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19th Century Southern Pacific Rail Yard Discovered at Los Angeles State Historic Park

Archaeological excavation at Los Angeles State Historic Park in 2010.

by Michael Sampson, Associate State Archaeologist, Southern Service Center

Archaeologists from the Southern Service Center, under the direction of the present writer, completed archaeological excavations in Los Angeles State Historic Park in summer 2008, spring and fall 2009, and spring 2010.  The relatively new park represents the former site of the 19th century Southern Pacific rail yard, maintenance shops, and depot known as River Station. River Station served as the rail hub for all of Southern California from 1875 to 1904, so it played a pivotal role in the significant population and economic growth of the region at that time.  No buildings were left standing after 1904, but, the building foundations, utility lines, and artifacts from the 19th century remain on-site for discovery, study, and public education. 

Archaeological excavations in 2008 successfully found evidence of the turntable, the turntable center, part of the Roundhouse, and a portion of the Machine Shop.  Our findings prompted an on-site news conference by State Parks Director Ruth Coleman attended by LA news outlets.  In 2009, the investigations focused upon the Car Shop, where train cars were built and repaired, as well as, defining the extent of an expertly formed stone pavement located next to the River Station freight warehouse. The Car Shop was a beautifully designed building with substantial brick wall foundations and flooring.  The most recent excavations in 2010 have exposed portions of four brick repair pits within the River Station Roundhouse, as well as, a part of its exterior wall. Southern Pacific’s steam engines would have driven on top of these repair pits while being serviced.  The current archaeological excavations will provide considerable information about 19th century maintenance practices in the Roundhouse and architectural details.  Interpretive panels at the dig site tell park visitors about our project.  The Los Angeles SHP blog also keeps viewers up-to-date whenever we are excavating.