I enjoy researching properties in the areas I do my projects even if I can't dig them because it helps me put history into perspective for the entire area. For years I had known the story of this place in depth likely more than anyone. The site was located in the heart of the old commercial district where lots were laid out in March of 1850. The earliest structures were crude ramshackle wooden buildings that housed a host of businesses and residences until totally destroyed by fire in March of 1853. Rebuilding was quick on this site and by the end of 1853 it was completely full once again but this time they were better established fire proof brick buildings. Starting in the 1940s many of the ageing buildings started to disapear mainly due to inferior brick mortor. By 1975 none of the early buildings remained. There was a saloon, lodge, liquors, drugstore, dwellings, offices, grocery store, lodgings and a host of other business all located here from early on. Now days not a trace of anything old remains at ground level from these long forgotten early Gold Rush era buildings.
All of the original old lots on this site when laid out had a common back property line in which usually each one would have had its own privy. However 2/3rds of the back property line here had been excavated or exposed for various construction projects over the past 30 years. I had monitored all of those projects and it seemed odd that there were no privies found behind any of the early buildings. The only portion that hadn't been exposed was a narrow 5' wide x 40' long concrete section.I had looked at this place several times over the years and often wondered what might lay under the surface along the long narrow concrete slab. The concrete was in good shape that looked maybe 30 years old max, it was not the un-reinforced shabby kind that is rough and cracked. It was a long-shot, a tough place to dig and a likely fact that the owner didn't want his nice concrete disturbed so I never asked.
While driving by one day after a nearby dig I did a double take on what was once the long narrow concrete slab, it was gone, freshly peeled and down to bare dirt, ohhhh thank you bottle gods. I could hardly believe what I was seeing and my timing was perfect, adrenalin over load times ten. On things like this it's all about being at the right place at the right time while understanding the abundance of the universe and the cosmic karmic energy that placed you there or maybe it's just pure luck who knows. There are few properties left to dig in the area due to all the re-development that has taken place here over the years so I knew I was definitely not going to let this opportunity pass me by. The building where the concrete strip once laid was being completely renovated. The contractor explained they'd be digging several deep utility trenches which would likely destroy anything we might be interested in excavating. He agreed to let us look for a privy before they dug but it was a "check with the owner before you dig" kind of permission.
We started our investigation at one end of the property and systematically crept our way toward the other. The entire time my intuition kept telling me that near the corner we were headed, something was going to happen. The ground was hard and full of rubble that plagues that part of town for about three feet down everywhere thus making our underground search much more time consuming and labor intensive. At about 14 feet from the corner I located an old brick wall deep in the ground. On the other side of the wall lay more brick and concrete rubble but in this area it was ten feet deep not three like everywhere else. My first thought was that it was a turn of the century basement at the back of the building which isn't an uncommon thing in that area. From there I moved directly to the corner some 14 feet away and again, same thing, rubble to at least ten feet down. Not being prepared to test deeper than 10' feet, I needed to know just how much deeper that rubble went. We hand dug a hole at one end down six feet through some of the nastiest brick and large concrete pieces you'd ever believe, it was hard going. At that point we again tested to see how deep the rubble went and found it ended at eleven feet from the surface. Below it was another nine feet of some very soft dark soil for a total of twenty feet in depth, it was definitely no basement. My heart was pumping, holy smokes I thought, this can't be one privy hole it's to darn big. We moved to the opposite end and dug down again, it was the same thing confirming that indeed it was a monster brick lined privy. At that point I realized it likely serviced the entire end of the block which explained the absence of any other pits.
Question now was how to dig this in the limited amount of time we had before the utilities lines were dug, surely it wasn't going to happen that day and then there's the owner permission I needed to try and secure first. On top of that there a leaking water line that looks as if it had been running water into the area of the privy since the project started. I would need to fix this in hopes of avoiding the dreaded water at such an extreme depth.
The permission was granted to proceed with our project under the condition we do it on a weekend only while no one was working. Geeezzzzzz, cram a three day major dig into two days was going to be tough but I was determined to see what was in the bottom of that monster privy. Planning would be key here if this was going to successfully happen in a timely manner. Knowing my capabilities and how to move large volumes of dirt by hand, I figured it would take a four man crew around thirty hours from start to finish to hand dig, backfill and compact the beast and let me tell you son, that’s flat ass moving. The dirt calculation revealed there was a total of about 35 cubic yards to remove and 35 yards to put back. That's 70 cubic yards, the equivalent of moving seven full size dump truck loads material of which half was brick & concrete rubble all by hand, ouch. This would be a huge undertaking but not impossible for my crew. We returned the next weekend prepared to dig but workers were there all day Saturday which stopped us from starting our project. Back again the following weekend and again it's the same thing, painters this time with scaffolding over the dig zone. My frustration level is now maxed out and still the monster pit sits un-disturbed by the end of week three. With the job is nearing completion, a huge dump truck load of sand has been brought in and dumped right on top of the monster for backfilling utility lines they'll soon be digging, it's now looking grim. We've got one more weekend to attempt the dig before it's too late and now my number one partner can't make it this time, things are definitly not looking good. For my finial attempt I contacted my old digging partner Tom who has 30 years experience, knows his stuff and will be a great foreman for the project. Third and fourth partners had to be physically up to the challenge and digger friendly so I picked my son Nick and a new digging friend Bob. Team work and the right people for a project of this magnitude is critical if it's going to get done in a safe timely manner and go smooth.
October 23rd 2003, its 1:00 a.m. in the morning, I can't sleep. I'm anxious about my finial attempt; it's the same location where my grandmother was a regular visitor 140 years earlier. Two attempts now and both times workers were in the "dig zone" each weekend that I planned the dig. Time is running out, the construction project is nearing completion, I'll be making a third attempt in the morning. We knew it was a do or die this mission as we headed for the dig site Friday afternoon hoping the workers had left early for the weekend. At 2:00 p.m we arrive at the site and sure enough their working. I asked one of the workers what was up for the weekend on the job site and was told no one would be around after 5 pm. that afternoon or the weekend, perfect there's hope now.
We return at 5 pm and true to his word all the workers were gone, now it's our turn. It was finally quite here for the first time in weeks. I stopped the water leak three weeks prior, the sand pile was shifted off the privy a little and all of us were in full dig mode. Knowing exactly where to dig I outlined the hole but before proceeding we had to erect a plywood retaining wall to hold back dirt and debris from going on the neighbor’s property. Next we needed tarps for the dirt, connect to power and put caution tape all around the project to keep the spectators back. The dirt coming out had to be moved away from the hole and placed back in the 6' wide x 40' stretch behind the building. We would start dumping 40' back and bring the pile forward as we go down deeper into the belly of the beast. I could only visualize what 35 yards of material was going to look like along the narrow strip, it was definitely going to be a huge pile. For the first six feet we had two men digging in the hole throwing their dirt into wheel barrows while two others ran them down the narrow strip and dump.
By 8:00 pm we had the brick lined privy pit opened up to its full 5' x 12' dimensions; it was an unbelievably site and one huge hole. The first 10 feet was nothing but cement, bricks, rubble and little dirt.
We were now into the darkness of night with our lighting system in place and we're all getting hungry. Bob gets on the phone and orders up a large pizza and drinks to be delivered to the dig site. I'm sure that was a first for that pizza delivery guy, four men digging a huge privy in the night, it don't get much better. Re-fueled we continue until 10pm and call it quits for the day then securely covered it over. We're now down almost eight feet; we've gotten a major head start for the weekend.
The next morning we arrive at the project at 7 am and start in again. This day was going to be interesting because now we're only a few feet from the use layer. We set up the electric "bucket buddy" I created to hoist dirt out of a hole. My buddy is great as he can hoist buckets endlessly without ever tiring, complaining or wanting any part of the split.
By 11:00 am we're completely out of the rubble and starting into a very dark loosely filled night soil, ahhhhh sweetness at last. My son Nick is in the hole with Bob digging at the start of the layer. One of the first bottles out that Nick digs was a nice old embossed pumpkin seed flask from San Francisco. More 1890s bottles followed telling me that this was going to be the hole of all ages, 90s on top and likely 50s on the bottom. More and more bottles followed as we carefully worked our way down into the beast; foods, medicine, sodas, liquor etc.
At the 12' level I could clearly see the old loose dry stacked brick walls were bulging inward and this was definitely not good, very unsafe. It was nothing however that couldn't be cured with a few 2x4s and some construction knowledge. There is no room for error and nothing in the world worth risking harm to anyone, safety is everything. We built three stout diagonal braces to support the walls and hold them in place thus making the project completely safe to continue in my mind. Once again down we went, bucket after bucket, more wines, medicines, embossed pumpkin flask, foods etc. The age was changing as we now enter into the early 1880s. Bob shouts up that he's got an amber 5th showing and soon carefully removes a beautiful glob top Cartain Mc Carthey.
At this point it was time for a shift change so Tom and I took over down in the hole and set up the lighting. This was a serious dig with perfect age and the possibilities were high there could be a great bottle here; there was no room for a careless mistake from an inexpierenced digger. We're now down 16' feet in the huge 5' x 12" wide hole. I could tell my partner Tom was feeling a little nervous as we're now below the bracing in the bulging belly of the monster hole. I tried to assure him the shoreing made it completely safe but with good reason he was still a bit nervous. It's now solid 1870s material coming out; umbrella inks, Western blown spice bottles, Jamaicagingers, blacks, union flask, wines, pottery ales, medicines, etc. The ground was loose and fluffy, most everything is intact. It couldn't get much better everything is going great, lots of bottles but still there was nothing to special.
It's getting late, a 12 hour day, we're all tired, we've dug over 200 bottles this day and call it quits. Feeling somewhat disappointed that we hadn't found anything to great I knew that the 1860s layer we'd be un-packing the next day still remained completely intact and that’s where it was likely to happen. Back again on the project 7:00 am Sunday morning and boy do we have our work cut out for us because we have to be completely finished and restore the property today. Tom and I back in the huge pit with Nick and Bob on top hoisting and dumping. It's now solid 1860s material; more blacks, wines, spices, medicines, foods, ales, busted cathedral pickles, etc. but still nothing to exciting but a whole lot of good times. The layer has now turned into the heaviest use part of the hole with lots of discarded meat bones, egg shells, seeds, ashes, bottles, pipes & several intact boars heads. These were used to make "Boars Head Soup" which was considered a delicacy in the early pioneer days.
The hole is so large that Tom is on the opposite end as me and we're both working our own sections down together. The pace has now slowed to a crawl as we excavate the layers of time ever so carefully eliminating any possibility of damaging something. It's cool, well shaded and quiet deep inside mother earth, kind of an eerie but exciting feeling that no words can even begin to describe. It’s like a time machine and about as close as it gets to actually being back and expierenceing 19th century life. Objects are coming to light for the first time in well over a century as we uncover them.
Berrybottles, blacks, spices, medicines, schnapps and bucket loads of dirt to no end it seems. Tom repositions himself towards the center of the hole and continues lightly brushing the soil away with a trowel. Tap, another bottle so he works around it exposing the shoulder of a very sparkly looking green bitters, this one looks interesting. At last something exciting maybe, he calls me over and I re-direct the light while watching him expose more of it only to find the bottom blown out of a very crude looking un-embossed Western bitters bottle. It had obviously hit something causing it to break. After removing the bottle he gently trowels more dirt away to see what it hit and finds another bottle directly under it, another square. I’m thinking the two were dumped in together and this is likely going to be the mate to the blank one we just dug. I have no expections when I dig so rarely there's nothing to be dispointed about but that year there had been way to many busted bottles I'd of loved to of had. I'm driven purely out of my passion for history and early Western bottle glass. As he brushes the dirt away and loosens the impacted meat bones from around it I could see embossing and gezzzzzz what a friggin color, it's bright apple green. "Holy smokes it reads: "SAN FRANCISCO" and the color is just insane". Trying to contain my exciment I look over to Tom and say: "Yeah and this one is probably going to be broken too"; He smiles with a huge grin and says: "That's why you brought me; I only dig whole bottles"! Believing in the higher source that placed us there 18' down in that monster privy and his eternal words we now have what appeares to be a completely intact bottle exposed. Taking off a glove he slides his finger inside the neck and gently lifts the bottle from its resting place where it had laid for the past 140 years. I just couldn't believe what I was seeing, it was the most beautiful bright grass green Rosenbaum's Bitters I'd ever laid my eyes on and it wasn't broken.
Within minutes we resumed the task of emptying out the huge hole. There were fewer bottles as it approaches the early 1860s indicating a more conservative life style with less abundance. Nearing bottom the soil was now becoming damp and sticky, we were now back to the 1850s. At that point I realized we were almost done and that soon the huge task of putting it all back together was about to begin. For hours we shovel, wheelbarrow, backfill & compact the giant pit gradually filling it. Were finally done, it's over, the Monster Dig is history.