Susan Patterson Hathaway Bixby: An early environmentalist

A look at bygone days

Pictured in this undated visual are the Hathaway sisters, from left: Mary; Susan (seated); Martha (middle); and Margaret.

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Pictured in this undated visual are the Hathaway sisters, from left: Mary; Susan (seated); Martha (middle); and Margaret.

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Finding love and business
Susan Hathaway, born in Skowhegan, Maine, on March 22, 1845, was one of eight children born to Reverend George W. Hathaway and Mary Weston Locke Hathaway. Susan was also one of four Hathaway sisters to marry into the Bixby family.

Sister Sarah had been the first to marry, wedding Lewellyn (also spelled Llewellyn) Bixby in 1859. Following Sarah’s death at the young age of 24, Lewellyn married her sister Mary. Margaret was the next to fall for a Bixby, wedding Lewellyn’s brother Jotham in 1862. They settled on the Rancho Los Cerritos in Southern California, where several other relatives worked, including Jotham’s cousin John Bixby who had come west from Maine in 1871.

With the opening of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, a journey that had previously taken months could now be accomplished in a few days. Susan decided to explore the new country the railroad had opened and visit sister Margaret at the same time. It was during one visit that she met John Bixby. The two fell in love and tried to keep it a secret, but it wasn’t secret for very long. The 28-year-old Susan married 25-year-old John on Oct. 4, 1873.

The couple lived in Wilmington for several years until John took over management of the Rancho Los Alamitos in 1878. That year, John I.W. Hellman and the firm of J. (Jotham) Bixby and Company leased a portion of Rancho Los Alamitos from the Michael Reese estate. The lease was up in 1881, and the whole property came on the market at a tempting price. John and his wife Susan, who had been calling the Rancho home for several years, saw an opportunity that must not be missed. But they didn’t have enough capital. They first approached Los Angeles banker, I.W. Hellman, who said he’d become a partner in the deal if Jotham Bixby would. Jotham said he would if Flint, Bixby & Company decided to become involved. They all agreed, and so it came to be that the 26,395-acre Rancho Alamitos was purchased in July 1881 for $125,000 ($3.1 million in today’s dollars), with Hellman owning one-third, J. Bixby & Company another third and young John Bixby as manager the final third. A new company was started– the J.W. (John W.) Bixby Company– which obtained an initial $80,000 ($2-million) mortgage.

A passing husband and environmental concerns
John Bixby saw the rapid development and financial gain of investors in Long Beach. Bixby convinced his partners that it was time to subdivide their land, like his cousin Jotham Bixby had done on the Rancho Los Cerritos, and make some money. Captain Charles T. Healey, who surveyed the original Willmore City townsite (that became Long Beach) in 1882, also laid out the new Alamitos townsite in 1886. The dividing line between Rancho Los Cerritos and Rancho Alamitos was present day Alamitos Boulevard, and on the other side of the boundary with Long Beach, John Bixby and his associates began selling land. Their townsite was 20 blocks in length, from west to east. John did not live to see his Alamitos Beach townsite flourish. He died May 3, 1887, at the age of 38, after a brief illness. He left behind his wife Susan, son Fred and daughter Susanna.

John Bixby’s business plans were continued by the Alamitos Land Company, which was comprised of the J. (Jotham) Bixby & Company, I.W. Hellman and John W. Bixby’s heirs. After the 5,000 acres designated for Alamitos Beach real-estate development had been set aside under the newly formed Alamitos Land Company, the rest was appraised and surveyed. Each partner ended up with 7,200 acres. I.W. Hellman received the land along the coast, and J. Bixby & Company* took the inland section. John’s heirs received the central part, including the house and barns.

It was left to Susan to manage her portion of the estate until son Fred was prepared to take over. Things went fairly well until 1897, when a sugar-beet factory was built in the present day town of Los Alamitos. Susan became outraged over the terrible odor coming from all the sugar-beet waste dumped into Coyote Creek that ran through the her portion of the Rancho Los Alamitos. She was concerned what was happening to the environment and decided to do something about it.

How beets came into play
The widow of John W. Bixby hadn’t had much of a say when her husband’s partners in the Rancho had negotiated the selling of land to build a sugar-beet factory to the Clark brothers. The agreement called for a right of way over the four miles of land lying between the factory and the ocean for factory drainage, but Susan Hathaway Bixby said no such deal was ever made, and Lewellyn Bixby, the major player in the negotiations, had died in December 1896.

Who were the Clarks that built the sugar-beet factory? Montana Senator William A. Clark, nicknamed the “Montana Copper King,” was said to be the largest individual owner of copper mines and smelters in the world, and he was also considered one of the richest. His younger brother, Ross, saw the sugar-beet possibilities for Southern California and convinced his brother to work out an arrangement with the partners of the Bixby Land Company.

The Bixby Land Company was formed in June 1896 to “hold, improve and acquire lands and property of every character, including water, water rights, and privileges; the contracting and raising of sugar beets, sale or rental of land, deal in horses, cattle, sheep and other farm animals.” Somehow, when they made the agreement with the Clark brothers, they failed to get Susan’s signature on the agreement to use Coyote Creek.

The Alamitos factory opened July 21, 1897. For 100 days, a continuous stream of beets, 12 tons per hour, entered the factory to have sugar extracted. On July 23, the factory produced its first batch of white granulated sugar. The Los Angeles Times congratulated the Clark brothers in running the finest and best equipped beet-sugar factory in existence.

To judge the enormity of such an undertaking, the Times gave readers an analogy (the following appeared in the Jan. 1, 1898, edition of the Times):

The 30,025 tons of beets were delivered in 1,000 wagon loads, at an average of three tons to the load. Imagine a wagon train of 1000 wagons; 4,000 horses, 1,000 drivers covering over one mile. The price per ton of the beets was $3.65, making the total harvest worth $109,591.25. The 2,887 acres of land from which this was taken, if placed in one field, would be one mile wide and four miles long. From the 30,025 tons of beets, approximately 8,740,000 pounds of sugar was made. If placed in freight cars all at one time, you would have a train of 292 cars covering a line of track two miles in length.

The situation comes to a head
As you can imagine, there was a lot of waste dumped into Coyote Creek. When Susan protested, the Clarks pulled out the agreement they had made with the Bixby Land Company and said they had been granted the right to use the creek as a dumping ground. What could Susan do? She decided to rally others to her cause, including the press. The Los Angeles Herald of Aug. 27, 1897 had this to say:

The refuse from the sugar factory at Los Alamitos empties into Coyote Creek and is carried down to the ocean. It is said the fish in Alamitos Bay are dying from the effects of it, and the fish dealers here on the pier are becoming alarmed, as the substance is plainly discernible in the water. It is feared that the oysters planted in these waters may also be killed. (Author’s note: they were.)

On Sept. 21, 1897, the Herald reported:

The people in this vicinity will feel relieved when the sugar making season is over and the factory closed. The stench that blew in from there last night with the strong land breeze was something to be remembered. The odor was stifling as far up the coast as east San Pedro and was strong enough to reach as far up the coast as Santa Barbara. The factory will be an unmitigated nuisance unless some other method of disposing of the refuse is devised.

Claiming the sugar company was using Coyote Creek as a dumping ground without her consent, Susan Bixby sued the Clarks’ sugar company for $10,000. In 1900, the Clarks counter sued the Bixby Land Company for $1 million for not completing its part in the original agreement. For two years the battle went on. Susan Bixby claimed the odor from the refuse was so great that the family could no longer reside in their home. All was finally settled when the Bixby Land Company agreed to construct a piped sewage ditch from the factory that was well away from the Rancho Los Alamitos ranch house. Eventually, other uses for sugar waste would be found and less waste dumped into the sea. In 1907, the Pacific Rural Press (Dec. 14, 1907) reported the residue could be made into molasses. Horses fed with this developed a glossy coat, gained appetite and were free from colic. It made cattle less subject to food and mouth disease, and if added to the daily feed of milk cows, the daily milk yield would increase considerably.

Susan Bixby did not live to see the great future of the beet-sugar industry, or her concerns about the environment taken over by a new generation. She knew her husband John had been interested in his cousin Benjamin P. Flint’s endeavors to promote sugar beet production. It had been in 1872 that Benjamin formed the California Beet Sugar Company and later built the first American sugar-beet factory in Alvarado (now Union City) in Alameda County.

The growth of the sugar-beet industry would have a profound effect on American life in the 20th century. The beet sugar provided an inexpensive alternative to cane sugar. New industries developed around this economical sugar product: cake mixes, jellies, preserves and other processed foods owe their existence to the development of beet sugar in America. By 1925, however, the soil of Los Alamitos and Cerritos ranchos was depleted, and beet production fell. Failure of many farmers to follow sound crop-rotation programs started the decline. Added to this was the trouble with pests and diseases that raged unchecked in the period immediately following World War I. And in the course of years, not just sugar beets, but all crops gradually had to make way for people. The Los Alamitos factory closed down and was eventually sold to Dr. Ross, a dog food maker, and now a horse-racing track occupies the site. However, sugar beet growing remained in the area well into the 1950s. The last factory was the Holly plant on Dyer road in Irvine, but it, too, gave way to housing.

The woman who was not afraid to take on the male establishment and fight to protect the land she loved died Feb. 3, 1906, after being ill for three weeks with the flu.

For more articles about the Hathaway women, visit claudineburnettbooks.com/those-hathaway-women/.
Burnett is a former Long Beach librarian who, during her 25 years of researching local history, has uncovered many forgotten stories about Southern California that she has published in nine books. She has degrees from UC Irvine, UCLA and Cal State Long Beach. For more information, visit claudineburnettbooks.com.