Jan 3, 1868: Trouble at the waterworks

January 3, 2011 § Leave a comment

Twenty-one years before Joe’s Christmas story post  took place, in which Mulholland frantically worked for four days to protect the water system, the floods of 1867-68 indeed took apart a key component of LA’s water supply system. Old timers describe the rainfall leading up to the event in consistent terms with the LA County Hydrology Manual’s Capital Storm. And while our recent Pineapple Express fits the pattern, it did not provide the required rainfall intensity to fully test our drainage system, or even come close to this historical flood event.

Back in 1867, a small dam diverted flows out of the LA River for feeding the zanja system. This dam was called La Toma. W.H. Lander describes it for us in a 1914 interview (all historical material from James Reagan’s Early Floods in Los Angeles County, 1914):

“Right where the S.P. freight station sets used to be a slough and he has caught fish and turtles there but he thinks that water used to be caused by the ditch from the Old La Toma which was a lake, they had a dam across the river about where the Buena Vista St., bridge was and formed quite a lake to get the water into the ditches, and used to go swimming there when he was a boy. (W.H. Lander, interviewed by R.A. Borthick)

The rains resulted in loss of the dam:

Los Angeles News, January 3, 1868

Loss of City Dam

This dam which furnished the city with water, and had been repaired at an expense of some three thousand dollars, was entirely swept away, and until it is repaired, will necessitate the renewal of the water cart system, which a few years ago was our only source of supply.

Mighty restrained reporting by today’s standards!

Professor J.M. Guinn, also interviewed in the Reagan document, gives us a more detailed description of La Toma, and how its demise created a spectacle:

“Nothing seemed to be safe from the ravages of the high waters. The old city water works, which was located just above the new concrete bridge on Downey Avenue, was swept away. In those days expedients were resorted to that would seem strange now. During the dry weather it was necessary to sink a pit or sump in to the sand to get a sufficient supply of water. This was accomplished by driving piles down and forming a crib by putting planks against the piles. In the rainy season these planks were taken out to give the water freer passage.

In this flood, however, the water began working the piles loose by the rocking motion, and after they were loosened enough the quicksand and the water would shoot the piles out of the bed of the river as though they came from a catapult.

Holy flying piles of…piles!

Next up: detritus in the floods of 1867-68 on the San Gabriel River.

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