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A mastodon uncovered during development of Capistrano Beach in 1929, known as the Capistrano Mastodon, was on display at the Los Angeles Natural History Hall in 1931. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles
A mastodon uncovered during development of Capistrano Beach in 1929, known as the Capistrano Mastodon, was on display at the Los Angeles Natural History Hall in 1931. Photo courtesy of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles

By Carlos Olvera

In 1929, oil tycoon Edward L. Doheny purchased the undeveloped land known today as the Palisades, along with the Serra railroad stop from the Capistrano Beach Co. to start development on the “Birth of the City.” Doheny saw the Palisades, a mesa about 150 feet above the ocean, as an ideal location for growth along the rolling hills of south Orange County.

Carlos N. Olvera
Carlos N. Olvera

As with any development, the moving of dirt has a tendency to cough up some interesting artifacts—even inland by several miles, small sea animals have been discovered as well as giant sloths and bison.

In July 1887, during the cutting of the California Central Railroad—three miles north of San Juan-by-the-Sea—a huge mastodon was unearthed, just north of where JSerra High School is today. The animal’s tusks were reportedly 16 feet long before crumbling upon exposure to light.

Our own community was also prone to such discoveries.

During Doheny’s development of Capistrano Beach, H.E. Leyden, the construction manager, saw what appeared to be a horn protruding from the ground while grading a street across the mesa. Within a week 20 individuals, including geologists, paleontologists, scientists from Washington, D.C. and the Los Angeles Museum were at the scene for the unveiling. Peering into the 3-foot-deep excavation area, one could see the animal’s femur, head and vertebrae.

It was apparent the mastodon collapsed upon itself and died there alone.

The area is believed to have once been a muddy clay bog. Based on the animal’s remains, the mastodon appeared to have wandered away from its heard some 25,000 years ago and became entrapped among its surroundings. The orientation of the mastodon’s bones gave rise to speculation they were agitated over time by tidal activity of the then sea level beach.

The remains were discovered near today’s intersection of Calle Granada and Calle Delores.

After three weeks of examination and excavation, the bones were covered in shellac and encased in plaster to avoid damage from the elements. Based on findings, the mastodon once stood about 10 feet tall and 14 feet long—from the tail to the base of the horns. The plaster cast was picked up by a tractor and trucked to the Los Angeles Museum, and at that time it was unclear if it could be reconstructed.

Once at the museum, the skeleton was cleaned and placed in a glass display case, located in the Natural History Hall. Current records of the museum indicate the presence of the display until the late 1940s, after which it was listed as having been disposed of. Reviews by museum experts of today indicate that in reality it may actually have been a mammoth. You be the judge.

Carlos N.  Olvera is past president of the Dana Point Historical Society, current Vice Chair of the OC Historical Commission and a Dana Point Councilman.

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