I recently read a biography on Howard Hughes in all of his glory and strangeness. A brilliant businessman and inventor with a penchant for Hollywood starlets, he defined eccentricity. Once considered the richest man in America, today he’s remembered for designing and flying the infamous Spruce Goose. The flying boat was completely made of wood and has the largest wingspan of any airplane to date. Although it only flew once, it’s now part of aviation history.
As a young archaeologist I had the opportunity to work at the site of the original Hughes airport and hangar where the Spruce Goose was built. Although my appreciation for the man and flying boat was not as developed as it is today, the memories of working at this historic landmark was a total L.A. experience that Hughes would have gotten a kick out of observing.
The location of the dilapidated hangar was on a stretch of land in Playa Del Rey bordering the trendy Marina Del Ray not far from the current Los Angeles Airport (LAX). The area was considered the “last of the wetlands” in Southern California and therefore protected. That is until a developer managed to buy the land for major residential and commercial development including the new DreamWorks Studio. After plans were approved, archaeologists and biologists were called in for an initial survey, a requirement in California. I was fortunate to work there from the beginning to witness the circus.
The wetlands butted up to a pathway popular among joggers, bikers and Roller Bladers. Not living far from the site I decided I would Roller Blade to work on a regular basis. I packed my work clothes and tools in my backpack and arrived refreshed and ready to go every morning. In the beginning phases we randomly collected soil samples to test back in the lab. Our storage area for the samples was the Hughes hangar where the Spruce Goose was assembled. Every time I carried a sample into the hanger I marveled in awe— I could feel the energy.
While collecting samples in the field we had to walk along side “a sniffer.” Basically, someone in a full-bodied white suit and mask with a methane detector in his hand working along-side the survey crew. Methane was extremely high at the Hughes site due to natural causes and the saturation of aviation fuel. In the past the soil was exposed to gas on a regular basis without the regulations we have today at modern airports. If the specialist with the detector said “run” then we were to run against the wind. Not an easy task for someone who doesn’t know wind direction very well. Luckily, it only happened once and I ran with the crowd. They told me, “if you smell rotten eggs then it’s too late.” Of course that became the joke of the survey when you work with a bunch of guys.
As progression from survey to excavation advanced, environmental protesters started showing up at the site. “Save the Wetlands.” Some even endured hunger strikes and camped for days and weeks without eating as we continued our work. A hostile protester approached me on at least one occasion. My response was, “I hope they save the wetlands too. In the mean time, I’m just doing my work as an archaeologist.” I enjoyed Roller Blading near the wetlands and observing the wildlife, but I wasn’t going to give up an opportunity to work this important site. I was not responsible for its development and I certainly couldn’t stop it.
At the beginning, screening was an issue but our team developed an enclosed “pool” for the project. Because it was “the wetlands” we had to wet-screen the soil. However the soil was severely contaminated, so we had to contain it and dispose of it properly with no run-off. We built a large basin for the task. The team consisted of : the comic driver of the water truck, Native American monitors (Gabrielino), and several archaeologists with various degrees in education. Our on-site office was a movie trailer set up with computers, printers, field tools, and maps.
The truck driver liked to put fake artifacts in our screen, the monitors would often disappear and the archaeologists when bored would get into water fights. One of our Native American monitors got stuck in quick sand and an afternoon of media frenzy and rescue efforts followed. We teased him for the rest of the project.
The most common artifacts we found were beads, stone tools and some human remains. The wetlands were situated in a valley but the surrounding hilltops were an important Native American site. The human remains were probably washed down from the cliffs above. The beads were used as a trade item and the stone tools and flakes a remnant of their hunting and gathering past.
I left the project to start graduate school, but the work I did there will always hold a special memory. The project started and stopped over the years but it is now completely developed except for the Hughes hangar which still remains as a historic building.