Los Angeles State Historic Park is the site of the 19th Century River Station.

Michael Sampson, Associate State Archaeologist (Retired)
California State Parks Southern Service Center
San Diego


Archaeologists from California State Parks, Southern Service Center, under the direction of Michael Sampson, completed test-level investigations in Los Angeles State Historic Park in August and September 2008, spring and fall 2009, summer 2010, and spring and fall 2011.  The project area is located in downtown LA, between N. Spring Street and N. Broadway Street and adjacent to the Los Angeles River.  This State Park represents the former site of the 19th century Southern Pacific general shops, freight warehouse, rail yard, and depot known as River Station, and served as the rail hub for all of Southern California at that time. River Station operated from 1875 until 1904; in the 20th century, Southern Pacific used the location as a rail yard.  Our archaeological fieldwork has been preceded by in-depth historical research and geophysical surveys, and has successfully uncovered portions of the following 19th century building sites: the turntable, roundhouse, machine shop, car shop, hotel, ice house, and a pavement of dressed-stone pavers. The excavations have revealed masonry and wood building foundations, concrete structural remains, and artifacts associated with River Station.  Our investigative methods are indicative of the unique nature of industrial archaeology in an urban setting.


At times, archaeologists may have the opportunity to study the vestiges of certain industries and advances in technology that have greatly influenced humankind and its history and shaped the cultural landscape of entire regions. The railroad is one such advance that has shaped history, in particular, the economic and population growth of regions, influenced construction over broad stretches of the land, and effected significant changes in other realms of society.

The building remains and artifacts from River Station, a 19th century general shops facility, freight warehouse, and depot constructed and operated by Southern Pacific Railroad beginning in 1875, are a reminder of the important role Los Angeles played in the building of the southern transcontinental railroad line connecting the West Coast with the Midwest and East Coast.   The success of the Southern Pacific Railroad also helped sell Southern California and Los Angeles to the rest of the country in the 19th century.  River Station served as the arrival point for thousands of travelers and immigrants who flocked to the Southland in the late 19th century, such as, during the Great Boom of the 1880s (Mullaly and Petty 2002:9, 20-22, 32-33; California Department of Parks and Recreation 2005: 20-21).  Railroad historians Larry Mullaly and Bruce Petty in their 2002 book The Southern Pacific in Los Angeles, 1873-1996 point out that Southern Pacific was “…always the railroad of Southern California.”

Los Angeles State Historic Park, a 32-acre piece of open space located at the periphery of downtown Los Angeles, is today the site of River Station (Figure 1).  The State Park parcel is bounded by North Broadway Street on the west and northwest and North Spring Street on the east and southeast.

Aerial view of Los Angeles State Historic Park

Figure 1: Aerial View of Los Angeles State Historic Park with
downtown Los Angeles in the background.

Southern Pacific opened a freight house and depot in 1875 to complement the newly constructed sets of tracks.  In 1879, a hotel was built next to the existing depot to expand services for passenger (California Department of Parks and Recreation 2005:20).  River Station continued to expand soon after its initial opening and eventually consisted of a roundhouse with turntable (Figure 2), freight house, blacksmith shop, machine shop, transfer table, car shop, paint shop, coal dock, and other facilities (Mullaly and Petty 2002:10; California Department of Parks and Recreation 2005:20; Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. Maps).  By the 1880s, Southern Pacific had become the largest employer in Los Angeles, with River Station being the headquarters for its operations in Southern California (California Department of Parks and Recreation 2005:20).

River Station Roundhouse and Turntable in the 1880s.

Figure 2: Historic Photo of River Station Roundhouse and Turnable in the 1880s.
(Photo courtesy of the California State Railroad Museum)

The shops buildings and associated functions that have been the subject of our ongoing excavation program were removed from the present-day Los Angeles SHP by 1904 to a new shops facility in the Lincoln Heights area of LA.  Southern Pacific continued to use the land in the current state park as an important freight operations facility after 1904 until the company ceased operations in 1996.

The 32-acre parcel that today is Los Angeles SHP was surveyed for the first time by professional archaeologists in 1999, prior to State Parks ownership.  John Romani and Dan Larson from Compass Rose Archaeological Consultants conducted that fieldwork.  The November 23, 1999 archaeological fieldwork yielded neither evidence of buildings or artifacts associated with the 19th Century River Station nor any evidence of other culturally significant features, although they conducted no subsurface testing (Romani et al. 2000:19-20).  Romani et al. (2000:20-21) found substantial documentary evidence of the former presence of River Station within their project area, and therefore recommended a program of archaeological test excavation work in the project area.  The report authors further concluded that this site “…may qualify for National Register eligibility under Criterion (a) and…Criterion (d)” (Romani et al. 2000:20-21). 

California State Parks took possession of the 32-acre parcel where the Southern Pacific railroad facility once stood in 2001(California State Parks 2006:6, 13, 26).  Historical research on this 32-acre parcel was conducted by State Parks Historian Jim Newland and others beginning in 2001 (California Department of Parks and Recreation 2005, 2006).  The results of archaeological and geophysical investigations in 2002, 2002-2003, and 2004, archaeological monitoring in 2005 and 2006 by a Southern Service Center Archaeologist, and historical research demonstrated that there are substantial remnants of the historic buildings and related features associated with the Southern Pacific River Station, dating from 1875 to about 1904 and the 20th century rail yard (1904-1996), within Los Angeles SHP (Gumprecht 1999; Buxton 2002, 2004, 2006, 2008, 2010; Mullaly and Petty 2002; Messick et al. 2003; Larson 2004; Van Wormer 2004; California State Parks 2005; Sampson 2010; historical records and field notes on file at Southern Service Center).  The Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. maps, for example, depict the buildings formerly located at River Station.  The entire 32-acre park is recorded as archaeological site CA-LAN-3120.  All of this research helped us define what buildings formerly stood at River Station and their potential locations, such as, the Roundhouse, Turntable, the depot, hotel, Car Shop, maintenance buildings, freight houses, and others, and demonstrated archaeological remains were still in-place.  In locations throughout the park, some remnants of rails and railroad ties dating to the 20th century Southern Pacific rail yard can still be found. One area of a 19th-century dressed granite cobblestone pavement exists adjacent to the existing N. Spring Street park entrance.  Not every 19th-century building and feature location within Los Angeles State Historic Park has been identified by archaeological testing as of this writing.

The present program of archaeological research within the park by archaeological staff at the California State Parks, Southern Service Center was initiated to document evidence of 19th century buildings and the current condition of buried structural remains.  Our archaeological endeavors provide tangible evidence to guide the design and interpretation planning for the park.


So, what is a good strategy when your project area has no surface expressions of cultural remains but historical research indicates that numerous buildings for an historically significant facility stood here in the late 19th century?  Dr. Dan Larson, Professor at Long Beach State University, was contracted to conduct geophysical surveys within the new state park in 2002, which at the time remained undeveloped.  Dr. Larson and his associates employed a cesium vapor magnetometer, gradiometer, and OhmMapper Resistivity in those surveys, which provided evidence of buried cultural features without excavation (Larson 2004:3-7, Figure 2).  According to Dr. Larson, several “geophysical signatures” identified during the fieldwork corresponded well with historic building locations documented on the 1888 Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map for River Station, such as, the Roundhouse, turntable, Machine Shop, Car Shop, the depot, hotel, and an icehouse (Larson 2004:13-18, Figure 20).  Soil remediation work within the 32-acre park parcel in late 2002 and early 2003, monitored by archaeologists from Greenwood and Associates, found cultural remains in the form of brick and concrete structural features and artifacts within eight of the 18 soil remediation excavation grids (Messick et al. 2003).  Archaeological monitoring during the 2002-2003 soil remediation work demonstrated that physical evidence of 19th century River Station still remained buried on-site within the new state park.

The initial 2004 State Parks test excavations under the direction of former State Parks Archaeologist Herb Dallas, guided by geophysical survey data and historical research exposed the north portion of the 19th century River Station turntable, specifically its foundation and the adjoining brick flooring in a 35 feet east-west by 30 feet north-south pit. The discovery of the turntable wood support structure here represented critical evidence that vestiges of the turntable remained intact and in its original (i.e., 19th century) location, and provided data about its construction and size.  Small portions of the site of the Roundhouse and the site of the hotel and depot were explored with backhoe trenches in 2004 (Sampson 2010).

Subsequent to the 2004 fieldwork, a local artist using the park for a public art display in 2005 placed fill soils over large areas of the park.  Later, State Parks placed over 40,000 cubic yards of additional fill soils over the entire park to better protect the underlying historic-period archaeological features.  Even though there now is 3 feet or more of fill throughout the park, we have used a conspicuous light gray, compact, gravelly layer to find our 19th century depth.  We have interpreted this horizontal layer as track bedding and base material used within the 20th century Southern Pacific rail yard.  The compact gray layer and the layers above it date to the 20th century; below it, we discover our historic 19th century building remains.

The 2008 State Parks archaeological investigations at the site of River Station under my direction were preceded by a ground-penetrating radar (GPR) survey conducted by ASM Affiliates, Inc. of Carlsbad (Becker 2008).  The GPR survey was needed to guide testing in areas not surveyed with geophysical techniques in 2002 by the Long Beach State team and to examine park locations designated as areas where future park facilities might be situated.  Ground-penetrating radar surveys had not been employed in the park previously.  The ASM Affiliates GPR study provided evidence of subsurface “targets” interpreted as potential building remains that helped guide the Southern Service Center fieldwork in 2008 and 2009. 

Our 2008 fieldwork began by exposing the southwestern half of the wooden foundation of the turntable in a 10 foot by 9 foot excavation pit that reached a depth of 76 inches below the present lawn area. The specific location I chose to excavate was based upon careful consideration of the 2002 geophysical survey results, the 2004 fieldwork findings, and a study of historical documents.  These 2008 excavations at the site of the River Station turntable showed that the main wood structural members consist of 12 inch by 12 inch redwood planks that are supported by 8 inch by 8 inch redwood planks (Figure 3).  The 8-inch-square planks are underlain by two 12 inch by 8 inch planks laid horizontally.  Two 9-inch- by-2-inch redwood boards are set diagonally at each joint of the 12-inch-square main planks, as support.  These diagonal braces extend outward about another 4 to 5 feet, although the 2008 excavation only exposed 40 inches of these diagonal braces.  The turntable planks all had the strong smell of creosote.  The top of the 12 inch by 12 inch planks was painted red.  An architectural conservator and a metal conservator were contracted by California State Parks to examine the turntable site as well as the portions of the Machine Shop that were also exposed during our 2008 fieldwork to provide recommendations on (1) how best to conserve the findings and (2) whether we can leave some 19th century structural remains exposed for public interpretation.

River Station turntable foundation

Figure 3: River Station turntable foundation with
M. Buxton taking notes in 2008.

Turntable center

Figure 4: Turntable center

Also in the summer of 2008, a 6 foot by 5 foot backhoe test unit was placed over a spot hypothesized to be the turntable center, based upon findings from 2004 and my own calculations.  At 7 feet below the present lawn surface, our excavations revealed a broken, but well-made, dressed granite pedestal measuring at least 40 inches by 35 inches and 2 feet thick (Figure 4); the pedestal was defined as Feature 9 during the excavations.  The 19th century turntable bridge would have rested upon this granite pedestal.  The turntable center support is broken and shifted off its original position.  This would have occurred if the railroad attempted to move it when train maintenance functions were relocated from River Station in 1904.  The granite turntable center appears to be positioned upon a granite floor.  The area excavated in August 2008 was too small and cramped to be more definitive about what underlies the turntable center, but, this was simply a test to determine what remained of the center. Significantly, our confirmation of the turntable center location has allowed me to more confidently employ the 1800s Sanborn Fire Insurance maps to pinpoint other building locations at the site of River Station.

With evidence of the turntable center and its two outer edges, the turntable was determined to be 70 feet in diameter.  A turntable with a diameter of 70 feet dates to the 1890s, while turntables in the 1870s would be 51 feet to 56 feet in diameter  (Larry Mullaly [railroad historian and expert on Southern Pacific], personal communication 2008; Kyle Wyatt [Historian at the California State Railroad Museum], electronic communication, 10/15/08).   Southern Pacific must have upgraded and enlarged their original 1870s era turntable at River Station some time during the 1890s.  A large-diameter turntable would have been needed to accommodate the addition of several new repair stalls in the River Station Roundhouse; that addition to the Roundhouse is evident when comparing the 1881 Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map with the 1894 Sanborn map.  To view an active turntable, one can visit Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, California which has rolling stock consisting of 19th century steam engines and 20th century engines and cars.  I visited Railtown 1897 recently to better comprehend the functioning of a roundhouse and turntable.

Machine Shop Service Bay excavations

Figure 5: Machine Shop Service Bay at Los Angeles SHP
in 2008 with excavations in progress.

An area of 50 feet by 17 feet was excavated in 2008 to test the location of an anomaly identified by the May 2008 ground-penetrating radar survey.  This excavation area stood in the location of the Machine Shop and Forge Shop building identified on Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from 1888 and 1894.  Two parallel brick-and-mortar wall foundations, measuring 48½ feet in length and trending northeast-southwest, were uncovered by backhoe and hand excavations; the two foundations stand 4 feet apart (Figure 5).  An end wall of brick was found at the opposite ends.   The parallel brick foundations with end walls are interpreted as the remains of a single repair pit that stood inside the Machine Shop building.  Dense brick rubble was found within the four-foot-wide pit area and another area of brick rubble stood to the west of the service bay.  Sizable chunks containing metal pieces and other metalsmithing refuse cemented together uncovered at the Machine Shop site I have interpreted as the waste removed from the bottom of forges; these are sometimes referred to as “smithing cakes.”  Forges do need to be cleaned periodically while in operation. 

Car Shop excavations at LASHP in 2009.

Figure 6: Car Shop excavations in 2009.

The 2009 excavations within Los Angeles SHP were focused upon the site of the River Station Car Shop.  The Car Shop location was determined by scaling off the turntable center on a Sanborn Fire Insurance map from the era and then measuring that distance on-site.  The Car Shop excavations consisted of a roughly 90 foot northeast-southwest by 60 foot northwest-southeast excavation pit that uncovered two corners of the building, two brick exterior walls, interior architectural features, and 19 additional square-shaped brick structural support piers within the building (Figure 6).  A third corner of the building was identified by measuring out from the known west corner and confirming physical evidence of the building by use of a single test trench.  Although we only excavated a portion of this sizable building, identifying the two corners and knowing the full dimension of the building from historical documents was sufficient to extrapolate the entire Car Shop building on the ground.

An attempt was made in 2009 to uncover structural remains of the Transfer Table, a shops structure depicted on the various 19th century Sanborn fire insurance maps for Southern Pacific’s River Station.  We did not find evidence of the transfer table at this time but an 8-foot-square concrete support pier was unearthed in this test pit.  Its specific function remains unknown but I believe the concrete pier dates to the 20th century.  Three other eight-foot-square piers have been discovered nearby, and all four are situated in a NE-SW alignment, each being 107 feet apart.  More test excavations have been conducted at the Transfer Table Site in October 2011 by archaeologists from the Southern Service Center.  This recent work uncovered inconclusive evidence of the former structure in the form of concentrated brick rubble and remnants of wood floor planking.  A transfer table had no walls or roof, but had track and cable by which engines could be moved side-to-side to align the engine to an open service bay at an adjoining shops building.  Therefore, we did not expect to find substantial structural remains such as our findings at the Car Shop site or other locations.  The reader can refer to Mullaly and Petty (2002:76-77) for pictures of transfer tables or other sources.

Excavations at Roundhouse site in June 2010.

Figure 7: Excavations at Roundhouse site in June 2010.

In 2010 and 2011, we have turned our efforts to the site of the Roundhouse, where steam engines would have been brought for routine maintenance by Southern Pacific crews at River Station (Figure 2).  We have successfully uncovered evidence of masonry service bays, an exterior masonry wall foundation of the Roundhouse, and the two ends of this building; a roundhouse such as this one is semicircular in shape (Figure 7).  The service bays uncovered within the Roundhouse site lie 11 feet apart and each service bay measured 4 feet in width [interior width].  The service bay wall foundations each measured 12¾ inches thick.  A small unit excavated within one of the service bays in 2010 revealed a wood floor impregnated with oil; underlying the wood flooring is brick.  We found that the exterior wall foundation of the Roundhouse (designated Feature 15 during our 2010 fieldwork) stood 10' 7" off the service bays, measured 21 inches thick across the top, and had stepped courses of brick at its base.  The curving arc configuration of the exterior wall foundation that we observed would be consistent with the semicircular shape of the Roundhouse.  An operating service bay used at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park is equivalent in design and function to the 19th century ones unearthed at River Station site (Figure 8).  It shows that the tracks are laid along the edges of the pit, and the pit is deep enough to accommodate the drainage of water from the steam engine boiler.  Pipes connecting into the bottom of the service bay remove this liquid waste away from the roundhouse.  The Railtown 1897 bays are constructed of concrete rather than the brick-and-mortar construction we have uncovered in Los Angeles State Historic Park but the functions are the same.  The reader is encouraged to visit a 1890s roundhouse at Railtown 1897 State Historic Park in Jamestown, California to experience a railroad repair facility still in operation today.

Railtown 1897 SHP Roundhouse Service Bay in Jamestown, California.

Figure 8: Railtown 1897 SHP Roundhouse Service Bay in Jamestown, California

River Station Hotel site excavations in 2011.

Figure 9: River Station Hotel Site, 2011 Excavations

In September and October 2011, Southern Service Center archaeologists initiated testing at the site of two sleeping rooms within the River Station Hotel (Figure 9), the Ice House, the Painting and Varnishing Shop, the transfer table, as well as other areas of the park.  We encountered intact masonry structural remains at the Hotel site and the Ice House Site.  The masonry wall foundations of the Ice House measured 1 foot in width on the NW wall and 1.5 feet wide on the SW and NE walls.  The Hotel sleeping room foundations measured 9 inches in width.  No structural evidence of the River Station Painting and Varnishing Shop, a shops building depicted on the 1894 Sanborn Fire Insurance Co. map for River Station, was discovered during our fall 2011 testing, even though several backhoe trenches were placed across the calculated location of the building.  This particular building may not have been as substantially built as the other River Station buildings, which could account for little to no vestiges of the building after Southern Pacific razed River Station in 1904.  The 2011 work at the transfer table site was discussed above.  Some of the locations chosen for excavation in fall 2011 were constrained by the need to avoid specific park facilities and landscape features in order to maintain current park operations, but, the most recent Southern Service Center fieldwork was nonetheless successful.  Again, the recent excavations are part of an ongoing program to assist the State Parks design team in planning for Los Angeles State Historic Park. 

So, our adventure in Industrial Archaeology in downtown LA has thus far been successful due to ample background research, careful application of historical data to the fieldwork, geophysical data, the hard work on-site by dedicated State Parks archaeologists, and the assistance of the local park staff.  Many park visitors viewed the Southern Service Center archaeological excavations in progress or on the Los Angeles State Historic Park blog and thus gained a first-hand glimpse of park history.  Fortunately, the building remains of Southern Pacific’s19th century River Station, a site integral to the rise in prominence of Los Angeles, will be preserved in perpetuity and interpreted for the visiting public.


The Southern Service Center archaeological work at Los Angeles State Historic Park was successful due to the hard work and strong support of numerous individuals.  I wish to thank the following individuals: Vince Bermudez, Kaitlin Brown, Jeff Brown, Michael (“Bucky”) Buxton, Allisen Dahlstedt, Tricia Dodds, Mary Garrett, Brendon Greenaway, Aaron Harper, Janelle Harrison, Andre Jones, Chester Lisowz, Gary Maas, Bob Moore, James Newland, Don Perez, Rachel Ruston, Lourdes Sanchez, Dale Skinner, Erin Smith, Barbara Tejada, Sean Woods, and  others.  Bucky has participated in archaeological fieldwork within Los Angeles State Historic Park since 2002; his observations and dedication have been important to the success of the project.  I also wish to thank the assistance of Railroad Historians Bruce Petty and Kyle Wyatt.  I am grateful to Kim Baker and Kyle Wyatt for their tour of Railtown 1987 State Historic Park.  Various members of the maintenance crew at Los Angeles State Historic Park have been generous with their help to our field endeavors the past few years; I am very grateful to them for that.  I am grateful to the support from my colleagues at the Southern Service Center. 


Buxton, M.
2002  Original unpublished field notes from Los Angeles State Historic Park.  Manuscript on file, California State Parks, San Diego.

2004  Original unpublished field notes from Los Angeles State Historic Park.  Manuscript on file, California State Parks, San Diego.

2006  LASHP [Los Angeles State Historic Park] IPU Monitor Report.  California State Parks, San Diego.

2008  LASHP [Los Angeles State Historic Park] Feature Summary.  Manuscript on file, California State Parks, San Diego.

2010  Archaeological Monitoring Report for the “Not A Corn Field” Temporary Public Art Installation, Los Angeles State Historic Park.  California State Parks, San Diego.

California State Parks
2005  Los Angeles State Historic Park (Cornfield Site), General Plan and Final Environmental Impact Report.  California State Parks, Sacramento.

2006  Los Angeles State Historic Park, Interpretive Master Plan.  California State Parks, San Diego.

Gumprecht, Blake
1999  The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth.  The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore.

Larson, Daniel O.
2004  Geophysical Investigations at the Corn Fields/River Station Site, Los Angeles County, California.  Report on file, California State Parks, San Diego.

Messick, Peter, Roberta S. Greenwood, and Alice Hale
2003  Archaeological Monitor Report, Historic Cornfield Railroad Yard.  Greenwood and Associates, Pacific Palisades, CA.  Copy available at California State Parks, San Diego.

Mullaly, Larry and Bruce Petty
2002  The Southern Pacific in Los Angeles 1873-1996.  Golden West Books, San Marino, CA.

Romani, John F., Gwendolyn Romani, and Dan Larson
2000  Results of a Phase I Investigation: River Station, 1245 North Spring Street, City of Los Angeles.  Compass Rose Archaeological Consultants, Van Nuys, CA.

Sampson, Michael P.
2010  The 2004 Archaeological Test Excavations at the Site of River Station (CA-LAN-3120), Los Angeles State Historic Park, California.  Report on file, California State Parks, San Diego.

Van Wormer, S.
2004  Original unpublished field notes from Los Angeles State Historic Park.  Manuscript on file, California State Parks, San Diego.