Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader

Sticking Around: The La Brea Tar Pits

The following article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges into California.

(Image credit: Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD)

How much do you know about the Angelenos of the Pleistocene? Yeah, us either. Read on.


Hancock Park, an affluent area of Los Angeles, is well known for its celebrity sightings, million-dollar homes, and the famous Hollywood sign in the distance. But some of the neighborhood’s “residents” are even cooler. World-famous fossils—like the extinct dire wolf, saber-toothed tiger, and Columbia mammoth—are among the millions of specimens that have been excavated from the La Brea tar pits. Located on Wilshire Boulevard in the Miracle Mile, the tar pits contain one of the richest deposits of late Pleistocene era (the last ice age) fossils in North America. The fossils date from 10,000 to 40,000 years ago, and more than three million of them—including plants, mammals, birds, lizards, and insects—have been excavated since paleontologists first began digging there in the early 1900s.

The tar pits on display today were once excavation sites where workers dug for asphalt or scientists dug for fossils. Over the years, humans dug more than 100 pits throughout Hancock Park, but most of them have been refilled with dirt, debris, asphalt, and water. About 13 tar pits remain—the largest, called the Lake Pit, measures 28 square feet and is approximately 14 feet deep.


The La Brea tar pits formed thousands of years ago, when gas and oil beneath the ground came under pressure. The molten mixture pushed up through vents in the earth’s crust. Once it reached the surface, the oil pooled in natural depressions aboveground. The lighter part of the pooling oil evaporated—left behind was a heavy, sticky oil. Then rain and underground springs added water, forming ponds and lakes on top of the oil and creating what we now call the tar pits.

The water on the tar pits’ surface was especially attractive to thirsty animals, and during the warm spring and summer, the thick oil underneath was especially sticky. Animals that ventured into to the pits couldn’t escape. Often predators chased their prey into the pits and got stuck too. Paleontologists once found a large bison fossil surrounded by a pack of fossilized wolves. The dead animals eventually sank completely, and their bones and teeth turned brown from the oil. But otherwise, they were almost perfectly preserved for more than 30,000 years.


Hundreds of years ago, local Native Americans used the thick oil at the tar pits as waterproof caulking for their baskets and canoes. When the Spanish arrived in the 18th century, they used it to waterproof their houses. In 1828 the tar pits were part of a Mexican land grant called Rancho de la Brea (brea means “tar” in Spanish). When the United States took over California in 1848, the area was part of the deal, and ultimately, it came into the possession of lawyer and surveyor Henry Hancock…

In Loco Presidentis: Who’s In Charge Here?

This Presidents Day article is from the book Uncle John’s Bathroom Reader Plunges Into the Presidency.

You probably wouldn’t let the unconscious, anesthetized, or generally incapacitated mind the store, but would you let them mind the country?

It seems like a necessary and not terribly difficult thing to do—make sure someone is always running the country. But it took U.S. lawmakers nearly 200 years to get most of the kinks out of the presidential succession process. Not until the 25th Amendment to the Constitution was passed in 1967 was the procedure for replacing an incapacitated president clarified. So what happened before that? Well, the government sort of made things up as it went along.


The first real test of the succession process came when William Henry Harrison died after only a month in office. After delivering his inauguration speech in cold, windy weather without an over-coat, Harrison caught a cold that quickly turned into pneumonia. Within a month he was dead.

The Constitution said that given the president’s death, his his powers and duties should go to the vice president, who at that time was John Tyler. But not everyone was sure that Tyler actually became president. While he might have the president’s powers and duties, was it really the same thing as
being president? Wasn’t he only acting, so to speak? Tyler didn’t think so. He quickly had himself sworn in as president and even gave an inauguration speech at the ceremony.

Congress decided not to argue the point, which was almost as good as giving Tyler a nod of approval. Of course, not everyone was pleased with the “decision”; some dubbed Tyler His Accidency through his term of office. Tyler selected no one to be his vice president, so if he happened to kick the bucket or get kicked out of office, Congress would have to elect his successor to serve until the next presidential election. But every vice president since Tyler who has come to power via a death in office has been perfunctorily sworn into the office of president.


The next important question of succession: What happens if a president becomes unable to carry out his duties? James Garfield spent 79 days hovering between life and death after he was mortally wounded by an assassin’s bullet, but presidential powers never transferred during that time. Woodrow Wilson had a severe stroke with over a year left in his second term. His condition was kept secret as he remained in virtual seclusion afterward, with his wife taking over the duty of communicating his wishes to the outside world. But this may have…