Pomona was first settled by a tribe of Native Americans, the Gabrielenos. They were largely displaced in the 1800s by California’s Mission system, Mexican immigration, American immigration, and agricultural development. The Southern Pacific Railroad was built through the area in the 1870s. It carried livestock and crops out, and real estate speculators in. In 1875 they laid out the street grid we see today, and the first businesses set up shop—a hotel, drugstore, general store, butcher, and saloon.
A year later there were 15 saloons, a financial panic and a bankruptcy auction of land to bring in new people. Pomona didn’t seem to be off to a promising start. The well-established town of Spadra a couple miles away labeled the new, wilder competitor “monkey-town,” a Darwinian slur. Today’s Monkey Town residents know Spadra as a weed choked cemetery and a closed landfill that produces a lot of natural gas.
Pomona’s growing population decided to incorporate as a City in 1888 to get rid of the saloons. By 1911 there were even more saloons and the teetotalers tried again, this time passing a new charter that made the town dry (eight years before 18th Amendment). Legend has it the City’s first basement speakeasies opened five minutes later and did a roaring business until alcohol was legalized again in 1933. One such basement (in the Founders Building) is now home to two of Pomona’s art galleries.
Pomona’s pioneering spirit went beyond Prohibition. The City took great pride in having Pomona Valley’s first telephone via Los Angeles (number 811, in 1885), the “world’s first high voltage transmission line” (1892), the Valley’s first hospital (1904), the world’s first wireless coordination of aerial bombing attacks (Battle of the Clouds air show in 1914), first automated telephone switchboard west of the Mississippi (1915), creation of the LA County Fairgrounds (1922), first city in America to require garbage disposals in new homes (1952).
For Metro Pomona—the City’s historic downtown, the fairgrounds and adjacent neighborhoods–the golden age ended abruptly in 1954, when the I-10 Freeway bulldozed through. Scores of homes were destroyed and businesses followed the Freeway out of town. A grand effort to turn things around—converting downtown streets into the first pedestrian mall west of the Mississippi (1962)—backfired, cutting off the few remaining businesses from driving customers. A decade later, block after block were so empty that few people noticed the first signs of improvement.
Stating in 1977, antique stores, artists and Western University of Health Sciences started refurbishing derelict buildings. Dozens of historic buildings were brought back to life by these new pioneers. In 1994 the City officially recognized the downtown’s new identity as a major educational and cultural art district and forming the Art Colony. The fairgrounds were also evolving. In 1984 they became Fairplex, a venue for expositions and entertainment with year-round events. Meanwhile, the demolition of so many beloved buildings over the years inspired a local preservation movement. Activists fought to preserve Landmark buildings and whole neighborhoods, such as Lincoln Park, Wilton Heights and Hacienda Park. Their Craftsman, Spanish Revival, mid-century and Victorian homes are now a major draw for new residents.
These days Metro Pomona is building on its success. The last blighted landmarks have been restored like the Historic Pomona Fox Theater. Western University is always expanding. A new wave of businesses and events have come to town including dozens of galleries that host monthly ArtWalk festivals. And hundreds of new lofts have been built. After many difficult years we have reclaimed that energy and daring that first built our town.
Historic Photo Archive Here!
Photos Courtesy of Pomona Public Library and Frasher Family.
For more information on the History of Pomona visit
the Historical Society of Pomona: http://www.pomonahistorical.org/