The Growth of The City of West Covina
Unlike its neighbors, West Covina is not a product of the historic "Boom of the Eighties" (1880s). It can, however, trace its beginnings back to Mission days when the San Gabriel Mission was originally founded in 1771 in the present City of El Monte and laid claim to the entire San Gabriel Valley.
At the end of the Mission period (1845) most of what is now the City of West Covina was sold by Governor Pico to John Rowland and William Workman. Known as the Rancho La Puente, it was divided in 1868 with Workman taking the northern half and Rowland keeping the southern portion. Workman then lost his land to E. J. "Lucky" Baldwin in 1876 when he was forced into bankruptcy. After the turn of the century Baldwin began to sell portions of the land as "subdivisions" and the first permanent settlers arrived.
At approximately the same time, to the north and east of Baldwin's holdings, Joseph S. Phillips founded the town of Covina on land he had acquired from John E. Hollenbeck. Originally part of the Daltons' Rancho Azusa, much of the land later fell into the boundaries of West Covina.
In 1908 the future city's first roads were laid out. They included Service, Orange, Cameron, Vine and Merced Avenues. Many of West Covina's diagonal roads date from the time when horse and buggys took a straight line from the cities of Glendora and Covina to La Puente and the railroad.
The heart of West Covina was on the very western side of the present city site and was devoted to the development of the Walnut industry as opposed to the Citrus industry of its northeastern neighbors. This seems to have been a natural occurrence as the underground water was more plentiful than in the eastern portion of the city.
While waiting for the Walnut trees to mature, beans, potatoes and other crops were planted between the rows. The growers also planted Palms and other trees along the streets in an effort to beautify the growing community.
The city was incorporated on February 3, 1923 in a move to protect the residents of the area from the City of Covina. Because Covina had grown enough to discover that it had a waste disposal problem, it purchased land between California and Glendora Avenues and south of the Walnut Creek Wash to be used as a "sewer farm". Since the growers in the area did not want the ground water contaminated and getting no assistance from either the county or state governments in preventing Covina from proceeding, they formed a city and enacted their own zoning and use laws.
The City of Covina subsequently sold its land, but did not give up the search for a disposal site. It attempted to locate its "sewer farm" on Hollenbeck Street South of Arroya Avenue (later known as Garvey Avenue and even later as the San Bernardino Freeway). This led to West Covina's first expansion, the first of many to occur from the 1930's to the present.
Because of the proximity to Downtown Covina and other older established communities, West Covina never developed a business district or "Main Street" of its own. It became known as a "huge walnut grove with a mayor". It also had another reputation (one less humorous and much less savory). It was known as the worst speed trap in Southern California.
Although many citizens endow West Covina's actions with an aura of nobility and a concern for the safety of the motorist, the truth was that in 1935 when Garvey Avenue was improved to U.S. Highway 99, it was a wonderfully smooth and straight thoroughfare with no stop signs between El Monte and Pomona. Drivers were inclined to race through the City of West Covina. Since the city had no businesses to tax and therefore, no revenue to speak of to pay for the improvements and services a growing city requires, a few inconvenient stop signs were erected and quite soon, enough money was raised to repave all the streets! (Some residents today maintain that that mentality still exists.)
In 1941 George Meeker developed West Covina's first residential subdivision called "Sunkist Village" located in the western side of town. It was evident that the city would begin to grow quite rapidly. The growth was abruptly halted, however, with the outbreak of World War II. The farmers of Japanese ancestry were relocated, the gentlemen farmers were drafted and sent to war. The working farmers were classified 1-C and remained to produce for the war effort. Because the men on the draft board, located in La Puente knew everyone in the area, they knew who was a "working farmer" and who's real work was a 20 mile commute away in Los Angeles.
After the war the American servicemen returned home, married and began to seek a place to work and raise a family. By the early 1950's the country, as a whole, was on the move and West Covina was a part of that burst of growth. During 1955 it was the fastest growing city in the United States. in 1950 its population was 4,499 and 10 years later it was more than 10 times that, 50,645. It grew so rapidly that services were unable to keep pace. Telephone service, for example, for individual homes was not available until 1 to 1 1/2 years after the completion of a housing tract.
There were two schools in the city by this time, Sunset in the western section for higher grades and Cameron in the eastern portion for the lower grades, both of which were doing "double session". In many places where a street crossed the Wash it was merely a paved dip into the Wash as bridges had yet to be built over every crossing. In a heavy rain there was no school because the buses could not feord the rushing river the Walnut Wash became.
In spite of these drawbacks West Covina was attractive to those young families pouring into Southern California from across the United States because it was close enough to industry and business yet it was still far enough away to retain the feeling of country. There was another factor which, unfortunately, was attractive to some people and that was that West Covina had a color barrier which was not repealed until the early 1960's. From that time the City of West Covina has grown to its present size and with its diverse cultural characteristics.
The results of the 1980 census confirmed that West Covina is still a community suited for the young, growing family. The median age was 28.8 years and with 7 per cent of the total population 4 years or younger and an increase in households of Latin, Asian, and Black heritage. The average educational and income levels have also risen over the years.
The traditions of West Covina reflect its close association and interaction with its neighbors. The cities of the eastern San Gabriel Valley share in common the change from livestock or range to agriculture, to industrial and residential centers. They were settled by people from elsewhere seeking a better life for themselves and their families. The settlers brought with them values, ideals and aspirations which have made the Valley a home of which to be proud.
At the hub of all this activity is West Covina which grew from "the City of Beautiful Homes" to the "Headquarters City of the San Gabriel Valley". This growth and transition was a forgone conclusion dating from 1885 when Joseph S. Phillips planned a Fourth of July Barbecue and Picnic for the City of Covina and selected a site near Azusa and Cortez Avenues, a site well within the heart of what is now The City of West Covina.
Written by A. Anne Gundel for a local history class at Cal Poly Pomona in 1990 for Dr. Gloria Ricci Lothrop. The sources include, but are not limited to the West Covina book by B. Pronin, literature from the W C Chamber of Commerce, an oral history from Joe Hurst and the author's own memories from childhood.