Noah’s Flood in an ARkStorm on the San Gabriel River/Rio Hondo in Whittier Narrows

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

This summer marks the 250th anniversary of the Portolá Expedition, the first European land-based travel through California, and, as some posts here last month noted, the fifty-plus members of that group came over la abra (“an opening” or La Habra in a corruption of that phrase) in the Puente Hills and descended into the San Gabriel Valley.

After building la puente (a bridge in the Catalan dialect of Spanish that permitted use of the feminine article) over San José Creek that gave the area its name, the expedition moved west and came to what we know now as Whittier Narrows where the Río Hondo, or the old channel of the San Gabriel River, cuts through a gap between the Puente Hills and the Montebello Hills.

The water feeding the river can, in years of heavy precipitation, rush down in torrents from the granitic slopes of the San Gabriel Mountains and the canyon of that name.  Because of the immense deposits of granite, gravel and sand outside the mouth of that canyon, the water actually flowed underground into that substrate and then re-emerged to the surface several miles to the south.

This was a phenomenon pointed out by Father Juan Crespí, who was so taken with the Narrows that he proclaimed it an excellent site for a mission, given the abundant water, rich plant life, and significant number of animals it possessed.  Obviously, for thousands of years, native peoples lived in the area for the same reasons, having several villages there.

1877 map La Merced
A detail from an 1877 map showing the Old Mission or La Misión Vieja community including where the Rio Hondo and San Gabriel River system runs through the Whittier Narrows at lower right.  The new channel of the San Gabriel was created just a decade prior after heavy flooding.

A little over two years later, fathers Juan Somera and Angel Cambón, acting on orders of Junipero Serra, established Mission San Gabriel on the west bank of the Río Hondo, but the priests at the new facility soon learned that it was possible to be too close to a river and its reliable water supply.  By 1775, it was decided to abandon the mission, almost certainly because of flooding, in favor of a higher and dryer location at the current Mission San Gabriel site.

Decades later, after the missions were secularized, basically shut down, by the Mexican government in the 1830s, a community sprung up at the Narrows called Misión Vieja, or Old Mission, in which there were several ranchos originally utilized by the mission for grazing and agriculture and granted for private settlement and use, these including Portrero Chico (or La Misión Vieja), Potrero de Felipe Lugo, Potrero Grande (the word potrero meaning meadow) and La Merced.

In 1850, after loaning a couple thousand dollars to its grantee, Casilda Soto de Lobo, a rare example of a woman receiving a land grant, William Workman foreclosed and took possession of La Merced, a triangular shaped tract of just under 2,400 acres which ran from the Whittier Narrows west to a point in modern Montebello and Monterey Park.  Workman quickly turned the ranch over to his foreman at Rancho La Puente, Juan Matias Sánchez, and to his daughter’s husband, F.P.F. Temple.

Sánchez moved into Lobo’s adobe house perched on a bluff on the west side of the Rio Hondo and at the base of the Montebello Hills and added a wing to the structure, now a City of Montebello historic landmark, and became a successful rancher and farmer, acquiring other ranches in the area with Workman and Temple.

1915 SGV irrigation
A portion of a 1915 irrigation map of the greater Los Angeles region with red lines showing irrigation channels in the area.  Just left of center is the Whittier Narrows area, while the green and yellow areas around it represent many of the portions of the San Gabriel River watershed.

The Temples, in 1851, built an L-shaped adobe a short distance to the east of the river, later adding a two-story brick house next to it, and had quite an extensive compound at their homestead.  Most of their eleven children (eight living to adulthood) were born at the property, which was widely known for its highly-productive farming and ranching.

Proximity to the river, however, posed occasionally problems, such as a massive amount of rainfall that descended on the region and California as a whole in the winter of 1861-62.  Precipitation began to fall on Christmas Eve 1861 and lasted all but one, it was said, of the following forty days.  Because of that, the deluge was denoted as Noah’s Flood because of its length and intensity, with estimates ranging up to 50 inches of rain, a total that has not been close to being approached since.  The record for rainfall in the region, since official records began in 1877, is 38.18 inches in 1883-84, while the 2004-05 season was the second-highest at 37.25.

It was said that the winter storms left the massive Central Valley of California one inland sea, while much of plains and valleys of greater Los Angeles were also underwater.  While the loss of human life, in a sparsely-populated rural region, was not great, the destruction to crops and animals, like cattle and horses, was fearsome.

The cattle industry, the backbone of greater Los Angeles’ economy, was already reeling from the decline of the Gold Rush and economic distress during the Depression of 1857 and following years, and was hit with a disaster that took the lives of an estimated 200,000 cattle.

San Gabriel River
An early 20th century photo from the museum’s holdings of the San Gabriel River at an unidentified location, perhaps in the San Gabriel Mountains.

For the Temples, whose adobe residence sat in a lowland in the narrows, the situation was precarious and the 25 January 1862 edition of the Los Angeles Star included a short notice that the building was completely flooded, so that the family “effected their escape from the house on a raft.”

A few days later, the rain subsided and what followed was two years of the reverse, a punishing drought during which estimates were that only four inches of rain fell in 1863 and again the following year, figures only approached or eclipsed in the driest years recorded since 1877.  These were 4.79 inches just last year in 2017-18, 4.42 inches in 2001-02, and an astounding 3.21 inches in 2006-07.

The dual disaster of deluge and drought meant that the cattle industry was soon to be eclipsed by agriculture as the region’s economic foundation and the Temples managed to survive the first half of the 1860s and rise to greater prominence the decade following as greater Los Angeles entered its first significant and sustained period of growth.

As this period was beginning, in the winter of 1867-68, another heavy rainfall that winter caused the Río Hondo to flood and a new channel was created following one of the many irrigation channels used in the Whittier Narrows to water farmland and vineyards.  This was being a ditch built by Pío Pico, the last governor of Mexican California and a neighbor and close friend of the Workman and Temple families, for his Rancho Paso de Bartolo in modern Whittier.  The “New San Gabriel River” then overtook Coyote Creek coming out of what is now north Orange County and emptying into the Pacific Ocean at the junction of today’s cities of Seal Beach and Long Beach.

San Gabriel River in flood_20190223_0001
A 1910s photo from the Homestead’s collection simply titled “San Gabriel River in flood,” though the year and location are not identified.  Note the water level at that of the bridge and the few people gathered at the left to gawk at the phenomenon.

Seasonal flooding of the San Gabriel River watershed not only continued periodically, but became an area of increasing concern because of growing suburbanization in the area, especially in the first decades of the 20th century.  A major catalyst to large-scale planning for flood control came during the 1910s when floods of significant magnitude took place in the winters of 1914 and 1916.

The accompanying photo is identified in a hand-written caption as “San Gabriel River in flood,” though the date and location are not provided.  Note, however, that the water level is at that of the bridge and curious onlookers stand to the left marveling at the river’s rise.

I can well remember Walter P. Temple, Jr., whose family owned the Homestead from 1917 to 1932 telling me in the 1980s of his recollection of the flood of 1914 washing out the bridge over the Río Hondo, which was just east of the family’s home, the Basye Adobe, in Misión Vieja at Whittier Narrows.

Los Angeles County engineers began developing, after these heavy rain years of 1914 and 1916, far-reaching and ambitious plans for a flood control system, and were able to secure, through voter-approved bond issues and other means, funding for much of the work.  Eventually, however, the scale provided to be beyond local resources and the federal government took on greater levels of responsibility, through agencies like the United States Army Corps of Engineers, for carrying out and maintaining these systems.

1118024 RPPC San Gabriel River #6 2015.403.1.2
This circa 1910s view of the San Gabriel River, also from the museum’s collection, shows a full, flowing watercourse with snowcapped portions of the San Gabriel Mountains in the background—a scene that could be very similar to one this winter with our abundant rain and snow in the area.

By the post World War II period, the Old Mission community became a major point of focus for flood control in the San Gabriel River watershed through the planning and execution of the Whittier Narrows Dam and other projects.  Completed in 1956, the dam was a product of the best practices in flood control of the era, but that was over six decades ago.

Last Monday, this very informative and interesting article in the Los Angeles Times highlighted the challenges facing future planning for the Whittier Narrows Dam.  It looks at the question of what could happen to the aging structure if a mega-storm, or ARkStorm, of the variety experienced in 1861-62, was to happen.  A huge difference, of course, was that few people lived in the area at that time, rather than the millions who do now.

Consequently, the Army Corps of Engineers has upgraded the threat level associated with a potential mega-storm flood from “high urgency” to “very high urgency” because of the rising concern over the dam’s integrity and ability to withstand the flood levels that could arise in an ARkStorm.  This is discussed in another notable article in the San Gabriel Valley Tribune from mid-January and then updated three days ago.

As heavy as the rainfall has been at times this winter, we are far from the type of precipitation and precipitous consequences experienced in 1861-62 and in other years bringing floods of biblical proportions.  So, the urgency to do what we can to better plan for future possibilities becomes greater and looking back at history can help inform us as we do so.

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