Hollywood is associated with movie stars and the silver screen, especially this time of year when the industry hands out its annual awards for excellence in film. What few may know, however, is that “silver” has an even earlier history than “screen” in Los Angeles.
Los Angeleswas a modest pueblo compared to its northern counterparts: Monterey was early California’s capital; San Francisco, Sacramento and Stockton boomed during the gold rush. Even into the 1860s, Los Angeles remained quiet, slow and pretty small. When that began to change, one of the major factors of change was silver.
Following discoveries in the eastern Sierra Nevada (the Comstock Lode in 1859, Aurora in 1860), prospectors were searching remote valleys and ridges further south. Reports of a silver strike on the edge of Owens Valley, southeast of the Army’s newly established Camp Independence, attracted the attention of Victor Beaudry. An original ‘49er, Beaudry was a French Canadian immigrant who had been a San Francisco merchant, and had served in the Civil War. He had used his military connections to operate a store in Camp Independence. After seeing the newly reported mining area on nearby Buena Vista Peak, he opened another store at what then was called Cerro Gordo. In addition to the supply trade, Beaudry speculated in mining by taking ownership shares as payment for accounts.
Mortimer Belshaw was another important figure in Cerro Gordo. Belshaw had extensive experience in Mexican silver mines, and set immediately to acquiring mining interests when he arrived at Cerro Gordo. He built a large smelter at Cerro Gordo, and as production ramped up, Belshaw processed a large shipment of silver and lead ingots for Los Angeles; his goal was to ship the heavy ingots to San Francisco, but it was easier logistically to transport them to LA, and then to San Francisco by sea.
Belshaw awarded Remi Nadeau, another French Canadian, a three-year contact to haul bullion to Los Angeles and San Pedro, loaded with supplies on the return trips. Freight traffic eventually grew to triple wagons hauled by 14 mules each. Fifty teams at a time were cycling through the 440-mile round-trip, each turn taking about three weeks.
This has all the makings of a perfect Hollywood movie. The town of Cerro Gordo saw business fights over competing smelters, construction fights over competing toll roads, steamship fights over an inland lake, court fights over mining claims, and gun fights over, well—just about anything.
When the first load of silver reached Los Angeles, the pueblo was changed.The boom sparked by the Cerro Gordo trade was significant enough that in the 1870s, the mining trade was equivalent to half the exports by sea from Los Angeles. Additional strikes would be found over the next thirty years, each a little further south and a little closer to Los Angeles: Panamint, Darwin, Randsburg, and Johannesburg. At this same time, banking in Los Angeles got more sophisticated. One early banker was Isaias W. Hellman, President of the Nevada National Bank, which combined with Wells Fargo Bank to become Wells Fargo Nevada National Bank in 1905.
And what happened to those other early Cerro Gordo pioneers, Remi Nadeau and Victor Beaudry? Nadeau settled in Los Angeles where he built the Nadeau Hotel, the first four-story structure in Los Angeles, and the first building there with an elevator. Beaudry used his wealth to gain control of water companies in several mining camps, then owned the Los Angeles Water Works. He also developed large areas of Southern California, including the original residential section of Bunker Hill, where the Wells Fargo History Museum in Los Angeles lives today.
Next time you’re in Los Angeles as a silver screen tourist, keep in mind that much of the region’s growth started with real silver, high on a mountain top in Inyo County, 220 miles away. Stop by the Wells Fargo History Museum and learn about Los Angeles’ original connection with silver.