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Forgotten Graves Unearthed

Crews digging an MTA Gold Line extension in Boyle Heights find more than 100 century-old skeletons at the site of an old crematorium.

November 22, 2005|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

Some were found under the driveway of a 123-year-old Boyle Heights landmark that for generations served as Los Angeles' potter's field.

Others were uncovered beneath an old retaining wall, and under mature oak trees and bushes.

In all, workers digging an eastern extension of the Gold Line railway found the skeletal remains of 108 people -- as well as 43 arms and legs. Scattered among the remains, beneath otherwise nondescript grounds leading to the brick-bedecked crematorium, were old coins, empty coffins, metal objects and even garbage.

The discoveries stunned Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials and surprised residents, because they unearthed a layer of history that most had forgotten ever existed.

"I've lived in the same house for 70 years," said Diana Tarango, a longtime Eastside resident. "Even then, growing up as a kid, I never thought of it as a cemetery. It was always a crematorium."Now, MTA officials are working with archeologists and community members to figure out how best to re-inter the bodies.

"We want to give these people a proper burial, because it's obvious they were not given a proper burial in the first place," said Rick Thorpe, the MTA's head of construction. "If they had been treated with respect, we would have known where they were located."

The remains are believed to be vestiges of L.A.'s original cemetery for the poor. They were found on the south side of the property along 1st Street between Concord and Lorena streets.

In 1877, the owners of the adjacent Evergreen Cemetery gave the city five acres to operate a potter's field. The county purchased the property in 1917, and five years later built a crematorium to dispose of the bodies of the poor and unclaimed.

With that, in 1922, the burials stopped. Over the years, the existence of the graves became increasingly obscured by time -- and apparently landscaping and paving.

Carbon dating by archeologists indicates that most of the remains date back to at least the 1890s, said Ray Sosa, the MTA's deputy project manager for Gold Line planning.

Crews doing digging for a retaining wall and for street widening first uncovered arms and legs in June. Work on the project was immediately stopped, officials said.

Further tests, including ground-penetrating radar, revealed other remains underneath what had seemed an unused portion of the crematorium property, Sosa said.

The MTA previously had had consultants check county records to ensure that they did not disturb locations that contained remains, he said. Subsequently, nine registry books were found in a locked room in the crematorium office.

They contained names of people buried in the crematorium land, their sex, cause of death, examining physician, date of death, mortuary and burial dates.

But the records did not elaborate on where those people were buried. MTA officials say that even if they had read the registry books before, it would have been unthinkable to believe bodies lay underneath driveways.

Officials say it's also unclear whether the names in the logs correspond to the people whose remains were uncovered, or whether they belong to people buried elsewhere on the property.

"We should do some kind of monument for them and bury them all in one section," said Ross Valencia, 79, a Boyle Heights resident for all but four years of his life and a member of the MTA's Review Advisory Committee. "We should have a special ceremony."

MTA officials say that that is in fact what will be done. The remains will at a future date in all likelihood be buried just behind a retaining wall for the Gold Line, Sosa said.

He said the MTA is leery of trying to bury the remains elsewhere because they might uncover more surprises.

"We don't want to touch anything else on that property," Sosa said. "We want to make sure we stay within the same area."

Although a subway tunnel is being built in the area, it will be dug beneath 1st Street and away from either the county or Evergreen cemeteries, officials say.

MTA officials said that after the remains were found, the MTA considered several options, including moving the project several yards farther south along 1st Street. But that would have required acquiring and razing many homes, they said.

"In the end, we decided instead of relocating people out of their homes, let's excavate these in the proper manner and give them a proper burial," Thorpe said.

Stopping the $898-million expansion project was never an option, MTA officials say. The extension will connect Union Station with Atlantic Boulevard in East L.A. on a six-mile route that includes stops at Little Tokyo and Mariachi Plaza. The MTA expects the line to open in late 2009.

Since the remains started being uncovered in the summer, some people have criticized the MTA for the Gold Line work and suggested that their own ancestor's graves may have been desecrated.

The MTA is especially bothered by insinuations that graves in Evergreen Cemetery -- where burials still take place -- are among those that have been dug up.

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