After a flood, 1934 photos from the Eagle Rock Valley Historical Society
FLOODING, THEN AND NOW
In his memoirs, pioneer settler Cromwell Galpin paints a vivid picture of farmers at the mercy of unpredictable rain patterns during the flood of 1889-90.
"...In October of 1889 it began to rain, and it kept on until nearly seven inches had fallen; it also kept on raining a lot more in the months following, until May 1890, the local rain gauge indicated forty-two inches and Eagle Rock Valley was afloat, though the highest mountains still poked their heads above the flood.
"When the water receded all the apples, apricots and peaches and Brown's walnuts had been drowned; in the course of time to be cut up for fuel wherewith the Eagle Rock farmer was just moderately glad to eke out a substitute for money he might have made by farming. The whole Sycamore stretch of flat ground from Park Avenue (Fair Park) to the city limits, and west of Central Avenue (Eagle Rock Boulevard) was a huge morass that grew up immediately to willows, or where the water was still too deep, to cat-tails or tules. The willows grew thirty feet high in a year, and were so close together as to make the fight for existence a struggle for standing room. Then the willows were hewed with axes and snagged at with scythes and wallowed around with plows until a ditch had been cut from Park Avenue to below city limits, and the surplus water drained off. Then tomatoes were planted, and though the price was but seven dollars per ton, the Eagle Rocker who failed to clean up three hundred dollars an acre on "tomats" admitted that his crop was rather a failure..."
Eagle Rock settlers may have been vexed at willows growing 30 feet in a year where there were previously none to be seen. But a likely explanation for this is suggested by Jotham Bixby in an oral history recorded by County flood engineer James W. Reagan in the 1910s. Bixby describes willows springing up all over Compton, Watts, and Huntington Park after the flood of 1868. He explained that such "marsh growth" had previously characterized the land but hadn't been evident for years because it had been so thoroughly grazed by cattle, especially during very dry years.
Such thick vegetative growth once slowed the movement of water over land to the extent that rains seldom caused damage. To the contrary, the slow-moving waters were welcomed by farmers. They looked forward to deposits of rich silt which would increase the agricultural productivity of the land. Thus, it is possible that the rich soil that attracted Galpin to settle into the life of a farmer in Eagle Rock was the result of the same pattern of flooding that surprised him with a show of willows in 1890.
More than a century after willows were last seen in Eagle Rock valley, countless miles of concrete stormdrains move rainwater quickly and efficiently into the sea rather than allowing it to seep into the ground to replenish streams and aquifers. Our excessive use of hardscaping causes water to move incredibly rapidly into low-lying areas, causing sudden and severe flooding.
Scarcely a few decades after willows were last growing in Eagle Rock valley, this phenomenon was painfully evident:
"Peggy Jakobsen... was returning from school and finding the crossing at Caspar Avenue under water, walked east to Shearin Avenue and attempted to cross at that point. Caught in the grip of a whirling eddy, the child was swept from her feet and was being carried toward certain death when she was seen by her rescuers. The strength of the current carried one of the priests off his feet but his companion reached the child..." (The Eagle Rock Reporter and Sentinel, April 9, 1926)
Bert Fraleigh described the severe flooding of 1933 and 1941 when "Yosemite Drive... reverted to a riverbed, with water flowing curb to curb for two weeks, and we could not get to Eagle Rock High School for several days."
Jack Burnett-Stuart uncovers the story of the above photos in L. A. Creek Freak.