Here Comes the Flood: The Deluge of December 1861-January 1862 in Greater Los Angeles

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

As California is in the midst of a series of punishing storms, with terms like “ARKstorm,” “atmospheric river,” and “bomb cyclone” being used extensively to describe the intense rain and snow pummeling the Golden State, this seems an opportune time to look back at what has been considered the mother of all such weather events in the recorded history of the state, what has sometimes been referred to as “Noah’s Flood” in December 1861 and January 1862.

Golden Gate Weather Services has an interesting chart showing what rainfall totals, as of yesterday, are for various locations in California and, for the most part, the state is experiencing precipitation levels well beyond the so-called historical normal, as well as comparisons to where these places stand with respect to a full weather season. Naturally, we have the technology and tools to be pretty precise about the statistics and describing the nature of storms, but 160 years ago, it was, of course, a very different environment.

Los Angeles Semi-Weekly Southern News, 27 December 1861.

The deluge of 1861-1862 has been called “Noah’s Flood” for a simple reason—the series of storms that ravaged the state lasted some 43 days in a time with no flood control and water storage whatsoever. An excellent 2013 article by Michael D. Dettinger and B. Lynn Ingram in Scientific American observed that the San Joaquin Valley became “an inland sea 300 miles long and 20 miles wide” while “thousands of people died and one-quarter of the state’s estimated 800,000 cattle drowned.”

The authors noted that a recent model predicted that a series of storms just more than half as long in time would wreak devastation totaling $400 billion in damage to farms and other property. Also of importance was their recording that studies of deposited sediments show that such extreme weather events have happened roughly every 200 years for about the last 2,000 years.

Los Angeles Star, 4 January 1862.

Dettinger and Ingram added that the floods of 1861-1862 “were caused by atmospheric rivers” while warning that experts “think California, at least, is overdue for another one” of the magnitude of the “Noah’s Flood” generated at that time. While this may not be the one, it should more on everyone’s radar that, just as yesterday’s post observed that the next “Big One” in the form of an earthquake around 8.0 on the Richter scale is also likely to occur in the not-too-distant future, the megafloods caused by the kind of storm posited in the article might even be worse in effect than the massive quake that has garnered more attention.

Local media coverage, almost exclusively from the Los Angeles Star with one article found from the Semi-Weekly Southern News, was at first rather pleased with the significant rainfall as 1861 concluded. The 27 December 1861 edition of the Southern News, for example, reported that it began to rain on Christmas Eve “and continued heavily” through Christmas morning and, though the sun peeked out for a short time, “the storm king again held sway” and by nightfall “poured forth his acknowledgments to mother earth, in renewed torrents, which still continues.”

Star, 11 January 1862.

A week later, the Star, briefly observed that “there has been one shower since our last publication [both papers were weeklies], but it lasted all the time.” That is, “morning, noon, and night—day in and day out—it has been rain, rain, rain.” The result, the paper exulted, was that “the prospects of the stock-owners,” meaning ranchers raising cattle, sheep and horses, “are better than for many years before.”

An unnamed versifier submitted a half-dozen verses of six-line poesy dedicated to “The Rains” in celebration of the bounty of precipitation bestowed on an all-too-frequently parched greater Los Angeles. Here’s a sample of some of the poem:

Come down, wild rain, come down!

I love to hear the rattling on the roof

Greening the woodlands with their leafy crown,

Freshening the blossoms with thy sheeny woof;

I love to hear the pattering on the pane.

Come down, wild rain! . . .

The gorgeous flowers are clad

In rosying bloom; the lark’s strong wing

Is sprent with jewels; earth and sky are glad;

God’s vine is trodden; and each lovely thing

Is flushed with joy, and ring a merry strain,

Come down, wild rain!

Silent as love the lake reposes;

A grand blue calm hangs brooding everywhere;

The birds hold concert under roofs of roses;

And nature worships God with praise and prayer;

The sick heart listens and forgets its pain,

Come down, wild rain!

Yet, the same edition also recorded that the mail had not been delivered from the northern part of the state for almost two weeks and it was stated that the coast route from the Bay Area “cannot be made available for travel during the winter months.” Moreover, “in such rains as have fallen this year,” rivers were impassable and the road was determined to be unusable, though the article was more broadly concerned with already existing problems in quality before the deluge developed.

Star, 11 January 1862.

The 11 January issue of the Star informed readers that “the whole northern part of the State has been a sufferer to an unprecedented extent, from the late floods” and it added that “the present storm—for it is not over yet—is the most severe which has visited the State since the American occupation.” Rivers were “swollen beyond former bounds, doing immense injury” and cities like Sacramento (prone to terrible floods because of its location next to substantial rivers), Marysville and Napa were badly affected, while damage estimates were up to $6 million (and there were still more than three weeks to go before the storms abated.)

As for local conditions, the paper stated, “we have had almost another week of incessant rain” and that, on the 6th, “we were attacked in the most ferocious manner by the pluvial deities” so that there was “an impromptu river along our streets.” For a brief moment, there was literally a ray of hope, as the Star reported that, the previous day, “old Sol once more shone upon us, giving us hopes that the waters have for a time subsided” because “a little fair weather would be tolerable just now.” Tired as locals were of the nearly continuous downpours, a separate short note observed that “the plains are now luxuriating in all the garniture of their spring attire” and this forebode well for farmers and ranchers.

Star, 18 January 1862.

A separate report on San Pedro noted that “the weather has been very bad here for the past two weeks” and that the storehouse of Alexander Bell, a prominent Los Angeles merchant (and whose nephew was the author of the eminently readable if often factually suspect 1881 memoir Reminiscences of a Ranger), was “in great danger” as a bulkhead washed away due to the interminable rain. John J. Tomlinson, who a couple of years later moved to Los Angeles to establish a lumber business, encountered his own difficulties as “two lighters, loaded with lumber, were sunk.” Incidentally, the piece also mentioned the December launching of a new light steamer, the Ada Hancock, but in just over a year, the craft exploded when a surge of water hit its boiler and, among the several deaths was that of Thomas Workman, clerk of “Port Admiral” and the craft’s owner, Phineas Banning.

In its edition of 25 January, the Star devoted a good deal of its issue to “The Rains—The Flood” beginning with the statement that “the rain commenced falling on the 24th of December, and continued, until the morning of the 23d January, with but two slight interruptions.” It noted, relative to mail service, that it was then five weeks since there had been any deliveries of letters and packages. On the 18th,

torrents of water were precipitated on the earth—it seemed as if the clouds had been broken through, and the waters over the earth and the waters under the earth were coming into conjunction. The result was that rivers were formed in every gulch and arroyo, and streams poured down the hill sides. The Los Angeles river, already brimful, overflowed its banks, and became a fierce and destructive flood.

The recently completed water delivery system, including a large waterwheel, “melted before the force of the water,” as the surge coming down the Arroyo Seco (that is, Dry Creek), added to the contents of the river, meant that the combined volume was “fretting and boiling” and, therefore, “drove the water beyond all control.” That night, in that vicinity, 5,000 grapevines were overrun along with adjacent pasture land, and the devastation widened over the next several days, so that “a great breadth of land was washed away, which had been planted with orange and all other kinds of the most valuable fruit trees.”

Star, 25 January 1862.

Elijah Moulton lost everything on his 30 acres, including his vineyard, citrus orchard and house and contents, while William Wolfskill’s vineyard, also on the east side of the river, was sacrificed to the roaring rush of water (his house and large orange grove, the first commercial orchard in the state when established two decades prior, on the west side were largely spared). But, on the west side, while the Sainsevaine vineyard escaped with only minor damage, the Hammel and Mesmer vineyard was ravaged and the residence and cellars lost (while some wine was saved with difficulty) and Joseph Huber also lost several acres of grapes. Antonio Franco Coronel and John Frohling (partner with Charles Kohler in a very successful transition in the wine business in northern California) were largely spared from the deluge.

While an estimated $25,000 of damage was sustained in these areas, it was recorded that, in town, damage was limited to “the falling of a few old adobe buildings.” There was a report, however, that the first Protestant church in Los Angeles, later dubbed St. Athanasius’ Episcopal Church and under construction, sustained significant settling on its southeast corner. On the east side of the river in the southwest part of modern Glendale, the ranch of lawyer and judge Jonathan R. Scott was hit hard and its houses washed away—Scott, who died in 1864, borrowed money from William Workman at this time and, with the loan unpaid, the property was foreclosed on and Workman took possession.

Star, 25 January 1862.

To the east of Los Angeles, it was stated that “the San Gabriel river had overflowed its banks, preventing travel” and it should be noted that the main rivers, including the Santa Ana, had no bridges then, with fords used to cross them. Notably, given how the San Gabriel rushed down the canyon of that name and from the mountains then known as the Sierra Madre and went underground before suddenly erupting to the surface north of El Monte, it was reported that “it forced a passage for itself, making its way from the eastward to the westward of El Monte, causing the inundation of those lands.” In 1867-1868, more heavy rain and flooding led to the creation of the New San Gabriel River, following an irrigation ditch built by ex-governor Pío Pico, and commandeering the course of Coyote Creek, coming from what became northwest Orange County, as it wended its way to the Pacific Ocean where Seal Beach and Long Beach now met. The old course became the Río Hondo.

At Mission San Gabriel, it was said, “four or five old adobes” were lost, but “none of the good houses” sustained much damage, while “at the Monte,” several modern residences were destroyed and “the whole place was, for a time, submerged,” though it was asserted that, for the near future, there would be a net benefit as the area “was becoming dessicated [sic]” for the last year or two. Anaheim, founded just four years prior, was rumored to have “been completely destroyed by the flood” and the area four miles on either side of the Santa Ana River was fully inundated. So many trees were washed down watercourses that salvage operations were busily undertaken to preserve what could be used for firewood, while some grapevines and fruit trees were retrieved from a sand bar along the Los Angeles River for replanting.

Star, 25 January 1862.

At Rancho Los Cerritos, where Jonathan Temple had his large two-story adobe house (built in 1844 and still standing) on the east side of the Los Angeles River, from which water was directed by a canal equipped by a water wheel, it was recorded that, while “the house is built on a high bluff” to withstand rising waters, “the embankment was swept away by the flood.” Temple, it was said, had enough tree debris in the river to supply him with wood for his household fires for a couple of years.

Temple’s half-brother, F.P.F. and his wife Antonia Margarita Workman, daughter of William Workman and Nicolasa Urioste, built an L-shaped adobe house of some 2,800 square feet a decade earlier, just a few hundred yards of the San Gabriel River (Rio Hondo). Again, it was a necessity to do so so they had ready access to water, but being at the center of the Whittier Narrows, where a 1950s dam was built because of the dangers flooding long posed to the area, they were, of course, very vulnerable. The Star only briefly noted:

MERCED RANCHO, the residence of F.P.F. Temple, Esq., was flooded. The family effected their escape from the house on a raft. No injury sustained by house or property.

The worst damage in the greater Los Angeles region, however, took place near what, about a decade later became Riverside. The settlements of Agua Mansa and San Salvador, founded in the 1840s, mainly by New Mexicans who came with the Rowland and Workman Expedition, were all but obliterated. The Star, which separately provided a report from the Rev. Borgatta of that area who said that his church was about the only structure left standing, informed readers that “here are 500 of our fellow-creatures, suddenly deprived of everything—houses, provisions and clothing—left in [an] utter [state] of destitution.” The paper suggested that “our active Mayor,” this being Damien Marchessault, convene a public meeting to organize relief for the people of what was then broadly known as Jurupa and situated in San Bernardino County (Riverside County not being formed for three more decades.)

Star, 1 February 1862.

On 1 February, the Star quoted an account from Benicia, northeast of San Francisco, where a rain gauge recorded more than 21 inches of rain through 9 January (which, of course, was not even half way through the storm series.) It was averred that “the present rainy season surpasses in severity any yet experienced by Americans in California” and that more rain fell in San Francisco in the first nine days of January than any prior month, save December 1851. Two weeks later, it was reported that, in December, 9.54 inches fell in San Francisco, but almost triple that amount came down at Downieville, in the northern mining regions northeast of Sacramento. Also, between Stockton and Mount Diablo, east of Oakland, the body of water created by the flood had large waves because of high wind; yet, some people were sailing in small craft for fun during this period!

A week later, the paper updated readers that “from the 24th day of December to the 5th day of February, with the exception of two days, rain, more or less, has fallen every day and night,—sometimes in torrents.” Also of concern was that, earlier the prior week, frost hit the area and “inflicted great injury on fruit trees” as well as “damaging the grape vines” in some spots. Trees already in bloom and those budding were lost for the season, because prior warmer weather accelerated development.

Star, 1 February 1862.

Separately, it was reported by David W. Alexander from the Rancho San Emigdio, northwest of Fort Tejon and where he oversaw cattle kept there by William Workman and F.P.F. Temple and where Workman’s son, Joseph, was also living and working, that the tract “sustained great damage, in the loss of cattle and sheep, by the flood.” Even as the animals moved to higher ground from the lower elevations on the ranch where normally pastured, “the waters prevailed, and swept them sway [away]” and it was reported “the loss” to Temple and Workman “is quite serious.”

When it came to livestock losses from the deluge, another short notice observed that, while estimates varied widely, the numbers were said to range from 50,000 to 200,000 and one man trying to sell cattle in San Francisco from between $10 and $15 a head was not successful. To the Star, however, this was an indicator that “the loss of cattle is not near so great as generally anticipated.” What was not foreseen, however, was what would result when the deluge subsided, as noted below!

Star, 15 February 1862.

Finally, the paper quoted another source that, while there were said to be seventy fatalities “thus far known” from the flood, this “must embrace white men alone, for Chinese have been drowned by hundreds” on the Yuba River and in the mining regions of Placer County. Moreover, the account continued, “intelligent Chinamen say the number of their countrymen destroyed in the State by the December floods alone was about five hundred,” a shockingly high number.

Also in its edition of the 15th, the Star ran a lengthy report from “La Puente,” who professed to be “a novice in California life and scenes,” but who clambered up to “an eminence among the hills to the South of La Puente” and then waxed poetic in purple prose about the beauties of the region and proclaiming “it seemed to us, to be made angelic heirs [playing on the name, of course, of Los Angeles] to such a land, should be one of the choicest throws of fortune.” As for the recent spate of storms, the writer noted that it was Neptune, Roman god of the sea, who “from the four quarters of the earth” was “waging a most merciless warfare upon us.”  It was then averred that

But from the virtue of the people, or the impregnability of the place, La Puente has come off as safe as its neighbors . . . The vineyard of Mr. John Rowland, Jr., was very nearly destroyed, together with considerable fencing.  Mr. John Reed’s losses were moderate, principally lambs, perishing from the damp chilly weather.  Mr. John Rowland’s also moderate, some fencing, a bridge, and some injury to his mill race and dam.

The account ended with the observation that there was “fire-wood drifted down” San José Creek, the main watercourse through the rancho, along with “sundry other goods,” but damage was comparatively light, except that there was “retarded plowing and sowing ” in the fields. While the author was obviously well educated and possessed no small facility with ancient Roman mythology, it is not known if this person was a visitor or lived in the area.

Star, 22 February 1862.

In another piece in the paper, there was an interesting statement as to possible causes for the weather system that wreaked such havoc in the state and it was hoped “that meteorological observations will in time give us the result of such investigations as may admit of a theory in regard to them, which will give us sufficient warning of such freshets and floods as we have to chronicle the present winter.” Correlating the value of agriculture in California to such knowledge meant that “the sooner it is acquired the better,” though it was wondered if “the Indians foresaw the flood” and, “if such was the case, the simple knowledge they have,” whatever that might have been because it was not discussed further, “the white man can acquire.” If this ability to prognosticate impending “atmospheric rivers” or “bomb cyclones” could be developed, “our State will yet be valuable for agricultural purposes.”

In its 1 March issue, the Star briefly provided, courtesy of Alexander S. Taylor of Santa Barbara, some history of California rainfall and it was noted that the voyage of Juan Cabrillo in 1548-1549 encountered heavy precipitation when navigating along the coast. The record showed, according to Taylor, that there were major flood events in 1802-1803, 1812 (the year of two major earthquakes, taking place in December, as noted in yesterday’s post), 1824-1825 (when the Los Angeles River, which emptied into the ocean where Ballona Creek does now, turned to the south with its terminus being where the ports of Long Beach and Los Angeles are today), 1832-1833, 1842 (heavy flooding happening just after William and Nicolasa Workman arrived from New Mexico), 1848-1849, and 1852. Since that latter date, the piece concluded, rains were “comparatively light until the recent freshet, which seems to have renewed the pluvial glories of the bygone time.”

Star, 1 March 1862.

As for the ability to forecast the future with respect to extraordinarily wet winters, what of the opposite? Because following the deluge of 1861-1862 came the devastating droughts of 1863 and 1864, when estimates are that as little as 4 inches of rain fell on the area in each of those years. Those livestock that survived the floods were prey to their reverse and, at La Puente, William Workman, as recalled by his grandson, John H. Temple (owner of the Homestead from 1888-1899), personally shot and killed some 3,000 head to put them out of their misery. Workman, Rowland and F.P.F. Temple were actually fortunate that their friend William Wolfskill found water in, of all places, the north side of the San Bernardino Mountains above Big Bear, where underground water was sufficient to keep the herds of the four ranchers in decent shape until the situation improved in 1865.

As for us, climate change models predict that, while drought will worsen in the American Southwest, the extremes of dry weather will occasionally be punctuated by periods of heavy precipitation in the form of these “ARKstorms,” “atmospheric rivers,” and “bomb cyclones.” How we manage our infrastructure with regard to flood control, water storage and delivery, and the use of the precious fluid is, of course, of increasingly more pressing concern.

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