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The Curse of Cahuenga Pass

Could there be buried treasure at the Hollywood Bowl? More so, did its curse kill at least 10 men?

The Hollywood Bowl and its famous parking lot in 1929 (Huntington Library)

The lore of the loot dates back to 1864 amid the second French intervention in Mexico. To defend against a monarchical government (Emperor Maximilian I, former Austrian archduke), the resistance crowd-sourced $200,000 worth of gold coins, diamonds, jewelry, and watches to buy armaments in San Francisco.

Four men were sent on the mission from Mazatlán, yet only three made it to Northern California. Along the way, their lead died suddenly. Fearing it was the work of French spies, the three surviving delegates split the treasure into six portions, wrapped each in a buckskin, and buried them outside San Francisco for safekeeping.

Emperor of Mexico Maximilian I, former Austrian archduke, and his wife Carlota (Heritage Auctions)

When they returned to retrieve the six hidden parcels, all were gone. Two of the men, suspecting the other, shot each other right then and there. The third, Captain Henry Malcolm, an American, was murdered years later in Tombstone, Arizona. His assailant was captured by none other than Wyatt Earp.

As it turned out, a Mexican shepherd named Diego Moreno had surreptitiously watched the trio bury the treasure. That night, he unearthed them—and couldn’t believe his fortune. He bundled it all up and took off for home in Sonora, via the Cahuenga Pass. At the south end of the ancient trail, he stopped at a tiny tavern near the present day junction of Highland Avenue and Cahuenga Boulevard.

That night, an angel came to Moreno in a dream and warned him: If he entered Los Angeles with the treasure, he would die.

A superstitious man, before dawn he went out into the foothills, just west of the Pass and halfway up the summit, and buried the six buckskins in different locations within several paces of an ash tree, the only one in the area. One day, when the angel wasn’t looking, he would return for the treasure.

Cahuenga Pass, 1885. To the left is the present-day site of the Hollywood Bowl. (Hollywood Historic Photos)

For a year, Moreno waited for his moment, hanging around the area even though he could not find work and was starving.

A man named Don Jesus Martinez took him in, but Moreno was already far too malnourished. On his deathbed in 1866, he revealed his secret. However, he only got as far as the ash tree, not the curse preceding it, before drawing his final breath.

Lacking that key piece of information, Martinez headed straight to the location with his 14-year-old stepson Jose Correa. The hike proved too much for the elderly man and once they reached the ash tree, Martinez’s heart gave out—and Correa, terrified by the double dose of death he had witnessed, vowed never to hunt the treasure again.

Two decades later, in 1885, a shepherd’s flock was grazing in the Pass when his dog was drawn to something under a tree. The mutt started digging—and exhumed a buckskin stuffed with 100 gold doubloons, several fine watches, and fistfuls of jewelry, which his human confiscated. Later, at 6 Mile House tavern (present-day Sunset and Gower), the shepherd revealed what he found to his friend, proprietor Laurent Etchepare, but swore him to secrecy. Surely, Etchepare must have chalked it up to drunken rambling? Not quite.

6 Mile House was owned and operated by Laurent Etchepare and Martin Labaig (Los Angeles Public Library)

The shepherd, now rich, decided to leave Los Angeles and return to his native Spain, boarding a ship with the treasure sewn into the lining of his clothing for safekeeping. As he approached the port of Barcelona, the shepherd spotted his family waiting on the dock. He leaned over the railing to wave—and tumbled into the water, dragged down by the weight of his wealth. His body, nor the jewels, were ever recovered.

That left five parcels buried in the Pass—and seven deaths because of the treasure’s existence.

Horace Bell (USC)

By 1894, Correa’s fear of the curse had started to wear off. Curiosity got the better of him and he planned an excavation with the help of Major Horace Bell, a local rancher and publisher (and the man who perpetuated the curse in his memoir, On the Old West).

Now, three decades later, the ash tree had been cut down, so Correa and Bell hatched a Plan B: They’d lease the surrounding acreage under the pretense of farming, hoping the plows would unearth the hidden buckskins.

That September, following a meeting with Bell, Correa was shot and killed by his brother-in-law, with whom he was feuding, on Boyle Avenue downtown. The tally was now at eight deaths associated with the Cahuenga Pass treasure.

But that didn’t stop Etchepare. He sold the 6 Mile House, and according to a 1940 American Weekly report, vanished from record “to live or die violently, nobody knows.” It was the latter (albeit not violently): In 1901, as he was actively planning his own treasure hunt, Etchepare died at the age of 45 from cirrhosis of the liver.

Four decades later, the Curse of Cahuenga Pass claimed its 10th, and presumably final, victim: Henry Jones, a San Francisco mining engineer who led a rag-tag team of excavators in 1939, as the rumored “death-dealing evil eye” watched their every move.

Spectators watch the 1939 team dig at the Hollywood Bowl (Historic Images)

For 24 days, Jones, Hollywood stuntman Ray Johnson, Highland Park inventor Frank Hoekstra, and his two sons dug up the Bowl’s parking lot, located behind the bandshell, stopping periodically to test the soil with Hoekstra’s electrochemical gold-sniffing “doodlebug.”

The Bowl Association permitted Jones to make the mess—in exchange for half of what he found buried on their property (a sheriff, pictured above, stood watch to ensure honesty).

The Great Treasure Hunt, as it was dubbed in the press, attracted hundreds of spectators and sightseeing buses even added it to their routes.

Unfortunately, there wasn’t a whole lot of action.

The excavation seemed doomed from the start: The walls of their shaft continually caved in, the “doodlebug” was temperamental, and Jones (who was staying at the Padre Hotel on Cahuenga Boulevard) wrecked his car on the short drive to the Bowl.

Hoekstra with the doodlebug, his sons, and Jones (Historic Images)

On Day 9, they reached a depth of 22 feet. County engineers monitoring the process determined they had dug through soft “fill” dirt brought over from the surrounding hills to build the Bowl parking lot atop the original canyon. By Jones’ calculations, they were within five feet of the treasure.

Two feet deeper, they punctured a bubble of subterranean gas. Jones insisted it had been created by the corrosion of buried gold. At 27 feet, they found the roots of long-dead trees and shrubs. Another 10 feet and they would be rich, said Johnson. Instead, they hit water and flooded their shaft.

For three more days, Jones and Johnson slogged through mud until they struck … a boulder. Reluctantly, the weary treasure-seekers threw in the shovel (but not before first filling up the hole they created, although they had pre-paid $100 for its restoration).

Jones returned to San Francisco, broke and broken-hearted. Thirty-seven days later, on Jan. 26, 1940, he was found in a parking lot slumped over the steering wheel of his car. He had attached a hose to the exhaust pipe. A suicide note beside him explained his wife wanted a divorce.

As the San Francisco Examiner pointed out, “Henry Jones’ only luck was with death.”


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