by Paul R. Spitzzeri
Today was the last of several days of heavy rain in a region parched for most of the last several years, including a bone-dry 2017-18 season of under five inches in downtown Los Angeles and coming after five straight years of under ten inches until the 2016-17 season of nearly twenty. Much of the officially recorded precipitation history, dating back to 1877, shows occasional wet years (2004-05 at 37 inches, 1997-98 at 31 inches, etc.) with dry spells that often last three to five years (and, once in a while, more–such as in the late 1940s/early 1950s.)
This month has brought about five inches of rain locally on top of the four so far this season, so this is encouraging given the uncertainty about what our winter rainy season might portend. Of course, those areas that are fire-scarred from recent conflagrations have had to contend with potentially devastating mud slides, another fairly frequent winter problem.
Still, we can be at least thankful for the comprehensive flood control system we have to minimize the effects of heavy rain and flooding, when these conditions do occur. These improvements, mainly handled by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, can be traced back to early efforts by Los Angeles County to implement a flood control system after devastating floods in the winter of 1914.
That season totaled over 23 inches of rain, the most tallied in over twenty years, and most of this fell in storms that drenched greater Los Angeles in January and February. As heavy rainfall struck, much of the precipitation fell in our heavily granitic and steeply sloped San Gabriel Mountains, sending cascades of water down canyons and into rivers, creeks, and washes.
Without channels to efficiently (some would say too much so, given the need to capture and store water these days) direct water to the Pacific Ocean, these watercourses overflowed their banks and/or their channels changed. Flooding caused the destruction of homes and other personal property, ravaged farms and ranches, and, in a few cases, led to the tragic loss of life.
In mid-January, a storm hit that also brought big, powerful waves pounding the coast, especially west-facing areas like Venice and Redondo Beach. At the former, a wooden boardwalk was partially destroyed, while, at the latter, 50,000 sandbags were used to shore up the area where a boardwalk and cottages lined the coast.
Rainfall totals, meanwhile, ranged generally from 3 to 7 inches in most areas. The foothill areas at the base of the San Gabriels had most of the largest totals, including Glendora at 6.57 inches, Sierra Madre at 5.21 inches, and Pasadena at nearly 4 inches. It was Glendale, which sits at the bottom of the Verdugo range, that had the highest rainfall totals, at just below 7 inches.
In its reporting, the Los Angeles Times of 19 January, noted that:
A great flood of water rushed down the Arroyo Seco all Saturday night [the 17th] and yesterday the stream had eaten far into the banks and overflowed at many points. The water’s fierce attacks against the bridge of the Salt Lake Railroad at Avenue thirty-five and Pasadena Avenue tore away half a dozen pilings and weakened the structure considerably.
A touched-up photograph showed the extent of the damage to the pilings at this bridge, which was not considered to be at “the danger point” and which was “to be repaired at once.”
A little more than a week later, another powerful storm system slammed the region and the Times referred to it as a “storm king,” adding that it was “one of the most severe storms in the history of Southern California . . . leaving in its wake complete saturation, demoralized traffic, demolished bridges, undermined houses and uprooted trees.” Most of the property damage was said to be with roads and bridges, though at least three lives were known to have been lost.
Elsewhere the paper stated that the Arroyo Seco, which means “dry creek” became “Arroyo Humedo,” which translates into damp creek (perhaps mojado, or wet, would have been more accurate?):
Streets ran rivers in the storm of Sunday and Sunday night and the traffic connections of this city and the entire Southland were materially impaired all day, yesterday, and will be necessarily curtailed even today and perhaps tomorrow.
This side of Sycamore Grove [along the Arroyo Seco near Highland Park] the Salt Lake tracks were undermined and washed away for twenty feet or more. At one place rails and ties had entire disappeared below [sic] the surface. At another place on the washout the force of the water was so great that it swept trees and bales of hay against the steel rails so violently that the rails were bent double.
Floodwaters from the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers were expected to silt up the inner portion of the Port of Los Angeles. It was estimated that just over 6 1/2 inches of rain was dropped on Pasadena during this latest deluge, pushing the seasonal total to about 20 inches. It was stated that “this was one of the heaviest storms Pasadena has ever had” and “about the most disastrous one that has been recorded here.” An older bridge under the newly completed (and now landmark) Colorado Street Bridge was washed away and a dam nearby was also obliterated.
In the eastern San Gabriel Valley and its connection with the Inland Empire, the Times published photos of flood damage in Covina, Irwindale, and San Dimas, showing mangled roads, washed out bridges, flooded orange groves, and damaged houses.
Reported deaths included young William Clark, only 12 years old, who was carried into the Los Angeles River at the bridge on Upper Main Street. In Villa Park in Orange County, Frank Rios was drowned, though no details on the incident were reported. Near the community of Old Mission, where the Temple family lived (and Walter P. Temple, Jr. seventy-five years later, told me he vividly remembered the flood and the washout of the bridge over the Rio Hondo just east of his family’s home, though he was just turning five years old at the time), Felipe Rodriguez was with a group of men lassoing timber that was washed downstream in the San Gabriel River when he was yanked off the bridge and into the rushing torrent.
The strangest death was of Hugh Haven, a retired executive of the famed Marshall Field department store in Chicago, and a resident of Monrovia. He left Los Angeles in a late evening streetcar, which was delayed by flooding and took about three hours to reach Monrovia. Haven and another man secured a taxi, but with streetlights out because of the storm, the car could not find the house, so Haven exited the vehicle and began walking.
It was believed he slipped while trying to get from the street to a sidewalk and the 55-year old was pulled by rushing water into a culvert. He tried to stop himself by grabbing wooden boards in the culvert and his hand was trapped “pinning him beneath the water.” Haven’s body was found there the next morning by a boy delivering milk with his employer.
As strong as that storm system was, there was another massive one over three days towards the end of February that wreaked more havoc and devastation on the greater Los Angeles region. The Homestead’s collection has about a dozen photographs taken during the winter 1914 floods, almost all from that February deluge.
Two of the most recent acquisitions are the ones highlighted here. One of these is taken along the San Pedro, Los Angeles and Salt Lake line bordering the Arroyo Seco and it dramatically shows the ten-foot swell in that creek, the twisted steel rails of the line along the caved-in bank, a downed power pole, and groups of people gathered at the scene. At the top right to the south is the corner of Griffith Park. Captioning reads “Feb. 1914 / Flood along Arroyo Seco / Salt Lake R.R. near Sycamore Grove, Cal.”
The second photo is equally compelling and centers on a single-story wood-frame residence that slid down a destabilized bank and into a watercourse, perhaps the Los Angeles River. In the foreground is a twisted pipe, likely a water pipe or maybe a gas line. A group of people stand near the house and, in the distance, is a steel bridge and part of a cement and construction company. In the same hand as with the other image, the caption here reads, “Los Angeles, Cal. / Destruction from flood. Feb. 1914.”
These photos, along with others in the museum’s holdings, are fascinating documents of the floods that, along with others that took place two years later, were the impetus for a concerted effort by local and then national officials to deal with the flood risks that were manifested during those occasional, but dangerous, heavy winter rains.
Work moved slowly at first and then significant gains were made during the 1920s. Even during the Great Depression some improvements were made, though, in 1938, powerful deluges and severe flooding wreaked devastation in mountain canyons where resorts and cabins were destroyed (it was also the final blow for the Mt. Lowe Railway, as well), in foothill regions such as La Cañada-Flintridge and La Crescenta where much property and a number of lives were lost, and along rivers, including the barrio community of Atwood in present Placentia in Orange County, where the Santa Ana River overflowed, destroyed many homes, and killed quite a number of residents.
After World War II, with the local and national economies humming, flood control reached a pinnacle with channelization of rivers, creeks and washes, the construction of dams, and other measures enacted. These days, there is talk of reverting some of the watercourses to a more natural state, while still allowing for the mitigation of flood risk. Where flood control will take is in upcoming years will be interesting to see.