Wednesday, September 25, 2013

La Brea an Urban Mystery

Other postings:

 The largest tar pit at La Brea the old quarry. 

The Rancho La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles, California are widely regarded as one of the richest sources of well preserved mammal fossils, and studied assemblages of Pleistocene (1) vertebrate. More than 60 species have been identified, including the saber-tooth cat, bears, lions, camels, bisons, mastodons, and over 135 species of bird. Also found were seventeen human bones, including a pelvis and a skull, as well as a number of artifacts such as milling stones and bone hairpins.

Interesting to note that in June 2013 federal authorities and the Los Angeles Police Department were searching the large quarry pit to find evidence. A law enforcement task force investigating a murder sent a diver into the dark muck of the La Brea Tar Pits  looking for evidence.

LAPD Lt. Andrew Neiman would not discuss details of the case and wouldn't say exactly what authorities were searching for, other than that it involved investigators from a joint task force. They requested the assistance of our dive team to search for an item of evidence related to an ongoing homicide investigation.
The conventional explanation for the abundance and diversity of this fossil material is that successive animal entrapment episodes had created an ever-growing mass of bones at the bottom of tar pools. An unwary horse, for example, might step into a seemingly benign pool of water to get a drink. Becoming ensnared in the tar underneath the watery surface, its distress cries would draw hungry carnivores, such as wolves, seeking an easy meal. These carnivores would themselves slip and fall into the pool, becoming, like their prey, inescapably trapped.

In the first two decades of the twentieth century, hundreds of thousands of fossils were excavated from the Rancho La Brea Tar Pits. Prior to that time, these pits were unknown. When Spanish settlers first arrived in the area of Los Angeles in the eighteenth century, they found a number of tar springs located in the middle of a large plain at the foot of the Santa Monica Mountains. Surrounding the springs was a scattering of animal bones visibly embedded within a layer of asphalt. It was not until the mid 1870’s that people began to realize the remote antiquity of these bones. Soon after exploratory excavations began in the early 1900s, scientists were finding tar pits containing large numbers of fossils.

Fossilized ice age hawk.
The conventional explanation for the occurrence of these fossils is that thirsty birds and mammals, deceived by water-filled pools of tar, had blundered into these viscous traps and died in them. Although widely accepted, the entrapment theory has failed to give convincing answers to some key questions, including the physical characteristics of tar pits, the fragmentation and chaotic intermingling of the bones, and the numerical preponderance of the carnivores. Since these issues cannot be resolved by the entrapment theory. The evidence is pointing toward flooding as the force for fossil deposition at the La Brea Tar Pits. 
The first scientist to realize that there were bones of remote antiquity in this area was a geologist from Massachusetts named William Denton (Merriam, 1912). In 1875 he came to Southern California to inspect oil prospects. At that time, the land comprising the tar springs was owned by Henry Hancock, a Los Angeles surveyor and lawyer, who acquired the property from the Rocha family several years before. Hancock started an asphalt quarry business and employed 25 Chinese laborers.

Henry Hancock foreground, la Brea pits and oil wells in background.

The La Brea quarry at dawn. 

The asphaltum was processed and sent to San Francisco, where it was used to pave roads. It was also used as a preservative for railroad ties and water pipes. The old quarry can still be seen at the park, now filled in with water and fenced off. Large bubbles of gas burst every minute or so on the oily surface of the pond. In the late 1960’s, several life-size fiberglass mammoths were placed around the shore, and a sinking mammoth was tethered to the bottom.

When Denton visited the ranch, he and Hancock talked about fossils. Denton was shown a canine tooth that was found in the quarry. It was nine and a half inches in length and the breadth of the crown was three and a half inches wide. Denton had previously seen a similar tooth from a Machairodus, a European saber-tooth cat, but the La Brea canine was substantially larger. He took the tooth and some other animal bones back to Massachusetts and wrote a report of his findings. The report failed to generate interest within the scientific community.
Saber-tooth cat fossilized skull. 

It was not until 1901 that the first scientific excavation of the pits were carried out. Scientists from the University of California at Berkeley, notably Professor John C. Merriam and his students, were among the first researchers to work on the La Brea fossils. Today, the George C. Page Museum of La Brea Discoveries, right next door to the tar pits themselves, displays huge numbers of La Brea fossils. The Page Museum is part of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.
Visiting the Hancock ranch to check out the prospects for oil production, geologist William W. Orcutt saw a curious mosaic of bones in a section of asphalt that was exposed after the drilling of a water well. Despite the lack of proper tools, Orcutt removed a patch of material from the asphalt and examined it. It was a piece of armored hide from an extinct ground sloth. Excited by this find, he obtained permission from the Hancock family to prospect for more fossils. Finding them was not hard, but extracting these fragile specimens from the rock-like asphalt matrix was a painstaking, laborious process. Often a whole day was spent retrieving a single bone. His patience paid off, and after four years, he possessed an enviable collection of fossils, including the only complete skull of a saber-tooth cat in the world (Orcutt, 1954).

Ground sloth fossil skeleton. 

In the latter part of 1905, Dr. John C. Merriam, vertebrate paleontologist of the University of California, Berkeley, learned about Orcutt’s collection and began a correspondence with him. After seeing some of the fossils, Merriam agreed that they were significant. Representing the university, he obtained a permit from the Hancock family to conduct a scientific exploration on the ranch.
Dr. John C. Merriam

At this point the historical record becomes a little obscure. Someone, we do not know who, made a momentous discovery. About two hundred yards northwest of the quarry was a pocket of densely packed animal and bird bones, broken twigs, and a few large branches of trees (Stoner, 1913). It was located in an area where, several decades previously (according to field excavation notes), Hancock’s laborers had used dynamite to break through the hard bituminous layer to see if there was any commercial grade asphaltum underneath. What made this pocket so desirable, from a fossil extraction point of view, was its soft matrix of tar and sand. It was a relatively easy task to remove the bones, piece by piece, clean them off with kerosene, and analyze them. This discovery brought to light for the first time the paleontological phenomenon that has since been termed “the La Brea Tar Pits.”

The pit at UC Loc. 2050 was shaped roughly like a bottle. The topmost part of the pocket, or the neck of the bottle, was about five feet wide. Below the neck, the pocket extended outward with increasing depth until at ten to twelve feet it was about eight feet wide. The last remaining bones of the pocket were at a depth of 17 feet. The boundary forming the contour of the bottle had a lumpy irregularity as the pressurized tar had pushed its way unevenly into the surrounding green and brown clays.

In 1912, another excavation site, UC Loc. 2051, was started about 70 feet southeast from the first one. This site was notable for having not one, but three, pockets of bone material. The first of these pockets was about 15 feet wide and about 22 feet deep. From this exposure, university excavators moved eastward to find two smaller diameter pockets, one being 21 feet deep and the other 14 feet deep. As in the case of 2050, the bones of 2051 were packed in soft tar and sealed off by the surface layer of asphalt. According to Stoner, “the most interesting observation... is that the bones accumulated in holes of such small size, and that the deposits were built up to such a thickness.”
In 1913 Mr. G. Allan Hancock gave the County of Los Angeles the exclusive privilege of doing excavations on his ranch. For the next two years, county excavators dug test holes all around the 23-acre estate in a haphazard search for soft-matrix, fossil-bearing tar pits. Hampering this effort was the surface layer of asphalt. The excavators attacked it with picks, shovels, hammers, wedges, and even dynamite. Since the location of these soft-matrix pits was unknown, they had to make a lot of educated guesses. They dug up the vents of active and inactive tar springs and dug trenches through outcroppings of bituminous material.

Ice age bisen fossil skeleton. 

Out of a total of 96 test pits, eight had significant amounts of well-preserved bone material, and seven more had inferior material of lesser quantities. Like the bones of the university pits, few of the bones in the county pits had escaped damage. Some had deteriorated because of their proximity to water-saturated stumps and branches. At Pit 4, one of the eight major pits, an excavator made the following note: “The disposition of this brush and associated material as well as markings on the brush itself, indicate that this stuff was all washed in.”

Large quarry pit with trapped fiberglass model Mammoth. 
The eight major fossil-bearing pits were of various sizes. On average, they were cone-shaped, about 15 feet in diameter at the top and tapering down 25 feet to a vent several inches wide. The vent coursed downward through about one hundred feet of Pleistocene gravel, sand, and clay. These sediments form the outwash plain between the Santa Monica Mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Below this strata, the tar pit vent continues down through another layer of gravel, sand, and fine-grained marine sediments to oil reservoirs about 2,000 to 6,000 feet below the surface of the earth. This oil-bearing second layer is called Upper Miocene (2), and it forms the basin of the Los Angeles region (Quinn, 1992; Stock and Harris, 1992, p. 10). According to Wyman (1926, p. 9), the pits were originally created by blowouts of natural gas. Heavy subterranean fracturing by earth tremors allowed pressurized gas to escape upward and penetrate the surface alluvial layer at numerous points. Liquid petroleum followed the gas, which filled in these blown out holes.

As the fossils were being taken out of the pits, county excavators packed them in crates and carted them over to the Museum of History, Science and Art, which later became the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles. The last of the excavations ended in December 1915. For many years afterward, this huge collection of over 700,000 specimens kept scientists busy making inventories and churning out monographs on new species of birds and mammals. This descriptive phase was largely completed by the late 1950s. In spite of the great quantity of papers written, only a few addressed the mechanism of the entrapment theory in a meaningful way. It has only been in recent years that attempts have been made to refine the entrapment theory to make it more conformable to the reality of the evidence.
The tar pit fossils bear eloquent witness to life in southern California from 40,000 to 8,000 years ago; aside from vertebrates, they include plants, mollusks, and insects -- over 660 species of organisms in all. Tar pits form when crude oil seeps to the surface through fissures in the Earth's crust; the light fraction of the oil evaporates, leaving behind the heavy tar, or asphalt, in sticky pools. Tar from the La Brea tar pits was used for thousands of years by local native Americans, as a glue and as waterproof caulking for baskets and canoes. After the arrival of Westerners, the tar from these pits was mined and used for roofing by the inhabitants of the nearby town of Pueblo de Nuestra SeƱora la Reina de Los Angeles.

Animatronic Sabre-tooth cat attacking a large slow moving ground sloth.

In today's ecosystems herbivores are much more abundant than carnivores. It is therefore curious that at La Brea about 90% of the mammal fossils found represent carnivores. Most of the bird fossils are also predators or scavengers, including vultures, condors, eagles, and giant, extinct, storklike birds known as teratorns. Why is this the case? If a pack of carnivorous mammals were to chase a lone prey animal into the tar pits, both predators and prey would become trapped. This would not have to be a frequent occurrence -- an average of one major entrapment every ten years, over a period of 30,000 years, would be sufficient to account for the number of fossils found at La Brea. Scavenging animals, drawn to feed on trapped animals, would have a chance of getting trapped themselves. This would explain the preponderance of carnivores and scavengers.
1. The Pleistocene period lasted from 1,640,000 to about 10,000 years ago. It was marked by great fluctuations in temperature that caused the ice ages, with glacial periods followed by warmer interglacial periods. Several extinct forms of human, forerunners of modern humans, appeared during this epoch.
2.  The Miocene period lasted from 23.3 million to 5.2 million years ago. During this time, the Alps and Himalayas were being formed and there was diversification of the primates, including the first apes.
The site is interactive with youtbe. I have produced a video of the tarpits and displays from the Page Museum at this link:
Works Cited

Barth, E. J. 1962. Asphalt, science and technology. Gordon and Breach, New York.Borell, A. E. 1936. A modern tar pit. Auk, 53:298–300.
CA.Guggisberg, C. A. W. 1963. Simba, the life of a lion. Chilton Books, Philadelphia, PA.
Mech, L. D. 1970. The wolf: the ecology and behavior of an endangered species. Natural History Press, New York.
Merriam, J. C. 1912. The fauna of Rancho La Brea. Pt. 2, Canidae. Memoirs of the University of California 1912, 1(2):201–213.
Orcutt, M. L. 1954. The discovery in 1901 of the La Brea fossil beds. Historical Society of Southern California Quarterly, 36(4):338–341.
Quinn, J. P. 1992. The geologic setting of Rancho La Brea. Terra, 31(1):38–41.
Stock, C. and Harris, J. M. 1992. Rancho La Brea: A record of Pleistocene Life in California, seventh edition. Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, Los Angeles, CA.
Stoner, R. C. 1913. Recent observations on mode of accumulation of the Pleistocene bone deposits of Rancho La Brea. University of California Publications, Bulletin of the Department of Geology, 7(20):387–396.

Thursday, September 19, 2013

The King Eddy

Other postings:
The King Eddy Saloon is located in the once fashionable hotel hub of Downtown on 5th and Los Angeles Street called "The Nickel." The bar is a microcosm of LA itself. A secret spot in a city with few secrets. Novelist John Fante drank here. He set the scene of his novel Ask the Dust in the basement of the King Eddy. Novelist James M. Cain also was known to hang out at the Eddy while researching his book The Postman Always RingsTwice. Later, poet Charles Bukowski drank at the Eddy in the swinging 60s and 70s.

The Biltmore Hotel 1925 Pershing Square forground

Downtown Los Angeles had tremendous commercial growth in the early 20th century,that brought with it hotel construction—during this time period several hotels, the Alexandria (1906), the The King Edward (1906), Rosslyn (1911), and the Biltmore (1923), were erected—the need for venues to entertain the growing population of Los Angeles also increased.


The King Eddy Saloon is one of the oldest pubs in Los Angeles, what some call an authentic dive bar... The saloon was built along side the King Edward Hotel. The saloon operated in downtown as a respectable night spot until prohibition.

In the roaring twenties the King Eddy was the center of the illegal alcohol and bootlegging trade in Los Angeles. The saloon became an infamous speakeasy that was created in the basement of its present location.

Ryan manager of the King Eddy examines of the murals from the basement speakeasy days of the King Eddy. The Eddy was moved beneath the ground floor to the basement. The former saloon was leased out to a piano store. Patrons would knock on the back door of the store, give a password and then enter the 2,000 square foot basement to enjoy a drink in Los Angeles.

The King Eddy basement had a 130 foot long tunnel that connected to a network of service and utility shafts across downtown Los Angeles – perfect for deliveries of bootleg liquor. The eleven miles of tunnels were built in 1910 for the hotels in the area to avoid street congestion in downtown's growing business district.
The main commercial service tunnel starts at Pershing Square where delivery of products for various businesses were dropped off. The downtown operator would load his goods onto a cart and travel under 5th Street with subterranean channels through downtown.


Smaller tunnels branched out from the main shaft to the hotels and businesses, where goods were stored in basements and various storerooms.


Ryan opens the former speakeasy cold storage where beer was kept in the King Eddy 130 feet access tunnel next to  the basement.


After prohibition ended in 1933 the upstairs space was converted back into the saloon and dive bar we know and love today. The basement of the King Eddy is still intact.

King's Eddy's liquor license, which is probably one of the oldest in the city, dates back to 1933. The genuine pretense-free demeanor of the patrons and staff seemed to draw an eclectically fashioned crowd. The Eddy is still flourishing in the new growth and revitalization of the downtown area. The King Eddy is planning to refurbish the former speakeasy and make it a lounge in the style of the 1920s.
Imagine looking back upon the relics of decades past, on a room mostly untouched for generations. Filled with random knick-knacks that have accumulated over the years. The basement murals of kegs and cops on the brick walls from the 1920s, something to spruce up the dim room during times of revelry. Rusted machinery, and broken brick line the basement of the King Eddy Saloon that was once L.A.s most notorious speakeasy.

For more information on the King Eddy check out this video which gives a brief history of the pub and interesting and historic downtown area: