April 2, 2012
When people think of the Los Angeles River nowadays, no one thinks much about it. As Blake Gumprecht states in his third chapter about the Los Angeles River, “Despite its utilitarian importance, the river also seems to have been one of the least-photographed sites in early Los Angeles” (Gumprecht, 111). But considering the LA River to be an eyesore was never the unanimous opinion. In the early years before the United States gained control over California in 1848, the early Tongva tribes, Spanish settlers and Mexican settlers were drawn to the area of Los Angeles due to the Los Angeles River. The river at this time flowed strongly enough to maintain the populations settling within the area, providing drinking water along with water supplies for agricultural purposes. The area was an agricultural goldmine, “capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted” as Father Crespi wrote as he entered the Los Angeles area in 1769 (Bolten). Even when the United States took over the land, Los Angeles was filled with agricultural land growing oranges, grapes, along with a wide array of other crops. But slowly as the people of Los Angeles turned their attention toward oil drilling and other industrial practice, the attention to agriculture and the river as source of beauty and growth dwindled.
Gumprecht notes that development really started in the Los Angeles area once the Transcontinental Railroad was completed and the city was now linked with the rest of the world. Towns began springing up along rail lines, and industrialization took over this area. The railroads traveled alongside the riverbed, becoming the city’s main form of export and transportation, since the river was never large enough to support large transportation. The river turned into an exaggerated picture of beauty that would draw newcomers to the city who soon realized it was not a large staple within the community. The Los Angeles River was solely a source of drinking water and quickly dried up with the ever-growing population being brought over through the railroad system.
Railroads coming to Los Angeles was potentially one of the best developments and worse developments for the city. The area did not stand out among other Southern Californian cities because it had no direct port, and the LA River was not substantial enough to connect the city to sea ports. The railroads however could connect the city to the Pacific Ocean along with San Francisco and the east. But with this “power” source that made it a competitive city within industry came environmental impacts that Los Angeles still faces today. The railroads followed the river bed, and industrial plants wanted to follow the railways for convenience matters. Slowly all the industrial sites lined the LA River, which was drying up with the high demand for water. Even though officials said the river was not strong enough to support waste disposal, large companies were still dumping their waste into the river and taking what little resources they could from the river bed to maintain their expansion and development. The railroads close proximity to the river made industries able to also develop here and use the resources of the riverbed as they pleased. But the development of railroads and industry themselves destroyed the quality of the river for most of the history of Los Angeles and made the city much more prone to flooding.
Floods were for the most part seen as beneficial until the boom of the 1880’s. the floodwater deposited silt that enriched the soil, restored moisture to dry ground, and washed away salts that had accumulated because of irrigation. Floods, for the most part, did little damage because their low banks overflowed before the flow intensified and spread slowly over the country. The depth of any given flood rarely exceeded a foot and its velocity was minimal. In addition, there was less potential for damage because few people had constructed buildings or homes along the river because they knew to stay away from flood prone lands. Agriculture was the extent of riverside development until 1876. Most residential areas were situated on terraces and benches east of the river. The flood of 1862, which may have been the most extensive flood in the history of California, only resulted in “insignificant” damage (Gumprecht, 150).
According to Gumprecht, a lot changed in southern California when the railroad arrived. In 1876 the Southern Pacific Railroad extended its path from San Francisco to Los Angeles and people began to pour into the city. Long beach was founded in 1888 and became the county’s fourth largest city. The growing population increased the demand for trade. As a result, the city rushed to build a port on San Pedro Bay. Urban areas began to pop up all alongside the river. Newcomers constructed homes and businesses in the flood plain and within dry streambeds. Large amounts of tress and vegetation, that once slowed the floodwaters and held the soil in place, were removed. Construction crews used sand and gravel from the river and by doing so lowered the channel by 20 feet. They inadvertently increased the power of the river by forcing all the runoff into a narrower path. Flood hazard increased exponentially. Individuals attempted to protect their own property by building levies but their efforts were futile.
Aside from the surge of population growth caused by the railroads, railroads also directly increased flood hazard in Los Angles. Rail lines often used trestle bridges, which act like dams during heavy storms. Debris, tress, and other material being carried by the river would stack up behind the bridge, force water out of the channel and flood nearby lands or would knock down the bridge itself and unleash a rush of water and debris that endangered the people downstream. In addition the planning or lack of planning of the rail lines was not very wise. Some rail lines were build on flood plains or artificial embankments that constrained flood waters that would have otherwise spread over a wide area and made them more powerful. (Gumprecht)
Few people noticed the precarious situation Los Angeles was putting itself in. Most of the settlers were newcomers and had no knowledge of the river’s power and ignored the warning of those who did. The occasional flood was acceptable in their mind as long as they lived in paradise. But, major storms did not hit until 1884. That year the floods resulted in $2.4 to $16.3 million in damages. The river washed away homes, train cars and there are accounts of dead horses, cows and people drifting in the river. Families were left homeless and lost everything.
One would think that by now Angelinos and city planners have learned their lessons but that is not the case. In 1884 the LA times reported: “The river rose all night and created a scene of destruction, at points close to its banks, which can hardly be pictured. Numbers of families lost everything they had. The destruction is immense”. Almost 150 years later, in 2010, msnbc quotes a victim of the Decemebr 2010 floods: “We didn’t have time to get anything. It happened really fast, water started coming in from all the walls. Then the wall fell and we got out through the window.” J. J. Warner warned Angelinos in 1882 “of the risk to which many…are exposing themselves, their property and their families in the selection of places upon which to build their dwellings” (Gumprecht, 154). Over a century has passed and we continue to ignore his warning.
Bolten, Herbert Eugene. 1927. Frey Juan Crespi: Missionary Explorer. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth.Johns Hopkins University Press: June 1999.
NBC, Msnbc.com, NBC,, and News Services. “Mud, More Evacuations in Wake of L.A.-area Storm.” Msnbc.com. Msnbc Digital Network, 22 Dec. 2010. Web. 27 Mar. 2012. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/40779006/ns/weather/t/mud-more-evacuations-wake-la-area-storm/>.
This post was authored by Amelia Bahr ’12 and Evelyn Cintron ’12 both majoring in Environmental Studies.