E. J. “Lucky” Baldwin

by • September 5, 2010 • BiographiesComments Off3734

E. J. “Lucky” Baldwin

Santa Anita Race Track, Baldwin Hills, Baldwin Park, Baldwin Lake, Baldwin Avenue — Elias Jackson Baldwin (1828-1909) left his mark on these Southern California landmarks, and much more. One of the great characters of Southern California history, he was described by writer Arthur M. Ellis in 1933: “‘Lucky’ Baldwin’s reputation must survive for generations to come as that of one of the greatest pioneers of the West, the greatest builders of California, the most spectacular of libertines, and the most contradictory of characters in our annals.” And Baldwin certainly earned his nickname “Lucky.”

Born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1828, Elias Jackson Baldwin started in business as a grocery store, hotel and saloon owner in Indiana and Wisconsin. Always looking for bigger opportunities, in 1853 with his wife and six year old daughter, he set out for California following the route of thousands of others in search of gold.  Ever the shrewd businessman, however, he waited before rushing across the continent, carefully evaluating the news from the far West. And unlike many others before him, he saw his fortune in selling food, supplies and accommodations, not digging for nuggets.

The wagon train journey from Racine, Wisconsin to San Francisco was far from uneventful. Scouting on his own, Baldwin got lost and almost starved to death before friendly Indians returned him to his party. Later, outside the Mormon enclave in Salt Lake, less friendly Indians attacked and the party barely escaped with their lives. Finally, barefoot and ragged, Baldwin and his family arrived in Hangtown on the western foothills of the Sierras. But it was San Francisco and the big time that lured the newcomer from the east. In a short time he’d set himself up in the hotel and livery businesses and was dabbling profitably in the city’s volatile real estate market.

In 1860, another promise of overnight millions ignited the imaginations of speculators around the world: the discovery of silver in Nevada, the Comstock Lode. Moving with typical caution, Baldwin played the treacherous silver market and developed a knack for winning. “To be a success,” he wrote, “you’ve got to keep your eye on two ends — when to go into a deal and when to go out – and don’t waste any time doing either.”

Most historians agree that the big break that made his fortune, and earned him his nickname, came in 1867. Wealthy enough to take a world trip, before leaving he instructed his broker to sell his stocks if they fell below a specific price. He then left to hunt elephants in India. His trip ended in New York where he became a vaudeville producer, representing a troop of Japanese entertainers he’d met in Toyko.

When he finally got back to San Francisco, Baldwin learned that his stock had fallen below the figure he specified, but his broker had been unable to sell because Baldwin had taken the key to his safe with him. But instead of a financial disaster, it was incredible good fortune. The value of his stock had rebounded spectacularly, leaving Baldwin with a multi-million dollar windfall. This was only the first of many stories that are credited as the source for his nickname, but Lucky Baldwin always insisted that his money-making ability was the result of shrewd investment. With his newfound riches he survived stock crashes and bank failures, built the Baldwin Theater and Baldwin Hotel (“the finest west of New York”), and became an American legend.

With his legend already well established, Baldwin moved to Southern California in 1875, and if anything, became even more legendary. He was especially eager to acquire the Rancho Santa Anita in the San Gabriel Valley. Its owner, Harris Newmark, drove a hard bargain.

In his book Sixty Years in Southern California, Newmark writes: “. . . he offered us one hundred and fifty thousand dollars for the property; but learning that we wanted two hundred thousand dollars, he started off in a huff.  Then Reuben Lloyd [his lawyer] said, ‘Lucky, go back and buy that ranch, or they’ll raise the price on you!’ and Baldwin returned, carrying under his arm a tin-box (containing several million dollars) from which he drew forth twelve thousand five hundred, tendering the same as first payment.”

Baldwin was convinced the rich soil of the San Gabriel Valley ranch land would be a goldmine for agriculture. He was right. With the failure of the Temple and Workman Bank, a local institution in which he’d just invested, Baldwin acquired even more land through default. His new ranch was a showplace, featuring a stable of thoroughbred horses, ultimately including three Kentucky Derby winners.

Throughout his life, Baldwin was tightfisted with money he owed others, but personally enjoyed leading a flamboyant lifestyle, especially when it came to the ladies. As a local banker once commented, “With twenty million dollars worth of property, ‘Lucky’ Baldwin was always broke.” Another contemporary added, “Baldwin didn’t run after women; they ran after him.”

Already divorced from his first wife before he came south, Baldwin acquired a string of new spouses, and even more mistresses and lovers. He would be sued by some and even shot in the arm by one. When Baldwin was 56, a jilted 16 year old girl won a $75,000 settlement. There were so many women in and out of Baldwin’s elegant Queen Anne cottage that they were referred to as his “harem.” In regard to his regular appearances in court, one writer commented, “He was the only man we every heard of who pleaded in answer to a complaint filed against him that his public reputation is such that every woman who came near him must have been warned against him in advance.”

In the 1880s, as new comers from the east began arriving by the trainload, Baldwin was ready for them. He subdivided some of his land, creating the towns of Arcadia and Monrovia. Portions of Baldwin’s La Cienega Rancho became Baldwin Hills. As houses sprouted up around him, Baldwin reigned like a local potentate in his Santa Anita home beside Baldwin Lake. Ranch workers, however, many of them Mexican, were paid a pittance.  To get away, he’d travel to the Hotel Tallac at Lake Tahoe, another of his properties.

In 1894, at 66, Baldwin was in court again, faced with a paternity suit by a 31 year-old woman. While the plaintiff was being cross-examined, the aging roué experienced one of the luckiest moments of his life. As he watched the proceedings, an old woman moved up behind him, quietly pulled out a revolver, and with shaking hands, held it to Baldwin’s head. The gun went off with a roar. The bullet brushed up wisps of the old man’s hair but missed his head, slamming harmlessly into the courtroom wall. Baldwin’s attacker, identified as a “religious fanatic,” was prepared to take the law into her own hands as recompense for his years of decadence.

Lucky Baldwin had survived, but fate would provide his final justice. During the 1890s, his fortunes dwindled. As resilient as always, at age 72, seen in the company of more than one beautiful young woman, Baldwin headed to Alaska to seek another fortune from yet another gold rush. Here he encountered another Western legend, Wyatt Earp, who refused to sell him property in Nome. Baldwin returned to Santa Anita empty handed.

While his empire continued to crumble around him, Baldwin kept his hand in horse racing, played a mean game of poker and aggressive croquet, and got older. He died on March 1, 1909, still dreaming of amassing another fortune. It never happened. Ironically, his luck survived the grave. Ten years after Baldwin’s death, land he owned that was considered worthless produced the Montebello Oil Fields, one of the richest in the West at that time. In the end, his estate was valued at $20 million, but Lucky wasn’t around to spend it.

(Today Baldwin’s home and barn can be found on the grounds of the Los Angeles Country Arboretum across from Santa Anita Race Track. It is perhaps most well known as a location used in the television series Fantasy Island.)

– Contributed by Jon Wilkman, 1999

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