Dr. Rogers' Sanitarium advertisement, c. 1890s

Volume 8

Los Angeles Recovers With a Little Help from a Big Railroad                      

Los Angeles was a desolate place in the 1860s. Eight years of floods, drought and a small pox epidemic, had left the city and its surrounding regions in tatters.  Even an 1867 travel magazine described Los Angeles as “a town of crooked, ungraded, unpaved streets; low, rickety adobe homes with flat, asphalt roofs, and here and there an indolent native wrapped in a blanket.”  This was a sad departure from the era of the Spanish when 55,000 head of cattle grazed in this region.  Fortunately, by the end of the decade, a great event would radically change the economic outlook of the county.

In 1869, in an unmatched feat of engineering and politics, the world looked on in amazement as the completion of the giant transcontinental railroad took place at Promontory Point, Utah. This railroad linked the United States from coast to coast with a single rail system.  While this may now sound unremarkable, it was a profound achievement then; compressing a perilous horse drawn journey of five months into a safe one of only five days. The completion of the railroad opened the west and made the development of Southern California, especially Santa Fe Springs, possible.

In its first year, the transcontinental railroad brought 70,000 people to San Francisco, some of whom boarded steamers for Southern California. These steamboat visitors spread the word that the region had a heavenly climate and ambiance. Towns and communities began to dot the old grazing lands of the Spanish. Santa Fe Springs, which had been known to the Tongva Indians as Chokiishgna, and Rancho Santa Gertrudes by the Spanish, was still an obscure, unknown place.  However, a rare geological treasure existed within the “city limits” – a hot springs. The presence of the springs would be the inspiration for the town’s first American name: Fulton Wells.  The City of Santa Fe Springs would rise out of this hot springs.

Fulton Wells -- A Place to Cure What Ails You  

In the 1800s, tuberculosis, a disease of the lungs, was an epidemic in both Europe and America. The disease slowly killed the sufferer with a chronic bloody cough that accompanied the destruction of the lungs.  With no cure in sight, doctors of the era could only prescribe climate-based relief for this highly contagious illness.  They encouraged their patients to move to the warm, dry climates of the Southwest, and indulge themselves by soaking in mineral springs. This prescription brought thousands of easterners to Southern California. From Santa Barbara to San Bernardino, health spas called sanitariums sprung up wherever there were hot springs.  The weather did help many, but a true cure would involve the development of a vaccine. 

At first, J. E. Fulton let the public use his hot springs for free. After noticing the demand, he set on a new course to build a sanitarium on the property he bought from the Santa Gertrudes Land Company.  Fulton built a two-story frame hotel with verandas surrounding each floor. His sanitarium became the most patronized water cure in Los Angeles County. Visitors could find billiards, reading rooms, eight bath houses and hot and cold running sulphur water in each room.  By 1879, Fulton had a windmill pumping water into a 50,000 gallon brick tank, which guests used as a swimming pool. By then, Fulton was treating rheumatism, skin diseases and liver trouble, along with tuberculosis. The Southern Pacific Railroad helped business by building a spur line to the resort, making it possible for 400 sufferers to visit annually.

At least three large estates, built by families named Bell, Matern and Hawkins would soon flank the popular resort. Farms, a general store, a winery, and a buttery were also built nearby. A dirt road was graded to the property. A telegraph line installed along the new road, linked the new community to the rest of the country.  Another road contiguous to the resort was graded to the nearby town of Norwalk, where a sophisticated blacksmith shop at Paddison Farm could re-shoe your horse.  These roads are known today as Telegraph Rd. and Norwalk Blvd. In 1887, another fortuitous event took place; the granddaddy of the railroads, the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe, cut a major railway line through the town.

In this era, the arrival of a railroad line through any town or region was a cause to celebrate. It meant increased fortune for everybody. Farmers could ship produce cheaply, property values would rise and supplies were plentiful. Just as major shopping centers are always located near a freeway today, convenient transportation to the towns of the late 1800s would almost certainly guarantee economic success. To convince the railroad companies to build in their regions, public officials commonly, and without opposition, gave kickbacks and bribes to railroad executives. This practice would later be outlawed, but using public funds for this purpose was accepted then. In acknowledgment of the arrival of the A.T.& S.F., the town of Fulton Wells was renamed Santa Fe Springs, a blend of the railroad’s name and the  presence of  the hot springs. There is no record of the name change, but the town name seemed to be changed in the mid-1880s. The town was destined for prosperity!                                              


Dee Alexander Brown, Hear that Lonesome Whistle Blow, Holt Reinhardt, 1977.

John E. Baur, Health Seekers of Southern California 1870-1900, Huntington Library, 1959.

Robert Glass Cleland, Cattle on a Thousand Hills, Huntington Library , 1975.

Joe Da Rold, The History of Santa Fe Springs, Santa Fe Springs Historical Committee, 1979