From The Historical Society of Southern California: “Lucky” Baldwin’s reputation must survive for generations to come as that of one of the greatest pioneers of the West, the greatest builders of California, the most spectacular of libertines, and the most contradictory of characters in our annals.
And Baldwin certainly earned his nickname “Lucky.”
Born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1828, Elias Jackson Baldwin started in business as a grocery store, hotel and saloon owner in Indiana and Wisconsin. Always looking for bigger opportunities, in 1853 with his wife and six year old daughter, he set out for California following the route of thousands of others in search of gold. Ever the shrewd businessman, however, he waited before rushing across the continent, carefully evaluating the news from the far West. And unlike many others before him, he saw his fortune in selling food, supplies and accommodations, not digging for nuggets.
Most historians agree that the big break that made his fortune, and earned him his nickname, came in 1867. Wealthy enough to take a world trip, before leaving he instructed his broker to sell his stocks if they fell below a specific price. He then left to hunt elephants in India. His trip ended in New York where he became a vaudeville producer, representing a troop of Japanese entertainers he’d met in Toyko.
When he finally got back to San Francisco, Baldwin learned that his stock had fallen below the figure he specified, but his broker had been unable to sell because Baldwin had taken the key to his safe with him. But instead of a financial disaster, it was incredible good fortune. The value of his stock had rebounded spectacularly, leaving Baldwin with a multi-million dollar windfall. This was only the first of many stories that are credited as the source for his nickname, but Lucky Baldwin always insisted that his money-making ability was the result of shrewd investment. With his newfound riches he survived stock crashes and bank failures, built the Baldwin Theater and Baldwin Hotel (“the finest west of New York”), and became an American legend.
Baldwin also founded the Santa Anita Park horse racing track, whose most famous patron was the Marshal Wyatt Earp. Baldwin and Earp became good friends and it is reported that in 1892, Earp and his wife Josephine were married by the captain of Baldwin’s yacht.
His birthplace is commemorated with an Ohio Historical Marker that designates the location of the lost village of Dogtown, so named because it was the locale of a vicious dogfight. It was later known as Bunker Hill. His name endures in California at Baldwin Lake in Big Bear and Baldwin Hills and Baldwin Village neighborhoods of Los Angeles.