To the tens of thousands of commuters suffering through the traffic jams on the Hollywood Freeway, congestion is the curse of the Cahuenga Pass. Few, if any, realize that their route is burdened with an ancient legacy of greed and mystical misfortune every bit as tantalizing--and deadly--as the fabled curse attached to the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb.
The curving Cahuenga Pass, also known as El Portozuelo, (The Little Doorway), was an Indian trail followed by such early California explorers as Don Gaspar de Portola, Juan Bautista de Anza and Kit Carson. Ultimately, the stretch of trail was incorporated into El Camino Real, colonial California’s north-south thoroughfare.
The chilling story of its curse began in 1864, when a fugitive Mexican shepherd named Diego Moreno claimed to have buried what was almost literally a king’s ransom alongside the trail.
The story of Moreno’s treasure was set in motion earlier that year, when the French installed Archduke Maximilian of Austria and his wife, Carlota, as emperor and empress of Mexico. The country’s president, Benito Juarez, launched a fierce resistance to the imposition of monarchy on his people.
After amassing more than $200,000 in gold, diamonds, pearls and other heirlooms, four trusted Juarez agents set out for San Francisco to buy guns for the democratic struggle. But before they reached their destination, one of the aides died a sudden and mysterious death, the first of many. Suspicion of foul play at the hands of French secret agents kept the remaining three alert for the rest of their journey.
Arriving in the Bay Area, they found the place crawling with French spies and quickly headed for the hills of San Mateo. Dividing their funds into sixths, they wrapped each portion in buckskin and buried it deep in the ground.
Unnoticed, Moreno had observed the men. After they left, the immigrant shepherd unearthed the bundles. Rejoicing at his amazing luck, he headed south to his home in Mexico.
When the four agents returned to claim their cause’s funds, they discovered the theft and began to suspect one another. Two of the agents argued and ended up killing each other. The third agent was exonerated in their deaths, but would later die breaking up a fight in a bar he owned near Tombstone, Ariz.
Moreno, following the supply route that snaked through the Cahuenga Pass, stopped at a tavern in an area called La Nopalera (Cactus Patch), where he rested. That night, he reportedly dreamed he would die if he dared to enter Los Angeles with the stolen treasure. Shaken, he buried the treasure-filled packages under a nearby ash tree.
Continuing his journey into Los Angeles, Moreno fell ill and went to see his friend Jesus Martinez. To repay Martinez for his kindness, Moreno filled him in on where he buried the treasure: “On the side of the pass about halfway from the tavern to the summit on the hillside opposite the main road.” Moreno then fell into violent convulsions and died. After burying Moreno, Martinez and his young stepson, Jose Gumisindo Correa, headed for the pass. Just as Martinez found the tree, but before he began to dig, he suffered a seizure, collapsed and died. Correa, terrified and convinced the treasure was cursed, ran away.
In 1885, a Basque shepherd who regularly grazed his flock in the pass unearthed a tattered parcel of coins and jewels after his dog stumbled onto it under a tree.
Elated by his newfound wealth, though unaware that five similar packages were concealed nearby, he displayed his discovery to patrons in a local tavern before returning to his home in Spain. As his ship approached the dock, he stood on the rail to catch a glimpse of his homeland. Suddenly he tumbled over into the sea, where he sank under the weight of the heavy treasure he had sewn into his clothes.
Almost a decade later, Correa, now a grown man and a former Los Angeles lawman, overcame his fear of the treasure and decided to look for it again. But before he could even start, he was gunned down by his brother-in-law during a family quarrel at Boyle Avenue on the outskirts of downtown.
Over the years, various local treasure hunters weighed treks in search of the buried leather parcels, but all were deterred by stories of the curse that already had claimed so many lives.
In 1939, just seven months before the first segment of Los Angeles’ second-oldest freeway--the 1.5-mile Cahuenga Pass Freeway--opened with a Pacific Electric trolley running down the middle, Henry Jones, an oil and mining expert from San Francisco, joined forces with Walter Combes, a mechanic from Bakersfield, and his uncle, Ennis Combes, a novice inventor, to challenge the “mysterious unseen forces” guarding Juarez’s lost treasure.
Armed with Ennis Combes’ metal detector, the men became convinced they had located the gold and jewels about 15 feet below the surface in the parking lot behind the giant acoustical shell of the Hollywood Bowl.
The group sought and obtained the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors’ permission to begin digging after promising the local government a share of whatever they uncovered.
But suddenly the Combeses departed, taking their “doodlebug” metal detector with them. Their change of heart was attributed to fear of the curse and their unwillingness to become the next victims.
But “curse or no curse,” newspapers proclaimed, digging would get underway. Jones assembled a new team that included former Hollywood vaudevillian and stuntman Ray Johnson and Highland Park inventor Frank Hoekstra.
On Nov. 27, 1939, battling the warm sun, buzzing insects, three film crews recording the moment, CBS radio, and a carnival atmosphere of hundreds of curious spectators, the group of self-taught treasure hunters started to drill through the sticky asphalt outside the bowl.
A fence was erected around the site, and security guards worked overtime evicting would-be claim jumpers. An entrepreneur sold popcorn and soft drinks and tour buses circled hourly.
Encouraged by the dancing needle on Hoekstra’s “electrochemical recorder,” they continued to dig deeper. But after 24 days of shoveling more than 100 tons of dirt and mud to create a cavernous 9-foot-wide, 42-foot-deep hole, they hit a boulder and called it quits.
Less than a month later, depressed over the project’s failure and distraught over his divorce, Henry Jones committed suicide and his name was added to the list of victims.
Other treasure seekers were denied permits until 1974, when the Board of Supervisors granted William W. Boyle of Norwalk a one-day, $200 permit to pursue the loot with his newfangled “mineral rod,” which he claimed would point to gold up to 10 miles away. He too came up empty-handed, but he discovered that his biggest prize was the boyish wonderment of the pursuit and returning home alive, one of the few treasure seekers to escape the curse.
In a town that has made its fortune peddling fantasies to the world, the real treasure of Hollywood’s Cahuenga Pass may turn out to be the story of the curse itself.