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Romancing the Stones : Searchers Believe Rocks Point the Way to Elysian Park Treasure

March 31, 1994|BOB POOL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Suddenly, in the shadows of a canyon above Downtown Los Angeles, there was a glint.

Not from something shiny in the ground. From Marvin Baker's eye.

"There! There's one of the treasure signs!" he exclaimed, pointing to a boulder jutting from a nearby hillside. "It shows where the treasure is."

Baker scampered to the rock and brushed away the dust on top. There, scratched into the stone, were symbols--lines and circles worn by age and almost invisible.

To Baker, it was a road map to riches.

The self-taught treasure hunter was standing in the middle of Elysian Park, the hilly corner of Downtown best known to most people as a shortcut to Dodger Stadium.

The park is a 585-acre bank vault in Baker's view--one crammed with valuables buried 150 years ago by frightened residents of the Los Angeles pueblo.

And he's not the only one who thinks that locals stashed money and jewels in the hills north of Olvera Street to keep invading troops from seizing them as Mexicans and Americans clashed over control of Southern California.

"There was a lot of stuff buried. And it was hastily buried," said Roy Roush, a globe-trotting treasure hunter whose work has taken him from the jungles of Caribbean islands to a hidden tunnel deep beneath Elysian Park.

The thought of treasure hidden in the park intrigues those who say its recovery could add to future generations' knowledge of pioneer life in Los Angeles.

It scares others, however. City officials and members of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park worry that a treasure hunt would ruin the fragile nature of rugged-looking hillsides.

"Suppose he finds gold in the park," committee founder Grace Simons said of a hunter's excavation request (later denied by the city) in 1974. "There might be a gold rush to the park. Where would we stop?"

Officials say it is illegal to dig without a permit in the municipally owned park and there's probably nothing there anyway. But if there is, it's the property of the city, they quickly add. Permits have not been issued in years.

"The idea of a treasure up there adds to the mystique of Elysian Park," said Manuel Mollinedo, the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department manager in charge of the area. "We're probably better off keeping the mystique alive."

Baker is a 65-year-old former warehouseman who lives north of the park in a neighborhood called Elysian Valley. He said he stumbled upon the first of a series of etched-rock "treasure signs" about two years ago while walking his dog.

Roush, 69, is a retired combat pilot and technical writer who mounts his treasure-hunting expeditions from a ridge-top home in Woodland Hills. He said he discovered the same rock scratchings about 15 years ago when two Mexican American women hired him to hunt for what they thought was a family treasure hidden in the park.

Baker is convinced that markings on at least one of the rocks point the way to a cache hidden by Francisco Avila, the man who in 1818 built the first house in Los Angeles. The adobe still stands on Olvera Street.

An odd drawing found on another rock could be even more significant.

At first Baker thought the scratchings were of a primitive stick figure. But a chance discovery of an old Elysian Park map in the city archives changed his mind, he said.

Baker believes that instead of arms and legs, the lines on the rock actually depict the park's canyons and ravines. Sixty-two small holes bored into the rock along the lines probably show the approximate location of buried valuables, he said.

History seems to support the buried-treasure premise.

An 1850 account noted that "the inhabitants of the pueblo are of the better and wealthier class of Californians. At the time of the conquest they fought with determined resistance."

A history of the state written in 1915 recalled that "the better class of the native inhabitants closed their houses and took refuge with foreign residents or went to the ranchos of their friends in the country" when Gen. John C. Fremont's American troops showed up in early 1847.

Another historian's account in 1930 pointed out that Encarnacion Avila, widow of Francisco Avila, was one of those who locked her house and fled to the outskirts of the pueblo, where she hid at the home of Frenchman Luis Vignes.

"When Fremont came through, he came through here like a tornado," said Roush. "He terrified the local Mexicans. Mexicans all over the pueblo of Los Angeles were busy digging. In the hills north of Broadway they actually dug escape tunnels from one side to the other."

As it developed, there was no need for the citizens to stash their valuables, Roush said. "Fremont just wanted the government, not a tribute from them."

Roush speculates that most of the buried treasure was retrieved by its owners once the coast was clear. But some pueblo residents may have died before they got around to digging up their property, he said.

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