Area historians gathered with excitement on Tuesday as a team of Tehachapi-based archaeologists surveyed Visalia’s Old Lumberyard on Oak and Garden streets with Ground-Penetrating Radar equipment (GPR.)
Self Help Enterprises is due to tear down the lumberyard in order to build The Lofts at Fort Visalia, an affordable housing complex. The Visalia City Council requested that a survey be conducted before construction on the complex begins.
Just like shows on the Discovery Channel, Visalia was searching for its roots with the help of high-tech equipment. The Old Lumberyard is believed to be the site of Fort Visalia, built in 1852 — but the location has never been verified.
Hopefully that will change.
Armed with old Sanborn Fire Insurance maps from 1890 and 1913, and a small amount of documented history, Dave Whitley of ASM Affiliates surveyed what they hoped to be the foundations of Fort Visalia.
Knowing where some of the previous construction stood on the property lets Whitley use a process of elimination to find the fort. Any patterns revealed by the radar that are more modern, and correspond with the maps, will not be old enough to be the fort.
With the help of doctoral candidate Jimmy Daniels, who was working the GPR, the radar took successive images through a yard and a half of dirt.
The GPR looks for anomalies that may indicate the presence of a former trench, palisades (defensive walls made of stakes), or privy pots (toilettes.)
“Privy pots have a lot of artifacts – usually liquor bottles,” Whitley said with a chuckle.
But there isn’t much difference between an 1890 privy pot and a 1852 privy pot, he said, so their presence alone does not provide definitive evidence of the fort.
The architecture company is looking for the remains of wood palisades built on top of a trench. Whitley didn’t know how deep the trench was, but knows it surrounded the palisades. According to local historian Terry Ommen, the fort held about two dozen families. A partial list of the original occupants still exists.
If the team found a rectangular structure that is 60 feet, Whitley said he could conclude with some certainty that the corner of Oak and Garden was the location of Fort Visalia.
Results of the survey should take about two weeks.
ASM Affiliates undertakes archeology digs all over the Western States. Doing surveys with radar equipment is a specialized type of archaeology and just one of the services provided by the company. Whitley says that most of their work is conventional archeology digs.
ASM Affiliates might be back doing one of those digs in Visalia.
“If something looks promising, we will be doing some sort of test excavation,” Whitley said.
He added that he would coordinate with Self Help so as to not delay the construction.
“We could get here pretty quickly,” he said.
About 15 people had congregated to watch Daniels go back and forth over the floor of the former lumberyard with the GPR equipment.
Few were from Visalia and when asked why they came one older Tularean said, “Just because we love history!”