Evergreen Cemetery: The First Corporate Cemetery in Los Angeles

Although settled in 1781, the pueblo of Los Angeles did not have its own cemetery until the establishment of the Plaza Church. Prior to that, the denizens of the sparsely populated hamlet, were interred at Mission San Gabriel, ten miles east. The first recorded burial “in the cemetery of the church in the pueblo” was in January 1820, while the Plaza Church was under construction. For almost a quarter century, the plot to the south of the church was the final resting place for Angelenos. In recent months, however, a major controversy has arisen at the site as crews working on a newly-opened Mexican-American cultural center and museum discovered the remains of native aboriginal Indians (Gabrieliños) and others on the site and museum officials heavily criticized for their secrecy and insensitivity in dealing (or, rather, not dealing) with the situation.

By 1837, a movement gathered in Los Angeles to move the cemetery, because it was deemed too small, while others expressed concern that the burial ground “is very injurious to the health” of the residents of the pueblo. Finally, in 1844, a site was chosen north of the town at the base of the hills now part of Elysian Park. On All-Souls Day, 2 November, the cemetery was dedicated and blessed, though full consecration as Calvary Cemetery did not occur until 1866. Calvary remained in operation until a new, larger site was secured on the fringes of what is now East Los Angeles and which opened in 1896, though the old Calvary continued to exist for decades and is now the site of Cathedral High School (nickname: the Phantoms!)

During the American invasion of 1846-47, a fort, Fort Moore, was established on the hill overlooking the Plaza. An explosion of gunpowder killed four soldiers and it was said the men were buried within the confines of the fort. This seems to have been why a non-Catholic cemetery was later established on the hill, after the military abandoned and removed the fort. This burying place was often called “Fort Moore Cemetery” or “The Protestant Cemetery” and its earliest use is at the end of 1853.

The following year, 1854, the Hebrew Benevolent Society established a Jewish cemetery, north of town and west of Calvary, towards the Angelino Heights area. There was also a cemetery that operated very briefly near the Staples Center, close to Figueroa between 8th and 9th streets, in the late 1850s and early 1860s, but it appeared to have only been in use for about three years.

Finally, in the mid-1870s, another movement developed to close the Fort Moore Hill cemetery and create a new burial ground. In June 1877, the Los Angeles Evening Express announced the news that Evergreen Cemetery had been founded on seventy acres at the eastern limits of the city in the newly-created Boyle Heights neighborhood. Tellingly, the writer of the article commented that private enterprise stepped in to create the cemetery because of city inaction in dealing with the cemetery on Fort Moore Hill. The founders of the Los Angeles Cemetery Association included Albert H. Judson as president; Isaac W. Lord as secretary; Edward F. Spence as treasurer and trustees Victor Ponet, Irvine Dunsmoor and Fred Dohs.

Judson was an attorney and real estate developer, Lord was also heavily invested in real estate and was the developer of Lordsburg, now La Verne, and Spence was a prominent banker and real estate investor who later went on to be mayor of Los Angeles in the 1880s. Among the trustees, Dohs was a musician, barber and real estate investor, as well as a noted breeder of horses, Dunsmoor was owner of the Dollar Store, and Ponet was a well-known undertaker, coffin manufacturer and dealer in picture molding and frames (Ponet Terrace is a subdivision in Los Feliz on land owned by him.)

The City of Los Angeles, however, was hardly receptive initially to the Evergreen plan and passed an ordinance later in June prohibiting any burials except those in the established cemeteries at Fort Moore Hill, Calvary and the Jewish facility. A committee was appointed, however, to inquire into a site for a new burial ground and a 120-acre site just north of the Jewish cemetery, in what is Chavez Ravine and Dodger Stadium today, was proposed, having already been city-owned. Clearly, some closed-door negotiations followed, because, in late August, the city reversed course and granted permission for Evergreen to proceed. In return, the Los Angeles Cemetery Association agreed to reserve five acres at the new facility as a “potters field” for poor residents buried at public expense. This latter section operated until 1917 when it was sold to the county.

In 1880, a few years after the creation of Evergreen, the cemetery was given some attention in an illustrated history of Los Angeles County (usually referred to as Thompson and West’s history, part of a series covering California counties.) By then, it was reported, there were more than 4,000 trees on the site, which was laid out by county surveyor E. T. Wright, and the grounds were deemed “already attractive in appearance and promising to become more so every year.” An ornate gate at the main entrance, broad walks bordered by cypress trees, a hedge border around the entire cemetery, and water pumped from an on-site well eighty feet in depth by a Halliday windmill, were highlighted. Also of note was that, among the lots obtained by some of the town’s more prominent residents, there was a granite shaft built on his lot by John E. Hollenbeck of Boyle Heights that cost the substantial sum of $6,000. At the time, about three hundred persons had been interred at the three-year old cemetery.

In the latter half of the 1880s, a major land boom (the “boom of the Eighties”) erupted and subsided and, after a depression and drought in the 1890s, the population of Los Angeles continued to accelerate rapidly as the 20th-century dawned. The Los Angeles Cemetery Association, owners of Evergreen, issued a pamphlet in 1901 that vividly portrayed the facility to prospective buyers of lots.

By that time, the new president of the association was J. M. Elliott, president of the First National Bank of Los Angeles, whose predecessor was Edward F. Spence. Ponet had moved into the role of vice-president. Directors included Dohs, Lord and William D. Stephens, a migrant to Los Angeles in the great boom of 1887 and who was a prominent grocer. Stephens later was a director of the Chamber of Commerce, Board of Water Commissioners, and Board of Education and served for two weeks as interim mayor of the city after the resignation of Arthur Harper in 1909. Stephens then served as a Congressional representative and was appointed California lieutenant governor and then governor in 1916 when Hiram Johnson resigned to serve in the United States Senate. He went on to win election to a full term serving until 1922. He died at the Santa Fe Hospital in Boyle Heights in 1944, but, ironically, is buried at Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.

Meanwhile, the superintendent was Captain Lester G. Loomis, who had been briefly (one month)chief of the Los Angeles Police Department in 1888. A native of Illinois, Loomis came to California as a boy and arrived in Los Angeles in 1887, working as a plasterer before joining the police force on the advice of banker and city council president L. N. Breed, another Boyle Heights notable. It was said that, while still new on the job, Loomis stopped the driver of a speeding buggy, who turned out to be Boyle Heights founder and Los Angeles mayor William H. Workman. Fed up with the rough-and-tumble (and corrupt) world of policing, Loomis decided to resign and became Evergreen superintendent in 1889, a position he held for fifteen years. Loomis and his wife Grace lived on a residence on the grounds, but he resigned in 1904 and later owned a 77-acre ranch in the San Gabriel Mountains near Acton.

The pamphlet gives much information about Evergreen, including recently-built facilities such as the Chapel and crematory, designed by Arthur B. Benton (best known for his work on Riverside’s Mission Inn). The landscaping, a lake/reservoir, the monuments and markers, and other features were covered in detail.

Of interest is an alphabetical list of plot-owners, some comprising many of the well-known figures of the day in Los Angeles, including the Bixby family (owners of much of present Long Beach and other areas of southern California); oilman Charles Canfield, partner of Edward Doheny in the first oil well opened in the city back in 1892; Jose Estudillo, of an old Californio family; banker and former officer of Evergreen, J. M. Elliott; former governor Henry Gage; former mayor Henry T. Hazard; the Hollenbecks; founding cemetery president Judson; the Kerckhoff family; attorney Bradner Lee; Boyle Heights founder John Lazzarovich; developer Isaac Lankershim; cemetery founder Lord; capitalist William Lacy; Ponet, the vice-president of Evergreen; A. E. Pomeroy, developer of Pismo Beach and La Puente; San Gabriel Valley rancher and horse breeder L. J. Rose; prominent attorney and judge Albert M. Stephens; former district attorney and mayor Cameron E. Thom; former banker and mayor James R. Toberman; Joseph Wolfskill; and Boyle Heights founder, former mayor, and city treasurer William H. Workman and his family.

Of course, there were many everyday citizens, including unidentified indigents who were interred in the potter’s field, who were buried there, as well, including substantial numbers of Chinese-Americans whose graves were startlingly discovered during the construction of the Metrolink Gold Line several years ago.

Curiously, the pamphlet had this to say about the future of the cemetery:

Los Angeles, though making great strides in its growth, has not enlarged in many years toward the east, nor does it seem at all likely that property situated beyond the cemetery will in the near future be selected for building purposes. Notwithstanding the nearness of the cemetery to the city, a comparison of its surroundings to the east with the western part of Los Angeles, will convince anyone that its permanency is not in doubt. It is an unexplained but well known fact that cities when enlarging almost invariably settle on one direction, and the part thus determined is rarely changed.

Naturally, the Association was dead (!) wrong in its confident predictions about the “one direction” development of Los Angeles, but it was correct about the survivability (!) of the cemetery. 134 years after its founding, Evergreen still serves Los Angeles and is a notable
historical landmark in Boyle Heights and the broader city and region.

The first image is from the 1880 Thompson and West history of Los Angeles County; the rest are from the 1901 pamphlet on Evergreen Cemetery.

Some sources:

“Evergreen Cemetery, Los Angeles,” Los Angeles Cemetery Association, 1901, courtesy of Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum.

History of Los Angeles County, California, Thompson and West, 1880 [reprinted by Howell North, 1959].

Illustrated History of Los Angeles County California, Lewis Publishing Company, 1889.

Edwin H. Carpenter, Early Cemeteries of the City of Los Angeles, Dawson’s Book Shop, 1973.

Captain Loomis and the Loomis Ranch: http://www.loomisranch.org/.

Contribution by Paul R. Spitzzeri, Collections Manager, Workman and Temple Family Homestead Museum. City of Industry.

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