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March 2, 1938: Floodwaters in Los Angeles River destroy Southern Pacific railroad bridge. The photo was taken from North Figueroa Street bridge.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

Feb. 28, 1938: Autos stall in flooded Fox Hills Boulevard and Slauson Avenue after the first storm brought about 4 inches of rain. This photo was published in the March 1, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 1, 1938: A three-story structure once occupied by cafe at Cheeney Road and Topanga Canyon Road collapsed and toppled into the highway as prolonged rains softened foundations. This photo was published in the March, 2, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jack Herod / Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: About 10 people drowned when they were swept into the Los Angeles River after the collapse of the 3rd Street pedestrian bridge in Long Beach. One person was rescued by the battleship Utah, at anchor three miles off shore. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Flooding at West 43rd Place near Leimert Boulevard. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Flooding at West 43rd Place and 11th Avenue near Leimert Boulevard stranded a school bus.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: A mudslide at Harper Avenue and Sunset Boulevard caught this automobile and closed the area to traffic. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: A washed-out bridge at Colfax Avenue over the Los Angeles River in Studio City. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Firemen search for the body of Ruth Randall, 28, and son Leonard, 6, after their home was destroyed by a landslide on the 1900 block of Landa Street. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

March 2, 1938: A salvage crew trys to dig out a gravel truck damaged by flooding along the Los Angeles River. The truck was at a construction project to build a railroad crossing for Union Pacific across the river. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Water rising above the drain level in underground conduits threatened telephone service in downtown Los Angeles. Fire Department pumpers answered the call. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Maurice Terrell / Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Dr. A. J. Gray, left, Douglas Dawson and Dr. A. G. Hobbs do a little fishing at home on 500 block of South New Hampshire. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Howard Finley / Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Drains could not keep up with rain filling streets in downtown Los Angeles. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Water-soaked earth moved rapidly down the side of Laurel Canyon at Kirkwood Avenue, carrying trees and boulders in its path and wrecking the basement garage of this home. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Hugh Beckly stands atop a car almost covered by water at 6th Street near June. Arden Day cruises by in a skiff. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 2, 1938: Mrs. L. Swink put on her swimsuit as she moved out after flooding. This photo was published in the March 3, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J. H. McCrory / Los Angeles Times

March 3, 1938: William L. Griffin digs out the family car on the 1700 block of Fernlane Street as Lloyd Griffin and David Stagg watch. This photo was published in the March 4, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J. H. McCrory / Los Angeles Times

March 3, 1938: The family of J.E. Webb in Venice is rescued by boat, and two children with mumps were sent to a hospital. This photo was published in the March 4, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Associated Press

March 3, 1938: The La Canada Street Bridge over Verdugo Wash near junction of Verdugo Road. The bridge, a WPA project, was under construction when the storm hit. This photo was published in the March 4, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

March 3, 1938: Milkman Ray J. Henville secured himself a boat and boatman and made all deliveries on time and on doorstep. This photo was published on March 4, 1938.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 3, 1938: The washed-out Santa Fe Bridge over the Arroyo Seco paralleling Pasadena Avenue Bridge. This photo was published in the March 4, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 3, 1938: These ruins were once a residence on the 2000 block of Los Encinos Street, Glendale. Two men met their death when the house collapsed into the street. Workmen search for the bodies. This photo was published in the March 4, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Maurice Terrell / Los Angeles Times

March 3, 1938: Floodwaters flow slowly through the steets of Venice after a major storm. This photo was published in the March 4, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Leon Miller aerial photo

March 4, 1938: A road crew removes debris from Foothill Boulevard at Lowell Street near Tujunga. This photo was published in the March 5, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J. H. McCrory / Los Angeles Times

March 4, 1938: A railroad crane was set up for bridge building work over the Los Angeles River near Avenue 19. This photo was published in the March 5, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 5, 1938: Henry Cooper with a dog and rooster, all that was saved from Earl Callan's home, part of which can be seen in the Los Angeles River in the background. Cooper was the caretaker for the destroyed home in the 1700 block of Riverside Drive. This photo was published in the March 6, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J. H. McCrory / Los Angeles Times

March 5, 1938: Heavily traveled Riverside Drive in Glendale was undermined by the torrent of the Los Angeles River. This damaged section was near the former Grand Central Airport. This photo was published in the March 6, 1938, Los Angeles Times

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

March 7, 1938: A portion of Roosevelt Highway (now Pacific Coast Highway) at Santa Monica Canyon is repaired after heavy rains on March 1. This photo was published in the March 8, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J. H. McCrory / Los Angeles Times

March 7, 1938: Mr. and Mrs. J. L. Smith, their daughter and 5-year-old granddaughter at Burbank and Ethel Streets in Van Nuys begin the task of digging out their home. This photo was published in the March 8, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J. H. McCrory / Los Angeles Times

March 7, 1938: Los Angeles city engineering crews fill in a 300-yard section of Ventura Boulevard near Laurel Canyon Drive that was gouged out by the swollen Los Angeles River on March 1. This photo was published in the March 8, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: J. H. McCrory / Los Angeles Times

March 6, 1938: Ruth Curry, with a broken arm, owner of Camp Baldy resort, stands in front of shattered cabins after floodwaters destroyed the majority of them. In a 36-hour period starting on March 1, 14.78 inches of rain fell. This photo was published in the March 7, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: W. N. Fox

March, 1938: Wreckage piled up in front of the Camp Baldy garage. This photo was published in the March 7, 1938, Los Angeles Times.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: W. N. Fox

Workers repair a telephone pole. No other information was available.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

A boulder on a road after a rainstorm on March 1, 1938. The car may be the photographer's vehicle; no other information was available.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Jack Herod / Los Angeles Times

March 1, 1938: Flooding in Culver City. No other information was available.

PHOTOGRAPH BY: Los Angeles Times

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1938 storm changes Los Angeles River

On Feb. 27 and 28, 1938, a storm soaked Southern California with 4.4 inches of rain. Late on March 1, a new storm arrived dropping 10 inches in Los Angeles and more in mountain areas. Rivers overflowed and dozens of people were killed.

Local government agencies responded by turning the Los Angeles River into a flood control channel.

In an Oct. 20, 1999, Los Angeles Times article, staff writer Kevin Roderick reported on the 1938 floods:

At the time, nobody knew to blame the fierce winter of 1938 on a distant Pacific temperature blip that would come to be called El Nino. All anyone knew was that a relentless flurry of rainstorms kept drenching Southern California.

That February, Los Angeles endured its most concentrated rain since the big floods of 1884. The month closed with a mean streak, dropping 4 1/2 inches of rain in a nonstop deluge. When the bad weather seemed to break, the morning Times of March 2 congratulated the city for “the small amount of damage that has resulted.”

Before those papers could be delivered, the rain had started up again, and the killer flood of the century in Los Angeles and surrounding counties was underway — a flood that would forever change the look of Southern California.

It was classic “torrent and inundation” — heavy rain fell on already saturated soil and mountainsides, ran off and rushed down creeks and canyons toward the lowest point on the landscape: the Los Angeles River.

Early on March 2, the ranches and scattered towns in the San Fernando Valley — where the river begins — were cut off by engorged canyon washes spilling their banks. Bridges over the river were washed out by fast-rising swift water. The situation turned more dire when the gates were opened on Big Tujunga Dam, in the San Gabriel Mountains, to save the structure and avert a catastrophe. This released even more flood water across the lightly populated valley.

Five people died when the Lankershim Boulevard bridge at Universal City collapsed into the rolling river rapids. Warner Bros. and Republic studios were isolated by the spreading water, which knocked out the Pacific Electric Red Cars and railroad lines. Downstream, the rampaging river collected the swollen Arroyo Seco, the Rio Hondo and the runaway flow of dozens of other creeks and pushed southward toward the sea.

Overflow inundated a swath of low-lying towns and farmland between downtown Los Angeles and the port at Long Beach. Away from the river, swollen creeks and washes flooded Venice, Echo Park and other areas of Los Angeles. In Orange County, the Santa Ana River rampaged across the coastal plain, submerging large areas beneath muddy water.

The rain stopped falling by 7 p.m. March 3, after dumping 11 inches in five days. But the mountains were not finished disgorging. The Los Angeles and the Santa Ana rivers continued to rise, sweeping dozens of victims to their deaths from Anaheim to Riverside.

At least 96 people died across Southern California, the toll scattered among several counties. The dead included five members of a family in North Hollywood; a family in Orange County lost three children. More than 1,500 homes in Los Angeles alone were rendered unlivable, and 3,700 residents were sheltered by relief agencies. Schools were closed for two days.

As bad as it was, hysterical radio reporters described catastrophes that never occurred. One announcer reported that Calabasas was wiped off the map. Another shrieked that an auto tunnel in Newhall had collapsed. It was true that so many Hollywood stars were stranded at their ranches in the Valley and elsewhere that the Academy Awards presentation scheduled at the downtown Biltmore Hotel was postponed for a week.

The 1938 flooding proved to be more than a tragedy or even a historic curiosity. It altered forever Southern California’s relationship with the elements.

Intense rainfall and flash flooding were as much a part of the region’s natural cycle as hot summers and Santa Ana winds. But this was the first major flood to occur since the population boom of the 1920s and ’30s put neighborhoods in the path that storm runoff had followed for eons. Suddenly, the political will appeared to spend millions of dollars on a network of flood control dams and concrete channels that would become the Los Angeles area’s definition of a river.

The most dramatic result was the capture — some would argue the death — of the wild Los Angeles River. Rather than let the river meander between muddy banks lined with willow trees, barely a trickle in spots for most of the year, the channel was dug deeper and wider and encased in concrete.

Today, the volume of the river channel through the county seems absurdly large — and it is usually so dry that it has been suggested as a route for mass transit. But on those infrequent occasions when the trickle erupts into a torrent, the water stays contained.

It’s a trade-off Angelenos still do not fully accept. The river provided all the drinking water Los Angeles needed for more than a century, and supported enough steelhead that grizzly bears came out of the hills to feast on the trout. At the end of this century, people still debate whether to let the river run free again.

Most of the images in this photo gallery were scanned from the original 4 x 5-inch negatives. At the end of the gallery are several unpublished images that have very little information available. There are about 30 more images that I did not include. Also, as these are silver nitrate negatives, another batch of about 30 have degraded and are unusable.

scott.harrison@latimes.com

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2 Comments

  1. December 13, 2014, 9:31 am

    "Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it." ~ George Santana

    Hey, I know! Let's rip out all those ugly flood control channels around Los Angeles and turn them into parks with kayaks! Yeah, that's the ticket! Kayaks!

    By: Doug
  2. November 12, 2015, 1:30 am

    I remember that pair of storms very well. I was in junior high in North Hollywood, living less than half a mile from the intersection of Magnolia and Coldwater Canyon, where the "wash," as we called it, ran along from east to west. We could hear the crash as the Magnolia St bridge was carried away. Fortunately for us, our house was in a very sandy area, so most of the water was absorbed. No school! For weeks afterward, we had a nice play area at that intersection, as long as the creek lasted. Much nicer than the concrete that came later, but I've always wondered what those who want to restore the river have in mind about controlling floods. They will come again. As the previous commenter noted, Santayana was right.

    By: RetFizz

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