by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Many historic houses have their variations on certain mysteries, be they spirits, ghosts and the supernatural; hidden and buried treasure; or concealed passageways, secret rooms, or hidden tunnels. The Workman House is no different and whatever views are about the first, we so far have not heard about any existence of the second (so, please leave the shovels at home), though there are stories about the third.
Generally, there are two versions of the tunnel story. One is that the tunnel led from the Workman House basement in a southerly direction to San José Creek, a year-round watercourse at the time the home was occupied by the Workman and Temple families and which ran from the Pomona area to its confluence with the San Gabriel River. The other is that the underground passage ran east and south to El Campo Santo Cemetery.
The reason for having a tunnel is usually ascribed to either a) hiding out from bandits and burglars (such as the semi-legendary Joaquín Murrieta or Tiburcio Vásquez) or b) escaping from raiding groups of Native Americans from the deserts of eastern California, Nevada and Utah, who stole horses and cattle.
There were certainly bandits and Native American stock thieves in some frequency up through about the mid-1860s, so there is a whiff of plausibility in the tale of the tunnel. One story has it that, when one group of natives descended on the Workman House, they were stunned to find that the family suddenly vanished without any evident and obvious explanation and that this was determined to be a supernatural occurrence.
In the 1920s, Thomas W. Temple II, one of the four surviving children of Walter and Laura Temple, who purchased the Homestead in late 1917, claimed to have fallen into a large collapsed section of earth on the ranch and stated that he believed this was a preserved section of the tunnel.
Whether or not such a passageway existed, when my colleague Elizabeth Flynn, who oversees our Behind-the-Scenes tours (in which visitors get to go to the basements of the two houses, the second floor of the Workman House, and other little-visited areas of the historic houses), asked if there was a new object we could consider including as part of the weekend tours, I immediately thought of one of the earliest artifacts to be incorporated into our museum’s collection.
This is a large adobe brick, donated to the Homestead in 1980, the year before it opened to the public. The brick came with a note from the donor, Larry Barnes, an employee of the Earth Sciences division of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County (the foundation of which operated the Homestead for its first year) that claimed something very interesting:
“In 1959 or 1960 the Army Corps of Engineers channeled the San José Creek and in doing so uncovered the entrance to a tunnel. The opening was 5 feet tall and 4 1/2′ wide. I found the entrance back in the bushes, framed in an arch with bricks on north side of stream slightly southwest of present buildings. The opening was clogged up. I have one more brick in a complete square . . .
Unfortunately, the second brick did not make its way to the Homestead collection, but Barnes’ account is very interesting. What he did not explain is how he came to know about the alleged tunnel–perhaps the Natural History Museum was called to investigate what the Army Corps staff found as they were converting the creek to a flood control and runoff channel. Barnes’ detail about the construction of the opening is also notable, though the location is obviously somewhat vague, and it seems clear that there was no ingress into what he found.
It’s been at least a quarter century, but I have a vague recollection of an older man coming to the Homestead on a weekend when I was the site supervisor for both Saturdays and Sundays and telling me that he had seen the tunnel opening at the creek. I can’t recall if it was Barnes or not–this would have been at the end of the 1980s or very early in the 1990s.
At any rate, the brick is an interesting, if unverified, artifact connected to the possible tunnel. I’ll be interested to find out how visitors reacted when they saw the brick and heard the stories associated with it when they when into one of the rooms of the Workman House basement during the tour. The Behind the Scenes tour is offered a few times a year, so check out the museum’s new website for more when future dates are posted.