Beyond the Grave: Old Calvary Cemetery, Los Angeles, ca. 1890

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As the Homestead’s Beyond the Grave program, which looks at concepts and rituals associated with death and dying in America and greater Los Angeles through the 1920s, approaches, here’s a very interesting and rare stereoscopic image of the old Calvary Cemetery at the base of the Elysian Hills about 1890s.

Published by the Kilburn brothers of Littleton, New Hampshire as part of a series of panoramic views of the growing city of Los Angeles following the great boom of the late 1880s, the image is an unusual vantage point.  Most photos showing this area north of downtown Los Angeles are taken from the south looking north.

This one, however, goes in the opposite direction, looking south from the hills towards downtown.  At the bottom is a good portion of the old Catholic cemetery, which was moved to the site in 1844 from a location immediately adjacent to the south of the Plaza Church on Main Street.

Stereoview Los Angeles 2014.54.1.1

After about a half-century and as Los Angeles was growing rapidly towards the hills, the decision was made to move the cemetery to what is now East Los Angeles.  This spot then became Cathedral High School and, not surprisingly, the school nickname became the “Phantoms.”

In the distance are homes that represented the creeping northward of the town’s residential areas into what, not long before, had been open land between the cemetery and the downtown area.

Notably, one of the grave sites that remained long after the cemetery was rendered inactive was a massive iron tomb containing the remains of Don Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican-era California, and his wife María Ygnacia Alvarado.

In 1921, after a contract was drafted and signed by descendants of Pico, the remains of the ex-governor and his wife were relocated to the newly completed Walter P. Temple Memorial Mausoleum at the El Campo Santo cemetery at the Homestead.

Over the years, once Cathedral High opened up, there would be the surprise discovery of human remains found from the old cemetery, even though it was assumed that all unclaimed remains had been moved to a mass grave at the new Calvary.  The “Phantoms” nickname made sense given the occasional unearthing of a body.

Just several years ago, when construction of the LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes museum next to the Plaza Church was underway, a good many remains, quite a few of which were of native Indians, were disturbed on what had been the original cemetery.  Obviously, these remains should have been moved in 1844 and nearly 170 years later, the startling discovery was made.

The story of a number of historic cemeteries in downtown Los Angeles and their closing and removal reveals many stories like these, including recent archaeological work on Fort Moore Hill, directly west of the Plaza, where many remains of the old “City Cemetery” were found.

Another variant is when the Gold Line rapid transit line was being expanded from downtown through Boyle Heights and into Los Angeles.  In a section of the system running near Evergreen Cemetery at the border between Boyle Heights and East Los Angeles, a number of graves were unexpectedly found outside the cemetery.

As for the Beyond the Grave program of special tours at the Homestead, join us on Sunday the 23rd at 12, 1, 2, 3, and 4 p.m.  Admission is $6 for adults and $4 for seniors and students and the suggested ages are 9 and over.  Reservations are recommended.

For more information, click here.


One thought

  1. Information on the old Cemetery on North Broadway was very interesting.
    My father attended Cathedral High School, graduating in 1932. He used to tell stories of cutting class to warch the exhumations. He said some of them were still wearing spurs and had pistols on.

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