by Tom Sitton
California has long been known as a land of opportunity for budding entrepreneurs dedicated to making their mark in the economy and society through various business ventures, participation in civic and social circles, and in philanthropy. Many came to the state with few dollars in their pockets, some hit a jackpot, and some lost everything.
Many who retained their fortunes made sure that their actions and status were publicized—or at least they left considerable evidence of their work and victories, so future historians could ponder their legacies. And it’s probable that almost none of them disregarded those legacies, or even their social status, during their lifetimes. In fact, maybe there was just one man in the early days of Southern California who was satisfied to make a huge impact and not make headlines.
Author Joe Ryan discovered him—Daniel Murphy, or just “Dan” as he preferred. Dan came to California as a young man to seek his fortune. Over the next six decades, he accumulated a vast fortune through his numerous enterprises and played an important role in the development of Southern California and the American Southwest. And few history books have ever even mentioned him. Not even when the subject is ice or oil.
Dan Murphy departed the Midwest for the West while in his early twenties and soon went to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad. He arrived in Los Angeles in 1878, when it was just a generation removed from its Mexican pueblo past. By that time, the cattle economy of Southern California had given way to the expansion of agriculture tended by Midwestern and Southern immigrants, many of them being the families of soldiers from both the Union and Confederate armies who had battled in the Civil War. Tradesmen and professionals also arrived to service the farmers, and the population of Los Angeles rose to 12,000 by 1880.
When the number of these newcomers had surpassed the existing population, one observer noted “Mexican civilization all but vanished” and the Anglo presence dominated. The Same person, who visited the city in 1867 and again seven years later, raved about the transformation. For him, Los Angeles had become “...an American city. Adobe has given way to elegant and substantial dwellings and stores,” as the downtown architecture changed. Such was the tenor of the times. Civic leaders such as Phineas Banning and Benjamin D. Wilson had been active in bringing a Southern Pacific railroad connection to the city by 1876, and worked to gain federal support to expand the nearby San Pedro harbor. Since Los Angeles was the county seat of Los Angeles County, its board of supervisors and the city’s municipal representatives generously supported such expansion, economic growth, and infrastructure, as well as increasing agricultural production.
Gaining a major railroad connection became a critical objective in modernizing Los Angeles, as well as California and the rest of the US in the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Railroads connected communities and far-flung regions throughout the nation, made travel more convenient, and opened many areas to opportunities for economic growth by reaching new markets for agricultural and manufactured goods, spurring urbanization and industrialization. The railroads helped to standardize manufacturing by demanding consistency when it came to their equipment, and even made accurate timekeeping crucial by setting definite departure and arrival schedules.
When Dan Murphy arrived in Los Angeles, Southern Pacific (formerly the Central Pacific) was the major railroad in California and an important factor in the state’s growth. He soon worked for Charles Crocker, one of the SP’s “Big Four” leaders, the man responsible for directing some of its key initiatives. These included developing and protecting state resources and its environment, encouraging California agriculture and public irrigation, attracting industries, and expandinging the SP transportation system. At the same time, other SP executives and its political agents protected its interests by lobbying the US Congress, the California state legislature and some of the state’s local governments, as well as nearby territorial representatives. There would be plenty to defend as the railroad forged eastward through Arizona Territory and Texas to New Orleans and other destinations.
By the 1880s, Southern Pacific faced major competition from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fè Railroad. Santa Fè was heading through Southern California toward Los Angeles in 1883, when Dan Murphy and a business partner, at Crocker’s behest, established a general store in the new town of Needles on the state’s eastern border, where Murphy soon sold ice for refrigerated railroad boxcars and invested in gold and silver mining. Santa Fe would reach Los Angeles in 1885 and launch a rate war with SP that triggered the population explosion of the late 1880s.
During its expansion, Southern Pacific absorbed smaller railroads in Southern California, and if a town or city was to be on the route, there was a price to pay—be it big or small. In 1872, Los Angeles had to ante-up its own short-lived railroad to the San Pedro harbor and pay a huge price to get its connection to northern California completed in 1876. SP would fight local boosters and others in the 1890s by trying to win a federal subsidy to establish a new harbor where most of the land was controlled by the SP. Its leaders heavily lobbied US senators for support, but SP met defeat in the contest. Despite this and other conflicts with Los Angeles city and county governments—as well as other cities in California—the SP network became a major force in the development of the state.
After 1900, Los Angeles continued to grow as the city fathers moved to bring in an additional water source and urban transportation networks for more development. By 1930, residents in the municipality surpassed one million and Los Angeles became the fifth most populous city in the nation.
Dan Murphy must have anticipated all this expansion when he added oil to his businesses in 1899, at the very moment that the demand for petroleum increased dramatically. In a similar fashion, he took control of the California Portland Cement Company, just when Los Angeles would require tons of concrete for its industrial, commercial, and residential infrastructure. In the 1930s, his cement was used in the colossal Boulder (later Hoover) Dam. That dam would bring water and electrical power from the Colorado River to serve the essential needs of Southern California, whether that meant irrigating its huge agricultural business, watering the lawns of its suburbs, or eventually powering our computers. Could Dan Murphy have foreseen it all?
Joe Ryan is certainly right that Dan Murphy was a major player in the regional economy, but one we knew so little about—Dan was a self-made entrepreneur, not a self-promoter seeking to advance his reputation for future generations. Inspired by Dan Murphy, an unpretentious “everyman,” and a desire to learn more about Los Angeles in Dan’s era, Ryan has worked diligently for over a decade to research and compose Dan’s fascinating story. In his first book, Ryan has now established Dan’s reputation and given us the details of Dan’s life, his family, and his philanthropy, and his many contributions to Southern California and the larger Southwest. Another important piece of California history has emerged.