Peat bog madness in LA

October 15, 2008 § 4 Comments

00045546

'"When I wandered onto a burning peat bed and began to sink, I had to step on my ukulele to get out," Margaret Gosseman testifed...October 18, 1927. Source: LAPL, Photo: 00045546

An obsessive review of LA Public Library photo database pics revealed a strange moment in LA’s water history, when the drained and dried cienega (swamp or wetland, from which we get the street La Cienega) caught fire, some 30 feet below ground, and burned….and burned.  And then burned some more.  I really just wanted an excuse to reprint the quote and picture of a young woman, at right, who testified that the ground was so hot she had to lay down her ukulele to walk on it.  Maybe in the LA of yore, people actually walked – through fields and undeveloped lands – with ukuleles?  Do people today “wander” the city as she says she did – and with musical equipment? Such a peculiar tidbit deserved more study, so I hit the LA Times archives at the Public Library and my historic creek and watershed maps to try and piece it together.

1902 USGS map

1902 USGS map

To orient you, here is a 1902 clip of a USGS map showing the considerable wetland (cienega) that extended from approximately where the Magic Johnson theaters are to beyond where the Village Green is today.  If you live in the neighborhood you can compare the extent of wetlands and streams with your environs in the map below.  As Blake Gumprecht in his wonderful book on the LA River points out, these wetlands were once popular with hunters because of all the waterfowl that gathered there.  

Overlay of streams (blue) and cienega (green) in 1902 on contemporary USGS map.  Lines in rust color are stormdrains.

Overlay of streams (blue) and cienega (green) in 1902 on contemporary USGS map. Lines in rust color are stormdrains.

So apparently, as the wetlands dried up, shrinking peat beds were all that was left. Oil pipelines ran through it.  And fires, 30-40′ deep, would start, and burn for years on end.  According to the Times, the fire in 1927 had already been burning for several years, and took a while to be put out.  The Times did not discuss the cause of the fire, but focused on the negligence trial against the Anita Baldwin estate, which claimed to be unaware of the fire, but ultimately agreed to work out a deal with the city to put it out. The City, for its part, had threatened to take possession of the land and turn it into parkland – and indeed today the site is the Baldwin Hills Rec. Center, although it is not clear how the transfer actually took place.  

 

 

 

Los Angeles Public Library

"This photo shows Judge Frederickson, defendants and other interested parties inspecting the Baldwin Hills peat bed on October 21, 1927, walking over a path built of dirt over the smoldering peat. The peat burned out from beneath the pipe line shown in the photo, leaving it sagging in the air, so dirt was thrown beneath it to make a "highway" in the burning wilderness. Those who step from the path sink into the peat and suffer burning, it is alleged." Source: LAPL, Photo: 00045548.

Los Angeles Public Library.
“This remarkable photo on October 21,
 1927, shows live peat in the Baldwin Hills bed and beside it peat burned to ashes by the fire of controversy, which in places burns 40 feet below the surface. Prof. Edgar K. Soper, head of the Department of Geology at U.C.L.A., says flooding probably will not extinguish the
 fire and recommends building “underground fire breaks” of sand 40 feet deep to prevent spreading of fire.” 1927. Source: LAPL, Photo: 00045547

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Letter to the Editor, June 9, 1933. Los Angeles Times. Source: LAPL. Click to read.

 

 

 

To put out the fire, experts argued over whether to drench the soil with water or dig deep trenches to fill with sand – creating subterranean fire breaks.  They had opportunities to try both methods: to the chagrin and annoyance of many, in 1933 and 1946 the peat bog burned again.

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§ 4 Responses to Peat bog madness in LA

  • Nancy Steele says:

    I, too, am amazed that once people actually walked in this city (and by that I mean the whole LA Metro area). I’ve been walking (and DASHing) to and from City Hall from Union Station a lot lately and I think, wouldn’t it be wonderful to cover over the freeway through downtown and turn it into a park? (A park that celebrates our Mediterranean climate and collects stormwater etc of course.)
    My all time prize for the road most hostile to walking, however, goes to Rosemead Blvd. where it crosses the 10 freeway. You can’t walk (or ride a bike) safely on either side of the road, although I’ve watched people taking their lives in their hands trying. I would like to see a design to fix this horrible section of Rosemead.

  • jishica says:

    Sounds like a really bad crossing that not even a ukulele can fix.

  • Joe Linton says:

    Great story! That Margaret Gosseman and her ukulele!

  • [...] like our old Ballona peat bogs before they dried [...]

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