IMAGERY – The Mighty LA River, 1895-1920

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©USC Digital Archive

Two men standing near a water ditch at the bank of Los Angeles River, north side of Griffith Park.

I’m happy to say that our sold out Los Angeles River tour is this Sunday and there are actually upwards of 30 people on the waiting list for another one! Wow. There’s been a lot of discussion on our Facebook page about the revitalization of the river and its reputation as a drainage ditch this week, so I decided to make another dip into the ol’ USC Digital Archive to see what kind of imagery I could find. This 51 mile river that explorer Gaspar de Portolá named El Río de Nuestra Señora La Reina de Los Ángeles de Porciúncula in the year 1769 didn’t always look the way you might imagine. Although it changed course many times over history, the river shown below was the reason that the 44 Los Pobladores chose to stop and create a settlement here… The LA River is the reason that Los Angeles exists.

©USC Digital Archive

Photograph of a man standing near a water ditch at the bank of Los Angeles River, north side of Griffith Park, ca.1900.

Prior to the arrival of Los Pobladores from New Spain,

“The River and its rich plant and animal habitat provided a livelihood for the Gabrielino Indians, one of the largest group of Indians in North America. Although it is unclear today what this group called themselves, they are referred to as the Tongva. Over 1000 years ago, the Tongva established a settlement on the banks of the River near where Los Angeles City Hall stands today.” (SOURCE)

©USC Digital Archive

Photograph of hundreds of pigeons bathing in the Los Angeles River on a pigeon ranch just past the Riverside bridge at the junction of Verdugo Road and San Fernando Boulevard, ca.1900.

Father Juan Crespi was a member of the Portola expedition and documented the river in its first written description:

“Wednesday, August 2. ~ We set out from the valley in the morning and followed the same plain in the westerly direction. After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river (yep, the LA River) from the north-northwest, and then doubling the point of a steep hill, it went on aftwards to the south. Toward the north-northeast there is another river bed (the Arroyo Seco) which forms a spacious water-course, but we found it dry. This bed unites with that of the river, giving a clear indication of great floods in the rainy season, for we saw that it had many trunks of trees on the banks. We halted not very far from the river, which we named Porciuncula (meaning “small portion of land”). Here we felt three consecutive earthquakes in the afternoon and night. We must have traveled about three leagues today. This plain where the river runs is very extensive. It has good land for planting all kinds of grain and seeds, and is the most suitable site of all that we have seen for a mission, for it has all the requisites for a large settlement.”

Below is visual documentation of the main reason that the concrete drainage ditch system was originally conceived… containing the river and flowing it as quickly as possible to the ocean was the Army Corp of Engineer’s chosen solution for flooding like what’s depicted in the photo below. Potential flooding is something everyone working on the revitalization plan is very aware of, though.

Fingers crossed, technology has come a long way since 1930.

©USC Digital Archive

Photograph of a flooded Los Angeles River flowing under a Pacific Electric Railway bridge, 1916. Looking north from a wagon bridge on Anaheim Street in Wilmington, the water fills the foreground, stretching towards the bridge in the background, which crosses from left to right.

©USC Digital Archive

Photograph of the Los Angeles River in Griffith Park, ca.1920.

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8 Responses to “IMAGERY – The Mighty LA River, 1895-1920”

  1. r. russell says:

    Thanks for such awesome pictures, and a nice description of the LA River. Note that the first written description was noted on August 2. I wonder where the water was coming from?

    • felicia sanchez says:

      Thanks for the great pictures of our LA RIVER! Lets get more research done and get ALL SCHOOL DISTRICTS out here for a free educational learning trip! IN MEMORY OF MY MOTHER FLORA R. ARCHEY (Commitioner) LA UNIFIED SCHOOL DISTRICT TITLE IV PROGRAM INDIAN EDUCATION PROGRAM…

  2. Sue Sabol says:

    Thank you for this. I have lived in the Pacific Northwest since I left the valley in 1982. The river was already cemented in by the time I was born (long before), but my grandfather built a small house on 15125 Valleyheart Dr in 1940 when he moved his family to LA from South Dakota. I have photographs of my mother fishing on the river when she was about 15 or 16. That would have been about ’48 or ’49. Until now, I have not known about the reclamation project. Grampa would be so happy. His little house is still there…

  3. Joe says:

    Thanks for the description. I also assume that Portola Junior High and Crespi High School are named for the gentlemen in the story.

  4. Tom Whocares says:

    great pics………..doesn’t a sewer empty into it>?

  5. Jack says:

    In 1900, I believe that was the year but not positive as I am recalling this out of memory, it began raining on thanksgiving day and didn’t let up till Christmas morning. The rain came down all most non stop on an average of 6 ” a day. The entire San Fernando Vally was under 8 feet of water. It was a literal lake. By the time the water had drained the course of the LA river had changed three times. The flooding downstream killed hundreds of people. This event is what prompted the building of the Sepulveda Dam and cementing of the LA river. The dam, today if it where ever used like it was intended, to hold back flood waters so there release could be regulated, would cover two thirds of the houses in SFV over their roofs. The hundred year flood is what it was designed for and SFV was never supposed to be developed. It was “the country” back in those days and for the most part was host to citrus and almond orchards and not much else. If you live in the “valley” long enough to experience a good few days of steady down pour you will soon realize that the drainage there sucks and is easily over whelmed. Should there be another hundred year flood like there was ,,well,,100+ years ago the resulting devastation will rival Katrina. Think about it. From the Encino Hills to Silmar. From Glendale to Topanga Cyn. all under 8 feet of water. It’s happened before and that was with out the dam. It would sure give the Global Warming crowd something to exploit though. Especially if a polar bear from the zoo could be photographed floating down river on the roof of a Hummer. Dohh..

  6. [...] the original name of Los Angeles. Wanna try the pronunciation? Say it with me: el pweh-blow day new-est-trrra seen-nyor-rrrah la [...]

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