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Southern California; Nineteenth Century Floods

All rail service was cut off for weeks.
All rail service was cut off for weeks.

Living in Southern California, we have grown accustomed to droughts, floods, fires, and the occasional earthquake. Of all the catastrophes that have beset our region through the years, the floods of the late 1800’s were the most devastating; here and all over the state.

During the early years of the Civil War, in the winter of 1862, southern California, and the entire west coast of the United States, appears to have had an unprecedented rainy season; unlike anything experienced since the white man came into the area and began documenting the weather.

The rain began in December 1861 and continued until the summer of 1862. This period became known as the Noachian Deluge. The great Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys of California were turned into a lake about 300 miles long and 20 to 60 miles wide. Many towns were submerged, and the residents had to flee to the surrounding high ground or move to the coast.

The state capital at Sacramento was temporarily moved to San Francisco when much of Sacramento was flooded. The governor, state legislature, and state employees were not paid for a year and a half, as the State of California went bankrupt. It was estimated that approximately one-quarter of the taxable real estate in the state was destroyed. To the south, the rivers coming out of the mountains flooded the narrow coastal plains at Santa Barbara, and the town of Ventura was completely abandoned.

The Los Angeles plains, at the time a marshy area with many small lakes and several meandering streams from the mountains, were extensively flooded, and much of the agricultural development was ruined; small settlements were submerged in most of the lower laying areas. These flooded areas were formed into a large lake system with many small streams and a few more powerful currents cut channels across the plain and carried the runoff to the sea. In February 1862, the Los Angeles, San Gabriel, and Santa Ana rivers merged. Government surveys at the time indicate that a solid expanse of water covered the area from Signal Hill to Huntington Beach, a distance of approximately eighteen miles.

Most of present day Playa Del Rey and Playa Vista were likewise submerged, as were parts of present day Westchester.

Beginning in 1884 flooding was relentless. It now seems clear, as that weather changes following the eruption of Krakatoa were the principal cause. The winters of 1884, 1886, 1889, 1890, and 1891 saw severe cyclonic sea storms, which are unusual for southern California. The intensive rainfall caused sediment saturation of the bluffs along the coast, and large storm swells and high tides coincided with river basin flooding.

The storm of 1886 completely isolated Los Angeles for weeks. Trains could not make the trip in or out of Los Angeles, and the only way to access the coastal areas was with a small boat. In Westchester and Playa Del Rey, many months would pass before local residents could leave, as they were virtually surrounded by water. Ships that were able to dock in places such as San Pedro Harbor and Shoo-Fly Landing (near Venice) could not disperse their cargo.

Torrential rains and flooding continued into the 20th Century, driving a public outcry for reform. Aggressive flood control channelized most of the free flowing streams, which traveled across the coastal plains to the sea, revitalizing ground water supplies in the process. Ballona Creek is a good example of this.

Some groups are trying to reclaim these watersheds and redevelop Ballona Creek and parts of the Los Angeles River. This would create new riverfront lands for recreation, and would utilize more of the water for irrigation and general industrial use.


DOWNEY AVE. BRIDGE, (SPRING STREET), LOS ANGELES-1886. The storm washed out 100% of the bridges in Los Angeles, isolating the entire city from the rest of the nation. Parts of homes, furniture, livestock and even human bodies were strewn along the beaches of Playa Del Rey. (Courtesy, Author).

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