Just How Old Is The Capitol Milling Company facility on North Spring? Well, It's Complicated...

(Nore: For citations not provided in the body the text, please see the annotated bibliography in  the Acknowledgments page.)

The tracks always ran by the old mill; or rather they did after those Southern Pacific Railroad people finally showed up and put the tracks there.

If you are reading this blog, there's a good chance that you know the hulking white complex at 1231 North Spring Street occupied by  Capitol Milling Company until 1998.  To this day it it lives on as a filming location, casting its afternoon shadows over the Chinatown metro station.  You probably  know the founding date of 1883, impressively ancient by L.A. standards, proudly emblazoned on several of the exterior walls.  

Capitol Milling Company, late 1880s.  The tracks have always run right by here.
 However, it's plainly evident that large-scale flour milling had already been underway by the time the above photo was taken, and 1883 was merely the date when Herman Levi and Jacob Loew  bought the mill and renamed the company.   In fact, there has been a grist mill at the Capitol Milling site since long before 1883, and many people believe that significant parts of the existing building date as far back as the 1850s, or even the 1830s.  Investigating the truth of such notions is largely what this blog post is about 

Before we dive in, here are a couple of recent photos to show how some things never change, or at least not by much.

Capitol Mills in 2013, seen from midway landing of stairway to Metro station platform

From the station platform.   Note the different, darker colored roof in the middle distance.  The exterior wall there is different as well.  This is discussed at some length further on.

In The Beginning

The earliest milling operations on the Capitol site are said to go back as far as the early 1830s, with some going so far as to claim that part of the existing structure dates back to that time.   In those days, while the region was still under Mexican rule, some Americans immigrated from the East Coast and eventually became naturalized Mexican citizens.   Two of these were Joseph John Chapman and Abel Stearns, both of Massachusetts, and it's one of them who built the first mill hereGiven the conflicting accounts of the period, it's unclear which of the two it was.  For the most part, it's Abel Stearns who gets the credit, since he undoubtedly did operate the mill some years later, the mill being only one of his numerous business and political interests in and around the city.  

The question of whether Stearns or Chapman built the first mill at the  Capitol Milling site is a rather complicated and tedious one;  those interested are encouraged to read the companion page to this post, Abel Stearns, Joseph Chapman and the Origins of the Capitol Milling CompanyIncluded are biographical sketches of Stearns and Chapman, along with a brief description of the pioneering and surprisingly complex automation technology in American mills of the early 19th century, with links to references on that subject. 

 1831 - 1874: Founding And Early Period

Most sources agree that the first mill on the Capitol site was built sometime in the 1830s or '40s, whether by Abel Stearns or Joseph Chapman.   William Deverell writes that Abel Stearns built the original mill of adobe in the 1840s, adding the interesting fact that there remains an adobe wall within the existing building even today. (Deverell, 2004)  This seems to be the view of minority, because most accounts say the mill was constructed from fired bricks which were brought in by sea from Philadelphia.   As there was no brick firing kiln in town until well into the 1850s, the "Philadelphia story" seems highly plausible.

Although we don't know what the mill looked like in the early years, some useful clues do exist, beginning with a survey map drawn in the year 1856.  This map shows that a mill existed on the Capitol site at that time, comprising two widely separate buildings.  Both of these building were much smaller than the building that exists today.  Another survey from 1872 is evidently a mere retracing or copy of the 1856 map, since it is virtually identical. The later map shows virtually no new or changed buildings over that fourteen year period.  Note the building marked "Mill" at the western edge of the property, which was either very close to the Zanja Madre, if not defined by it.   We don't know if the mill had a stereotypical side-mounted water wheel at this point, but there was definitely some kind of water power in use here.

1856 survey map (detail); Capitol Milling site indicated by circle.  Downloaded from Huntington Library; link to entire map is provided on the Acknowledgments page.

 To modern day Angelenos, the furnishing of water for the population from the Zanja Madre, much less power to a mill, may seem preposterous, but in the earliest days of the Pueblo, a "toma" or dam was built across the river, forming a small reservoir.  This was approximately even with Elysian Park as one goes upriver, and even today this is one of the more reliably watery sections of the river.   A waterwheel raised water up to the start of the Zanja Madre.  Given the small population through most of the 19th century, this system worked well enough--except when it didn't.

Even as late as the 1850s, by which time some improvements must presumably have been made,  Harris Newmark still recalled in 1916  that the flour produced here in the 1850s  was of poor quality, but no worse than the product of the other local mills. (Newmark 1916, p87)Faint praise indeed!  

From the early 1850s though the late 1870s, the mill was usually known as Eagle Mills.   An advertisement appearing in the Los Angeles Star on March 10, 1857 is puzzling, since it gives the address as the "junction of Main and Spring".   The name Eagle Mills and the mention of Francis Mellus unambiguously point to the present-day Capitol site,     but there has never been a junction of North Spring and North Main to the best of my knowledge.  In fact, for most of the 19th century American period what we now know as North Spring Street was called Upper Main, often shortened to simply Main.  In other words, Main and North Spring did more than intersect--they were the same street in those days.  South Main and South Spring, on the other hand, do meet, where the latter street terminates.

1857 newspaper advertisement.  Where was Main and Spring, again? Los Angeles Herald, downloaded from the California Digital Newspaper Collection

F. Weber Leases the Mill, and Then There's A Fire.  A Fire? FIRE!!!  

Also: Your Humble Author is Flabbergasted, But Only Briefly

In 1874, one F. Weber took out an advertisement in the Los Angeles Herald announcing his lease of the Eagle Mills, "formerly known as the Stearns mill", newly modernized.

LAH 1874-07-12.  F. Weber is here!
 The address given in this advertisement is an unusual but nonetheless acceptable alternative for pinpointing the mill site since Alameda ends at North Spring just south of the Capitol site.   Only a few months later, on September 15 of the same year, the the Los Angeles Herald reported that the facility--buildings, fixtures, and stock--were a total loss, due to a fire of suspicious origin.   We can just imagine what a tinderbox a mill would have been, with empty sacking, filled sacks of highly combustible product, and grain stored in carload lots.  

Total loss: L.A.H. article, 1874-09-15 reports catastrophic fire at the Capitol site.  (Excerpts)

The article notes that both the mill ditch and the zanja were dry, hampering the efforts to douse the fire.  This was one of the times when the city's zanja-based water delivery system was not working.

Whatever suspicions there were must have been resolved shortly thereafter, because on September 25 the Herald reported that the insurance claim had been paid.  As much as we would like to believe that significant sections of the existing building are a century-and-a-half old, or older yet, this news item evidently refutes such notions completely.   There may be bits and pieces here and there, like that adobe wall, that go back further than the 1880s.  But the existing structure, almost entirely, is from the 1880s or later.  The Los Angeles County Assessor's property database bears this out.  For those who want to hold on to a sliver of hope, bear in mind that the Assessor's database build dates are not 100% accurate; also newspaper reporters have been known to get things wrong too.

Even though this strongly indicates us that the entire building was new in the 1880s, it could still be true that some standing walls that remained after the fire were incorporated into the post-fire rebuild.  Comparing the 1856 survey drawing with an overhead view of the building today reveals a striking parallel in the siting of the buildings in both years.

1856 versus 2014.

Like the answer to one of those spatial reasoning questions that ask you to fit one picture over another,  the old buildings seems to fit into the new outline perfectly, if you line them up near the right hand edge of the modern building's footprint. When I first noticed this, I was flabbergasted, for it seemed to substantiate the claims from some that a substantial part of the existing building may date back even as far as the 1830s.   Moreover, as we'll see when we get to the Sanborn maps in the 1880s and 90s, as long as the company would continue the use of water power, the water wheel and other relevant equipment remained on the western edge of the property, where the 1856 survey is marked "Mill".  This alone supports the notion that the complex was expanded around existing structures rather than over where they had once stood--although certainly not conclusively so.

Capitol Milling Company in 2013, seen from just north of Chinatown Station.

Looked at from the street today, the building exhibits a sort of discontinuity that could possibly correspond to the other, more easterly, building in the 1856 map. Just about in the very center of the above photo, note the section of exterior wall that looks vaguely like European half-timber work.  It is utterly unlike anything we see in other extant late Victorian industrial buildings around town.  But any historian, even an amateur one, must ceaselessly resist the temptation merely to confirm what he or she wants to discover.  It seems impossible that the half-timber-like section of facade could be as recent as the 1880s, and yet we have that catastrophic fire in 1874.  Possibly the half-timber wall was another piece that the fire left standing.   

On closer inspection, the section of wall in question looks more like steel I-beams painted white, with brickwork used to fill up the spaces in between.  Even so, it must be unique.  Notice particularly how the single second story window in this section was completely disregarded when the I-beams were placed.


Most interesting of all is that the  section with the I-beams is parallel to the opposite exterior wall, and may therefore correspond to the more easterly of the two buildings we see in the 1856 survey, and whose opposite exterior walls are shown to be likewise parallel.  If we wanted to pretend the fire never happened, we might convince ourselves that this part of the building does go back to the time of the 1856 survey.   On the other hand, if we accept that the fire did happen and was just as devastating as the Herald article reported, why would the mill be rebuilt in such a way as to follow the old building's footprint so carefully?  Just for the sake of argument--I'm not saying this definitively--that might be due to the fact that the fire was not quite so destructive as reported, and that significant parts of the old building were incorporated into the rebuild, in situ.  Or rather, significant portions of the exterior walls were.

The roof over the section with the I-beams is different as well:


What does it mean to say a building is 133 or 165 or 185 years old?  What is the qualification?  For many, just having some of the original exterior walls is sufficient, regardless of what rebuilding or alterations have taken place in the interior.  As an example of this point, the history of the German Reichstag building is instructive. After World War II, its interior was almost entirely gutted and reconstructed, to the extent that the interior floors didn't even approximately line up to the exterior windows.  Yet it would have been ridiculous to say the building originated, or was rebuilt, in the late 1940s. 

1876-77: The E. S. Glover Map

F. Weber collected the insurance money and rebuilt Eagle Mills.  An 1876 bird's eye view map, prepared by E.S. Glover, presents us with  a small image of the mill following Weber's improvements and post-fire rebuild.

Mill site shown by circle, Plaza shown by arrow. Pictorial map by E.S. Glover, 1877 (Detail).  Downloaded from LAPL Map Collection; link to entire map available on the Acknowledgments page.
The smokestack indicates that the water wheel definitely wasn't the only source of power by this time.  There was at least one steam engine, fired almost certainly by petroleum based fuels. We know this because the Sanborn fire insurance maps, beginning a dozen years later.  show that supplies of such fuel were kept on hand.  Clicking on the picture to enlarge it reveals a fairly substantial building at the Capitol site.

 In an archaeological impact report prepared in 2004 for the MTA Gold Line project, the authors refer to the Glover map and inexplicably state that the mill, which "was supposed to be present by 1851", is not shown in this map (Gust 2004. p10) even though it's plainly there, exactly where Capitol is today.   It's possible that the authors were were unaware that "Upper Main", in the 1870s, denoted what we know as North Spring Street today.  Stranger still is their assertion that this is a view towards the north when that clearly isn't the case.

1879: Deming & Palmer Take Over

According to an 1883 Times article, Deming & Palmer had been operating the Capitol Mills on Aliso Street since 1872, and in 1879 they moved the operation "to Alameda Street" (that is, the Capitol Milling site).   Deming & Palmer also ran a Capitol Mill in San Francisco.  It has often been recounted that the Capitol Milling site was known as the Deming Mill during this period, but there is little if anything to support this the contemporary newspapers.  The mill owners from the late 1870s onward were evidently committed to establishing and reinforcing the Capitol brand in the mind of the public.

Capitol Mills name, used in the 1870s by Deming & Palmer.  This ad was for a different Capitol Mills, in San Francisco.  But it was Deming & Palmer who would take over the mill in Los Angeles, a few years later..

By 1883, the city directory showed that Deming & Palmer were still connected to Capitol Milling.  The excerpt below illustrates the ongoing connection with the firm in San Francisco.  Note that Newmark (op. cit.) mentions a J.D. Deming, rather than J.G.  I believe that they are probably the same man and that either Newmark or the compiler of the directory was in error.

1883 City Directory excerpt

 1883: Jacob Loew and Herman Levi Take Over

After acquiring the mill in 1883, Loew and Levi renamed it the Capitol Milling Company, as reported by the Times on June 9.  As we've seen, this rechristening of the business was no great stretch, because it had already been using the name "Capitol Mills" for about four years.   By 1883, the Times reported that Capitol Mills was producing 33000 barrels of flour annually, or about two to three carloads per week. 

 In 1983, the company released a centennial commemorative plate purportedly showing the mill's appearance in 1883.

Capitol Mill's purported appearance in 1883.

This appealing image presents a number of problemsGiven that hills are visible behind the building,  this view would have to be either from the east (most likely) or the south.  In that case, even though the mill's business was probably still too small in 1883 to justify its own freight spur, there should be some evidence of the Southern Pacific railroad, whose main freight depot was just north of here We can only wonder if the creator of this image, in 1983, intentionally aimed at an effect that was much more bucolic and quaint than was really the case a century before.    It is true that a few years after Loew and Levi bought the mill, they embarked on a major building and modernization program. We shouldn't be surprised  that  the mill in 1883 didn't look exactly like it does today, but I seriously doubt it looked as it did in the centennial picture, either.      In my opinion the biggest problem here is this version of Capitol Mills doesn't seem to corroborate with what we know about how its buildings were positioned on the mill property--at any time between 1856 or earlier, and the present.  The depiction here is too generic.

In April 1888 the Times reported that, as a result of the new owners' expansion program, the mill's  production capacity had been increased almost eight-fold, to about ten carloads daily. The earliest available Sanborn map, from the year 1888, most likely shows the mill before most of the new production capacity had come online.  Even allowing for the new capacity,  We can infer this because, according to the map, the plant was producing 200 barrels of flour daily, which was barely enough to fill two boxcars at ten tons each.  Even allowing for the improvement in capacity, it's possible the Times was inflating the numbers, motivated by the boosterism that was so common at the time.  The 1894 Sanborn map gives the production capacity as 500 barrels a day; assuming a standard barrel of flour contains 196 pounds net, it takes slightly over 100 barrels to fill a freight car.  So the daily output was enough to fill five, not ten, boxcars.   According to this article, the original mill had been founded in 1843 by Abel Stearns.

Sanborn map, 1888.  Intake and flow of water to wheel illustrated at top, location of "timber-like" wall with steel I-beams at lower right, indicated by by dashed line.

The details of the water intake are illegible on this map, but can be understood from from later Sanborn editions.  After flowing into the culvert under the mill, the water entered a series of pipes which carried it past the water wheel.  This was probably a horizontal, rather than vertical wheel, on much the same principle as this example:

Example of a horizontal mill wheel.
In addition to the waterwheel, the mill also used at least one stationary steam engine which was fired by petroleum.

Towards the lower right corner of the above map, the section of facade facing Spring Street showing the half-timber-like construction method is indicated by the label, arrow, and broken lines.  It's clear from the map that the interior of the building in no way reflects the different appearance of that section of the exterior. Almost the entire Spring Street frontage is just one large warehouse.  Still, it remains possible that the half-timber section was a bit of wall that remained from the 1874 repairs, or may have even survived the 1874 fire and be much older.

 The 1890s: Water Disputes With The City

 In 1892 came the first hints of Capitol's water dispute with the City.  At the core of the dispute was the City's proposal to stop the flow of the zanja that ran underneath the property, because the milling company was partly dependent on this flow to power its machinery.  However, the City had made the proposal nearly six years previously, saying that it would at some point be required in order to make necessary repairs. 

In 1894 a revised Sanborn map was published, but really shows very little change from the one in 1888.   The entry point of the zanja is no longer shown, but we know from contemporary Times articles that water power was still being used.  The new map also shows that there was a second petroleum tank, and a second stationary engine (one of two black rectangles just above "Eng Room").

Capitol Milling Company, 1894.

On July 6 of the same year, details of Capitol Milling's suit against the City appeared in the Times.  In the late 1880s, Capitol had laid out about $5000 in order to improve and strengthen the conduit running underneath its property, as per City specifications.  But now the City was proposing to start charging for the water, and threatening to shut the supply off if Capitol didn't pay.  Also mentioned was that Capitol had been using the water's flow for four decades prior to that date, or since 1854.  This is only one of several dates reported for the beginning of the mill.   

On March 12 of the following year, Judge Lucien Shaw decided in favor of Capitol Milling, and granted the injunction; on the following day the Times published his opinion in full.  The most salient points were that, going back to the days of the pueblo, the city water system was held as a public trust, and that the city therefore had no right to charge the mill for its use.  Pursuant to an ordinance of 1885, the predecessor Eagle Mills and the city had an arrangement whereby the mill was allowed to use the water as a power source, and the City was permitted to enter the mill premises as required for maintenance and repair of the zanja, but not for the purpose of diverting the water away from the mill's water wheel.  This was a case of each side granting the other a license to do certain things, beyond which neither party was permitted to act.  Also, the judge pointed out that the mill did not actually consume the the water, but only passed it under its water wheel.

1900s: The End Of Water Power, and The "Eagle" Tower Is Built.

The City decided to abandon the zanja system in 1904, and this was probably when the Capitol Milling Company ended its use of water power.  The 1906 Sanborn map no longer shows the zanja entering plant premises, and the power wheel is no longer shown.  The use of water power by millers, however, continued for many years after this in regions that were better suited for it. 

1906 Sanborn Map, Capitol Milling (partial).    Note grain elevator at upper left; this is the famous "eagle" tower.
It's truly unfortunate that we don't have Sanborn maps from before 1888, because without them or other graphic information we really can't know for sure what the mill looked like before the improvements of the mid and late 1880s.  However, we can follow its development since that time, and it's on this 1906 map that we see the first significant addition.  This is the grain elevator at the upper left of this detail and having the footprint of a narrow, asymmetrical pentagon.  The outer wall of this tower features a giant eagle logo above the company name.

The famous "Eagle Tower".  Not 1831, not 1851, but around 1900.

A myth has grown up about this tower to the effect that it is the oldest part of the mill, and dates back to 1851, or even 1831, but the evidence of the Sanborn maps refute that utterly.  We can only speculate as to why this myth has become so common on the internet, but it likely has something to do with the fact that in earlier days the facility went by the name Eagle Mills.  A contributing factor is likely our urbanized society and consequent lack of familiarity with flouring mills, grain elevators, and other artifacts of the agricultural life.  The Capitol site strikes us as so unlike anything else in our experience of hunting up the extant remnants of L.A.s Victorian past, that without meaning to we assume it to be far older than it really is.

The 1910s - 1920s: Modernization Continues, and A Death In The Family

As the new century progressed, Capitol Milling continued its modernization program.  This really can't have been too different from what other mills and factories were doing in the same period.   Surprisingly, there was at this time a significant trend of electric delivery trucks, and in 1914 the Herald featured Capitol Milling in an article on the subject.

Electric powered delivery truck, 1914.  LAH 1914-04-18.

 The article reported that the truck had been in service for about nine months, and had given great satisfaction.  The milling company was reportedly considering the addition of another electric truck, which they in fact did.  

The vehicle shown here is remarkable for its buckboard-wagon like construction, absolutely horizontal steering wheel, and utter lack of safety features.  

On April 21, 1921 the Times reported the suicide by gunshot of Jacob Loew, one of the original founders of the Capitol Milling Company.  He was despondent over his health after two debilitating strokes over the previous seven years, and feared becoming a burden on his family.

The Rest of the 20th Century: The Mill Enjoys More Growth And Continued Praise.  The Gold Line Comes in and The Mill Goes Out

From here on out, the Capitol Mills story is much like that of any other pioneer company in the city.  Grain was ground, flour was sold.  In later years, the company became known as a large player in the business but with a personal touch, and their business was supported and increased by reputation and word-of-mouth.  Although the Capitol brand of flour had been once been sold at retail, that had ended many, many years before, and the average consumer forgot all about Capitol Mills, unless they happened to drive past the Chinatown location.  But it was well known to local bakers who appreciated Capitol Milling's ability to meet their special needs, particularly as artisan bakeries became popular in the 1990s.

As a 1997 Times article put it:

"We are specialty millers, and we will custom-mill flour to fit every bakery's need for every type of product," says Doug Levi, the president of Capitol Milling and among the third generation of the Levi family that has owned Capitol Milling for the last 114 years.
 In the same article, as one happy customer put it:

"Our salesman lives for flour," [Karen Salk, partner in Breadworks, a Fairfax district bakery] continues, praising John London, 70, who started with Capitol in 1949. "Sometimes breads don't come out for some reason, so we call him, and he can tell you, 'Have you checked this, have you tried that, what's your water temperature?' And he'll check to see if there's been any change in his supplier. They're a good resource."
 It's always interesting, not to mention inspirational, how those who devote themselves professionally to a staple food product that seems utterly mundane to most of us can become so devoted to and interested in it.  Researching this post inspired me to learn something about the technical aspects of milling, which turned out to be a far more intricate and involved process than I had ever thought.  And I'd like to learn more about how different kinds of flour bring about different results in different end products.   

In 1998, the last sack of flour rolled out of the Capitol Milling downtown plant.  Initially, the operation was moved to a new and much larger facility in Colton that was to be shared with two other partner companies, but a year later, Capitol Milling was acquired by Conagra.    

Although the old plant has sat empty for eighteen years, it has been acquired by another old Los Angeles business, San Antonio Winery.  Rather than devote all that empty space to the making and storing of wine, the Riboli family, owners of San Antonio, plan to convert it into residential lofts.

Steve Riboli, of the San Antonio Winery, stands inside the empty and silent former Capitol Milling Company building.  Downloaded from Getty Images.

 And this seems like a good place to bring this long story to a close.






  1. Great research! Now how hard/expensive would it be for a forensic archeologist to check for signs of fire and to cross examine the different woods and different bricks to get a better determination if what was built when. And to also do a little light excavation within and around the buildings in search of earlier remains.

    1. I would also be interested in knowing if there are still any traces of the subterranean water conduit or trench from the zanja.

  2. All my life I've heard how the Capital Milling Co. asked the land owners to allow them to build their mill on the landowner's property and that they in turn would receive flour for themselves, and their family for the rest of their lives. The mill needed the zanja which ran across the property. The deal was closed with the exchange of a barrel of whiskey and a sack of flour, and the landowners never received anything after that.

    1. I apologize for not publishing your comment sooner. Somehow I thought I had already done so.

  3. My grandfather founded Capitol Milling-Herman Levi- and my dad John Newmark Levi was an executive there until his death in 1973. The first mill I believe was founded in 1822. Sorry it's not still there. The metro line looks as if it's on top of it.

    1. Thank you for your comment.

      If you have any early maps or other materials you would be willing to share, please let me know, or just share them in a further comment. If you are willing, I would be glad to add any such maps or other images to the body of this post.

      I think you can email me via the blog; otherwise, just let me know here.