A ‘Hill’ of a lot of history

HB native researches SoCal history to inform and tell stories


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Photos courtesy Claudine Burnett
Claudine Burnett is a Huntington Beach resident and self-proclaimed research archaeologist who studies cities in Southern California– including Signal Hill and Long Beach– and informs the public through her blogs and published works about their history. Pictured is Burnett with her cat, Amador, and a copy of her book, Prohibition Madness.

Most people wouldn’t have guessed that Long Beach was home to its very own Loch Ness Monster known as Clemente Clam or that Signal Hill was the site of the Cucumber Wars, but informing others of obscure details of a life once lived here in the Southern California area is precisely the role Claudine Burnett has filled for decades.

Burnett, 68, a Huntington Beach native and self-proclaimed research archaeologist, has a vested interest in studying Southern California’s history and informing others about it. Her books and blogs delve into the backstory of many cities– and, naturally, this would include cities such as Signal Hill and Long Beach.

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Died in Long Beach: Cemetery Tales by Claudine Burnett, which was released in June, explores the stories of those who died and are buried in Long Beach. The deceased include politicians, city founders, visitors, influenza victims, Civil War veterans, accident victims, doctors and undertakers, among others, per the book’s description.

“It’s very rewarding to know that people read what I put out there, the history that I put out there,” Burnett said. “That’s my reward. I don’t need any money or anything like that.”

She is a publisher of many books: most recently Died in Long Beach: Cemetery Tales, stories of those who died and are buried in Long Beach; and two Haunted Long Beach publications, a collection of ghostly lore in the city.

Her most recent blogging site focuses on Signal Hill– historicalsignalhill.blogspot.com– and dates back to August, detailing historic figures such as “Kid Mexico,” a boxer and businessman, and Henry Clay Dillon, an early settler, who were native to the area.

Her work centers around uncovering forgotten details from the past.

“I just love doing what I do,” she said, “because it’s like being a detective.”

Burnett is a member of various historical organizations, including the Historical Society of Long Beach and Long Beach Heritage Museum. She has a bachelor’s degree in history from UC Irvine, a master’s in informational science from UCLA and a master’s in public administration from CSULB.
Burnett aspired to be a history professor during her school years, but she said she grew up in a time when there weren’t a lot of career opportunities for women.

She instead chose to work at the school library at UC Irvine– which eventually developed her interest in becoming a librarian at Long Beach Public Library (LBPL), her first and last job.
“Being a librarian,” she said, “you sort of learn something new every day with the questions that people ask you.”

As her work continued, she soon became head of the Literature and History Department at LBPL, where she primarily assisted in putting together the Long Beach Index, a database of city information.
She retired early from full-time work in 2004 and remained at the library in a part-time and on-call capacity until she left entirely a little under two years ago. She said she has used the free time to focus on her writing and continuing her city research.

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Pictured is the Belmont Heights area of Long Beach at the intersection of Redondo Avenue and Broadway. According to Claudine Burnett, a local researcher of Southern California cities, Belmont Heights was once its own city from Oct. 1, 1908 to Nov. 9, 1909 before voting to merge with Long Beach.

Burnett gathers information by reading through old newspapers every day. She uses these publications as a primary source and relies on the content as an immediate reference for her to digest pieces of information and do her own research. She uses the Long Beach Index she helped create as a reference, as well.

Her interest in history stemmed from her passion for time-travel and science-fiction novels, she said.

“And by going back to the old newspapers– going through day-by-day over a 25-year period– it was like traveling back into the past,” Burnett said. “I was discovering so many new things that people had forgotten.”

She started her research by skimming the first-known newspaper in the area through microfilm– the Los Angeles Times, which began publication in 1880, the same year William Willmore founded what would eventually become Long Beach. Over time, she moved on to more Long Beach-centric publications that started publishing around 1907, Burnett said.

In her findings, she said she has found intriguing stories, such as that of Clemente Clam, dubbed a Loch Ness Monster-type of creature that was periodically found between San Clemente Island and Catalina Island decades ago. She is also working on a future blog post about an event known as the 1918 Cucumber Wars that took place in Signal Hill.

She finds that the process of uncovering historical narratives comes naturally for her because of her previous work as an organizer and cataloger.

“I guess I’m a bit different than most people,” she said. “I just get the notes together, and it all just comes together in my head– and I try to make it interesting. I don’t want history to be boring […] and that’s when I bring in interesting stories like the Loch Ness Monster or the Cucumber Wars– that sort of thing.”

On her blog, she’s been working on documenting events on a yearly basis. Currently, she is researching 1917 Long Beach history and the city involvement with Signal Hill entering World War I.
She has documented other stories, such as whale hunting in Long Beach, tunnels found in Signal Hill that are theorized to have been used by Native Americans to harvest oil for canoes and Signal Hill once being called Cerritos Hills.

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The Long Beach Municipal Cemetery, 1151 E. Willow St., is a source of interest in Claudine Burnett’s most recent book Died in Long Beach: Cemetery Tales, a collection of stories of some who have died and are buried in Long Beach. In her book, she details historical information of local cemetery sites, including the “cemetery wars” of the 1920s when oil was discovered on-site, as well as myths of ghosts haunting the area.

The Belmont Heights area in Long Beach, for instance, was once its own city from Oct. 1, 1908 to Nov. 9, 1909, according to Burnett. At the time, Long Beach was known as a “dry” city that did not serve alcohol, while Belmont Heights was the opposite. The questionable government and alcohol choice led to Belmont Heights voting to join Long Beach.

Burnett said a nationwide misconception is that Long Beach is often mistakenly seen as being part of Los Angeles. She recounted how the Viz Flyer, piloted by aviator Cal Rodgers and the first aircraft to fly across the United States, is often incorrectly stated as completing its flight in Los Angeles, when, in fact, it landed on the shore of Long Beach.

A similar situation is present now, she added, as Signal Hill and Long Beach are often confused as one city. The result is that Signal Hill history is often interwoven into Long Beach’s.

Even the method of gathering research has changed over time, Burnett said. She said the Internet, primarily Google, has filled the role that most librarians do when it comes to providing information.

“We used to look for what books we needed to find information in, not just look up keywords in a database and have it come up,” she said. “It was much more challenging during the time I was a research librarian.”

Burnett’s next posts about 1917 and World War I and the Cucumber Wars are pending. The next book she is working on is tentatively titled UFOs, the Red Scare and Elvis, focusing on flying saucers, communism and rock ‘n’ roll. Her personal blog of information can be found at claudineburnettbooks.com. ✦

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