From the beginning, Los Angeles was a tough town filled with hard men and formidable women who had come to make their fortune in the "Bay of Smokes and Fires." (This was how Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo described the area in his log after sailing past San Pedro Bay in 1542.) As early as 1830, crime was commonplace around the old Pueblo, and the distant colonial governments, first Spanish then Mexican, did little to address social ills. Things got worse in 1850, when California achieved statehood, and again, a decade and a half later, when the Civil War ended. As the booming 1880s wound down, the city's rough-and-tumble roots were still showing.
Gunfights, drunken brawls, robberies and even lynchings were so common, victims were hardly mentioned in newspaper reports of the time. "It has been stated that more violent deaths have occurred in Los Angeles than in any other agricultural section or county in the State," wrote Benjamin Cummings Truman in his 1874 book, Semi-tropical California. The police response, if there was one, might be to club skulls.
Newly connected railroads deposited hopeful rubes seeking opportunity and sunshine. They also brought scoundrels, profiteers and hucksters looking to make trouble in the City of Angels. While tea drinkers and temperance ladies stuck to the grand Victorian mansions and bungalows of Bunker Hill and Angelino Heights, blood and bad whiskey was being spilled on the soil of lawless "suburban" spots like Threemile House.
I had never heard of Threemile House until recently, when I was perusing topographic maps from the late 1800s. (These were the United States Geologic Society's earliest surveys in Southern California.) The toponym jumped out at me. It sounded like a quaint bed and breakfast, scented by lavender and serving fresh biscuits, or maybe a dude ranch where city slickers could spend a few days pretending they lived in the Pueblo.
As I began digging into old maps, travel guides, biographies, journal articles, photographs, city directories, newspaper stories and a census, I made a discovery. Threemile House wasn't a charming pit-stop for weary travelers, it was a bona fide den of iniquity — the kind of place where you went for a wild night and counted yourself lucky if you ended up bloodied instead of dead. Its heyday was short-lived. It looks like it appeared in 1890 and disappeared by 1906, leaving a slew of bloody anecdotes and bizarre interludes in L.A.'s rearview mirror.
What Was Threemile House?
In the 1890s, Los Angeles was teetering between the rancho days of its past and the urban metropolis of its future. The "civilized" hubs of the East Coast, which were constructing subways, establishing symphonies and attempting to emulate Europe, saw the West Coast's emerging cities as feral children who had just pulled on long pants and discovered indoor plumbing.
The Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads had connected L.A. with the rest of the country. The city's developing harbor and blossoming street rail systems were boosting its economic potential. Between 1890 and 1900, L.A's population doubled, from just over 50,000 souls to more than 102,000. Capitalist carpetbaggers ruled. One way to make easy money — open a saloon.
Sure, the old four square leagues offered plenty of temptations for residents in Los Angeles. But out in the boondocks, where the gossamer threads of civilization were tenuous, that's where the real action went down. On a Saturday night after a 60-hour week of hard labor, men with an urge for adventure and a thirst for strong spirits might venture out to the edge of the old Cowtown (what we now know as Northeast L.A.) for some fun. Although Los Angeles had almost 200 saloons during the 1890s, the town's bluenoses loved to cluck their tongues at besotted revelers roaming the streets.
After a short horse and buggy ride along what is now San Fernando Road, revelers could find a place near the border of what is now Glassell Park and Cypress Park. Nestled beside the spanking new Southern Pacific rail line, it was called Threemile House. It was a spot where sin, the sporting life and booze flowed freely.
You won't find Threemile House on most maps from that era but it is prominent on the United States Geological Survey's 1894 quadrangle of Pasadena and on the Los Angeles quadrangle of 1900, where you'll notice it between Gaston and Bennington, near the Los Angeles river. Working off those two maps and witness accounts of the many crimes that occurred at Threemile House, I initially believed it was located somewhere along modern-day San Fernando Road possibly as far up as the lost city of Tropico. But local historian Sean McDermott showed me it was located near what is now Division street.
At the end of the 19th century, this area was most definitely the sticks. By then, the cultural center of the city had moved from the original Plaza to Broadway. West Los Angeles was the neighborhood around USC. Western Avenue, five-and-a-half miles away on unpaved roads, was considered pretty far out of town. Newspaper accounts from the era refer to bad men riding in from distant El Monte or Downey to make mayhem in the Pueblo.
Could Threemile House have originated as a stagecoach stop? It's possible but unlikely. Once railroads arrived in the 1870s and '80s, stage lines were no longer viable. It's more likely that Threemile was once a spot on a rail line. The Southern Pacific (now Amtrak) crosses through the area and the old Glendale railroad station, first built in 1883 as the Atwater Tract Office, is nearby. Sitting as it does on the Glendale Branch of the old Los Angeles Terminal Railway, Threemile House could have sprung up as a stop on a narrow-gauge passenger or tourist line that began running in 1887. With the help of rail historians, the mystery was solved. They located it three miles up the line from the original SPRR station, which puts Threemile near the foot of Division.
Although the 1908 Sanborn Fire Insurance atlas sheet of Tropico doesn't include the Threemile name, it does show a barber shop, a confectionery, grocery stores and a large, two-story barn marked "private." The Sanborn maps evaluated the fire risk of the structures on the lot and anything else deemed important enough to insure. The only other place names around were rail stops.
Whatever happened inside the many saloons at the Threemile House location, we know it was a haul from Los Angeles to get out there. Here, on the wild and wooly outskirts of L.A., Threemile became a destination for those seeking unfettered fun — in some cases, it was their final destination.
Cheats, Crooks and Carpetbaggers
During the course of its existence, a series of owners, ranging from frontier entrepreneurs and disreputable innkeepers to corrupt carpetbaggers and hard men unafraid of law-enforcement, held the reins of Threemile House.
There was the appropriately named Al Barrell who made beer available by (you can probably guess) the barrel. Stories in the Daily Herald and the Los Angeles Daily Times (which would eventually shorten its name to the Los Angeles TImes) as well as other historical accounts make it clear that indecorous men often risked their ownership of the business by vending strong spirits without the government's approval. Faro, dice and fistfighting went along with the whiskey and debauchery. The sheriff would eventually show up, perhaps after a complaint, and make a few arrests. Then, it was business as usual.
Some of Threemile's proprietors were worse than others.
In June 1890, owner George Vignalo shot his wife, Allie Shane, in the head with a .38. He said it was self-defense but her lawyers debunked that claim. Vignalo and Shane's pairing was an odd one. Vignalo was described during his trial by character witnesses as a "respected merchant" while Shane, who survived the attempt on her life, was depicted as a gold-digger. She had previously been married to Sam Shane, the shady bartender at the Pico House saloon in a hotel that is preserved to this day at 430 N. Main St., (near the El Pueblo de Los Angeles historical monument). She also had a son who the Daily Herald described during the proceedings as "an escaped thief." Both Vignalo and Shane were divorced, which was scandalous for the times.
In 1889, John H. Walker (no relation to the guy on the Scotch bottles) of El Monte Road took over the Threemile license. He soon sold it to a Mr. Birnbaum who possessed the thick hide required to run such an establishment.
Throughout the 1890s, proprietors came and went.
At one point, Charles Kembler, an unlicensed booze seller from the Mission Road, the thoroughfare that ran from the Pueblo to the San Gabriel Mission, launched his saloon trade at Threemile. Soon, the place began to offer entertainment such as sporting events. To improve its shady reputation, the venue tried to host bare-knuckle boxing but disappointment followed.
"The Goldsmithe-Fraeer glove contest, announced to take place at the Threemile house on the San Fernando road" on December 9, 1894 "has been postponed," reported the Los Angeles Herald. The venue was too rough for the boxing crowd but their disappointment was assuaged by the arrival of illegal slot machines.
Luck Be A Lady
Due to the steady stream of criminal activity in and around it, Threemile House developed an unseemly reputation. Several times, nearby Tropico published disclaimers in local papers denying these stories but they were not fake news.
"A man was found lying partially unconscious in a grove of trees between the railroad track and the Mission road near the Three-mile house yesterday," reads a Daily Herald story from May 19, 1898. "He was taken to a saloon nearby and cared for and to-day will probably be removed to the county hospital."
"Last Friday a little girl went to the Threemile house and said that she saw a man lying in the grove," the same Daily Herald story reads. "No attention was paid to her story at the time, however, it is thought that it was the same person who was found yesterday. The sick man is a Frenchman, and is in such a serious condition as to be unable to give much of an account of himself."
In 1898, another hopeful entrepreneur, Charles Kuebler, began selling liquor at Threemile House. He had the bad fortune to get caught for vending alcohol without a license and found himself in Superior Court facing a strict judge who threw him in the hoosegow. The suggested $50 fine was considered impossible for Kuebler to pay so he spent 28 days behind bars.
Thanks to the boldness of H. F. Parkins, another one of Threemile House's crooked proprietors, the shenanigans at the establishment finally got bold type in the Daily Herald. A notorious fence for stolen goods, Parkins stood trial in 1891. He was represented by J. Marion Brooks, Esq. who denied that Parkins and two boys had lifted seven bolts of expensive silk, five cases of shoes and a small box of ribbons from a Southern Pacific freight car.
Parkins had, in fact, masterminded the burglary and promised his gullible accomplices two-thirds of the proceeds. The plot seemed to fall apart after the lads hauled the goods to a ravine near Parkins' home and covered them with brush. When the crime was reported, Sheriff E. D. Gibson and a deputy searched Parkins' house, where they found the illicit wares. Parkins swore he had never seen the burglars, who ended up taking the fall for the crime. For their trouble, Parkins snuck each of them a dollar.
Something Wicked This Way Comes
Other crimes were more heinous, like the murder of William Patterson. A ranch hand with a sordid past and a taste for liquor, Patterson had been working at the San Rafael spread in Northeast Los Angeles County when he and a pal, William Bert, decided to ride over to Joseph Brozier's saloon at Threemile House.
While drinking and throwing dice, Patterson and Bert began boasting about having $100 in a Wells Fargo envelope, drawing the attention of the Cullen brothers. Jim Cullen was heard telling George that the hundred would be his before the night was out.
The next morning, Patterson and Bert were found insensate with head wounds, wandering around Threemile. Bert never recovered and was placed in a mental institution. Patterson lasted a week before dying from his injuries.
Meanwhile, George ratted out his brother and authorities found Jim with the Wells Fargo envelope. The investigation also revealed that William Patterson was actually William Hardy, a bigamist, stagecoach robber, horse thief and ex-convict who had been released from the penitentiary by lying to the authorities about the location of $16,000 he had stolen from a Wells Fargo stagecoach.
Then there was the curious case of Tomas Guerrero and Maximilian Castillo.
On December 15, 1896, after his nephew was found dead, Guerroro confessed that the two had been out drinking. The kid got too blinkered to continue, so Guerroro left him by the side of the road with a horse to transport him whenever he sobered up. Guerrero then rode off to Threemile House where he asked an already drunk Castillo to help him retrieve the boy — but not before they threw back a few more belts.
They rode out and found Guerrero's besotted nephew, chastised him and loaded him onto the horse in hopes of steering him back to Threemile. Unfortunately, the two drunks tied the young man too loosely to the saddle. The spooked horse bucked and dragged the boy 100 yards, killing him. Assuming they'd be charged with murder, Guerrero and Castillo left the body by the side of the road. When questioned, they lied. The district attorney dismissed the case and both men went free.
A Thwarted Rape And A "Rumpus Involving Hats"
In 1891, all of Los Angeles was morbidly fascinated by the case of Francisco Borretas who was accused of attempting to rape his 16-year-old daughter. He was thwarted by his wife who reported the crime to the sheriff. When deputies showed up at Borretas' home to arrest him, "The inhuman father set a savage dog on the officers and they were compelled to return to Burbank without their man. Borretas kept them at bay heavily armed with a musket and a revolver," reported the Los Angeles Herald.
Law enforcement formed a posse and set a trap but Borretas outwitted them and made for the hills of Pasadena, pursued by officers. He eventually had a friend drive him into town and he gave himself up. Like many stories in the newspapers of the day, the tale of Borretas ended when the chase did. We have no idea what happened to him or if he was tried and punished.
In another instance of Threemile House skullduggery, a young tradesman "met a horrible fate at a dance!"
C. M. "Charley'' Glass was a big man in town. He operated a blacksmith shop and had money to spend. He was described in complimentary terms in a lengthy Los Angeles Daily Times story as a "high flyer." One Saturday night, Glass was feeling frisky. He hired a two-horse team at the Empire Stables on Main Street and gathered several pals for a trip out to "the free and easy resort known as Threemile House," reported the Los Angeles Times on November 25, 1889.
The men, mostly hostlers and hack drivers, made many stops on the way to the northeast. A beer at Johnny Kennedy's saloon on Spring Street led to another at the Buena Vista bridge and by the time they made it out to Threemile, they were sauced up. They danced and drank until almost 3 a.m. then decided to visit a saloon, catering mostly to the Mexicans who worked in the area, half-a-mile away.
The drunken party had already been truculent with each other so once they arrived at the saloon, it didn't take long before they got into "a rumpus involving hats." Charles Sweeney may have started the fight by claiming he could "lick any man in the house who accused him of stealing hats." Fists flew and Sweeney was led to the wagon with blood pouring from his nose. "Shorty" Stephens wanted no part of the brawl and called for an end to the drunken foolishness. He got the rig headed back to town, leaving Glass behind.
Glass had several chances to walk away but he continued to challenge the locals, referred to as "Spanish boys" in testimony. For his troubles, he received a bottle to the skull and several blows from a pistol butt, which proved fatal. When the 7:15 a.m. train to Los Angeles rolled in, Glass's body was stretched across the tracks.
Three hungover survivors of the brawl were jailed and questioned but only Felipe Chavez was arrested. Witnesses claimed he had said, "I knocked some son of a bitch into the street" while holding a full bottle of liquor. In street terms, Glass and pals went looking for trouble and got more than they bargained for.
Although a popular booster map of Los Angeles from 1894 depicts the city as a paradise of sunshine, health and clean living, "a most agreeable diversity of hill and plain," Threemile House displayed the seedier side of life. As the Gilded Age wore on, Los Angeles's five newspapers ran fewer and fewer crime stories about the establishment. By 1906, they had stopped running stories about Threemile altogether. The suburban site of so much riot and dissipation seemed to vanish. New electric streetcars were transporting Angelenos all over the landscape and distant roadhouses may have lost their charm.
The 20th Century dawned and the city's population continued to grow, tripling between 1900 and 1910. Hopeful settlers flooded into the region, bringing with them pie-in-the-sky dreams and demands for temperance and morality. Glendale absorbed Tropico, shedding the criminal elements that had once run wild at Threemile House. Although these unruly and nefarious places disappeared from our maps, they left behind a colorful and bloody history buried in the narrow columns of sundry newspapers.
Editor's Note: In our initial version of this story, writer Glen Creason had estimated that Threemile House was located in Tropico, a small but prosperous agricultural settlement that became part of Glendale in 1918. After our story was published, several eagle-eyed readers pointed Creason to a different location. Using Google Earth Pro and old maps from the 1870s to the 1890s, local historian Sean McDermott placed its location at approximately 2400 San Fernando Road. Dog owners may know the place as Wagville. While Threemile may not have been located on that exact spot, it was most surely near Division Street and San Fernando Road. You can debate whether this is Cypress Park or Glassell Park. We have made changes throughout the story to reflect this new information.
Creason says: "I stand a chastened writer and map librarian. I was led astray by the constant connecting of Threemile House with Tropico, which is a full two miles away. In the mid 1880s, the entire area was open land and Tropico was part of the old Rancho San Rafael. The Southern Pacific coming through changed everything, bringing both good and bad elements. Although I was wrong about Threemile's location, the rest of the story is a true episode from the sordid history of the City of the Angels."