Two days after digging began in Boyle Heights for the Eastside expansion of the Gold Line, workers made an unusual find. They came upon pieces of amputated arms and legs and even a coffin containing human remains.
The project came to a halt that June day and archaeologists arrived to piece together a forgotten sliver of L.A. history. They determined that doctors working at county-run hospitals in the 1960s and 1970s buried the limbs under what is now a driveway at L.A. County’s crematorium on First Street.
But that was just the start of the problem. Using hand picks, shovels and brushes to clear away the hard adobe soil near the path of the 6-mile, $760 million light-rail line, archaeologists uncovered L.A.’s original indigent cemetery, which dates to 1877.
Since Gold Line digging resumed on August 28, archaeologists working with the Metropolitan Transportation Agency crew have unearthed the remains of up to 36 bodies. The remains, buried less than 5 feet deep, are mostly skeletal. Dozens of skulls have been found. The wooden coffins, now in pieces, are buried in rows a foot and a half apart. Some of the remains were double-stacked; in some cases, more than one infant was buried in the same coffin.
Among the remains were broken vases and Chinese coins.
“You can never tell what you will find,” said Rick Thorpe, who oversees construction projects for the MTA. “It became more of an archaeological dig and we brought in a lot more people.”
The gruesome find was the latest setback for the long-delayed commuter-line project, which, over the years, has battled to retain its funding, and has been scaled back from a subway to a light-rail line. The plan has also survived the threat of lawsuits by residents of the densely packed, transit-dependent Eastside who have argued that the rail line would disrupt a shopping mall and a high school for troubled teenagers.
Now, many of those residents are worried about the bones.
“They should have notified the entire community that this is taking place,” said Boyle Heights resident Sonia Quiñones. “People have no idea that they found bodies. In my opinion they are trampling over gravestones and remains. I think they knew it all along and didn’t care. They were more worried about getting federal dollars. They didn’t want their project jeopardized.”
Records show that in 1877 the city was given five acres by the owners of Evergreen Cemetery for use as a potter’s field. The public cemetery was run by the city and eventually expanded to nine acres by 1917, when it was sold to the county for $10,000.
Between 1917 and 1922, an average of three people a day were buried at public expense. As space ran out, the county switched to cremations, building a crematorium on 3.9 acres of the land. Between 1896 and 1922, there were 11,809 burials; the county stopped burying bodies in 1922.
Somehow, this historical information slipped by the consultants which the MTA hired to conduct an environmental-impact report on the Gold Line project.
“After we found the bones, I went to city archives and found the information in less than half an hour,” said Sherri Gust, a project manager with Cogstone Resource Management Inc., a Santa Ana–based archaeological, historical and paleontological resource consulting firm. “They didn’t track down the early history book. The consultant just made a big boo-boo.”
Archaeologists also found nine registry books related to burials and interring of the dead, containing names, gender, cause of death, race, date of death, physician, mortuary and burial dates, in a locked room in the crematorium office. The historical records provide evidence of many past dramas, including a suicide on the train tracks and death from knife wounds, to deaths from tuberculosis, diphtheria, cancer, typhoid fever, whooping cough, dropsy, cholera, pneumonia, nephritis and influenza.
“There was a big influenza outbreak just before WW I,” said Gust. “It is reflected in the registry.”
According to Gust, the books showed that the cemetery was organized into blocks, rows and graves. However, no maps showing just where the burial locations are have been found.
“We know their names, race and date of death,” said Gust. “But we can’t match the burial register to the coffins until we find the map.”
In August, archaeologists presented their initial findings to the Review Advisory Committee, made up of 27 residents and business owners affected by the Gold Line, which will wind its way through some of Los Angeles’ oldest enclaves, including First Street in Boyle Heights where the north side of the street will be widened to accommodate a sidewalk, street parking and a left-turn lane.
At the meeting, the MTA offered alternatives to digging up the cemetery, which included demolishing or taking the frontage of 12 homes and a Mexican grocery store on First Street, across from the cemetery. The last-minute changes would have set the project back at least 18 months and cost up to $44 million. The 10 voting members in attendance told the MTA to keep digging.
The Eastside rail project was originally planned a decade ago as an extension of the Metro Red Line. More than 200 families were relocated and businesses torn down.
At the time, there was also concern that the subway would pass under the 70-acre Evergreen Cemetery and jostle the eternal resting spots of the likes of Stymie from the Little Rascals and Los Angeles land baron Isaac Lankershim.
In 1994, an environmental-impact report was completed, and it was determined by Myra L. Frank & Associates, a consulting company hired to look into the environmental impacts and historical significance of the county property, that the portion slated for construction “is not used for burial and therefore contains no significant structures or objects with the exception of the crematorium beyond the crest of the hill.” Frank died in 2003 and her company no longer exists.
Currently, the MTA is eight weeks behind schedule, and handling of the bones will tack $200,000 onto the project. The bones will be reinterred with a memorial either on county property or at a local private cemetery. Someone suggested the remains be buried in the crematorium’s rose garden, but that was before the extent of the discoveries became known. It is unclear whether the remains will be buried together or separately.
What is clear is that the Gold Line project will move forward.
“There is no good option,” said Gust. “It is a question of impacting living people or impacting dead people. The dead people were lost and unknown and now they will be known and recognized. Of all the outcomes this is probably the better one.”