DIGGING UP THE DIRT ON CALIFORNIA'S HISTORY
Caltrans archaeologists study past life on the edge of the desert along State Route 138.
With construction of any new State freeway or highway, evidence of past cultures can be potentially discovered – and historical artifacts of one kind or another are bound to be unearthed. The State Route 138 (SR-138) widening in northern Los Angeles County is no exception.
Several years ago, as part of the early environmental documentation for the safety widening projects, it was identified that remnants of little-known community existed adjacent to the SR-138 in the Antelope Valley between Los Angeles and San Bernardino counties. With the identification of this community, Thad Van Bueren, Headquarters staff Historical Archaeologist; Gary Iverson, District 7 Senior Archaeologist; additional District and state cultural resources staff members; as well as staff from Sonoma State University, began an in-depth investigation of the area. After much study and analyses, they discovered that an actual experimental socialist community once existed adjacent to SR-138 in the early 1900s.
What their research further yielded was that, after an unsuccessful bid to become mayor of Los Angeles in 1913, an influential socialist lawyer named Job Harriman and eight other investors, formed the Llano Del Rio Company with a goal of founding a social utopian community near Los Angeles to demonstrate the viability of a socialist way of life. In 1914, the Llano Del Rio Company acquired land adjacent to SR-138 in the Antelope Valley and founded the colony of Llano Del Rio. Over the next four years, hundreds of people came to live and work at the colony.
To become a citizen at the Llano Del Rio colony, individuals purchased interest in the colony. In return for their investment, they were promised a house, a job and a living wage. By 1916, it was estimated that 1,000 people were living there. They constructed some 35 adobe houses, 14 framed houses, a post office, a school, a fish hatchery, a lime kiln, a print shop, a boot factory, a machine shop, 75 acres of gardens, two hotels for tourists, hundreds of acres of fruit trees, grain and alfalfa crops – as well as an intricate water delivery and storage system, and much more. Llano Del Rio became home to people who participated in musical ensembles, dance troupes, poetry and debate groups. The 2,000-acre colony thrived for only four years due to many causes, among which was the loss of water rights. Without the required water to sustain the colony, colonists moved out, and by 1918 it was virtually empty and the colony moved to Louisiana.
Fast forward to the present. According to Iverson, the SR-138 safety widening project required roadway improvements through the area previously occupied by the Llano Del Rio colony. “As part of the environmental documentation and study phase of this project, extensive archaeological studies were undertaken to determine the extent, type and amount of cultural materials present at the site of the former colony,” he said. “During the concurrent design and environmental project phase, alternatives were sought to address encroaching into the expansive Llano Del Rio colony remains. Archaeological investigations identified that the portion to the south of the highway contained a largely reduced amount of cultural material.”
Caltrans cultural resource staff worked with the State Historical Preservation Office to determine the best alternative to address the project encroachment, the best method to obtain the most scientific data, and the best way to preserve the Llano Del Rio colony site to the maximum extent feasible. Due to the great expanse of the colony, it was determined that the best viable alternative to fit the purpose and need for the project would be to minimally shift the existing State Route 138 roadway to the south, thus avoiding the most sensitive portion of the site, and leaving the primary cultural deposit intact for future generations. “By shifting the Highway 138 widening alignment to the south, we were able to minimize impacts to the site,” added Iverson.
After the news media learned about the site last November, Iverson and staff were featured in a newspaper article by the Antelope Valley Press; and they also appeared on a KNBC Channel 4 interview with Conan Nolan.
“The most recent investigation involves gathering important archaeological evidence within the project footprint before it is destroyed,” explained Van Bueren. “The goal is to expand knowledge of the colony by comparing the archaeological evidence with clues cleaned from documents and oral history. The physical remains add depth and detail to what we know about the colony from other sources.”
Archaeological efforts continue under the watchful eye of Iverson and Alex Kirkish, also a District 7 archaeologist, to learn as much from the remains along the southern portion of the highway of the colony as possible. “After cultural materials are removed from the site, they will be catalogued, analyzed and studied using numerous scientific testing methods,” Iverson further explained. “The material will then be forwarded to the archaeological repository at the University of California at Riverside so that future generations can have access to this material for further study if, or when, scientific technology provides improved testing methods.”
In the coming months, Caltrans will continue to unearth any remaining remnants, digging in small squares, sifting with screens that separate manmade objects from desert soil.
District 7 is currently involved in Phase 2 widening, a 2.1-mile, $17-million construction project and the second of 13 construction phases of Highway 138 widening from two to four lanes, which includes a large, four lane bridge (Twin Bridges) over Big Rock Wash. Estimated completion of this portion of construction is late 2007. Phase 3 widening from 0.3 mile east of Avenue T to 60th Street East is estimated to begin construction in fall, 2007; and Phase 4 widening from 96th Street East to 106th Street East is estimated to begin construction in winter, 2007/2008.