Here Comes The Flood: Reading Between the Lines in a Letter from Mrs. James Foley, Duarte, 23 February 1884

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

Since official records began in 1877, the driest year in Los Angeles was 2006-2007 when just 3.21 inches of rain fell, while the wettest season was in 1883-1884 when 38.18 inches were recorded. Tonight’s featured object from the museum’s holdings is a rare reference to what was called by the Los Angeles Herald, “The Great Flood of 1884,” when on Sunday, 17 February a deluge struck a region already experiencing heavy precipitation that winter.

The artifact is a letter from Mrs. James Foley, a resident of Duarte, a community at the base of the San Gabriel Mountains and bordering to the west to the oft-volatile and highly unpredictable San Gabriel River. Mrs. Foley wrote to an unnamed brother on the 23rd and, while references to the flood are brief, they do present a notable supplement to what the Herald reported in its coverage.

Los Angeles Herald, 17 February 1884.

In its edition of the 17th, the paper, which was published by Joseph D. Lynch in the mornings, referred to the copious rains of the season to date, noting that Theodore Pickens came into the city from “his highland home at the base of the Sierra Madre [San Gabriel], above La Cañada” to inform the Herald that there was two feet of rain so far at his place. It was added, however, that “the soil is absorbing that it takes in the rainfall most completely” and that, despite its location, below the steep, granitic slopes of the range, there was no creek or wash in his area.

Broadly speaking, it was stated that there was great benefit in the porous foothill areas below the mountains as they “not only retain the natural rainfall,” but also the area “drinks in a vast amount of water that flows on to it.” This, it was claimed, was “a double supply of water” to support the raising of vegetables, corn, melons and berries all year. The article ended by forecasting that “it is altogether likely that should there be a rainfall of three feet this season, and a mountain drainage of three feet more on this remarkable land, it would absorb it all most easily.” In 1938, however, one of the most devastated areas from massive flooding was the La Cañada-Flintridge section.

In a separate brief note, the paper noted that “all along the base of the Sierra Madre from the Arroyo Seco to Etiwanda, the winter rain now exceeds twenty-four inches, and the water is still coming down.” The region had more precipitation, it was asserted, than the central and northern sections of the state and this meant that the south “can hardly be called a dry country.”

Herald, 17 February 1884.

Another piece added that “the farmers on the plains below [south of] the city are very wisely at work utilizing the vast rainfall in the destruction of squirrels and gophers” by diverting water into the holes leading to the dens occupied by these perennial and pervasive pests and, thereby, serving to “put to eternal rest millions of the little rodents before they have learned to girdle orange trees or destroy wheat fields.”

Observing that infestations by the critters caused at least $10,000 in damage in the county each year, the Herald recommended other farmers in the region adopt this method, adding “instead of complaining of too much rain, the great storm should be utilized to the greatest possible extent.” It concluded that “all should unite in the same labor and make the most of our great visitor, Jupiter Pluvius [the ancient Roman giver of rain].”

The complaining did have far more than ample justification as the storm 17th turned into a deluge probably not seen for more than twenty years, since the “Noah’s Flood” of December 1861 and January 1862, during a season where unofficial estimates were that some 50 inches of rain fell, turning the San Joaquin Valley into one great inland sea and left the Los Angeles Basin largely underwater.

Herald, 19 February 1884.

A Herald headline blared “Fury of the Flood” and began with the note that

The seventeenth day of February will long be memorable in the annals of Los Angeles county. Our people, who had been reading with interest the dispatches which related to the devastations of the floods in the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, were destined to have a taste of this malign dispensation themselves. The almost uninterrupted rains of the past three weeks had led many of the weatherwise to augur ill of the immediate future. Chimeras dire, in the shape of floods, haunted the imagination of the more mercurial of our citizens.

Not only was there an immense amount of rain, but snowfall was reported to be up to 15 feet “in many portions of the Sierras [Sierra Nevada] and of the Sierra Madres, in the immediate neighborhood of Los Angeles.” Notably, it was added that the presence “of the warm, south-east breezes” were warning “for possible disastrous consequences.” Many residents climbed atop Fort Moore Hill and gathered at Jacob Phillippi’s Buena Vista resort to peer through looking glasses and witness the results.

Herald, 19 February 1884.

As waters rushed down the Arroyo Seco after leaving the mountains and then joined the Los Angeles River, streets like Chávez, Aliso and Alameda were observed, by mid-afternoon, to be consumed with the flood. The Aliso Street Bridge snapped in two, with one section floating down to the First Street Bridge, while a crowd on the remaining half somehow avoided disaster, and the latter also gave way. The unique covered bridge on Macy Street withstood the water, but sunk some four feet and was closed to larger, heavier vehicles.

With respect to railroads, the only of the several Southern Pacific lines open was the one built almost a decade ago by the Los Angeles and Independence Railroad, with the San Fernando tunnel north of the city partially caved in and desert sections in the Antelope Valley washed out, as well. Some detail was given to the destruction of structures, like the two-story Evergreen Laundry, that were perched along the banks of the Los Angeles River.

Herald, 19 February 1884.

At the confluence of the river and the Arroyo Seco, dairy owner George Sholtz, along with the pair of horses pulling his wagon, was drowned. Along the river, some forty or so houses (this number was soon upgraded to about seventy) were carried off by the deluge men, women and children were seen “wading in the water, carrying their valuables on their backs, and pale with terror, wondering what horror would come next.

Among the ‘Names of Sufferers” were some prominent personages like Dr. Joseph P. Widney, key figure at the University of Southern California, banker and developer John E. Hollenbeck, viticulturist Gaston Oxarart, future Chamber of Commerce dynamo Frank A. Gibson, and Robert Wirsching, a Boyle Heights resident and later county supervisor and city councilman, whose business warehouse was filled with wagons. In a couple of days, it was stated that there about 150 persons left homeless by the deluge.

Herald, 20 February 1884.

Otherwise, the names were of people and businesses not well-known in the wider community, like the Italian Laundry, Mrs. Dunne’s grocery store and the houses and possessions of Leonardo Miranda, John Riggin, Nathan Hull and those with surnames like Parra, Beebe, Ontiveros, Ganse, Zernal and Sresovich. Presumably, most of these people were working and lower middle class folks likely to reside in the section of downtown along the river and where the industrial section would later rise.

After noting that some 100 men (that number soon quadrupled) were at work trying to shore up the Macy Street covered bridge, it was pointed out that a simple levee with riprap (rock and other material) on its face would have prevented most of the destruction and the paper added,

The spectacle was dreadful along the river bed; houses, parts of houses, beds, bedsteads, bureaus, cradles, baby wagons, doors, cupboards, fences, gates, tubs, pails, brooms, chickens, pigs, horses, orange trees, and almost everything pertaining to a household that could be induced to float, was to be seen along the river side.

In the hinterlands, George Hinds came up from Wilmington to state that every area from Compton south was underwater, while sediment from Seventh Street in downtown to Sepulveda Station far to the south settled on the wide plains and changed the flow of streams. From Compton to the “American Colony,” later renamed Long Beach, four miles of railroad built in 1869 by the Los Angeles and San Pedro and handed over to the Southern Pacific a few years later as part of a subsidy vote to for the SP to establish itself in the region, was damaged but quickly repaired.

Herald, 20 February 1884.

It was stated by Hinds that the Los Angeles River, the Old San Gabriel (Río Hondo) and the New San Gabriel (this latter formed by flooding in the winter of 1867-1868), were conjoined “and made one great inland sea of muddy water about fifteen miles in length.” George Carson, who married into the Dominguez family of Rancho San Pedro lost 900 sheep to the surging and roiling waters and stock were being taken to the Palos Verdes peninsula. The informant added that the deluge covered more area than even in 1862, though the depth was shallow and widespread destruction was not feared and no casualties were reported.

In the San Gabriel Valley, an embankment near the Mission was washed out to 30 feet in depth and a railroad engineer inspecting the SP’s track fell from a suspended piece of rail. In Pasadena, the water wells were polluted and not usable and the roads to the Sierra Madre Villa hotel to the northeast at the base of the mountains washed out, while grading for the Raymond Hotel in what became South Pasadena was suspended. The large estates of lawyer Alfred B. Chapman and Leonard J. Rose were also heavily damaged.

Herald, 21 February 1884.

At Savannah, where Rosemead is today, a warehouse moved two feet and El Monte, hit by the joining of three major creeks and washes, was said to be submerged with George H. Peck’s ranch “badly washed” by an overflow of the San Gabriel River, while “in La Puente the water seemed let loose on a holiday, and made especial havoc with many things.” A warehouse, perhaps at the SP depot, “is reported broken to pieces, and much damage done to the building and contents.”

Also affected were the newly developed oil wells in the Puente Hills and on the ranch of former sheriff William R. Rowland with 25 barrels of oil carried away and dashed on rocks widely scattering their sticky contents. The 75-acre Workman Homestead, owned by Francis W. Temple, and bordered on the south by San José Creek could well have sustained flooding to the crops along the water course, though nothing was said in this report.

Herald, 22 February 1884.

In what, a half-decade later, became Orange County, another death was reported, as Theodore Lynill of Anaheim drowned. In the Santa Ana area, Santiago Creek overflowed “and became an destroying angel over the plains” before it joined with the Santa Ana River “and the great sheet of water . . . all centered in the rich, populous [Gospel] Swamp” below Santa Ana and including areas of modern Costa Mesa and Fountain Valley.

The Los Angeles City Council formed a relief committee, the Ladies’ Benevolent Society quickly moved into action to help (helping many families, including quite a few Latinos, with cash and goods) and actor Louise Rial and her company, performing at the Turn Verein Hall, presented, on the 19th, a theatrical version of “Camille” based on the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils‘ as a “Benefit for our Homeless Citizens.” The proceeds raised some $900 based on about 950 tickets sold at a dollar a head and accounting for some expenses.

Herald, 22 February 1884.

The Herald noted that Robert M. Widney, the doctor’s brother, previously proposed a toll road that would also serve as a buffer on the west side of the river, while it editorialized “that a levee that could be converted into a handsome and ornamented boulevard” was called for and a macadamized surface and shoulders planted to eucalyptus and pepper trees would be a good addition.

As for bridges, the paper suggested ones with substantial masonry supports and “big and abundant arches, provided with openings large enough and high enough to admit the passage of the waters.” The Herald added “it is far cheaper in the end to build bridges that will last for generations . . . than to be obliged to be eternally rebuilding them.” With rail and telegraph services affected for weeks, concern was also expressed about what would happen when the abundant snowpack in the mountains melted in warmer weather.

Despite the year “1883” in the date, this letter is clearly from 1884 as there were no floods in greater Los Angeles in the former year.

What the paper hoped would happen was a more enlightened approach to protecting the city and region from a repeat of the devastation, including better roads (including one leading to Evergreen Cemetery on the eastern edge of Boyle Heights, where it was reported that there were unburied bodies because of impassable roads in the winter rains), that west-bank levee, and other improvements, with bonds issued to finance these. The silver lining was the sheer volume of water meant better crop yields and refilled artesian wells.

The letter (dated 1883, though it is certainly from the following year as there were no reported floods in the former) all-too-typically opens with a concern about an unanswered communication, but quickly noted that “I wrote to let [you] know we are well and I was afraid you would be worr[y]ing reading so much about the floods in Los Angeles.”

Mrs. Foley continued “but thank God and our own exertions we are all right,” though she also noted that “I think if God has not sent Ed around we would have had a story to be told.” Adding that “it is no more than wright [sic] to give honor to whom honor is due,” she did not explain what Ed, who was an uncle, did specifically to aid them, but she also wrote that someone named John “could not have done any more if the place was his own and that was at the risk of his life.” Clearly, whatever assistance was rendered was significant and substantial for the Foleys.

The correspondent went on to say the Uncle Ed “has came away down from where he would be enjoying himself like the other fellows, to help us in the tearing rain” and observed “I for one think that ingratitude is a great crime.” The other reference to the flooding was that “we do not need to change the ‘bad road’ as it is washed [out] in some places 4 to five ft. deep so that no wagon can pass it. It is a bad road indeed.” It would be good to know which thoroughfare this was, though an obvious guess would be Duarte Road, a main east to west route to and from the town towards Los Angeles.

While it is not very lengthy and lacks in details especially the help given to the Foleys as the flood waters raged in Duarte, situated right below the mountains, this is a very rare surviving document about the community and about the floods of 1884. Despite the pleas of the Herald for careful planning for protection against deluges, the problems attendant to floods continue to be enormous.

It was thirty years later, during the flooding of 1914, before local officials began to move aggressively to address the issue and later federal coordination led to a massive flood control system. This is now being reconsidered as flood waters are rushed off to the ocean when worsening climate change and more intense drought conditions lead us to work on ways to capture them for our uses.

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