Echo Park Lake discovery: Sunken wagon wheel’s origin a mystery

On May 27, Vicente Vasquez was digging into the bed of Echo Park Lake with his backhoe when he scraped a solid object buried under 4 feet of muck.

What could it be?

During the city’s months-long dredging and rebuilding of the lake, workers have found lots of old bottles and assorted junk, but nothing sexy or sensational. No bodies, no bones, no rusted weapons used in unsolved crimes.

Vasquez cleared a space around his discovery and saw the outlines of the buried treasure. It was the axle and part of the undercarriage of a very old wagon of some type, like the one his grandfather used on his farm in Jalisco, Mexico. The wooden spokes of one wheel were still largely intact.

In a city that lives so permanently in the present, this was a giant leap back in time, the corner of an old western coach emerging from the depths in the land of automobiles — not far from the four-level freeway interchange.

Michael Kay and Dana Slawson, archaeologists on the city project, suspected the axle and wheel were made in the late 1800s. They sent photos to Charles Johnson, who oversees the Ventura County Agriculture Museum. Johnson directed them to Tom Peterson of the Carriage and Western Art Museum in Santa Barbara.

“It looks like it’s from a grain wagon or it could have been a stagecoach,” Peterson told me last week, adding that he had sent the pictures to an expert in South Dakota and was awaiting his determination.

If it was a passenger coach, Peterson said, it might have been a nine-person carriage with three rows of seats.

“It was about 25 cents to sit in the good seats and 15 cents to sit in the middle,” Peterson said.

OK, perhaps not as historically significant as the discovery of the saber-toothed tiger in the La Brea tar pits. But for me, this was still a pretty neat snapshot of the city as it used to be. Echo Park resident and historian Rory Mitchell thought so too.

“This is very exciting,” he exclaimed when I called with the news. A historical consultant by trade, Mitchell has spent a year and a half researching stagecoach trails that ran through Echo Park at the end of the 1800s. It began with his curiosity about neighborhood lore that a hilltop house had once been a pony express station.

Mitchell has found no evidence that the pony express came through L.A., but the cross-country Butterfield Overland Mail delivered post and people to the city, perhaps along a trail that skirted what is now Dodger Stadium on the way to the Cahuenga Pass. He said an 1873 map of the Wells Fargo stage line follows that same course. Back then, Mitchell said, Echo Park Lake was much larger and extended north to the vicinity of the stage route.

Mitchell didn’t have a guess about whether this was part of a stagecoach, a farm wagon, a covered wagon that brought settlers west, or perhaps a service cart used in the Belmont oil fields or in the construction of the lake at the end of the 19th century. But he was highly intrigued.

Of course there is one other possibility. Echo Park was the center of the local film industry before Hollywood. Might the wagon have been a prop in a Charlie Chaplin or a Laurel and Hardy movie, and a studio workman dumped it in the lake when they were done with it?

In reading some history, I learned that the founder of Echo Park was a gent named Thomas Kelly, a real estate developer who earlier in his life had a different career.

He was a carriage maker.

Was this one of his?

Speaking of Kelly, Mitchell and others say he was at the center of a land swap that sounds a bit like the story line from the movie “Chinatown.” Kelly and other well-connected investors gave the city 33 acres of land around the lake for use as a park. In return, the city agreed not to expand the boundaries of the lake — which served as a reservoir back then, with the city controlling the water elevation. That exchange raised the value of nearby land owned by Kelly and opened it up for development.

All these years, “Chinatown” fans might just as easily have been saying, “Forget it, Jake. It’s Echo Park.”

Late last week, I called the South Dakota wagon expert, and he delivered a bit of a blow to the stagecoach theory. What was dug out of the mud in Echo Park was a piece of a farm wagon, said Doug Hansen, owner of Hansen Wheel and Wagon, which restores and sells wagons, including stagecoaches used in movies.

The construction of the axle and the metal braking system dates it to the 1880s, said Hansen, and two horses probably pulled as much as three tons of grain, lumber or other supplies for a farmer or merchant. It might once have been used as a covered passenger wagon, he said, but he thought there was a greater likelihood that the wagon was used to support a stagecoach station. Stagecoach horses and passengers needed to be watered and fed, Hansen said, and wagons “were like worker bees” catering to the queen’s needs.

“Anything that happened in Los Angeles did not happen without that wagon” and others like it, Hansen said.

City officials aren’t sure what they’ll do with the wheel. They said there’s more digging to do in the area where it was found, so it’s possible they’ll find the rest of the carriage.

Mitchell was still thrilled to see the wheel when we visited the site Friday and thanked workers for digging it up and treating it with such consideration. He’s obsessed with preserving as much as he can of L.A.'s past before it’s forgotten or paved over. It’s part of our narrative and cultural identity, he said, and yet so much of it awaits discovery, scattered underfoot and “lying in the basements of places.”

And in lake beds too.