It was a reassuring symbol of stability amid the upheavals of colonial expansion and transformation of the land: an ancient, sprawling sycamore tree known as El Aliso. Growing in what is today the heart of downtown Los Angeles, the tree cut an imposing figure. It measured 60 feet tall and 22 feet around the trunk. Its canopy spread nearly 200 feet from tip to tip. Each year, the tree repeated its cycles—casting off leaves, resprouting them, dropping seeds, and stretching out ever so slightly—even as the surrounding landscape morphed from fertile flood plain into gritty city center.
El Aliso sprang from rich alluvium on the west bank of the Los Angeles River sometime in the late fifteenth century. As it matured, the sprawling sycamore gained almost totemic significance among Los Angeles' indigenous Tongva (Gabrielino) people. In a landscape virtually free of permanent structures, the towering tree would have been visible for a great distance, and in the summer heat it would have provided welcome relief from the sun. The Tongva reportedly reckoned distances in relation to the tree, and traders from as far away as present-day Yuma, Arizona, knew the tree as a landmark. By the mid-eighteenth century, the mighty sycamore marked the site of one of the largest Tongva villages, Yaanga.
The tree continued to grow as Spain colonized the region and radically transformed life in the village under the sycamore's boughs. Impervious to the political and cultural whirlwind surrounding it, the tree acquired a new, Castilian name: El Aliso. (In Spanish, "aliso" typically refers to an alder tree, but in Alta California it was often mistakenly applied to sycamores, as well.) In 1781, Spain founded a new agricultural settlement within a stone's throw of El Aliso: El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles.
Early Angelenos depended on the inhabitants of Yaanga (sometimes rendered as "Yang-na") for manual labor and hand-made goods. But Spanish colonization soon devastated the Tongva village. Many residents were drawn to the nearby Mission San Gabriel Arcangel, where missionaries imposed Spanish culture upon those who converted. Those who remained in Yaanga lived under the increasingly dominant sway of the pueblo, which slowly encroached on the village. Eventually, Yaanga became more of a day laborers' camp than a functioning village, and in 1845 civic authorities relocated the settlement across the Los Angeles River, far away from El Aliso.
But the tree—once part of a vast riparian forest until an 1825 flood wiped away most of the sycamore's smaller companions—remained a sentimental landmark. In 1832, a French immigrant named Jean-Louis Vignes opened a winery on the fertile land surrounding El Aliso, building his cellar in the tree's shade. Vignes named his winery El Aliso in the ancient sycamore's honor and spoke so fondly of the tree that Angelenos referred to him as "Don Luis del Aliso."
Later, German immigrants purchased Vignes' old winery and converted it into one of Los Angeles' first breweries, the Philadelphia Lager Brewery. El Aliso continued to anchor the brewery's courtyard, its branches shading Vignes' cellar and now protecting German lager rather than French wine from the California sun. The courtyard, meanwhile, became a popular beer garden and picnic spot among the city's growing English-speaking population.
El Aliso towers over Jean-Louis Vignes' former winery in this circa 1870 drawing. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]
While useful at first, the ancient sycamore eventually became an obstacle to the brewery's industrial-scale success. Joseph Maier and George Zobelein purchased the facility in 1882 and began to aggressively expand production. At first they built around the tree, but in 1889 a large branch fell and crushed a brewery wagon valued at $400. The brewers took the opportunity to build out their facility, lopping off most of El Aliso's branches and enclosing the tree on three sides. Only the massive arms extending out over Aliso Street, the roadway that bore the tree's name, remained. Meanwhile, the surrounding area—once a picturesque landscape of grape vines and orange groves—became the city's first industrial core.
Though it had withstood countless brush fires and floods, the dismembered tree could not survive the stresses of urban development. John Crandell, a landscape architect who has researched the tree's history in detail, suspects that several factors—including reduced foliage, the addition of granite pavers on Aliso Street, and a loss of exposed topsoil—spelled the tree's doom. Whatever the final cause, in the spring of 1891 the mangled sycamore failed to resprout its leaves. The ancient tree was dead.
El Aliso's lifeless trunk stood in the brewery courtyard until 1895, when it was felled and sold for firewood. Longtime residents flocked to the brewery to watch as lumberman William Willoughby hacked away at the hefty trunk with his ax for three full days. Many collected wood chips as relics.
Today, no public monument or bronze plaque marks the site of El Aliso or the Tongva village of Yaanga. According to Crandell, the tree grew 153 feet north of Commercial Street and 88 feet east of Garey Street. That puts the tree's site underneath a raised island separating the 101 freeway from an onramp, directly across the highway from Union Station and within earshot of the Déjà Vu gentlemen's club. Cars whisk by, a chain link fence rattles in the breeze, and the club's neon sign blinks at one of L.A.'s most ancient historic sites.
Top image: a drawing of the El Aliso winery and its eponymous sycamore tree, made sometime before 1875. [USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection]
An 1870 photograph of El Aliso, taken shortly before the former winery became a brewery. [Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]
Another distant view of the sycamore, taken circa 1885. [Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]
Aerial view of the Maier Brewing Company, nearly three decades after El Aliso fell to William Willoughby's axe. The 101 freeway now runs left-to-right through the area shown here. [Photo Collection - Los Angeles Public Library]
Southland is made possible by a partnership between Gizmodo, the USC Libraries, and the member collections of L.A. as Subject. Written by Nathan Masters, the series explores the urban past of Los Angeles, including the lost landscapes and forgotten infrastructures that continue to influence the city we know today. This post previously appeared in a different version on KCET.org as "El Aliso: Ancient Sycamore Was Silent Witness to Four Centuries of L.A. History."