August 11, 2009 § 9 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.