The “Traveling Trowel Train” of 1909

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A Mission of Unity

In 1909, a very special Masonic keepsake made its way to California, ultimately bound for Mexico and points beyond.

More than 100 California Masons and their families would escort a custom-made silver trowel  some 5,000 miles by private railcar. During their once-in-a-lifetime trip, they met with fellow Masons, dignitaries, villagers, and heads of state. Across the country, their voyage was front-page news.

Spreading the "Cement of Brotherhood"

The traveling “Unity” trowel was the brainchild of Fred Crosby of Justice Lodge No. 753 in New York, who imagined it as a way for Masons to spread “the cement of brotherhood” throughout the world. (The trowel is one of the most important Masonic working tools and a symbol of friendship among Freemasons.) The idea was for Masonic lodges to pass the trowel from one lodge to the next until it had reached every Masonic jurisdiction in the world. The trowel was made of pure silver, with an ebony handle. On its face, it included the words, “Who best can work and best agree,” and the figure of Justice. At each stop along its journey, the trowel would be received by local dignitaries with all the pomp that Masons are known for.

An Honored Guest

On December 6, 1905, the traveling trowel began its globe-spanning journey, which was estimated would take 20 years to complete. Newspapers around the country covered its comings and goings in breathless prose, as the trinket brought large crowds to Masonic lodges and halls across the country.

From Justice No. 753, the trowel’s first stop was Genesee Falls Lodge No. 507 in Rochester, New York—at that time the largest Masonic lodge in the country, with 1,209 members. From there, it was taken to Hornellsville and Buffalo, New York; Hamilton, Ontario; Detroit; Toledo, Ohio; Elkhart, Ind.; Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Sioux Falls, S.D.; Omaha, Neb.; Denver; Cheyenne, Wyoming; Salt Lake City; Pocatello, Idaho; Portland, Ore.; Tacoma, Wash.; and then to British Columbia. 

Photographed here are members of the California and Mexican delegations (identified per newspaper reports): 

Top row from left to right: Dr. Montenegro, grand representative, Valle de Mexico; Campbell Wells, past grand treasurer, Valle de Mexico; J.J. Reynoso, deputy grand master, Valle de Mexico; S.C. Kenyon, past grand master of Montana; William Frank Pierce, deputy grand master of California; James D. Richardson, sovereign grand commander of the Scottish Rite; Señor Jose Castellote, sovereign grand commander of Mexico; Señor Alberto Pro, past grand secretary, Valle de Mexico.

Bottom row, from left to right: R.Y. Guymer, grand secretary, Valle de Mexico; L.R. Weller, grand warden of California; Motley H. Flint, past grand master of California; F.E. Young, past grand master, Valle de Mexico; Charles R. Pullen, master of Anahuac No. 141 and custodian of the trowel; James A. Fishy, past grand master of California; J. Moorhead, most worthy grand master, Valle de Mexico; E.B. Spencer, master of Southern California No. 278; George M. Perrine, past grand master of California; William H. Keller, grand representative of the Southern Jurisdiction of the Scottish Rite; and D. Leon, deputy grand commander, Valle de Mexico.

A "Chilly" Reception

Finally, on Sept. 18, 1908, the traveling trowel reached California, where it was received by Oakland Lodge No. 188 (now Oakland Durant Rockridge No. 188) from members of Quadra Lodge No. 2 of Vancouver. In October, master of Oakland No. 188 James H. MacLafferty presented the trowel to the Grand Lodge of California at its Annual Communication in San Francisco. From there, the trowel made the rounds of the Bay Area, getting a large reception in late October in San Jose. 

Then, on Dec. 16, the trowel was taken from Oakland to Southern California Lodge No. 278 (now Arcadia No. 278), who would act as its official hosts and guardians. The hand-off ceremony was described as “probably the largest and most interesting gathering of Masons ever held in Southern California” by the Highland Park News-Herald & Journal. 

The plan was to tour the trowel all around the Southland, giving dozens of lodges the opportunity to host celebrations in its honor.

The trowel certainly got the full tour: On February 20, 1909, a team of Masons braved a snowstorm to accompany the trowel to the peak of Mount Lowe, in the San Gabriel mountains (pictured here). Once there, the group put on a special performance of the trowel degree, which was administered for California Grand Master Oscar Lawler. (Lawler, of East Gate Lodge No. 290, now South Pasadena No. 290, was an important figure both within Masonry and in California history. He was a widely celebrated lawyer in turn-of-the-century Los Angeles, as well as serving as U.S. attorney for the Southern District of California and later as assistant attorney general.)

The Full Tour

From the highs of Mount Lowe, the trowel was taken the following week to the lows of the Imperial Valley. Accompanied by a group of Inland Empire Masons and led by Past Grand Master Motley H. Flint, the trowel made its way from Los Angeles to El Centro, where it was presented at the Masonic Hall of El Centro Lodge No. 384 (now Imperial Valley No. 390).

The following day, it was taken to Calexico, and then by train to Imperial and Brawley, where Brawley Lodge No. 402 (also now consolidated into Imperial Valley No. 390) received it in the “lowest-down lodge” it had ever visited, 126 feet below sea level. From there, the group traveled north to the Salton Sea, where, “with full ritualistic ceremonies,” the trowel was dipped in the briny waters.

On May 2, another team of 32 Masons ascended the 4,000-foot La Cumbre Peak in the Santa Ynez Mountains with the trowel—though not without incident. “On the way down, at a steep part of the trail where there is a drop of hundreds of feet, the horse that C.W. Grant of Los Angeles was riding fell off the trail,” reported the Los Angeles Herald. “Fortunately, its fall was broken and instead of rolling down to the bottom of the canyon the horse and rider were rescued.” 

For all that excitement, however, the most jaw-dropping stunt planned for the trowel was ultimately canceled: a planned ride over Hollywood in the world’s largest hot air balloon, Chicago, owned by Charles A. Coey. Bad weather did the ride in.

The Itinerary

Ultimately, the trowel was carried more than 7,000 miles just within California alone. A partial list of the trowel’s Southern California itinerary included:

Dec. 16 Handoff to Southern California No. 278 (now Arcadia No. 278)
Dec. 23: Corona No. 324 (now South Pasadena No. 290)
Dec. 26: Dec. 26: Hollenbeck No. 319 (now Golden Trowel Norwalk No. 273)
Jan. 5: Covina No. 334 (since shuttered)
Jan. 14: Ocean Park No. 369 (now Sunset No. 369)
Jan. 15: Hollywood No. 355
Jan. 16: San Fernando No. 343
Jan. 19: Veteran No. 373 (now Santa Monica-Palisades No. 307)
Jan. 21: Azusa No. 305 (later Foothill No. 305, since shuttered)
Jan. 22: South Gate No. 320 (now Bellflower No. 320)
Jan. 23: Downey No. 220 (now Downey United No. 220)
Jan. 29: Sunset No. 352 (now Metropolitan No. 352)
Jan. 30: Cornerstone-laying ceremony for the Pomona Masonic Temple of Pomona No. 246
Feb. 1: Mizpah No. 378 in Los Angeles
Feb. 2: Unity No. 368 (now Glendale No. 368)
Feb. 6: Cohosted in San Diego by San Diego No. 35, Silver Gate No. 296 (now Silver Gate Three Stars No. 296), and South West No. 283 
Feb. 7: Highland Park No. 382 (now South Pasadena No. 290)
Feb. 8: University No. 394 (now Torrance University No. 394)
Feb. 13: Long Beach No. 327 
Feb. 19: Consuelo No. 325 
Feb. 28: El Centro No. 384 (now Imperial Valley No. 390)
March 1: Imperial U.D. and Brawley No. 402 (both now Imperial Valley No. 390)
March 17: San Bernardino No. 348 (now Phoenix Rising No. 178)
March 20: Evergreen Lodge No. 259 in Riverside
March 25: Redondo No. 328
April 10: Oxnard No. 341
May 1: Santa Barbara No. 192, Magnolia No. 242, and Guadalupe No. 237 (both now Santa Barbara No. 192)
May 3: Hollywood No. 355

Lithograph shown here courtesy of Robert R Livingston Masonic Library

All Aboard!

At last, at 10 p.m. on May 5, the group of 100 Masons, members of the Eastern Star, and their spouses boarded a specially reserved train from the Arcade Depot in downtown Los Angeles to begin the trowel’s journey to Mexico. Among the group were Grand Master Lawler, Past Grand Master Flint, Senior Grand Warden Dana R. Weller, and past grand masters James H. Foshay and George M. Perine. Edward Byron Spencer, master of Southern California Lodge No. 278, was the official chairman of the deputation in charge of the trowel. Other Masonic dignitaries were aboard, as well, including James D. Richardson of Washington, D.C., the sovereign grand master of the Scottish Rite; and William Frank Pierce of San Francisco, the sovereign inspector general of the Scottish Rite.

A special newspaper commemorating the trip, called the Daily Cement, was even published and distributed among the train’s passengers.

Traveling in Style

The special envoy boarded the traveling trowel train, described in the press as “the best equipped that has ever been sent out from Los Angeles by the Southern Pacific railroad.” The train consisted of three Pullman cars, plus a diner and baggage car. The round-trip rate for the journey was $70. (The equivalent of about $2,250 in 2022 dollars.)

The train’s departure was a cause for celebration for everyone in attendance, but especially for Dr. Samuel E. Burke, a past master of Sunset No. 352 (now Metropolitan No. 352) and an inspector for California’s 54th Masonic district. According to the Los Angeles Herald:

“It was announced that Dr. Burke obtained a marriage license and will make the journey as part of his honeymoon with Mrs. Burke, who until yesterday was Miss Hazel M. Rosenburg. Dr. Burke has accompanied the delegation escorting the trowel to 40 Masonic lodges and decided it was a fitting wedding celebration that his wife should be in the party. Dr. and Mrs. Burke were the recipients of many congratulations as the special train left the Arcade station.”

Through the Desert

The group traveled east, reaching Tucson, Arizona, on May 6, where it was received with a large party by members of the local lodge. “Appropriate services were held in the opera house, attended by Masons, their friends, and families,” according to the Arizona Republic newspaper. Judge Fletcher M. Doan, the grand master of Arizona, spoke at the event, as did Spencer and Past Grand Master Flint.

The traveling party was also treated to a jingle-jangle tour of the Sonoran Desert. “The visitors were taken in automobiles, hacks, and hally-hos for a drive about the city and also to San Xavier mission,” reported the Bisbee Daily News. “It was desired to take the entire delegation in autos but the supply of machines fell short.” A group of Masons is pictured here at San Xavier Mission. Holding the trowel, fourth from the left, is Edward B. Spencer; to his immediate left is Past Grand Master Motley Flint; to his immediate right is Senior Grand Warden Dana Weller.

At midnight, the train departed from Tucson bound for El Paso, Texas, the second stop on its grand tour.

Across the Border

On May 7, the party reached the border town of El Paso, Texas. But for many small towns along the route, even the mere passing through of the trowel’s train was front-page news. The Deming Graphic newspaper of Deming, New Mexico, was among those that carried a bulletin on the group’s short visit, though the paper seemed underwhelmed by the famous trowel itself: “It is about the size of the ordinary mason’s trowel,” it reported.

Upon their arrival, the trowel was turned over to the Grand Lodge of Texas for a special reception at El Paso Lodge No. 289 (pictured here). At sunrise, the train was met at the U.S.-Mexico border by a reception of Masons from Anahuac Lodge No. 141 in Mexico City, which would ultimately receive and take possession of the trowel. One notable member of the chaperones was W. L. Vail, an influential broker in Mexico City and owner and manager of the Mexico City Record, the largest English-language newspaper in the federal district at the time.

Mixing In with the Locals

Before reaching their final destination in Mexico City (1,000 miles from the U.S. border), the traveling trowel party made stops in Juarez, Chihuahua, and Torreon, where they were hosted by local Masonic lodges. Among the photographs of the trip kept by the Henry Wilson Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry are several street scenes depicting members of the party listening to musicians and posing with street vendors. The men, in their high shirt-collars and bowties, and the women, in tight-waisted, full-length dresses and large, floral hats, could hardly have stood out any more among the peasants and workers.

A View of the Inside

In Chihuahua, the group toured a Mexican prison facility, as seen in the photo here. (For unknown reasons, the group appears to have toured prisons in several cities.) And speaking of Mexican prisons, the trowel train procession had a brush with the law of its own. The Wenatchee Daily World newspaper of Washington explained in this May 25, 1909 dispatch:

Henry T. Jesse, an American engineer who was summoned to appear before a Mexican tribunal for trial on the charge of murder because his engine killed a Mexican near the City of Mexico, escaped the rurales, masqueraded as a cook, boarded the Masonic traveling trowel special train, was hidden in a huge basket by friends and yesterday arrived in Los Angeles.

Today he started for Alaska, fearful lest he be extradited. Several Masons recognized him when he boarded the train and L.J. Selby purchased the big bamboo basket in which the engineer was secreted. Disguised as a cook, Jesse did not arouse the suspicions of two Mexican detectives who were on the train when he boarded it. Later, when three more detectives searched the train for him, he was in the basket covered with several smaller baskets. “I was afraid to face the court,” said Jesse today before starting north. “I believed my life was in danger, for it is a capital offense to kill a man even by locomotive in Mexico. The best I could hope for was imprisonment and I know what the prisons of Mexico are. So I decided to try to escape, although I knew I was constantly under surveillance. The man who was killed was driving a pair of burros and they stopped on the track directly in front of my engine. The man was instantly killed and when I received the summons I decided to risk my life.”

Sightseeing in Masonic Mexico

In addition to Mexico City, the group also made stops at Masonic lodges in Torreon (pictured here), Aguascalientes, and Zacatecas, where they visited lodge halls, churches, and other sight-seeing destinations, including the Aztec-era aqueducts. 

A Reception with President Diaz

Finally, on May 10, the envoy pulled into Mexico City, where the following day they were received by lodge master Charles R. Pullen and members of his Anahuac No. 141. A massive celebration was then held for the trowel that was described by the San Francisco Call as the “one of the largest blue lodge meetings ever held in Mexico.” The celebration included a “living trowel” ceremony that involved 16 past grand masters—supposedly the greatest number of Masonic top officials to ever greet the itinerant instrument.

Perhaps the most notable dignitary to handle the trowel, however, was Gen. Porfirio Diaz, the longest-serving president in the history of the Mexican republic. (Diaz is pictured here.) On May 13, 1909, the trowel was presented to President Diaz at the royal palace of Chapultepec Castle. A news item on the event, published in the Daily Arizona Silver Belt, reported: “Standing on one of the wide porches at Chapultepec, Diaz held the trowel a few minutes and then returned it to Dr. Pullen, master of Anahuac lodge here… The president is a 33rd degree Mason. He made a few happy remarks and shook hands with more than one hundred Masons from California. The party, with Diaz holding the trowel, was photographed.”

More Sightseeing in Mexico

Following their grand reception, the trowel delegation visited many of Mexico City’s tourist destinations, including the Plaza de Toros bullfighting ring (pictured). They also visited the Palacio de Cortes in Cuernavaca, outside of Mexico City, as well as the cathedral to Our Lady of Guadalupe.

Horsing Around

Edwin Byron Spencer, master of Southern California Lodge No. 278 (now Arcadia No. 278) and the chairman of the trowel deputation, rides a burro.

Masonic Dignitaries

Three members of the delegation pose outside the special train car. From left, they are identified as Jas. D. Richardson, Mrs. M. Flint, and W. F. Pierce.

James D. Richardson was a past grand master of Tennessee and a Democratic congressman who served from 1885 to 1903, during which time he was the house minority leader. He was the sovereign grand commander of the Supreme Council of the Scottish Rite from 1900 until his death in 1914.

Gertrude Flint was the wife of Motley Hewes Flint, one of the most important California Masons of the early 20th century (and brother of U.S. Senator Frank P. Flint). Flint was a three-term master of East Gate Lodge No. 290 (now South Pasadena No. 290) and was grand master of California during the 1906 earthquake and fire in San Francisco. Flint remained in San Francisco following the disaster, where he “devoted his time and efforts for months solely in the work of succoring and rehabilitating the bereft and needy,” according to John Whitsell’s One Hundred Years of Freemasonry in California.

During the trip to Mexico, Flint was serving as the Postmaster of Los Angeles. Later in life, he became a millionaire banker who was widely credited with helping establish Hollywood as the home of the motion picture industry. In 1930, he was shot and killed inside a courtroom by a gunman who’d lost his money in the Julian Petroleum Company scheme—an infamous Ponzi-style fraud. Flint, as a financier, had previously been indicted in relation to the Julian Petroleum collapse, but was acquitted of all charges. Much of his fortune went to Masonic charities.

At right is William Franklin Pierce, who in the fall of 1909 (just a few months after this photo was taken) was elected Grand Master of Masons in California. Pierce was a banker who in 1893 served as master of Oakland Lodge No. 188 (now Oakland Durant Rockridge No. 188). He entered the Grand Lodge officers’ line in 1907, when he was elected junior grand warden. He skipped the step of senior grand warden and was made deputy grand master in 1908. In addition, he served in virtually every office of the Scottish Rite, including as grand high priest of the Grand Chapter; most illustrious grand master of the Grand Council; and grand commander of the Grand Chapter. He also received the degrees of the Royal Order of Scotland and had been elected as a Knight of Constantine.

In October 1910, just after his term as grand master ended, Pierce died suddenly.

A Race of the Titans

For a buttoned-up crowd, the Masonic delegation accompanying the trowel weren’t above a bit of frat-house humor. This photo seen here is titled “Fat Man’s Race.” It features Edwin Spencer, John Kemp (past master of South Gate Lodge No. 320, now Bellflower No. 320), and Dr. Peter Janss. One of the most important real estate developers of Southern California, Janss had arrived in Los Angeles from Denmark in the late 19th century to launch his medical practice, but soon turned into a high-powered real estate speculator. His family’s real estate empire, later known as the Janss Investment Corp., was responsible for developing what would become Boyle Heights, Monterey Park, and Yorba Linda. In 1910, the firm (which included his son, Harold Janss of Liberal Arts Lodge No. 677) were the chief sales agent for the sale of 47,000 acres in the San Fernando Valley now known as Van Nuys and, later, Conejo Ranch in Thousand Oaks. For much of the 20th century it was among the most prominent and powerful real estate firms in the state.

Home at Last

The return trip from Mexico took six days, winding through Guadalajara, back to El Paso, through Albuquerque (where members of the envoy are pictured celebrating with a Champagne toast), the Grand Canyon, and finally arriving in Los Angeles on May 18. In the end, the trip took two weeks and covered almost 5,000 miles. After being passed to Anahuac Lodge No. 141 in Mexico City, the trowel continued its voyage, eventually making its way through Galveston, Texas, in 1910 to Holland Lodge No. 1 in Dallas. It passed through several more states and jurisdictions, mostly in the U.S. and Canada, before finally being returned to Justice Lodge No. 753 in December 4, 1923.

In all, the trowel’s journey took 22 years and covered more than 20,000 miles. In 1936, the item became part of the Chancellor Robert R. Livingston Masonic Library and Museum collection in New York, where it still resides. For more on the trowel, see this blog entry from the Livingston Library website.

All images courtesy of the Henry Wilson Coil Library and Museum of Freemasonry.