Glory Days of the Los Angeles River

This is the first in a four-part series in observance of the 1938 flood, the most notable flood in Los Angeles history. Don't miss part two, part three, and part four of the series.

Prior to its channelization the Los Angeles River was once lush with trees brimming with wildlife. The river provided food, shelter, transportation, and recreation for the indigenous population, and later the settlement of the Spanish empire. It provided inspiration for a generation of artists who migrated West at the turn of the century.

Following a seemingly typical storm beginning Sunday evening, February 27, 1938, the river would illustrate more than its beauty through its power for destruction. The severity of the storm and the resulting flood, would lead a demand for its channelization, drastically changing the river and Los Angeles.

As a collective voice on the history and issues of the Los Angeles River, we've recorded many personal testimonies and anecdotes of the river's glory days, including stories that take place before its channelization. To illustrate the joys Angelenos experienced before and after the river's transformation, we've provided a few of these stories below:
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The first thing we would have noticed if we were to go back in time to what this river once looked like was the great willow forest that spread from the openings of the river which begins up north all the way down to Long Beach...then reeds--miles upon miles, upon miles of reeds. Great reed forests so thick that the Spanish said it would take days to cross them.
An interview with Tongva tribal council member Mark Acuna (via Departures: L.A. River)


I'm told my first two spoken words were "big rock" from one of our trips, a very short distance from our home to the river bed near the Tujunga Avenue bridge. We really didn't know much about local wildlife in those days, but the river was always a good source to find some critter to scare our second grade teacher at Carpenter school.
See Arthur Langdon's photos of his family playing in the river along with his written testimony. (via Elysian Valley StoryShare)


Arthur Langdon on the Los Angeles River, ca 1940s.

You are history, fill my cup with your laughter and good times, please stay close to me, sing me the hymns of olden times and you'll float on forever.
See Lyla Matar perform her original song "Float On" (via L.A. River Day of Service StoryShare)


At the age of seven, a few of my friends got together and got some pallets and made a raft for a pool provided to us by rain a few days before. We as a group of kids always played along the river. We looked for tadpoles, we looked for frogs, we looked for horny toads. We used to tie strings around the horny toads as a leash to carry them around the neighborhood.
Listen to the rest of Reymundo Dominguez's story (via Elysian Valley StoryShare)


...I was probably 10, alone, unsupervised and perfectly safe wading in knee-high water, again before the basin was cemented in, gathering tadpoles for a pond in our rock garden. One evening that summer we were entertained by dozens of young frogs who had matured out of that pond.
Read the rest of Yvonne Bartlebaugh's story (via Elysian Valley StoryShare)


As a child, I would collect a large bucket full of frogs, bring them home, stroke their little throats one at a time and line them up on the curb to see how many I could keep asleep in one stroke.
Hear the rest Patricia Perez's story in this video (via Elysian Valley StoryShare)


This stream once had trout and steelhead in it. The steelhead would migrate from the San Garbiel Mountains and come down through the Arroyo Seco and go out all the way to the Pacific Ocean where they would spend most of their life and then before they died they would go back and spawn in the San Grabiel Mountains.
Hear more from Timothy Brick and about the Arroyo Seco in this interview (via Departures: Highland Park)


Two adventurers are shown as they appeared through binoculars from shore, sailing on the muddy Los Angeles River, ca 1938. Courtesy of LAPL.

About the Author

Kelly is a proud member of the KCET Departures team!
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L.A. River Excursion: Arroyo Seco Bike Path

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Los Angeles Flood of 1938: The Destruction Begins

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