“A Condensed and Systematic Review”: Local Conditions in State Engineer William Hammond Hall’s “Irrigation in Southern California,” 1888, Part Two

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As we continue with our review of William Hammond Hall’s important early study of water-supply and irrigation in southern California, published in 1888 as part two of a projected four-volume series, with the last two never coming to fruition, we take up his look at greater Los Angeles rivers and streams, starting with the San Gabriel River.

Hall contrasts this watercourse with the Santa Ana River, with the former beginning with two valleys high in the San Bernardino Mountains before following steep canyons and gorges to emerge into lower elevations near San Bernardino and then make it way to the Pacific, whereas the San Gabriel had no valley or plateau profiles in the Sierra Madre [as the San Gabriel Mountains were then known] range and with its flow such that “its waters first plunge down excessively steep ravines in the mountain sides to main forks deeply held in narrow, barren cañons, and then flow on lesser grades by bowlder [sic] filled beds to the main stream.”

After describing the Sierra Madres and observing that the river emerged roughly halfway between Mt. San Antonio (Baldy) and Mt. Wilson and the main river joined by a pair of forks (west and east,) the state engineer wrote that “after emerging from the mountains the San Gabriel river flows southwest, diagonally across the San Gabriel valley, a distance of twelve miles, where it escapes through the Coast Range by a pass about a mile and a half wide and two miles in length [in the Whittier Narrows between the Montebello and Puente hills sections.”

At the narrowest point in Narrows the river was “divided into two channels, called respectively Old and New river. Old San Gabriel river [the Río Hondo] turned abruptly west of the other side of the pass, and then turning southwest joins the Los Angeles river channel about sixteen miles away” before the combined courses emptied into the ocean after six miles. Then, there was the “New river [which] courses from the point of division more nearly south, keeping two to four miles east of Old river.”

It used to enter into the Pacific some six miles east of the combined Old San Gabriel and Los Angeles rivers, “but in 1886 New river, at a point about half way to the sea, deserted its channel and crossed the country, southwesterly, through a torturous course, running into the combined Old river and Los Angles river channel about a mile below their point of joining.” Hall added that “now the condition of affairs is, that the connection between Old and New rivers at their former point of division in the pass is entirely obliterated” and water coming from the mountains “take the New river channel and go by the new lower cut-across into the Los Angeles.”

What was left out was that the formation of the new channel was in the flood year of 1867-1868 when waters followed an irrigation ditch dug by ex-Governor Pío Pico and then absorbed what had been the course of Coyote Creek from what became, in 1889, north Orange County to empty into the Pacific where Long Beach and Seal Beach now meet at what was long known as Anaheim Landing. Moreover, the convergence of the New River and the the combined Old River and Los Angeles River happened in 1884.

The engineer added that the flow from the mountains followed a number of channels through “an immense wash of bowlders, gravels, and sands” and, once through the Narrows “assumes that [character] of a sandy, shifting river bed” including bottom lands and continues in this way, less the bottom lands, when it approached the ocean. After the rainy season ended, the waters “naturally sink into the gravels of its wash within three or four miles below the cañon’s mouth, and then on for six miles, during the irrigation season its bed is dry,” until approaching the Narrows when “they commence to rise again, and for three miles farther, through the pass, they break forth in many places.”

Hall noted that, the new channel also took in “the contributions of San José creek coming around the point from the east,” while the Old river had “a supply from the Rio Hondo [which is now the name for the entire course], a perennial stream rising around the western hill’s edge [the Montebello Hills], and evidently receiving the percolation drainage from the western portion of San Gabriel interior valley” and several washes coming down from the mountains. Notably, he continued that there were many creeks and washes on each side of the San Gabriel, that “sink within a few miles of the point of their advernt on the plain, and only in extraordinarily wet winters flow through above ground and visibly join the surface-escaping floods.”

Among the major examples of tributaries were waters from San Dimas and Big Dalton canyons to the east and Fish, Sawpit, Santa Anita, Eaton, Rubio and other canyons to the west. As for creeks, the major one east of the river is San José, which drew from a “great gravel bed” in “the artesian belt of Pomona” below the Sierra Madre range, but also “actually filched from the water-shed of the San Bernardino” and then ran between the San José Hills and “the Coast Range foothills,” specifically the Puente Hills and “entering San Gabriel valley at its extreme southeast corner, and joining the San Gabriel river in the Paso de Bartolo [Whittier Narrows.]” The creek also formed the southern boundary of the 75-acre Workman, or La Puente, Homestead, whose owner Francis W. Temple died in August 1888, just prior to publication of the report, and whose brother John, would soon take over ownership.

Hall referred to the “Pasadena mesa” below the Sierra Madre range and observed a number of cienegas, or springs, in the area (these include the lake for Lake Vineyard, the ranch of the late Benjamin D. Wilson, and the lake at “Lucky” Baldwin’s Rancho Santa Anita). These were formed by water coming from the mountains to the mesa and then “held in its gravels as in a reservoir—gradually percolating to these cienega outlets.”

To the west was the San Fernando Basin, with Big Tujunga and Little Tujunga, Pacoima, San Fernando and other creeks coming from the mountains. Also of note was the Arroyo Seco, which was extensively described and connected to several canyons above Pasadena, though Hall observed that “its waters . . . join those of the San Fernando [basin], so it is ranked as a member of the San Fernando drainages.” The Arroyo drew only slightly from some drainages on its western side, but not from the east, where the topography gently sloped to the east and, as was the case for mesa lands at the base of the mountains, water coming through Devil’s Gate gorge normally sunk into the deep gravel base unless there was heavy flooding. Hall wrote of several springs (Ivey, Thibbet, Bennett and Sheep Corral) found along the arroyo, but their sources were unclear and not perhaps due to it alone, but because of percolation from deep gravel beds on either side.

After discussing Millard Canyon and Verdugo Creek, the latter the main drainage “of the cañada pass country” between Pasadena and San Fernando and running through what became Glendale, Hall turned to the Los Angeles River, which “is the resultant of all the creeks and cañon streams which have now been described as of the San Fernando group.” The valley’s subsoil “is a vast filtering bed of sand and gravels” with creeks yielding flow to these areas, but with the sand and gravel such that water came out to the surface near the Cahuenga [Santa Monica] range and the pass between that and the San Rafael hills, where the river left the valley and turned towards Los Angeles.

Hall noted that the river “rises in the low lands of San Fernando valley, flows along its lowest depression and is the stream which carries away its surplus waters,” including that from Verdugo Creek and the Arroyo Seco. Any runoff from the Santa Monicas was considered minor, however, except at time of flood.” With the river “escaping from the San Fernando,” it then went nearly straight to the south along a sandy bed of over twenty miles “where it enters San Pedro roadstead [the sheltered area of water where ships could safely anchor].” The water mostly was “lost in its sandy bed and the substrata of the surrounding plain” except when floods occurred, though the engineer noted “there is a considerable area of land kept moist and even wet thereby, and an extensive artesian basin, fully developed, is also, doubtless, thus in part supplied.”

The next section of Hall’s discussion of the Los Angeles region concerned irrigable and tillable lands and soils and he began with the San Gabriel Valley, where he recorded that “the basin lands . . . are much less heavy in character of soils, are more evenly moist over a large area, and with less area of very wet or cienega lands than are those of San Bernardino.” The plain lands were better “with richer, finer soils, less area of barren sands, and are less cut up by borad washes of sand and grave. The result was that this area was “more evenly cultivable” than what we now call the Inland Empire.”

Along the San Gabriel River “is a strip of country having poor soils” and for some six miles out of the canyon and perhaps two miles away from the water course, the land “is of a heavy, gravelly, rocky character.” Along this belt “until the base of the hills at the pass [Whittier Narrows] is approached, the soil is sandy and alkaline.” Yet, “east of this comparatively barren belt is a plain of the richest kind, including sections of “a broad plain of rich, sandy loam, and [which] then gradually merge into a rich, black adobe as the base of the hills are approached at Puente [the town was established just a few years before] and in the outlet of San José pass,” this latter where Walnut, Pomona and Diamond Bar are now.

To the west of the river, the engineer went on, we find no such area of poor, gravelly, and rocky soils. At Duarte, for example, were fine, loamy soils with gravel, while south of that and near what was called the “Island,” likely where south Monrovia meets Arcadia and Irwindale, was an area of rich, sandy loam. Further south were other soil types of light alluvial and loam and alluvial washed mixtures—this latter encompassing 6,000 acres “omposing the moist lands of the San Gabriel basin, and which reach down to the pass through the Coast Range [Whittier Narrows.]”

Further west and north was up to 10,000 acres of more fine, rich, sandy loam, while there was a belt of heavier soils with gravel “extending around from the lower Duarte to the Alhambra. Below this and down to the hills extending from Montebello towards Boyle Heights was heavy clay soils, while there were “spots of black and red adobe and heavy cienega soils near the Pasadena mesa. Finally, “at the extreme western end of the valley, below the mesa, is a body of several thousand acres of black adobe, tenacious and intractable.” On the Pasadena mesa toward the mountains are mixed gravel loams and material washed down not long ago from the range. At the Sierra Madre base were combinations of gravel, sand, and alluvial soils.

There was a discernible lack of variety at San Fernando compared to its cousin, with moist and semi-moist land along the Santa Monica Mountains base, but the rim of the valley had less gravel and adobe soils. Hall observed that there were two hill ranges, one a continuation of the Verdugo Mountains and another parallel to it but three miles south and both were largely washed away or covered by the Pacoima and Tujunga creeks, though existing croppings emerging from the valley floor amid the gravel and sand deposited by these water courses.

Toward the northern part of the valley, however, was a section of rich and heavy loam laid over the gravel and sand along “with layers and dikes of clay.” Artesian basins were created from creeks emerging from mountain canyons with water held in lower gravel with a covering of surface soil and “thus is formed a fine body of moist land in the corner of the valley above San Fernando, and this are to be accounted for the old San Fernando Mission cienegas or springs.

This was, though, the only such artesian basin and moist lands outside of those at the base of the “Cahuenga” hills, noted above. Between Pacoima and San Fernando creeks “is a body of magnificently fine land” with gravel and clay soil and there was other alluvial soils in the eastern part of the valley. At the base of the Verdugos and near the outlet followed by the river was fine, alluvial soil with gravel. Further west, clay with gravel and with loam and alluvial soils were found on the margins, with the larger plain largely of light and loamy alluvial soil “all the way to the west end of the valley.

Finally, there is the Coast Plain and a section of low rolling hills extending from what became Westwood and moving due southeast and Hall observed that “these hills are clearly traceable through to the coast, eight miles east of Wilmington” and presumably this included the Baldwin Hills, Signal Hill and other remnants. The engineer added that more outcroppings existed ten miles further southeast on the Bolsa Chica ranch in modern Huntington Beach and beyond another right miles “is found the point of the rolling lands north of Alisos creek” from which this “high ground” connected “with the hills beyond the Alisos,” this last being the San Joaquin Hills range.

Between this and the Coast Range hills (Montebello, Puente and Chino Hills ranges) “is a vast alluvial deposit” with material left by the Los Aneles, San Gabriel and Santa Ana rivers, while from Wilmington to Santa Monica, through the San Pedro, Redondo and Centinela valleys, were heavier soils of loam, adobe, clay “and beach-blown sands” including various combinations of these. Hall noted that the ridge he observed from Santa Monica to the Alisos was complemented by “an extended artesian water-bearing belt [which] exists immediately inside of it for the full length of the plain,” though just over the ridge, sometimes just a quarter mile away, no such artesian water could be located.

He added that the three rivers “rise as they come through the Coast Range, and then sink again into the upper margin of the coast plain, even in flood, so that they “replenish the supply in the gravels and sands of the artesian basin.” This band, with widths from about two miles up to nine miles, ran from “just north of the Centinela [Baldwin] hills . . . to a neighborhood two or three miles beyond the channel of the Santa Ana river [South Santa Ana/Costa Mesa]—a distance of about thirty-seven miles.”

There was also an extensive presence of cienegas, or springs, especially at the Cienega rancho near the Baldwin Hills and at Rancho Tajauta, where Watts was later developed. In these areas were moist lands not needed irrigation for some crops, but there were also marshes needed to be reclaimed in sections of the belt. Common, as well, in this band were light sands, occasional adobe, and much alkali, while at Anaheim was “a soil thought to produce the best wine grapes in the southern country,” though it needed fertilizing after a few years” and “drinks up water rapidly” needed more irrigation. This was beyond the Pierce’s (also known as Anaheim) disease that very soon ravaged these and most other vineyards in the region.

East of the Santa Ana River in the northern section of Santa Ana, as well as Orange and Tustin were heavy sands, along with alluvial loams with fine granite sand, clay and vegetable material. Firm as it was, it was “most easily worked and brought to a high state of cultivation, retains moisture well, and receives irrigation readily” and was deemed to be idea for growing raisin grapes. Some sections had heavy gravel with some stones the size of eggs and “this soil is very firm and makes excellent roadways,” though Hall did not specify locales. Other soils were almost like clay, mixed with sand and gravel and occasionally adobe, proved to hard to cultivate through irrigation “requiring special knowledge of their characteristics to guide the farmer’s judgment,” but, again, no specifics were given as to location, though it was added that some areas had “curious dry sand that runs almost like quicksand.”

Adobe on the plain were “not so unctuous, stiff and intractable” as in the interior valleys and were “more suited to cultivation by irrigation,” though, unless they were mixed with plenty of sandy loam and “lose the distinctive character of adobes” they could be problematic for farmers. If worked diligently, the adobe could become like heavy black loan and there was often alkali.

Hall focused on the region between the “Coast Range foothills” on the north and the light alkaline section to the south to state that sandy loam predominated from the Los Angeles River to the San Gabriel River, though alluvial fans below Whittier Narrows included hardpan up to eight feet below the loam. From Santa Ana Canyon, the same soil content was found with the spread of river-borne material in what soon became Orange County. Between these rivers and along the foothills were heavier and gravelly loams, red soils, and adobe.

On that 37-mile long ridge, there were heavy gravel and clay, solid clay and large areas of adobe. Along the coast, at Santa Monica were lighter soils, while at Ballona were marshes and drift sands, with the bluff at what became Westchester “an ancient sand drift, whose texture has become changed to a coarse sandy loam.” To the east and out to the artesian ridge were the valleys of Centinela and Redondo and these and the large plain from Los Angeles to what is now Irvine “are for the most part admirably adapted to cultivation by irrigation on a broad scale, while the bordering mesa and rolling lands are well suited to irrigation in smaller farming and horticulture.”

From here, Hall moved to specific irrigation works and projects and that is where we will pick up the story tomorrow.

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