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Cruising the Los Angeles River

Cruising the Los Angeles River

February 1958: Los Angeles Times reporter Charles Hillinger pulls a rubber raft along the Los Angeles River after shallow water prevented rowing.

Hillinger and photographer Bruce Cox attempted a “cruise” of the river from start to the sea, but found numerous obstacles.

In the March 2, 1958, Los Angeles Times, Charles Hillinger wrote:

Last week, after 23 years and spending $101,100,000, the Army Corps of Engineers completed its project of concreting the bottom and sides of 50.9 -mile-long Los Angeles River.

And, of course, that called for a cruise down the waterway – when it is a waterway. Which is only after a heavy rain.

Taking cognizance of the completion of the city’s concrete channel, The Times dispatched a crew to follow the river from its headwaters to the sea following the heavy rain earlier in the week.

Plans were for Photographer Bruce Cox and this reporter to sail the length of the river in a five-man rubber boat loaned by Gary South of Manhattan Beach.

However, efforts to launch the boat at the headwaters behind Canoga Park High School, where Bell and Calabasas Creeks meet, were pretty unsuccessful.

Too shallow.

It was decided to motor along the river to deeper waters.

First by land and then by sea, as it were.

Following the course of the river from its beginning at Owensmouth Ave., just above Vanowen St., depth measurements were taken at various strategic locations.

Finally, in the heart of the city, we launched the boat.

It wasn’t a very auspicious launching. In fact, it was almost disastrous. Cox accidentally pulled a plug and one-fourth of the raft collapsed.

Deep water – a foot and a half – and we floated down the stream at a fair clip. At first, that it.

Atop the bridges a few people stopped to watch our progress. Underneath the bridges hundreds of pigeons flew from their towering perches and soared safely overhead.

We knew we’d never get lost. Painted beneath each bridge in large letters is the name of the thoroughfare overhead.

Through rapids and over waterfalls we zipped. It was quite a lark. Incidentally, there are a series of rapids and small falls all the way downstream.

However, just below Washington Blvd., as we approached Vernon, we went aground. Mud and rocks dammed the main middle stream. The prospect of a mile afoot in the middle of the Los Angeles River in Vernon was quite disheartening.

That mile nearly killed us. But just as we were ready to forget the whole idea and retreat to a phone and call for help – deep water.

Water, two feet of it in the center and fast-moving currents to boot. We laid our paddles aside and sailed every faster toward the sea. Until two blocks farther on.

And from there until the vicinity of Firestone Blvd., near where the Rio Hondo joins the Los Angeles River, it was a continual succession of deep water or little or no water at all, bogged down in sandbars, hiking through knee-deep mud.

We nearly sank when the black rubber boat took on almost as much water as there was in the stream.

Because of our big feet, we were able to bail out most of the water with our shoes.

As dusk, with still miles to go, we gave up.

Leif Christiansen, 11 1/2, and a group of his young friends lent a hand and helped us ashore. Cox had fallen in up to his neck at one point, I was drenched.

We had traveled 10 miles in five hours.

Next day, we followed the concrete-lined river the rest of the way to the sea in Cox’s dry warm car.

Great river. ….

February 1958: Dusk is falling and the sea is still miles away when, Leif Christiansen, 11, helps Charles Hillinger with raft. This photo was published in the March 2, 1958, Los Angeles Times. Credit: Bruce Cox/Los Angeles Times.

Normally, for brevity, I would end the story here. But since this column is one of Hillinger’s classics. Here is the rest of his story:

At the upper end we had traced its eastward course by land, motoring to Sepulveda Dam were we met Corps of Engineers Dam Tender Albert Lester, 65, who has kept constant watch on the river’s depths day in and day out since the dam was built in 1942.

Lester and his wife live at the dam. He keeps daily logs on the amount of water behind the dam, the depth of water in the channel. During heavy rains he operated the 1500-foot-long spillway gates.

The deepest water Lester has ever seen behind the dam was 32 feet in 1944. This week it rose to a depth of 13 feet. Normal year-round flow over the dam is six inches with water accumulating the dam for a short time only during heavy rainfall.

We drove along the river through Sherman Oaks, Studio City and North Hollywood, bypassing Republic, Universal and Warner Bros. film lots, golf courses, apartment houses and luxurious homes fronting the river.

Opposite Hollywood Hills Cemetery, clear river water is diverted into the city’s 35-acre spreading basins. River water, except during heavy rain when mud and rocks flow downstream, empties into the basins and eventually becomes a source of drinking and domestic water for the city.

Around the bend at Griffith Park we watched Southern Pacific freight-yard crews at work along Burma Road.

We now know the river, from top to bottom, headwaters to ocean as it wends its way through big city and several smaller Southland communities on its 50.9-mile course from San Fernando Valley to Long Beach.

The view is much better from above.

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  1. February 8, 2015, 6:34 pm

    Hello; what is the bridge in the first photo?
    I photograph a lot of the bridges in DTLA and I can't place that one… is it closer to Long Beach?

    By: Kevin
  2. February 9, 2015, 9:04 am

    Millions of dollars wasted,it's a river .let if flow in a natural way

  3. February 9, 2015, 8:18 pm

    In the 50's LA didn't seem to be short of water. Now rather than shunt the water to the sea LA should drill a series of perculation wells to allow the water to be absorbed into the ground and replenish the aquifers and then could be drawn upon as a renewable source of water. Gardena used to have a potable source of water via city wells

    By: rcs

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