Fort Moore Hill: The Forgotten Hill of Los Angeles
At 451 N. Hill Street in Downtown Los Angeles, a memorial wall dominates the side of a building. It depicts an important moment in California history, in particular, Los Angeles’ emergence as an American city.
The memorial wall, Fort Moore Pioneer Monument, is a reminder of the importance Fort Moore Hill had in the City of Angels. Over the years, the hill held a fort, an exclusive estate, cemetery, a high school, a brewery and beer garden, and a few other oddities. It was one of the city’s greatest gem, as well as one of its lost treasures.
Time has not been kind to this hill; progress swept much of what was on it away. And, what wasn’t removed was covered by urban sprawl. It’s a shame considering that the hill was where Los Angeles emerged as a modern metropolis.
Establishment of Fort Moore
Fort Moore Hill’s story began when California was part of Mexico. On August 13, 1846, U.S. naval forces under Commodore Robert F. Stockton captured Los Angeles without opposition. A group of 50 Marines under the command of Captain Archibald H. Gillespie made their way to the hill (known as Fort Hill at the time) and built barricades. The hill’s location was ideal for the defense of the captured town. One had a view of the surrounding area including the basin which stretched to the Pacific and to the future site of the Port of Los Angeles (then a marshy inlet) where the main forces had landed.
Although, opposition was close to nil when the rudimentary barricades went up, the ire of the occupied citizenry would soon explode. Captain Gillespie ruled over Los Angeles with an iron hand. The Californios (Californians of Latin American or Mestizo descent), and some of the remaining Mexicans revolted against his martial law.
On September 22, 1846, the Siege of Los Angeles began. A group of Californios gathered as a force to retake the town. The Marines under Gillespie’s command managed to resist an attack on the government house in town. However, they had to regroup and retreat to Fort Hill. The makeshift fort was fortified with sandbags and cannons. Still, the danger of being overrun by a hostile and growing opposition to their occupation was growing by the day.
Finally, on September 30, 1846, the Marines withdrew from Fort Hill and from Los Angeles after Mexican General Flores offered them an ultimatum to leave within 24 hours or face an attack.
Several efforts were made to retake Los Angeles. On October 7, a joint military force of 350 Americans, including 200 U.S. Marines under the command of Navy Captain William Mervine attempted and failed to take the town. The Marines were defeated at the Battle of Dominguez Rancho. Then, in December 1846, Army forces led by Captain Stephen W. Kearny were defeated by the Californios Lancers at the Battle of San Pasqual outside San Diego.
The Americans were persistent, and American forces under the command of John C. Fremont, Stockton and Kearny proved to be the difference. This time after the Battle of Rio San Gabriel and the Battle of La Mesa (outside San Diego), the American forces succeeded. Los Angeles was finally returned to American hands on January 10, 1847.
Although hostilities were to end in California, the danger was still there. The fort became an essential defense for the new American town. Starting on January 12, 1847, U.S. forces laid the foundation for a larger fort. They began erecting a 400 foot long breastwork on the previous Fort Hill site and christened it the Post at Los Angeles.
Fort Moore wasn’t used for long. Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman, future General and hero of the Civil War, ordered the garrison to withdraw in 1848
Work on the site continued. The fort was expanded by the Mormon Battalion – first and only religious unit in the military – and the U.S. 1st Dragoon. Although not completed, it was dedicated as Fort Moore on July 4, 1847. The fort was named after Captain Benjamin D. Moore of the 1st Dragoon who was killed in the Battle of San Pasqual.
Fort Moore wasn’t used for long. Lt. William Tecumseh Sherman, future General and hero of the Civil War, ordered the garrison to withdraw in 1848. The fort was abandoned in 1849 and decommissioned in 1853.
In the years that followed, the hill went through a transformation. The old fort was leveled and was soon replaced by a public playground. The hill, however, was not abandoned.
Beer and High Society
The hill attracted a few entrepreneurs. One such person arrived in 1882. Jacob Philippi came to Los Angeles looking for a suitable place to build his famed beer garden and brewery. He found it at the summit of Fort Moore Hill. Here, he opened New York Brewery, the first brewery in Los Angeles.
At this time, Los Angeles was a rough place to do business. It was notorious for its wild life and crime. So it came as no surprise that the New York Brewery and beer garden attracted a rough crowd.
By 1887, Philippi had enough of his brewery on the summit. He sold the place to Mary Banning, widow of Phineas Banning, the founder and “father” of the Port of Los Angeles. She wasted no time in turning the summit of Fort Moore Hill into Banning Mansion.
Mary Banning lived there for several years with her daughters, Mary and Lucy. And, during those years, the Banning Mansion was at the height of Los Angeles’ high society. If one were to be seen, this was the place to be before Hollywood became the glitz and glam of Southern California.
However, the good times didn’t last. As the city grew, high society found other places to go. Soon, the house was abandoned by the Bannings and was converted into a rooming house until it was torn down.
Fort Moore Hill had gone through many transitions. It was the home of a military fort, a brewery, mansion and a cemetery.
In 1891, it became the new location for Los Angeles High School. This was actually its second location. It was located on North Hill Street between San Street (later to become California Street, now part of the 101 Freeway) and Bellevue Avenue (it will be known by its more famous name, Sunset Boulevard and Cesar Chavez Avenue).
The school facility would be there until 1917 when it was moved again. The site was still owned by LAUSD, and it became its headquarters. The district office would be there until 2001.
The former district office was renamed Los Angeles Area New High School #9. It is now known as High School for the Visual and Performing Arts.
Due to the disastrous construction of another high school, Belmont Learning Center (discovered to have been built on a toxic site and kept closed because of it), the LAUSD offices moved from this site to accommodate the students who would have gone to Belmont.
The former district office was renamed Los Angeles Area New High School #9. It is now known as High School for the Visual and Performing Arts (Later to be named Ramon Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts)
City of the Dead
The had a macabre side to it, as well. A part of the hill was a cemetery during the time of the brewery and Banning Mansion. The first recorded burial was made on December 19, 1853. Over the following years, it would go under several names: Los Angeles City Cemetery, Protestant Cemetery or Fort Hill Cemetery. Los Angelinos at the time simply referred to it as “the cemetery on the hill.” It will always be known as the city’s first non-Catholic cemetery.
Like most things that were placed on the hill, the cemetery had a contentious and short history. In 1869, the city oversaw the operations, there. In 1879 The Los Angeles City Council passed a resolution to close the cemetery to any future burial with the exception for those who already reserved spot. In part, the reason was that the cemetery was becoming too difficult to manage.
The cemetery on the hill became an embarrassment. It quickly fell into disrepair and lacked clearly delineated boundaries. Worst yet, records of those buried there were lost or never maintained. This would come to haunt the city for years to come.
After selling portions of the land to the Los Angeles Board of Education (later to become Los Angeles Unified School District), the city never bothered to remove the bodies. As a result, construction workers trying to build a high school would unearth numerous bodies. This would continue onward through the 20th century. Many of these bodies were eventually transferred to local cemeteries, some as late as May 1947.
These were the last bodies found until the year 2006 when the construction workers working on the Los Angeles High School #9 and archeologists unearthed more human remains.
Home of the Lizard People?
Fort Moore Hill played another role in Los Angeles. In the 1930s an engineer named G. Warren Shufelt claimed he found the lost city of the Lizard People.
A part of Hopi Indian lore, the lizard people were supposed to be an advanced civilization that built several cities underground. Shufelt believed he found this underground city under Los Angeles with his “radio x-ray device.” To verify his claim, he convinced the city to let him dig at Fort Moore Hill.
There, he hoped to find tunnels, chambers and treasure; instead, after drilling 250 into the ground, he found the water table and nothing else.
Demise of the Hill
The beginning of the end for the hill started in 1949. Most of it was leveled. The city had outgrown the hill and it was now in the way of progress. In this case, it was in the way of the Hollywood Freeway (Also known as the 101). Whatever was left of the hill was soon covered by urban sprawl of downtown.
Not all was lost; in 1957, Fort Moore Pioneer Monument Wall was erected. It was a marker merely stating what had once existed there and what it meant to Los Angeles. The monument, unlike much of the hill, still exists in an area between the Los Angeles Convention Center and Chinatown.
Whether this is the end of Fort Moore Hill or not, only future events can dictate its reputation.
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© 2015 Dean Traylor