Henry Edwards Huntington (1850-1927), a shaper of economic life in Southern California during the early decades of the 20th century and the man often called the greatest of all book collectors, was born in modest circumstances in the town of Oneonta in central New York . His father owned a general store selling dry goods, hardware and groceries. As a young man, Huntington worked for a time in a department store and as a sawmill manager.
Huntingtonâ€™s great good fortune was to be born the nephew of tough, shrewd Collis P. Huntington who, from the same modest beginnings as Henryâ€™s father, went on to become a founder of the Southern Pacific railroad, a man of immense wealth, and one of the most powerful (some say ruthless) figures in Californiaâ€™s history â€“ one of the so-called “Big Four” that included Mark Hopkins, Leland Stanford and Charles Crocker.
Collis mentored and supported his nephew throughout Henryâ€™s early years. As president of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad, he gave Henry his first important job, supervising railway construction in Tennessee and Kentucky , then made him Superintendent of the railway subsidiary. In 1892, he brought Henry to San Francisco as his assistant, Collis then being president of the Southern Pacific Company.
Over the years, Henry built a reputation apart from his uncle and showed a skill at making money. He was especially interested in Southern California as a territory for railway expansion. In 1898, he formed a syndicate to buy and reorganize the street railway system of Los Angeles . On July 4, 1902, a crowd of 30,000 watched a “Big Red Car” of Huntington â€™s Pacific Electric Railway complete the interurban lineâ€™s first scheduled run to Long Beach . Within a few years, Pacific Electric was operating the most extensive inter-urban system in the nation, linking hundreds of Southern California towns with more than 900 red cars on more than 1,100 miles of track.
“A generation of Angelinos rode his red (interurban) and yellow (local) trolley cars to the office, the theater, the beach, and the mountains,” writes John Weaver in ” Los Angeles : The Enormous Village .” “Racing along at speeds of 40 and 50 miles an hour (the horse car had moved at the rate of 7-1/2 miles an hour), the Pacific Electric cars enabled Southern Californians to live among orange trees and work in downtown skyscrapers.” Weaver goes on to add: “The pattern for the cityâ€™s sprawling development had been established by the worldâ€™s finest mass rapid transit system.”
Bolstered by a huge fortune bequeathed him by Collis Huntington when he died in 1900 (Henry married Collisâ€™ widow, Arabella, 13 years later), the already wealthy Huntington turned his attention to establishing the legacy for which he is perhaps best remembered — the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif.
Attracted to the beauty of the San Gabriel Valley , Huntington purchased the site of the current library, then called San Marino Ranch, in 1902 as income-producing property (citrus fruit). Years later, he built an elegant mansion to house the rare book and art collection he had been assembling since the 1880s. Surrounding the mansion were botanical gardens and lawns, now estimated to contain 15,000 varieties of plants and shrubs. In 1919, saying that he wanted to “give something to the public” before he died, Huntington signed documents that transformed the 207-acre estate into a public trust “to promote and advance learning, the arts and sciences, and to promote the public welfareâ€¦”
Inside the library, one of the largest and most complete research facilities in the country, are housed such rarities as a Gutenberg Bible in vellum, the Ellesmere manuscript of Chaucerâ€™s Canterbury Tales, an unsurpassed collection of Shakespeare early editions, papers of the Founding Fathers, and rare books and manuscripts in the fields of U.S. and British history and literature. The art gallery features 18th Century British and European paintings, including the famed “Blue Boy” and “Pinkie,” rare tapestries, sculpture, and period furniture.
Throughout his life, writes James Thorpe in “Henry E. Huntington: A Biography,” Huntington was recognized as an extremely hard worker with a practical turn of mind, friendly, courteous and with a deep love of family. On the list of pioneer developers of Southern California , he ranks among the highest. But the greater accomplishment, says Thorpe, “was collecting what can be considered the most important private library of its time on the broad theme of Anglo-American culture, acquiring a great collection of British art, building a set of botanical gardens, and creating out of all of them a research institution for the benefit of human knowledge and culture.” The Huntington is now one of Southern California â€™s most popular tourist attractions, attended by hundreds of thousands of visitors each year.
Huntington died of bronchial pneumonia in 1927 at the age of 77.
For information about the history of Los Angeles ‘ urban rail system see: the Electric Railway Historical Association website.
— Contributed by Albert Greenstein, 1999