California: Magnet for Tourists and Home Buyers
Expansion of rail service in California had one result that was never anticipated by the businessmen and politicians of San Francisco and Sacramento who worked so hard for the transcontinental link: Northern California lost its monopoly on the state's population and wealth. Without a rail link, Los Angeles, the first city of Mexican California, remained a sleepy village compared to the booming towns to the north. However, local business and political leaders were determined that Los Angeles would not be bypassed when rail lines came south, and city voters agreed to what was, in effect, a bribe to the Southern Pacific to bring the line directly through the city. Extension of the transcontinental rail line to Los Angeles triggered a boom in the southern part of the state, a boom that picked up even more steam once the Santa Fe Railway gave Los Angeles its own direct line to the East in 1885, a line in direct competition with the Southern Pacific. Los Angeles's population quadrupled in the 1880s, and doubled again by 1900, when it had 100,000 residents.
Although railroad land grants discouraged a pattern of small family farms in California, they were a strong incentive for the railroads to encourage people in other parts of the country to visit or to settle in towns and cities. Tourists, of course, bought tickets on the rail lines and patronized restaurants and hotels built by railroads, while new homeowners helped the rail lines sell their land grants in small, profitable building lots. If Easterners did not come to California to farm, they did come to California to live. The expansion of railways through Southern California in the 1880s prompted the calculated promotion of the region as a healthy, comfortable place to make a home. In the middle of the decade, there was even a price war for passenger travel, and fare for a ticket from the Mississippi Valley to the Pacific dropped to $25.00. Railroads wanted not only passengers but prospective homeowners who would buy lots in areas where the rail companies had received government land grants which they now needed to sell. Companies built flashy resort hotels and promoters offered every kind of gimmick. Many of the new settlements were carefully planned to appeal to buyers with common interests or backgrounds.
Even Americans with no thought of resettling in California permanently were fascinated by the idea of visiting the state by way of the new railroads. Of course, not even during the Gold Rush did everyone who came to California plan to stay permanently. The idly curious came to observe the colorful frenzy of the Gold Rush. Those who headed for the mines often hoped to stay only long enough to hit their "mother lode," and then head for home. Yet, few miners realized their dreams of fortune. Many returned home, broken in spirit and poorer for their efforts. But now rail travel meant that ordinary Americans could see the natural wonders of California, scenic wonders that early miners and visitors had touted for decades. American railroads and local California businessmen were only too happy to encourage tourists to see the redwoods of the sequoia forests and the waterfalls and cliffs of the Yosemite Valley. The railroads and local promoters made the journey all the easier for tourists with pre-packaged tours and hotels and restaurants like the Cliff House.
The unique nature of California's wildlife, topography, and botany made Americans realize that the state contained treasures for all Americans. It was no accident that California became one of the birthplaces of the conservation movement, sparked by the work of naturalist John Muir, who had fallen in love with the Yosemite Valley when he spent the summer of 1869 in the Sierras herding sheep. Muir and his fellow conservationists in the Sierra Club recognized only too well that California's natural wonders needed protection, even from their admirers and from the hotelkeepers and guides who rushed to provide them with every convenience. As early as the Lincoln administration, a group of influential Californians had seen to it that the Federal government put the Yosemite Valley and nearby giant sequoia groves under California's protection as a park, and Muir's campaign for the creation of Yosemite National Park succeeded in 1890.
The first boom of real estate development collapsed in 1888, and many disappointed new Californians went home. Still, the 1890 census showed that the population of Los Angeles and San Diego had quadrupled in ten years. The period in which San Francisco and northern California could expect to dominate state government and politics was drawing to a close. Gold and the proximity to gold were no longer the determining factors in growth in California. The state was developing a rich and diverse economy independent of precious minerals and mining.