by Paul R. Spitzzeri
After a wet winter, we’re seeing drier weather with warmer temperatures here in the early part of spring, though there may still be some rain in upcoming weeks. As past posts on this blog have discussed, years of heavy precipitation, amid frequent drought periods, have often brought major flooding to the region.
In the 1910s, Los Angeles County began major efforts to capture and divert floodwaters to the ocean through a complex and expensive system of dams, reservoirs, catch basins, and other components. Later, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stepped in to shoulder the burden of much of this work because of the cost and scale of work needed throughout the region.
Tonight’s post looks at photos from the Homestead’s collection of floodwaters striking areas south of downtown Los Angeles during late March 1925. Part of the challenge was that, as suburban development spread in all directions from the historic core of Los Angeles, dealing with the topography was often done inadequately.
Much of the land south of Los Angeles, for example, consisted of what had long been swamp lands and sloughs because water following the Los Angeles River, the Rio Hondo (the old channel of the San Gabriel River) and other watercourses wound up deposited in these low-lying areas between the city and the ocean.
The Los Angeles River, in fact, once turned abruptly west south of the pueblo and emptied into the Pacific Ocean where Ballona Creek does today near Playa del Rey. A flood in 1825 changed the course of the river to move south into the Pacific where Wilmington and Long Beach are now.
The massive flood of 1861-62 wreaked havoc statewide with virtually the entire Central Valley under inches of water, while the Los Angeles region was also inundated. The large plains in what is now Orange County were underwater from the flooded Santa Ana River and the same was true for areas along the Los Angeles River south of Los Angeles. A small regional population limited deaths and injuries, but the area’s cattle industry, already hurt by the end of the Gold Rush and competition from imported animals, was basically wiped out by the flood and the ensuing drought.
Though agriculture rose to be the economic backbone of the region and the population grew, floods continued to be a significant problem and it was the floods of 1914 that spurred action by the county. Engineers developed plans and construction took place by the early 1920s on a number of projects, including along the San Gabriel Mountains range.
Still, those infrequent but dangerous floods continued to come, including the deluge that hit in late March 1925, and these photos vividly show the effects. They were taken from the corner of Figueroa Street and Manchester Avenue, which today is a very busy intersection just west of Interstate 110 with commercial enterprises (strip malls, gas station, fast food restaurants) on all four corners.
Nearly a century ago, as these images show, there was a Richfield (now part of ARCO—meaning Atlantic Richfield Company) service station, a small market, and a realtor where the two streets meet, but it was primarily a residential section. Moreover, the photos show drivers, passengers and a few pedestrians who are all white, whereas today, south Los Angeles is mainly Latino and black.
The selection of views here, of the ten in the set, show water several inches deep, and automobiles carefully navigating their way through the deluge, or, in some cases, stuck because of the high water or accidents. There is also an attempt at levity as a woman sits on the hood of a car stopped in the intersection with a fishing pole in her hands and the line cast in the water!
Clearly, there was a long way to go yet in terms of having adequate flood control in this area, as sewers with proper gutters and drains were not yet common, and those additions would not be added for many years to come.
In the meantime, a very interesting article from the Los Angeles Times just about a year ago gives more perspective on the challenges we’d face if we had another once-in-1000 years ARkStorm the likes of which appears to have taken place in 1861-62. For a look at what the intersection of Manchester and Figueroa is like now, take a look at this view from Google Maps.