occasionally spent time on the chain gang, and a man named Kelly, who was arrested for a “vag” (vagrancy) after it was noticed that he was always drunk, even though he never had a job or any money.
Overseeing it all was policeman Jack Lennen, the “monarch of Hobo Corner.”
“When Jack waves his billy, the corner quells,” one reported noted. “When he marches down the dark alleys with firm tread, the hobos shudder. Lennen is a quaint sort of chap, but one of the shrewdest officers on the force.”
But the cleverest policeman on the force could not fix the alcohol abuse, mental illness, and violence that gripped the corner. Men were often carted away to the city jail after suffering what sounds today like schizophrenic episodes and then released back into the neighborhood (shades of today).
In 1901, a man named Elijah Robinson tried to “clean out” the corner when he found a drunk man sleeping in the back of his wagon. When an old man named John Hickey tried to stop him from beating the drunk man, Robinson went after Hickey instead:
He had a short, stout whip in his hand and with this he beat the old man’s head until the blood flowed. When Hickey had sunk to the ground under the force of the blows, Robinson turned to the crowd and asked if there was anybody else who wanted some. There were no takers except two policemen. When Robinson saw them coming he jumped into the buggy and tried to escape. An officer on a wheel raced after him and caught the lines. Robinson tried to whip him off, but the officer held on and the colored man suddenly leaped out of the buggy and started to run. One of the officers fired a shot which tore up the dirt at his feet and Robinson gave himself up.
Robinson was sentenced to 30 days in the nearby City Jail.
Besides throwing people in jail and occasionally forcing undesirables out of town, the city did nothing. Neither did most community and social leaders. “Don’t help this class,” one columnist wrote. “It is a crime against the community to do it.”
The people who populated the corner were often dehumanized to an astonishing degree. The LA Times referred to them as the “scum of the gutters,” “dirty crows,” and “two-legged hogs.” They were past all feeling, one observer wrote. “Nothing you could say would hurt their feelings, nothing you could say would cause them joy or embarrassment, enthusiasm or grief. They have two emotions left; one is thirst; the other beer.”
This lack of empathy and government assistance meant that religious and charitable organizations were left to provide food, shelter, and solace. The Union Rescue Mission, Midnight Mission, and Salvation Army were all originally located near the “Hobo Corner.” (Interestingly, the Union Rescue Mission’s second location at First and Main was demolished to make way for our current City Hall.) The mission’s colorful wagon, pulled by two horses and carrying “musicians, hymn singers, and new converts,” was a familiar sight on the corner. At a basement boarding house run by “God’s Regular Army” at 105 North Los Angeles Street, many homeless transients found a place to sleep:
The lodging house…presents some peculiar features to one who has never been in impecunious circumstances. It is situated in a cellar, and contains accommodations for 150 lodgers. The price charged each wayfarer for a bed is one nickel, but those who are lacking even this small sum are permitted to sleep on the benches which occupy the center of the room. The beds, which are simply composed of canvas, swung from wooden frames like hammocks, are ninety-six in number, and these are filled every night with that class of humanity known as tramps.
The lodging house was quickly “condemned as an unmitigated nuisance by the wholesale merchants who do business in the neighborhood,” the LA Times wrote. “They say it is headquarters for an army of hobos and bummers, who infest the neighborhood during business hours.”
By 1902, it was evident that something had to be done. “The hobos are also killing that particular part of Los Angeles in which they have settled like a blight,” the LA Times reported. “The police would have an easier time down in the tenderloin if the city would put in a few more electric lights. There is seldom any cussedness going on where there is plenty of illumination. Los Angeles Street is as dark as a pocket.”
Matters were made worse when the Pacific Electric opened a new rail terminus in 1902, which dropped commuters into the heart of the tenderloin, a kind of catchall name for the high-crime area of Los Angeles, including Hell’s Half Acre and the Hobo Corner area. According to the LA Times:
No sooner does a hobo “hit town” than he makes a beeline for the corner of First and Los Angeles Streets. All day long and all night long this corner is one milling herd of them. It is bad now but worse during the winter hobo season. Half the people who take the Pasadena, Monrovia, Alhambra cars board them at the corner of First and Main. Women have to stand there, often for 15 minutes at a time, hearing vile language, shrinking from drunken men who come staggering along; have to stand in the midst of the sodden river that swirls sluggishly out of the tenderloin. Business has been driven away from that corner and from that part of town because of these loafers. Half the arrests made by the police are the drunks on these two corners. The police patrol has almost worn a path between the station and the Hobo Corner.
And so it was, that the railway that helped give birth to the “Hobo Corner,” also helped lead to its downfall. By 1906, street lights had been installed, and a campaign to get transients off the street was initiated:
In the last four months, so fierce an effort has been made to clean out the Hobo Corner and the bums of Main and First, that over 300 arrests have been made. News of the hostile campaign has become known as far east as the Missouri River. The results are apparent. The hobo corner, from being a buzzing hive of vice and toughness, has become deserted. The crowds have gone from Main and First streets. A woman can now wait there for a car without fear of insult from drunken bums.
By the 1920s, the transient community had fully moved further east, nearer the Arcade Depot and into the area we now know as Skid Row (aka Central City East). Today, “Hobo Corner” is a sterile corporate intersection, home to the DoubleTree by Hilton and the Department of Transportation.
And what became of the folks who called the “Hobo Corner” home? While many probably ended their lives in the skid rows of LA or some other town, not all existed forever in gray misery. In 1907, it was reported that several “Hobo Corner” denizens—including a lunch wagon cook named Old Al, a gambler named Tex, and a “loafer” named “Pizon Pete”—had made a killing in the boom-town mining camps of Eastern California and Nevada.