Sunday, March 1, 2020

The Crazy Life of Rémi Nadeau

Born in Canada to French parents, Rémi Nadeau is the one forgotten Frenchman every Angeleno should know about. After all, he helped to put sleepy little Los Angeles on the map.

Anglos called him "the crazy Frenchman". French Angelenos called him "crazy Rémi".

Was he really crazy? Was he hypersane? Or was he an eccentric visionary with a head for business?

We may never know the answer. But we do know his big dreams and "crazy" ideas made him rich.

Rémi Nadeau moved to Los Angeles in 1861. He quickly settled into the local French community - and secured a $600 loan from Prudent Beaudry.

With that loan, Rémi bought a wagon and a team of mules and set up his own freighting company.

Initially, Rémi made supply runs to faraway Salt Lake City - which took more than a month each way in those days. Harris Newmark reported that Rémi spent a few years in San Francisco, returning in 1866.

Rémi owned an entire city block - the same one where the Millennium Biltmore Hotel now stands. In his day, the land held his house, a stable, a corral, and a blacksmith shop.

Rémi's reputation as an eccentric was well earned: the Nadeau family's housekeeper wasn't allowed to clean the master suite. Mrs. Nadeau would do it herself. One day, when Mrs. Nadeau had fallen ill, Rémi's young niece Melvina Lapointe came over to help with the cleaning. While dusting, Melvina came upon a vase of fake flowers that seemed unusually heavy for its size. She pulled several wads of yellowed newspaper out of the top of the vase. To her surprise, the vase was filled with gold pieces! Mrs. Nadeau came into the room and instructed Melvina to put the vase back EXACTLY as she had found it so Uncle Rémi wouldn't change the hiding place.

In 1869, Rémi landed a very desirable contract: hauling silver and lead ore from the Cerro Gordo mines (near Lake Owens) to the Port of Los Angeles, where they would then be sent to San Francisco via ship for refining. (One of the partners in the Cerro Gordo mines was, of course, Victor Beaudry.)

The land in between Cerro Gordo and Los Angeles was rough, uninhabited, and in those days, devoid of roads. Rémi developed a large, heavy wagon with wide metal wheels that would be pulled by teams of twelve or more mules (depending on the load, twenty or more mules might pull a single shipment). The mines produced so much bullion that Rémi soon had 32 mule teams making regular runs to Cerro Gordo.

To maximize profits, Rémi sent the wagons to Cerro Gordo loaded with grain and other provisions. These would be sold to the miners, and the wagons would be reloaded with silver ingots for the return trip to San Pedro.

The owners of the Cerro Gordo mines demanded a reduction in freighting fees when Rémi's contract expired in 1871. Believing no one else could handle the task as well as his employees, he refused.

Barley prices had risen, and feeding hundreds of mules became very expensive. Rémi had taken out a loan from H. Newmark and Company to expand. Uncertain of his ability to pay the balance, he offered to turn over the freighting business to them. The company, believing in Rémi's ingenuity, encouraged him to find another contract instead.

Surely enough, a new opportunity soon arose when large deposits of borax were discovered in Nevada, and Rémi landed the contract. Boxes of 20 Mule Team Borax still reference Rémi's mule teams to this day.

When Rémi refused to renew his contract at a low rate, the mine owners had to route the silver bullion through other freighters in San Buenaventura (Ventura) and Bakersfield. Neither town could handle the output, and silver ingots began to pile up.

The Los Angeles business community wanted the silver trade back (it was the town's biggest moneymaker at the time), and tried to negotiate with the Southern Pacific Railroad - which announced a raise in freighting rates that would have made the plan too expensive.

Finally, the mine's owners (and the newly formed Chamber of Commerce) had to eat their humble pie and work out a fair contract with Rémi. He agreed to resume freighting silver bullion - on the condition that the mine's owners put up $150,000 to build freighting stations along his routes.

The Cerro Gordo Freighting Company soon had 65 stations ranging from San Pedro to Nevada to Arizona to San Francisco. Each station was a combination of hotel, trading post, blacksmith shop, and wagon repair shop, with stables and corrals for mules. Nadeau eventually had over 300 employees, and was so busy he put his brother-in-law, Michel Lapointe, in charge of the wagon works.

If you don't mind a 275-mile drive, Cerro Gordo is now open for tours (reservations required).

Some of the freighting stations grew into towns. In fact, one of them became the desert suburb of Indian Wells.

Eventually, railroads began to stretch across the Mojave Desert, reducing demand for mule teams. The Cerro Gordo Freighting Company sold off its mules and equipment, and Rémi began his next enterprise.
Rémi owned 3400 acres in South Los Angeles (the area is still referred to as Nadeau, or Nadeau Station), and tried his hand at growing sugar beets and refining the sugar. Unfortunately, it was a disaster. Harris Newmark, who was one of Rémi's best friends, recalled that "it was bad at best, and the more sugar one put in coffee, the blacker the coffee became."
Undaunted, Rémi turned to (what else...) wine, replanting the sugar beet fields with eight varieties of grapes (with a whopping two million grapevines total) and enlisting vintner Francois Escallier as supervisor. He also built a winery, and was successful at first. Unfortunately, the grapevines were destroyed by a sudden and unexpected insect infestation.

During the brief period of time that the Nadeau vineyard existed, it was believed to be the largest vineyard in the world.

Rémi also planted barley on the Centinela Rancho (modern-day Inglewood)...until extreme heat and a drought put an end to the barley crop.

In the 1880s, the Plaza and surrounding streets were still the city's primary business district. Rémi bought land at First and Spring Streets, and even Harris Newmark - Rémi's close friend and greatest supporter, who knew firsthand how smart and capable he was - called him crazy for buying land so far from the Plaza.

As per usual, Rémi didn't care what anyone else thought.

Initially, he planned to build a grand opera house or theatre with 1500 seats. (Even I think that was a crazy idea, considering Los Angeles' 1880 population was less than 12,000.) But that idea gave way to the city's tallest and grandest building of the era - a four-story business block, equipped with Southern California's first passenger elevator (made by Otis) and four fire hydrants on each floor, with apartments and office spaces planned for the upper floors and storefronts planned for the ground floor. No expense was spared, and the building was even equipped with twenty bathrooms - a VERY high number of bathrooms for the time.

Everyone laughed.

Everyone called the plan "Nadeau's folly."

Everyone said Rémi Nadeau, the crazy Frenchman, was crazier then ever.

Then "Crazy Rémi" leased the entire building to Ed Dunham, an experienced hotelier.

And just like that, everyone who was anyone checked into the Nadeau Hotel when they stayed in Los Angeles. It was the first truly first class hotel in the city. (Sorry, Pio Pico, but the Pico House didn't have an elevator, let alone twenty bathrooms.)

Sadly, it would be the final time Rémi got the last laugh. Less than a year after the Nadeau Hotel's 1886 grand opening, he passed away at age 68.

Rémi left the hotel property to his second wife, Laura, along with enough money to pay off its mortgage so she wouldn't have to come up with payments. His children from his first marriage (to Martha Frye) felt this was too generous a bequest for their stepmother and contested the will (sound familiar?).

The Nadeau Hotel was torn down in 1932 for the Los Angeles Times building.

Laura Nadeau decided to honor Rémi's memory with a 30-foot-high monument, topped with a marble statue of an angel, at the Nadeau family plot in Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.

Unfortunately, the Nadeau family plot happens to be very close to a rather large mature tree. Several years ago, according to a docent (who, by the way, couldn't pronounce "Nadeau" correctly and plainly stated that she didn't know what Rémi did for a living...), a particularly windy rainstorm sent a very heavy tree branch crashing right onto the Nadeau plot. Every time I've visited Angelus Rosedale, a large and heavy chunk of monument has been in the same spot on the ground at a cockeyed angle. I was told that Rémi's living relatives couldn't justify the high cost of having it repaired.

When the monument was unveiled, the Los Angeles Herald claimed that Rémi's own accomplishments were the only monument needed to keep his memory alive. Rémi’s business interests accounted for ONE QUARTER of all exports leaving Los Angeles between 1869 and 1882. An earlier article in the Herald claimed Nadeau “has given employment to more men, and purchased more produce, and introduced more trade to Los Angeles than any other five men in this city.” 

You'd think that would be enough. Sadly, you'd be mistaken.

Rémi's name is forgotten today, surviving only in the family plot and on street signs - Nadeau Street, in the Florence/Nadeau neighborhood, and Nadeau Drive, in Mid-City.

Now THAT is crazy.

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