Peat bog madness in LA
October 15, 2008 § 4 Comments
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.
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.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.
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.