One may be pardoned for assuming that Silver Lake and its famous reservoir got its name from the latter’s shimmering waters, particularly when gazed upon in dawn’s early light. To many, it comes as a complete surprise to learn that the lake was named after Herman Silver, an immigrant German Jew who rose to prominence in Los Angeles in the late 1800s. He was elected to and became president of the Los Angeles City Council in 1896, served as acting mayor in 1898 and president of the Los Angeles Water Commission (forerunner to the LADWP) in 1902 among other achievements.
Herman Silver (1830-1913) was born in a small village about 140 miles west of Hamburg, Germany. He was a bright child who aspired to be a rabbi. He was also sickly and often missed school; he passed his time reading books in the family library. For health reasons, his family decided he would fare better in a warmer climate, and shipped him off alone to America in 1844. Only thirteen years old but nearly six feet tall, he appeared much older than his actual age. On board, he met Father Gerard, a Catholic priest from Montreal, and the two became friends. Silver followed Gerard to Montreal, where he took lodging with the prelate; the priest offering him English lessons in exchange for Silver’s teaching him Hebrew. During Silver’s two-year sojourn in Canada, he also managed to travel extensively throughout New York, the Midwest and the Deep South.
In 1860, now 30-years old and living in Peru, Illinois, Silver met Elizea Post, his future wife, and his career began to blossom. An ardent antislavery Republican, he met Abraham Lincoln and served in the Internal Revenue Service and as an attorney. He also became acquainted with future president Ulysses Grant and General John C. Frémont. While he didn’t serve in the military for health reasons, he was an active recruiter for the Union cause during the Civil War. By 1974, Silver was living in Denver, Colorado which had gained a reputation as a health resort, particularly for the treatment of tuberculosis- the health scourge of the era. In Denver he became national deputy for the Colorado branch of the Union League, originally formed as a beacon for the emancipation of blacks. Through his political connections, he became Superintend of the Denver Mint (1877-1885) while also serving as manager of the Denver Tribune and treasurer-auditor for the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad.
Silver moved to Southern California in 1887 with a new position as secretary-treasurer of the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad (AT&SF). In Los Angeles, his political ascendancy began in 1896, when he was elected to the Los Angeles City Council representing the Fourth Ward, and on his first day of office, elected president of the then Republican-dominated council. Even his rivals characterized Silver as “straightforward and honest, opposed to chicanery, petty larceny and political skullduggery”. His integrity and conciliatory skills were affirmed in his election to a second term and council president two years later, the second time by acclamation.
After his service on the city council, he was appointed to the city’s Board of Water Commissioners and elected its president in 1902. It was a timely appointment inasmuch as control of the city’s water supply was being wrested from private interests who were lining their pockets at the expense of the public. After the Silver Lake reservoir’s completion in 1907, William Mulholland, the first head of the Los Angeles Water Department and the man responsible for the reservoir’s design and construction, recommended that the newly completed reservoir should honor Herman Silver, culminating a lifetime of “sterling” public service. Silver had six years to enjoy the honor: he died of a heart attack on August 19, 1913, leaving behind Elizea, his wife of 50+ years and a daughter Cora. He was eighty-three.
Adapted from Silver Lake Chronicles: Exploring an Urban Oasis in Los Angeles, Michael Locke with Vincent Brook, History Press, 2014. Please do not use this material in any media without my permission. © All rights reserved.