On This Day: Photos Documenting Flooding in Greater Los Angeles, 25 February 1927

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

A historically dry winter this season, with only between one and two inches of rain recorded since the first of October, compared to 16 to 18 last year, has brought back the likelihood of the official pronouncement of a drought.  In Los Angeles, it has been eight-five years since there was a “zero” in the inches column for rainfall and the official reading is 0.01.    Up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, where the snowpack provides much of the state’s water, the conditions are “dismal,” with readings at stations varying from 47% to zero of normal.

This has led to a noticeable and unlikely flip-flop in weather conditions in the state and on the east coast compared to what was experienced earlier in the winter.  The unseasonably warm temperatures we experienced through most of December has led to colder, yet dry, readings recently.  Frost, following hot weather, could wreak havoc on California crops.  Yet, back east there are record recordings of the thermometer, with Wednesday numnbers at Washington, D.C. at 82, New York City at 78, and other areas as high as the mid-80s.

The press photos shown here all date from 25 February 1927 and show flood damage to an inundated greater Los Angeles, including this view of three men on a flooded street in “north Los Angeles.”

The use of “normal” or “average” rainfall is one that has been much discussed over the years, with some climatologists observing that the establishment of benchmarks decades ago came during a period of historically, and abornmal or above-average, precipitation.  This has led people to believe that a certain level of rain and snow are normal and average when, in the long view, these terms are misleading.  How this ties into climate change is also significant.

That historically aberrant period of wet conditions meant some significant flooding in greater Los Angeles during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which not only meant damage and destruction in the region to lives and property, but also set into motion a massive flood control program.  Work was initiated locally, but later became the province of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as many dams, flood control channels (including our natural rivers, creeks, and washes) and other measures were enacted.  Huge water storage, diversion and delivery systems were also carried out, starting with the Los Angeles Aqueduct’s opening in 1913 and followed by projects that tapped such sources as the Colorado River and the Sacramento Delta in succeeding decades.

A swollen Los Angeles River overflowed its banks near the film studio at Universal City.

Today’s post highlights a quartet of press photographs that help to document the complex and multi-layered issue of how we manage water in our region and state.  They are images of flooded areas in greater Los Angeles and all are dated 25 February 1927.

The first image is stated by a caption as being in north Los Angeles.  This is a bit of a vague identifier, as it could mean the eastern San Fernando Valley within city limits or in northeast Los Angeles near Highland Park or Eagle Rock.  In any case, the view shows three men in the midst of a flooded street with one one of them pulling a rope, another holding part of it, and the third appearing to be where the rope is tied to a manhole cover.  If this is correct, they would obviously be trying to open up a drain to take in more water to clear the street.  The yards of nearby homes are flooded, too.

The second photograph shows a swollen Los Angeles River with water overflowing its banks as it passed through Universal City and Universal Studios, a portion of which is along the banks between rolling hills.  It seems evident that some of the river’s banks collapsed due to the torrents of water generated by the season’s storms.

A large sinkhole was created near the intersection of Sixth and Berendo streets near Westlake (now MacArthur) Park.

The third view was taken near the intersection of Sixth and Berendo streets not far west of Westlake (now MacArthur) Park and shows a large circular sinkhole of probably twenty or more feet in diameter in the midst of one of the thoroughfares.  There are about two dozen men gathered around the hole and one of them appears to be helping another man out of it.  In the background may be several large roadside billboards that would have likely been on one of the corners of the streets.

Finally, closer to the Homestead, is a photo of a group of about a dozen automobiles and other vehicles in an “auto park” (as the brief caption on the reverse termed it) along Valley Boulevard in El Monte.  There is a significant volume and depth of water and, in the background, there seems to be a watercourse, which would likely either be the Rio Hondo, or older channel of the San Gabriel River, or the newer course of that river.

The Homestead, in fact, was also inundated with rain and flooding as San José Creek, which formed the south boundary of the 92-acre parcel owned then by Walter P. Temple, overflowed its banks.  The agricultural fields adjacent to the creek were overwhelmed with water, but the wisdom of Temple’s grandparents, William and Nicolasa Workman,  in establishing their residence on a rise of higher ground manifested itself in situations like these.  Temple’s own home, La Casa Nueva, was nearing completion next to the Workman House and avoided damage.

This view shows an inundated “auto park” in El Monte, probably near the Rio Hondo or the San Gabriel River, judging by what looks like a watercourse in the background.

San José Creek, which had water year-round most of the time, was, decades later, transformed into a flood control channel, directing storm water, runoff and sewage down to the San Gabriel River, where a water treatment plant is today near the interchange of the 60 and 605 freeways.

As for our situation over ninety years after these photographs were taken, we’re highly unlike to see flooding of this magnitude.  There are some forecasts suggesting a storm about the first of March “that could be a decent rainmaker,” according to an article in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times.  As the piece concluded, however,

But few are holding out hope that even a March miracle could bring California to the average [again, that word!] annual precipitation level.  “Its virtually impossible to end up at average snowpack by April 1,” [National Weather Service meteorologist Scott] Mc Guire said.

Water has always been a particularly precious resource for an often parched and thirsty greater Los Angeles, whether we grapple with floods or other consequences of wet weather, like those shown in these 1927 images, or are mired in drought, as with this year.



3 thoughts

  1. Good question about what is ‘normal’. . . .

    Just eleven years later in 1938 LA had another huge flood event. Ironically it happened in February-March 1938 and reportedly ‘one year’s worth of precipitation fell in just a few days’. (could it happen again this year?)
    As I understand it the 1938 flood put LA on the path to lining all the (normally dry) riverbanks with concrete to keep the potential damage in check when the torrents happened.

    The west has long been recognized for its space and generally excellent growing weather, but it has always struggled with consistent water sources. Something the many immigrants (commonly from rainy areas) have long struggled to understand and incorporate into the California paradigm.

  2. Hi Jim, yes, the 1938 floods were a big reason for the continued push towards major public works investments in flood control. Many lives were lost during that year’s deluge. The question of growth, development and resources is something we continue to look at emphasizing because the pre-1930 era which we deal with included seemingly unbounded optimism about abundant land to develop and the ample resources used for that. Now, we’re dealing with the question of limits and adjustments to them. Thanks for the comment.

  3. The problem: Seasonal flooding
    The solution: Dams and flood control
    Build a flood control dam and reservoir across Devil’s Gate canyon. (Arroyo Seco near Pasadena) Open and dedicated in 1920, it likely decreased damage and property loss in 1927 and 1938.

    The current result: almost 100 years of runoff and debris has accumulated behind the dam. However the undeveloped dirt area behind the dam represents one of the largest undeveloped areas in that region and has become a nature sanctuary for wildlife. Since no flooding has been experienced in the memories of the current inhabitants the reason for the dam is seemingly forgotten.

    Flood control engineers however recognize that the debris build up prevents the dam from it’s primary job of flood control and want to remove significant quantities of dirt allowing the dam to continue to function as designed.

    Modern naturalists however see the dirt removal as threatening to the environment (plants and animals) and are working to prevent it. See: Arroyo Seco Foundation

    Result? potential catastrophic flooding from a public works project that has performed as designed but its purpose and role has perhaps changed. Not for the flood control engineer, but the neighbors and environmentalists.

    Lesson learned: Study history, understand why things happened as they did, and how the past fits into our modern existence. Changing things might make things worse.

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