A New Plaque for “El Aliso” Sycamore Tree, Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Yesterday, I learned from a representative of the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, with whom the Homestead collaborates on programs like “Under the Oak Tree” and who will be participating in next week’s Victorian Fair, that a new plaque was installed several days ago to mark the approximate site of “El Aliso,” a massive sycamore tree that was long a landmark in Los Angeles and, for hundreds of years, the native peoples of the village of Yang-na.

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After finishing a series of talks in downtown this morning, I walked from Union Station to the site, located at the corner of Commercial and Vignes streets to take a look.  The new bronze marker, set into the sidewalk at the north side of Commercial adjacent to U.S. 101 and just east of the on-ramp to that freeway, was installed by the City of Los Angeles.

The text reads:

Here once stood the grandest of all sycamore (Sha-Var) trees measuring 60 feet high with a canopy spreading 200 feet wide.  The tree was given the Spanish name of El Aliso.  The original inhabitants of this area, the Kizh (Keech) or Gabrieleño were known as the people of the willow houses.  These indigenous people have occupied this land for over 12,000 years.  Their once peaceful life was forever changed by the California Mission era.

Always important in their history was this tree which once served as a site of worship, gathering and prayer for the Kizh.  Native leaders would travel from as far away as Yuma, Arizona to unite at this sacred site.  This Koo-nas-gna, or sacred burial place is home to many Kizh burials as it once stood at the center of one of the largest Kizh villages, Yangna, now known as Los Angeles.

While El Aliso is long gone, the shade it provided no longer available and the memory of the conversations under its branches long lost, its significance to the Kizh is not forgotten.  While its physical presence is gone, the oral history handed down through the generations has kept its beauty and story alive in the Kizh people.

Chief Ernie P. Tautimez-Salas, April 2019

This plaque is dedicated by the City of Los Angeles to the original native inhabitants of this area, the Kizh, many of whom are still alive today.

Members of the Kizh have been working as monitors for construction projects taking place in the area where the plaque is situated and a startling discovery was made in the middle of Commercial Street as crews excavated for work there.  Four human remains, comprising a family, were discovered and it was determined that these were native peoples.

There have been accounts given of El Aliso, including a Los Angeles Times article from Cecilia Rasmussen in 1997, which states that the tree sprouted from a seedling about the time that Columbus landed in the Caribbean.  Rasmussen noted that the location of the massive sycamore and the Yang-na village site were discovered by landscape architect John Crandell in an 1845 document from the ayuntamiento, or town council, of the pueblo of Los Angeles, shortly before the American seizure of Mexican Alta California.

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Looking west down Commercial Street from the El Aliso plaque site towards Alameda Street, with the City Hall tower in view.  New asphalt in the middle of the street includes the location where the remains of four native people were discovered as part of ongoing work, monitored by the Kizh-Gabrieleño Band of Mission Indians, is taking place.

According to Crandell, the tree and village were under what is now the center divider of U.S. 101 just about 150 feet north of Commercial Street and south of the Patsaouras Transit Plaza, the headquarters of the Metropolitan Transit Authority next to Union Station.

As Rasmussen noted, French immigrant Jean-Louis Vignes acquired the property on which the tree stood in 1834.  She added that, two years later, the ayuntamiento allotted more of the Yangna site to a settler and, in 1846, the year of the American invasion, moved the remaining natives east of the Los Angeles River where Mission Road and César E. Chávez Avenue meet in the Flats area of Boyle Heights.  The village was then uprooted on complaints of residents about the noise made at the new site.

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Looking east on Commercial from the El Aliso plaque location towards the Los Angeles River.

Rasmussen doesn’t mention it, but a 2012 KCET blog post by Nathan Masters observed that Vignes opened a winery on the site he acquired a few years prior and named the operation after the tree, El Aliso.  A main route from the pueblo to the east towards the Mission San Gabriel and other locates was Aliso Road (though, confusingly, there was an old route and a New Aliso Road).

Vignes, who was the godfather and sponsor of the teenaged newspaper publisher Francisco P. Ramirez, whose El Clamor Público was Los Angeles’ first Spanish-language paper, sold the winery to his nephews Pierre and Jean-Louis Sainsevain in 1855.  At that time, Los Angeles County was the largest wine-producing area in California and, among its many viticulturists and wine-makers were John Rowland and William Workman of Rancho La Puente.  Rowland had a vineyard next to the Los Angeles River, as well.

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Los Angeles Herald, 15 August 1895.

In the mid-1870s, the El Aliso site changed hands again as the Philadelphia Brewery began operations there.  One of its owners was Philip Lauth, a German native, and the Homestead has 1870s and 1880s photos of his wife and daughter.  In 1882, Joseph Maier and George Zobelein purchased the brewery and renamed it after themselves.

Later Zobelein split from the firm and purchased the Los Angeles Brewing Company on the east side of the river in East Los Angeles, renamed Lincoln Heights, with the Eastside name being famed for years.  The Maier family, however, continued operating at the old site and Maier Brewing Company was renowned for its Brew 102 brand of pale lager.

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The Herald article references an Indian from Indio in the Coachella Valley east of Palm Springs who happened to be in Los Angeles and saw the tree which was a “bench mark” for local natives.  This led the indigenous man to take to “dancing up and down and executing the most marvelous antics around the tree.”  Moreover, the age of the tree was given as 400 years because of oral history.

The late 1880s brick plant was replaced by modern facilities in the mid-20th century and Maier was sold in 1958 with production ending about fifteen years later in the face of competition by national giants like Anheuser Busch.  The plant was razed in the mid-Eighties for the construction of a busway from El Monte.

As for El Aliso it remained standing during the winery and brewery years, though it was enclosed in the complex and much of its sprawling canopy diminished as branches were removed for the expansion of the brick brewing facilities.  In 1889 (according to the Los Angeles Herald; some accounts say 1892), a large branch broke and destroyed a wagon owned by Maier and Zobelein, so Maier had the tree’s remaining limbs severed.  Six years later, the remainder of the trunk was cut up for firewood and souvenirs.  Charles Gibbs Adams, later a well-known landscape architect, was there, it was said, for the felling and counted 400 rings on the stump, thereby assigning its date.

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This 1870s stereoscopic photograph from the Homestead’s collection looks to show the massive El Aliso sycamore as a dark green mass just left of center below the horizon line.

More interesting information and photos about El Aliso are provided in an interesting Los Angeles Public Library blog post from last year by Kelly Wallace, a librarian in the history department.

The two 1870s stereoscopic photographs from the Homestead’s collection included in this post appear to show portions of El Aliso.  The first is taken from Fort Moore Hill looking east over the Plaza, including the Pico House hotel.  Just left of center and to the left of the prominent hotel above a single-story adobe building with very white walls is a tall, dark green mass that appears to be the towering sycamore.

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The El Aliso sycamore may partially be in view at the upper left corner of this 1870s stereoscopic photo from the museum’s holdings where branches and leaves peek out above some structures on the north side of Commercial Street, as viewed looking east from Main.  

Additionally there is an image of Commercial Street looking east from Main Street.  At the upper left corner are portions of a tree.  To be that tall and given that the sycamore was just north of Commercial along the old Aliso Road where the freeway is now situated, it seems probable that this is a part of the mighty El Aliso.  Finally, the storied sycamore now has a plaque to memorialize its storied history and importance to the region’s native peoples and the Europeans and others who followed.

2 thoughts on “A New Plaque for “El Aliso” Sycamore Tree, Los Angeles

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  1. The 1845 record contained within the english translations of the official records of the Ayuntamiento very likely indicates the location where the plaza of the pueblo’s second settlement. This record gives the linear dimension of the plaza, the length of its frontage along the north side of Aliso Street, a short distance to the west of the totemic signal tree of the native inhabitants.

    Sculptor Michael Palecki and I located the site of the tree trunk late one night using dimensions gotten from a Sanborn Fire Insurance Mapbook published in 1888. We done that before the adjacent 101 freeway was widened and the present on/off ramps from Commercial Street were constructed. Back then, the tree trunk’s location was near the north edge of a private commercial parking lot. The Sanborn mapbook shows the footprints of the buildings which formed the courtyard in which the tree had stood – previous to 1894.

    A map which shows the tree as well as the boundaries of the second plaza is on page 28 of ‘Homage To Downtown ~ In Search of Place and Memory in Ancient L.A.’. A copy is on file at the reference desk in the history department of LAPL, as well as at Special Collections in the Young Research Library at UCLA, as well as in the rare books department in the main library at USC, at Cal Poly Pomona, Cal State Long Beach, at the Huntington Library and Bancroft Library at UC Berkeley.

    Efforts to draw the attention of city leaders to the location of where the tree had stood went totally for naught until the publishment of Cecilia Rasmussen’s article in the Los Angeles Times.

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