Echo Park's Lake Began as a Drinking Water Reservoir

Echo Park, circa 1895. Photo by W. H. Fletcher, courtesy of the W.H. Fletcher Collection, California State Library.

You shouldn't sip from it today, but in 1870, the recently completed Echo Park Lake was the centerpiece of a promising new drinking water system. Known then simply as Reservoir No. 4, the lake -- now part of the city's flood control system -- sat in what was then the city's undeveloped west side, and property owners hoped it would spur real estate development there by providing the hilly area's first ready supply of domestic water.

Reservoir No. 4 sat at the bottom of Arroyo de Los Reyes, a ravine carpeted in chaparral and usually dry except during rainstorms. To create the artificial lake, the Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Company built a 20-foot earthen dam across the arroyo, dug a long, serpentine canal between the Los Angeles River and the reservoir site, and then flooded the ravine with the diverted water. Once filled, the reservoir became the largest body of water within the Los Angeles city limits.

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Though financed by local real estate investors, the reservoir found its greatest utility in attracting light industry along a ditch that flowed downstream through the arroyo toward downtown Los Angeles. In 1873, the Los Angeles Woolen Mill appeared alongside the ditch. Drawing power from the ditch by means of a water wheel, the mill turned locally sheared wool into blankets and flannels. Later, the Home Ice Company made use of the same canal -- by then converted into a pipe -- to power its plant.

By the end of the 1880s, Reservoir No. 4 was a commercial failure. But some saw its potential as a scenic and recreational asset. In May 1891, after some controversy over the ownership of the underlying land, the Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Company donated the reservoir to the city for use as a public park. On February 26, 1892, the city officially christened the site Echo Park -- a name reportedly chosen after parks superintendent and landscape architect Joseph Henry Tomlinson heard his shouts echo across the arroyo.

Progress was slow, but over the next eight years Tomlinson and his workers converted the 33-acre site into an English-style park. First, they transformed the reservoir into a recreational lake, reinforcing the dam by puddling it with clay, excavating 5,000 cubic yards of dirt from the lake's bottom to create an island, and finally lining the lake's shore with riprap quarried from Elysian Park. Tomlinson then set about greening the once-barren land on the lake's edge, planting sprawling lawns, willow trees, California fan palms, and thousands of blooming annuals. "In the course of a few years," a hopeful Los Angeles Herald wrote of the former reservoir in 1896, "Echo Park will be one of the most beautiful spots in Los Angeles."

Postcard of Echo Park in 1897. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

An early view of Echo Park Lake. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

An early view of Echo Park Lake. Courtesy of the USC Libraries - California Historical Society Collection.

Echo Park, circa 1895. Photo by W. H. Fletcher, courtesy of the W.H. Fletcher Collection, California State Library

Echo Park, circa 1895. Photo by W. H. Fletcher, courtesy of the W.H. Fletcher Collection, California State Library

Echo Park, circa 1895. Photo by W. H. Fletcher, courtesy of the W.H. Fletcher Collection, California State Library

Echo Park, circa 1895. Photo by W. H. Fletcher, courtesy of the W.H. Fletcher Collection, California State Library

A postcard of palm trees in Echo Park. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.

About the Author

A writer specializing in Los Angeles history, Nathan Masters serves as manager of academic events and programming communications for the USC Libraries, the host institution for L.A. as Subject.
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