Snow in the Basin: Documenting the Extremes of SoCal Weather

Southern Californians enjoying a rare snowfall in Pacoima. Courtesy Southern California Library

It was easy to be alarmed by the U.S. Geological Survey's recent prediction that a catastrophic winter storm—statistically improbable yet inevitable—would pummel the Golden State with a month of hurricane-force winds and up to 10 feet of accumulated rainfall. (See "5 Things You Need to Know About the ARkStorm, California's Other 'Big One'".) Especially since the scientists' warning followed the wettest December on record in Los Angeles since 1889, during what was supposed to be a dry La Nina winter. Only months before, on September 29, downtown Los Angeles experienced its hottest daytime temperature ever of 113 degrees.

L.A. weather may or may not be getting more unpredictable, but extreme weather has always been a part of Southern California life—if an infrequent one. The artifacts of those events live in the archives of Southern California's libraries, museums, and other cultural institutions.

Severe Winter Storms & Flooding

According to the USGS, the last tempest comparable to an ARkStorm struck California in December 1861 and January 1862. A series of storms dropped uninterrupted rain on the state for more than 40 days, causing the state's worst flooding on record. The floods—so severe they were named the Noachian Deluge after the ark-building biblical figure—transformed California's Central Valley into a three-hundred-mile-long lake and forced Governor Leland Stanford to take a rowboat to his inauguration. In Southern California, the Los Angeles Basin's three main rivers, the Los Angeles, the San Gabriel, and the Santa Ana, merged and turned much of the alluvial plain into a lake. Upstream in San Bernardino County, the swollen Santa Ana River destroyed what was then the largest settlement between New Mexico and the California coast, ironically named Agua Mansa ("smooth water").

Courtesy USC Libraries

The January 25, 1862 issue of the Los Angeles Star, archived in the USC Libraries' Special Collections and available online through the USC Digital Library, carried news of the deluge:


"The rain commenced falling on the 24th of December, and continued, until the morning of the 23d January, with but two slight interruptions.—On Saturday last torrents of water were precipitated on the earth—it seemed as if the clouds had been broken through, and the waters over the earth and the waters under the earth were coming into conjunction. The result was, that rivers were formed in every gulch and arroyo, and streams poured down the hill sides. The Los Angeles river, already brimful, overflowed its banks, and became a fierce and destructive flood.


The embankment lately made by the city, for the water works, was swept away--melted before the force of the water. The Arroyo Seco poured an immense volume of water down its rugged course, which, emptying into the river, fretting and boiling, drove the water beyond all control...

A rumor prevailed in town yesterday, that the flourishing settlement of Anaheim had been completely destroyed by the flood. We hope it is not so."


Anaheim's Center St. during the flood of 1938. Courtesy Anaheim Public Library

Severe flooding returned to Southern California in 1938, when a pair of strong winter storms hit Southern California. Although the flooding was more localized than in 1862—Northern California wasn't affected—the damage was severe, as over one hundred people died and countless roads and structures were destroyed. The photo above, from the Anaheim Public Library's Photograph Collection on Anaheim Local History, shows the flood's effect in downtown Anaheim, where the waters lapped at the doors to city hall.


Hurricanes & Tropical Storms

Tropical cyclones in California are perhaps just as rare as an ARkStorm, due to the cool ocean water off the state's coastline, but such storms have been known to visit California. On September 25, 1939, an unnamed tropical storm made landfall at Long Beach. Caught unprepared by the gale-force winds and torrential rains, 45 Southern Californians died on land, and another 48 perished at sea.

The 1939 storm was the only cyclone to make landfall in California in the twentieth century, but even stronger storms have ravaged the state in the past. Consulting folk accounts, military weather readings, and historical newspaper accounts like those preserved in Southern California's archives, researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently rediscovered a hurricane that on October 2, 1858 narrowly missed the mainland at San Diego and then traveled up the coast to Los Angeles County.
The October 9, 1858 Los Angeles Star, quoted by the NOAA researchers, described the effects of the storm in San Pedro:


The rains of the beginning of this week were unaccompanied with heavy winds here, but at San Pedro a regular south-easter came up, doing considerable injury to the small craft anchored in the Bay. We are sorry to say, that Mr. Banning's famous yacht "Medora" suffered from the envious winds and waves, whose swiftest course she had frequently outrun. Laying quietly at anchor, they rose in their might against her, drove her from her moorings on to the beach, where they prevailed against her and broke her up, scattering her fragments on the shore. A large barge was also broken up; another, having dragged its anchor a considerable distance, was brought by the anchor fastening against a rock. The wharf at San Pedro was very much injured, a large part of the flooring having been carried away by the violence of the sea.


A large quantity of lumber stored on the beach was floated off by the high tide and the violence of the storm.



Golfing in the snow in Glendale, 1949. Courtesy Glendale (CA) Public Library

Snow, of course, is another rare occurrence in the Los Angeles Basin. While it's common in the region's mountains, the moderating effect of the Pacific means that at lower elevations temperatures rarely fall below the point necessary to create snow. Since records were first kept in 1921, snow has fallen on downtown Los Angeles only ten times—and not once since 1962.

A 1949 snowfall, which dusted communities from Long Beach to Pasadena with white powder, was especially strong in the San Fernando Valley. The photograph above, from the Glendale (CA) Public Library's Special Collections Room, and the one at the top of this post from the Southern California Library for Social Studies and Research, show Southern Californians making the most of the unusual weather.


Many of the archives who contributed the above images are members of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, museums, official archives, personal collections, and other institutions. Hosted by the USC Libraries, L.A. as Subject is dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden stories and histories of the Los Angeles region. Our posts here will provide a view into the archives of individuals and cultural institutions whose collections inform the great narrative—in all its complex facets—of Southern California.