August 11, 2009 § 8 Comments
A couple weeks ago, Jessica made a thoughtful post about Stream Spirit Rising (part 1, part 2), a series of activities organized around the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco. I wanted to continue that thread by summarizing the history of the North Branch in Highland Park, culled from old photographs and published materials. The extent to which we have slowly altered the landscape in the last hundred years still seems unbelievable to me, even after I’ve been looking into Northeast LA water history for several years now. I keep hoping that by getting more of this history out there, it will start to seem more “real”!
Though little trace of it remains above ground today, the North Branch of the Arroyo Seco was once a defining feature of the “vast meadow” that would eventually become Highland Park. Archduke Ludwig Louis Salvator noted the stream in his account of his travels through Los Angeles, which were published in 1876. Building a railroad over the stream near what would become Sycamore Grove Park, altered its surface appearance irretrievably. But even so, the stream persisted aboveground in places into the earliest years of the 1900s.
According to Chas. Elder, who wrote about the stream in the mid-twentieth century, the North Branch’s main source was “a great spring situated just west of North Figueroa at Springvale Drive” whose flow was once “as big around as a water bucket.” Smaller springs added to this flow, most significantly Glenn Rock Spring, at the head of Milwaukee Avenue. (Glenn Rock Spring had once been little more than a trickle, before an investor drilled a tunnel 350 feet into the hillside around 1890. Thus developed, the spring became the source of what may have been Northeast Los Angeles’ first water bottling company, “Poland Rock,” which was well advertised through much of that decade.)
Of the North Branch, Elder wrote:
This little river had a good stream of water flowing down it even in the driest seasons, and was full of mountain trout and catfish even up as far as York Boulevard. I myself have seen boys pulling fish weighing half a pound as far north as North Avenue 51 and Buchanan Streets. The North Branch from Springvale Drive to Meridian Street flowed through a beautiful little glen about 40 feet deep and 200 feet wide in places, which was full of most beautiful ferns. Along the banks of the stream were hundreds of fine old oak and sycamore trees.
A map from the 1880s, shows the stream sinking underground into the sandy banks of the Arroyo Seco even before reaching present-day Sycamore Grove Park.
By the late 1920s, the North Branch’s reach had been extended and tamed for middle class urbanites by routing it through the Park in a neat concrete liner. A wading pool filled by the stream became a central feature of the park. Idyllic landscaping around the pool included bamboo clumps, night lighting, and rustic benches. The path of the stream through the park is indicated on maps from the 20s and 30s.
Adventurous boys of that era would follow the creek down into the wilder banks of the Arroyo Seco, where cattails and willows reigned. Henry Welcome was one of those boys:
Sometime in the dim past a large pond had developed in the Arroyo Seco. As time marched on, the youths of the neighborhood had enlarged the pool, adding a raft or two made from abandoned railroad ties. As little fellows we used to catch, in mother’s canning jars, minnows and crayfish. We called them ‘crawdads,’ taking them and the tiny fish home in the evening, where in a few days they usually died of neglect. As we grew bigger we ventured into the big pond among the tules…
After a devastating flood in the 1930s, a large storm drain was built to convey the waters of the North Branch under the Park, and the wading pool disappeared.
That the stream was missed by many is evidenced by Fred Allen’s observation in mid-century that “the creek is still placed [in paintings of Sycamore Grove Park] by some artists, who think it adds to the natural beauty of the area.”
A small grove of walnut, sycamore, and oak trees just northwest of Arroyo Seco Museum Science Magnet School is the only remaining fragment of the large grove that once shaded the route of the creek.
Very near where the stream had once emerged onto the flood banks of the arroyo at the northern end of Sycamore Grove Park, a particularly prolific spring was tapped by a succession of commercial bottling companies between 1904 and 1970. This spring was most recently known as “White Rose Spring.” Though the spring has been capped, the owner of the building next door told me that whenever there is heavy rain, or if the ground is disturbed during earthquakes or trembles, water reappears through small fissures in the concrete.
In the middle of the last century Chas Elder had mourned that the “great spring” from which originated the North Branch had dwindled to the size of his arm: “Newcomers will laugh at the idea of a river with fish in it wandering through Highland Park, but the old-timers of whom there are over 40 who have lived here over 50 years, will wipe away a tear and sorrowfully commence “I remember when—“
Though we can only imagine what the North Branch was like during Elder’s childhood, a surprisingly simple solution has been proposed that could allow the North Branch’s waters to flow once again through Sycamore Grove Park. An ‘alternative’ streambed would be laid through the park. During storm events, flows in excess of the safe capacity of that streambed, would bypass the intake and continue through the existing storm drain under the park. Dan Sharp, an engineer for the Watershed Management Division of LA County Public Works, suggested that this solution for providing habitat, public use, and quality of life benefits would come at a fraction of the cost and risk of a full-scale daylighting.
Maybe one day residents of Highland Park will laugh, saying, “Remember when the North Branch flowed under the park through that big pipe?!”
Thanks to Virginia Neely for sharing some of the articles and photographs that were the source for this entry and to Jessica Hall for spreading the word about the North Branch. Other sources include Connie and Adrian Saxe, and Charles Fisher. For more on water history in Northeast Los Angeles, visit Myriad Unnamed Streams.
August 4, 2008 § 5 Comments
Is the Los Angeles River navigable? The recent kayaking adventure, documented here at LA Creekfreak and elsewhere, demonstrated that it is. The Army Corps’ definition of navigability, however, may relate more narrowly to navigation for interstate commerce. Perhaps if people fly in from out of state, spend some money on kayak rentals, sunscreen and snacks, we’ll fit the definition.
Until then, however, we’re stuck with technicalese to protect the River. As the Army Corps has noted, the officially non-navigable reaches of the River remain protected due to their “significant nexus“(link leads to ACOE ppt download on the topic) with the Navigable Water body reaches. Several Supreme Court justices ago, all that was needed to extend Clean Water Act protections to our southwestern rivers was evidence that a waterway was a tributary to a Navigable Water. Now it’s not so clear. I have heard conflicting things about tributaries and their status. A past, present, or potential future “significant nexus” needs to be demonstrated – basically someone has to prove that the degradation of a waterway would impact the water quality of the Navigable Water, and now each tributary to the LA River will need this level of investigation before it attains federal regulatory oversight (which does not guarantee physical protection, a topic for another day).
The River, like so many southwestern rivers and streams, had a great deal of variability to it. Some reaches may have been more like washes, where flows infiltrated into the groundwater; other reaches had perennial water flow. And if you go back a few hundred years, the lowest reach of the river was more like a broad wetland and forest floodplain that soaked up runoff like a sponge, with surface waters rarely reaching the ocean. These waterways were incredibly dynamic, shifting course when log jams or sediment would build up, forcing a new direction for the water to spread. Our mistake is in defining the river exclusively as the channel where we see water. Rivers function to transport water and sediment, dissipate energy, facilitate biological and chemical processes, and support habitat. In all rivers these functions depend upon not only the river’s channel but also its floodplain, and to some degree, its relationship to groundwater. A river is also the sum of its tributaries. The role of tributaries, the floodplain and groundwater may be even more pronounced in our southwestern rivers and streams, and our evaluation of the LA River should be inclusive of these relationships, not as the significant nexus, but as part and parcel of the River itself. This would be consistent with the Clean Water Act preamble, which states a purpose to restore and maintain “the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the Nation’s waters”.
For many, we would feel a greater level of security knowing the River, in either its current or historic configuration, simply met the criteria of Navigability. Historical data I’ve reviewed provides interesting, if hardly voluminous, evidence of boating (& swimming, not really a regulatory criteria but fun info). Despite the widespread characterization of the LA River as “a river by courtesy at times” that, like its tributaries, “sink(s) into the sand in places…and seep(s) along beneath the surface for miles, to appear again,” (Charles Holder, 1906) the river and its mountain tributaries were popular destinations for fishermen of steelhead trout. Ludwig Louis Salvator*, in his enthusiastic travelogue, Los Angeles in the Sunny Seventies, even references the use of boats to capture these fish:
“…fine brook-trout and salmon-trout are also caught. The latter are usually taken with what are called gill-nets…The net does not touch bottom since the fish swim fairly near the surface, but is stretched diagonally across the stream or a section of it and floats with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile while the fishermen follow behind in a boat.”
Unfortunately, Salvator does not identify specifically where this boating occurred, speaking only of mountain streams. It seems reasonable to speculate that boats following nets “with the current for several hundred yards or even half a mile” would need to be on a relatively flat reach of a stream, i.e. the Los Angeles River in one of its perennial reaches, such as at elPotrero de los Felizes Los Pescaditos,“a favorite fishing place on the east side of the river opposite Griffith Park”. Speculation, however, isn’t the basis for regulation.
But boating was also known to occur within the lower Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers’ floodplains. More quotes from James P. Reagan’s 1914 oral histories:
Mr. J. H. Orr, Compton, R. F. D. 1, 101 Home at Compton.
Mr. Orr has lived in this neighborhood for twenty-six years. In 1889 he says the whole country was flooded and to give an idea of how much water there was, he with some others rowed in a boat from Downey almost to Compton, that is to the S. P. R. R. track, tied their boat and walked across to Compton, bought their provisions and returned in the same way. The water was all over the country for six weeks and nothing could be done…
Mr. Lafayette Saunders, 2303 Atlantic Ave., Long Beach
…I have seen this valley solid across here between these mesas (Los Cerritos and Dominguez Hill) and nearly four feet deep. I rode in a row boat with two other from Long Beach to Wilmington and returned for provisions, and the water was from a foot of(sic) so to three and one-half feet deep.”
Here the boating is seasonal in character and really a response to the natural flood regime, in that lower LA River basin that had one time been like a sponge. Obviously this was not pleasure boating! Reagan also indicated that the Los Angeles River in the Glendale Narrows reach was good swimming:
Mr. Randall H. Hewitt, 529 Merchants Trust Bldg.
…The year 1876 was a dry year and no water flowed below what was called the “Toma” in those days, above the Downey St. Bridge, which is now North Broadway, where the boys used to go swimming….
(the Toma was a dam that diverted water into the zanja irrigation system)
Joe Bernal, Room 53, Temple Block:
Mr. Bernal was seen at his office today at noon. He was born and raised in Los Angeles… In his boyhood days he used to go swimming in the Los Angeles river when it flowed down Alameda Street. (Reagan)
While hardly likely to convince the Corps that the LA River meets their definition of navigability, these historical anecdotes hint at humanity’s relationship to the river’s more complex structure.
Not just the river, all the streams and wetlands of the LA area, really, have already suffered death by a thousand cuts through the draining, channelization and culverting of over 90% of them. The “significant nexus” test here just adds several additional tons of paperwork and bureaucracy under which to bury our remaining waterways.
*Special thanks to Brian Braa, landscape architect, friend, and Seeking Streams cohort, whose research genius found this author & document.