The History of the Los Angeles River
Not even an Indian could always outguess such prima donnas as those tempermental rivers which the Spanish were finally to name the Santa Ana de los Temblores, the San Gabriel, and the Porciuncula (Los Angeles) . . .
Bernice Eastman Johnson1
The first written description of the Los Angeles River is offered by Juan Crespi on the Portola expedition in 1769.
" 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 (the Los Angeles) 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. 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."
The location of this camp was probably just a mile or two north of what later became the Pueblo of Los Angeles. The river is the reason the pueblo was started in that location, which is near the present-day Macy St. and First St. bridges. Crespi goes on to say that eight indians visited them from a local village that day. 2
"...they live in this delightful place amoung the trees on the river. They presented us with some baskets of pinole made from seeds of sage and other grasses. Their chief brought some strings of beads made of shells, and they threw us three handfuls of them. Some of the old men where smoking pipes well made of baked clay and they puffed at us three mouthfuls of smoke. We gave them a little tobacco and glass beads, and they went away well pleased."
After fording the river the next day, the Portola expedition . . ."entered a large vineyard of wild grapes and an infinity of rosebushes in full bloom. All the soil is black and loamy, and is capable of producing every kind of grain and fruit which may be planted. We went west, continually over good land well covered with grass." 3
The River Changes Course Several Times.
Bernice Johnson writes, "With few exceptions old residents recalled that, until the floods of 1824-25 sent it careening off through the lowlands to the south, the Los Angeles River ran below a high bluff between the present Main and Los Angeles Streets, turning westward on its meandering way to the "cienegas", the great marshlands that lay between the Baldwin and the Beverly Hills. This course can be traced roughly today by observing the trend of the low ground in the region of Venice, Adams, and Washington, between La Brea and La Cienega Boulevards, in the present city of Los Angeles.
From some unknown prior date, or perhaps always until the winter of 1824-25, this was the course the Los Angeles River followed to its mouth in the Santa Monica Bay. Thereafter, during every major storm . . . this was the way it threatened to take and deep sands exist to prove its right to such a course. "The river needed to rise only a few inches to send it down the old channel," reported on old resident. In 1867 this actually happened and for a while the water stood like a great lake all the way to the 'cienegas'. From that point to the sea the course had been that of the stream the Spanish were to call 'La Ballona,' although the low ground southward to the Dominguez country sometime coaxed the overflow in that direction." 4
History of Floods in Los Angeles 5
DAMS and FLOOD control
Six large dams have been built around Los Angeles, as well as 14 smaller mountain dams, to collect water and to prevent flooding along the rivers in the lowlands. The Sepulveda Flood Control Basin and dam was completed in 1940. Hansen Dam was built in 1941. Whittier Narrows was completed in 1957. During most storms, 80% of the runoff goes into the ground and recharges aquifers and 20% goes down river. During large storms the ground becomes saturated and 80% of the runoff goes down river. Fifteen percent of the water for the City of Los Angeles is supplied by rain in the form of groundwater.
Continue the tour here. So batten down your hard drives and cover your keyboards. The adventures of the urban river awaits you. Good Luck and remember, don't drink the water!
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