LA Streams in early 1900

August 2, 2008 § 2 Comments

Los Angeles’ natural environment has obviously changed a great deal with its history.  So much so that it is difficult for ecologists and historians to re-create a picture of LA before 1860.  By 1900, a lot had happened to this region – lands that had been managed by the Tongva had been converted to ranching and grazing lands under the Spanish and later Mexican colonies, and subsequently farmed fairly intensively by Anglo-American settlers (a troublesome term, I mean Anglo in the way my hispano ancestors did, coming from the word anglosajón, English speaker).  These landscape changes may seem subtle to our urbanized eyes, but they resulted in significant changes of habitat & vegetation, runoff & groundwater infiltration patterns, and water use (widespread pumping of the groundwater).  So the streams noted in 1900 were mostly likely quite different in 1800.  And we know that urbanization has resulted in even more dramatic landscape changes. 

As Joe’s post noted, Blake Gumprecht’s the Los Angeles River:  It’s Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth is an excellent description of the river, based on first hand accounts, and its demise into its current state.  One source Gumprecht mentions in his book is a flood control engineer, James P. Reagan, who in 1914 interviewed old timers for their memories of floods and waters in LA.  A colleague handed me a photocopy of Reagan’s interviews several years ago, and my sense of LA has never been the same.  Here’s a juicy tidbit describing the Carson-Dominguez-Compton-Gardena area (more of these to follow as time for typing allows):

The Carson Brothers at Dominguez have lived there all their lives.  Ed. Carson states that the river at one time ran along the foot of the hills at the Dominguez home place, 1824.  They said that from Dominguez hill to Los Cerritos is considered the river. In 1858, perhaps it was the ’60-’61 flood, a boat came up from San Pedro and took the Carson family, who lived over in the valley east of the Dominguez home, off of their marooned and dangerous position and carried them over to the Dominguez place. 

The floods in those days were not so damaging and did not wash as they do in these later days, for there were no railroad embankments to hold the water or to concentrate it, but the water was free to spread out over the valley and did little damage.  And too, the valley was covered with a growth of willow, larch, and sycamore trees, together with grasses and other undergrowth which prevented a rapid movement of waters.  The railroad fill from what is now Elftman and Watson, was washed out and the floods poured into the…Slough. This was 1889.  About 1894 the Slough began drying up rapidly, and fish began to die by the tons.  The stench became so bad it became necessary to burn and burn the dead fish.  This greatly fertilized the land….

One excellent recent account detailing landscape changes with respect to our waterways is the study, Historical Ecology and Landscape Change in the San Gabriel River and Floodplain (careful! clicking on this link unleashes a 16.5 MB download but well worth the read!), put together by a great team of researchers out of Southern California Coastal Waters Research Project (SCCWRP), Cal State Northridge (CSUN), University of Southern California (USC), San Francisco Estuary Institute (SFEI), and the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council (LASGRWC).  The project was funded by the Rivers and Mountains Conservancy (RMC). While we obviously can’t reclaim the landscape of 200 years ago, or even 100 years ago, we can recover some of our natural environment.  More on that later.

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§ 2 Responses to LA Streams in early 1900

  • Danny says:

    Thank you for your excellent new blog, which I found via green l.a. girl’s blog. I’ve lived very near the L.A. River most of my life, having grown up in Burbank and now having recently moved to Long Beach. Keep it up!

  • […]  I’m attending the “Building a Healthier San Gabriel River Watershed” conference in El Monte today and tomorrow.  Thanks to the Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers Watershed Council for hosting.  For me, today’s stand-out presentation was by Eric Stein of Southern California Coastal Water Research Project (SCCRWP, affectionately called ”skwurp.”)  Stein, with others, is the author of a report called Historical ecology and landscape change of the San Gabriel River and floodplain which is available on SCCWRP’s website as Technical Report No. 499 (a 17MB PDF file.)  Jessica referred to this report in an earlier blog about L.A.’s historic streams. […]

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