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Historians dig deep to find West’s past

Times Staff Writer

Historians digging up the past of California and the West have hit a rich vein of underground topics: cemeteries, coal mines, secret escape tunnels, buried treasures, earthquake faults and a little girl trapped in a well nine stories below.

On the surface (no pun intended), these subjects may not have much in common other than what USC history professor William Deverell calls their “undergroundness.” But “the subterranean West is a really important West,” he said, noting the economic power of mining, oil gushers and water rights.

The underground “also is riven with these ideas and folkloric stories of death and danger, myth and cosmology,” said Deverell, director of the Huntington-USC Institute on California and the West. “We want to bat around those ideas and look at what could possibly hold all this together.”

The institute recently sponsored a conference titled “Under the West” at the Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino.

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Sixteen historians presented papers on topics that included coal mining disasters, disputes over graveyard locations, the origins of Native American burial mounds, effects of the powerful 19th century earthquakes that changed the Mississippi River’s course and persistent but false beliefs that labyrinths of tunnels hid criminals and opium beneath Chinatowns.

Thomas Andrews, an assistant professor of history at the University of Colorado Denver, said he was a bit dubious at first about connections among those topics, but came away thinking the meeting was a success.

“For a conference where the organizing principle is one of the three strata of reality -- the air, the surface and the underground -- it held together pretty well,” he said. A frequent link was how people “think about underground spaces and invest them with meanings as uncontrollable or dangerous places.”

That was certainly true in his presentation on coal mine explosions and collapses that killed more than 250 people in southern Colorado in 1910. His research showed the multi-ethnic roots of the miners -- immigrants from Italy, Mexico and Eastern Europe -- and how their anger helped trigger strikes and bloody labor conflicts in the region a few years later.

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“Death underground begat more violence above,” Andrews said.

Deverell is researching another instance of death far below the Earth’s surface. He said he has become obsessed by the story of Kathy Fiscus, the 3-year-old girl who fell 90 feet into an abandoned well in San Marino in April 1949. The difficult and often heroic efforts to rescue her and then retrieve her body were chronicled on live local television, then a medium in its infancy.

“It was the first reality television show in America,” Deverell told the conference.

The one redeeming element of the Fiscus tragedy, he said, was how it brought together so many Southern Californians.

Deverell, who has a 7-year-old daughter, said he is personally haunted by the sad episode and professionally interested in “the way a single event can open up society and its belief structure.”

His research on the Fiscus death prompted Deverell to think about other aspects of subterranean history. That led him to conceive the conference and send out a national call for academic papers for it late last year. He got about 50 proposals and chose 15 authors to attend. A larger conference and a book of collected essays may follow.

Among those selected was Lance Muckey, a doctoral candidate in history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, whose dissertation looks at government regulation of cemetery locations and subsequent legal battles. At the meeting, he focused on how San Francisco used municipal powers to restrict burials and then, by the 1920s, move graves out of town.

“We probably have in our minds a picture of resting in peace, that someone will be in their grave undisturbed for eternity. It’s not necessarily the case,” Muckey explained later. “What goes underground doesn’t necessarily stay underground.”

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The popular myth that webs of tunnels sheltered illegal immigrants and contraband beneath Chinatowns in the West was debunked by Priscilla Wegars, an archaeologist and historian from Idaho. Imagination fueled by anti-immigrant prejudice turned utilitarian and unconnected basement vaults into conspiratorial and dangerous spots.

“Anything mysterious was attributed to the Chinese,” she said. Such urban legends were untrue and insulting to the memory of the Chinese, Wegars said.

Though many histories of the underground evoked scary or mysterious aspects, anthropologist Peter Nabokov, a professor in UCLA’s American Indian studies program, stressed a different view.

Native American tradition in the West often cherishes and celebrates the subterranean as the source of human life, positive spirits, productive agriculture and fresh water, Nabokov said. Catholic missionaries sought to demonize the underworld. But in the beliefs of such tribes as the Hopi, Zuni, Navajo and Apache, the underworld is “no hell, it is not a place where you are condemned if you behave badly,” Nabokov said.

“It is a beneficent underworld from which good things come,” he added.

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larry.gordon@latimes.com


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