Ft. Moore Hill's History a Matter of Life and Death

Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.

Shovel them under and let me work.

I am the grass; I cover all.

--Carl Sandburg


Very little grass grows on Ft. Moore Hill, site of the city's first non-Catholic graveyard. Atop it, instead, is the office complex of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The 10-acre site across the freeway from the rising Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral has been devoted to educating Angelenos for nearly 120 years, but in the decades before, the hill served many purposes, including funereal ones.

The site was a bare wilderness in 1847 when the Mexican War turned it into a lookout post for the fledgling pueblo. It soon had a name: Ft. Moore, for Army Capt. Benjamin Moore, who the year before had taken a lance through the heart in battle.

The hill soon turned to civilian purpose, and over 30 years served as an execution spot, a posh neighborhood and the site of a school.

But first it was a burying ground.

The first bodies committed to the ground there were those of four soldiers killed in late 1847 when a powder magazine exploded. Later rumors, however, held that the pueblo had buried dead Native Americans by tossing their bodies into the steep ravine that ran along Temple Street at the foot of the hill. Perhaps that inspired the Spanish name for the place--Canada de Los Muertos (Ravine of the Dead).

Even before the grass had time to grow over the soldiers' graves, the hill was becoming a potter's field, where the poor buried their dead under cover of night in unmarked graves. The first officially recorded burial was of Andrew Sublette, on Dec. 19, 1853. He was hunting in Malibu Canyon when he shot a grizzly, killing the bear even as it killed him.

"Before he could reload," wrote Horace Bell in "Reminiscences of a Ranger," the wounded bear was upon Sublette. "His faithful dog, Old Buck, was with him, and the two fought, Andy with his knife and Old Buck with the weapons furnished by nature."

Bell wrote that rescuers found the bear dead and Sublette dying. Old Buck was "licking the blood from poor Andy's face."

Invitations to the wake went out. Buck rode to his master's funeral in a wagon, camped out on his grave at the cemetery and, apparently heartbroken, refused all offers of food and drink. He died there three days later.

Not long after Sublette's burial, the cemetery became known variously as City Cemetery, Ft. Hill Cemetery, Protestant Cemetery and "the cemetery on the hill."

During the 1850s, when justice was often administered by a mob and a rope, drugstore owner and former state Sen. Alexander W. Hope resigned as sheriff so he could organize the Los Angeles Rangers, a fraternal group of lawmen who would eventually become the basis of the LAPD. When Hope died unexpectedly from illness in 1856, he was buried in "the cemetery on the hill." Hope Street was named in his honor.

The next year, the hill began doing double duty, as a gallows conveniently located on Cemetery Hill. The notorious bandit Juan Flores and his gang had murdered Los Angeles Sheriff James R. Barton and three of his five-man posse. A month later, on Valentine's Day, 1857, before a crowd of 3,000 Angelenos--more than half the county's population--the 22-year-old Flores was hanged, slowly strangling to death. It was a hangman's double feature: no sooner had Flores been cut down than Miguel Blanco, a thief who had robbed and stabbed a U.S. Army officer, was strung up.

The man who succeeded Barton as sheriff, William Getman, was killed the next year in a shootout at a livery stable. The funeral wagon carrying his mahogany coffin had to inch carefully up the steep bluff on Cemetery Avenue, where carriages had overturned.

More than a decade later, most of the 600 graves had fallen into neglect, riddled with squirrel holes, the heads and wings of marble angels knocked off by vandals.

The city took control and hired a sexton. Soon portions were sold to the pueblo's benevolent associations, such as the Masons and Odd Fellows. One corner was designated for Chinese burials.

In the 1870s, a local physician who observed a "peculiar haze" rising from the cemetery imaginatively blamed the graveyard for a scarlet fever epidemic.

Still, folks continued to bury their loved ones there. R.V. Peabody's grave was surrounded by an ornate iron railing, while Sir John Christopher Wagner's epitaph read: "He has fought the good fight. He has kept the faith."

With the opening of the nondenominational Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights in 1877, and Rosedale Cemetery in 1884, the city banned burials on Cemetery Hill, except for those already owning plots.

A few years later, property values on the hill began to rise. Hurrying to fill its coffers in the real estate boom, the city quickly plowed over unclaimed and unmarked graves and subdivided 24 lots. One of them was turned into a beer garden. The cavalier action angered memoirist Bell:

"The city allowed promoters to map it, cut it up and sell it off in small building lots. In building streets through it, human remains were excavated and scattered and today, wagons rattle through streets built up over buried human bodies. Houses stand on graves. . . . The city never pretended to remove and reinter elsewhere the bodies resting there. Boom insanity blighted not only people's good judgment but their humanity and sense of justice."

Nonetheless, the rich moved up the hill. Mary and Lucy Banning, the widow and daughter of stagecoach and railroad magnate Phineas Banning, remodeled the beer garden into a cupolaed cottage. The parlors of the city's best families hosted private gambling parties on the old cemetery grounds.

In the 1880s, the two-story wooden Los Angeles High School building was moved up to Ft. Moore Hill and turned into an elementary school.

The gallows vanished, along with most of the aging fort. What was left of the graveyard sat weedy and forgotten.

The Odd Fellows opened a cemetery elsewhere. A new Los Angeles High School, a four-story brick building, opened in 1890. Tombstones adorned the schoolyard. In 1900, tunnelers for the Red Car lines dug a passageway far below the cemetery land.

As the city moved west, the hill began to lose cachet. In 1917, the high school abandoned the building. By the 1930s, the city had ordered the cemetery cleared to make room for Central Junior High School, but most remains went unclaimed. More than 200 coffins were exhumed and reinterred at Rosedale Cemetery, but some of the forgotten dead went into a mass grave atop the hill. Buildings and parking lots were later built atop it, part of the school district's headquarters.

In 1933, the hill bounced back into the public eye with a sudden rumor that thousands of dollars of Spanish gold were buried beneath it. City officials struck a bargain with treasure hunters: a 50-50 split of whatever they found. Spurred by dreams of wealth, the gold diggers wound up only adding rivulets of their own sweat to the soil of Cemetery Hill.

When much of the Red Car tunnel was removed in 1944 to make way for the Hollywood Freeway, steam shovels exposed bones and coffins from the old cemetery above, as well as bottles and utensils of some great age--but no gold.

The school district wants to abandon its headquarters on Grand Avenue--an unlovely complex whose own staff calls it "the ugly little building capital of the world"--to build a high school there.

In the near future, the backhoe that peels away the heavy chunks of gray asphalt may yet find evidence of the many lives and deaths of old Cemetery Hill.

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