By Sabrina WALENTYNOWICZ
Imagine a February filled with clouds, winter winds and torrential rainstorms. It might be wishful thinking these days, but back in 1978 it was reality for the Crescenta Valley. La Crescenta’s neighbors to the west in Tujunga were trying to stay dry indoors when on Feb. 9 the remains of 55 corpses were washed down the mountain sides and into local streets, businesses and homes.
This is the legacy of Verdugo Hills Cemetery, ironically nicknamed the Hills of Peace Cemetery. For those who may not have known there is a cemetery so close to La Crescenta, it was founded in 1922 and was operational until years of neglect and vandalism closed its gates for good in 2002. Unfortunately, for history aficionados and those with morbid fascinations, that is when the mystery and rumors – not to mention the bureaucratic red tape – started to surround the property.
On Jan. 25, the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley was invited to tour the grounds. Nearly 100 people attended the self-guided tour of the clandestine location. All were excited to get an up-close look at the historic residents, both known and unknown.
The cemetery itself has a strange layout and irritating topography. While the first residents of the cemetery, Reverend James Wornom and his wife Jenny, are laid to rest at the top of a steep hill with beautiful views of the San Fernando Valley, 15 feet behind them lies some unlucky soul whose headstone is buried under four feet of unrelenting sagebrush. This individual’s gravestone is under so much brush that the only thing legible is the name Thomas.
But Thomas is not the only one to feel sorry for; remember the aforementioned red tape? After the 1978 floods, the recovered remains were reinterred at higher ground in the cemetery. The problem is some believe that many of the remains were placed in incorrect graves.
After the media disaster of dead bodies washing up on the peaceful streets of Tujunga, the City of Los Angeles decided to enclose the cemetery with a fence. A great idea except when one walks around the fence’s perimeter and sees many more graves visible on the hillside outside of the fence. And even more appalling – and disrespectful – is across the tiny street that leads to the cemetery is another 30 yards or so of undeveloped land that historians believe contains 1,800 unmarked graves. But the city was done with cleaning up Verdugo Hills’ mess, so the fence was left as it was with no efforts made to find out who is buried across the street.
Aside from the grisly history and woeful mismanagement of the site (the Wornoms’ gravestone is misspelled), the cemetery is a wonderful, hidden gem of the valley. Unfortunately for graveyard buffs, the cemetery no longer performs burials and is not accessible to the public except through arranged private tours. For those who get the chance to visit, and don’t think about February 1978, the serenity and vistas of the Hills of Peace are sure to please.