Back in 1884, a Hard Rain Fell -- and Then Some

Times Staff Writer

People will never forget this year's rainy season. Of course, they said the same thing 121 years ago after Los Angeles' wettest winter on record -- and they were wrong.

Memories of the legendary storms of 1884 have been all but washed away, except for the National Weather Service's dry-as-a-bone, 38.18-inch statistic.

But as Los Angeles closes in on a rainfall record (we're at 33.87 inches and counting), it becomes clear just how bad it was back in our wildest winter.

It didn't start raining that winter until late January. After that, it didn't seem to stop: The last storm didn't blow out of town until May.

Flooding hit Los Angeles newcomers the hardest. One newly built housing tract next to the Los Angeles River was virtually swept away.

But nobody seemed spared from storm damage. Los Angeles pioneer Pio Pico, the last governor of Mexican California, was devastated when his beloved El Ranchito hacienda was inundated. He had to mortgage his remaining property to rebuild the mansion that is now preserved as Whittier's Pio Pico State Park.

As the region shoveled out the mud, worried locals began paving the way for what a century later would become the region's controversial concrete-lined rivers and storm-drain system.

Most on-the-scene accounts of the hardship and heartbreak caused by the 1884 flooding have disappeared, however -- the result of a bizarre combination of explosions, fires and digital meltdowns that now obscures much of what residents back then went through.

The Times' archive of back issues that chronicled the storms and the flooding was destroyed in a bombing of the newspaper's office during a 1910 labor dispute.

Microfilmed copies of the paper's editions between December 1883 and October 1884 were apparently destroyed in a 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Public Library's central branch.

A private digital database that contains Times stories dating to the paper's founding in 1881 inexplicably skips the months of L.A.'s wettest winter ever.

So the story of how the storms of '84 swept away bridges, railroad tracks and homes lies within historical biographies, in accounts printed by long-defunct newspapers and in surviving articles published later in the 1880s by The Times.

Pieced together, the tales relate how the deluge that swept milkman George Stoltz to his death in the Arroyo Seco started with three weeks of rain that climaxed with a spectacular cloudburst above Burbank and Glendale on Sunday, Feb. 17, 1884.

When the Los Angeles Herald was able to publish a post-flood edition two days later, its headline pretty much summed things up:

"FURY OF THE FLOOD. Great and General Devastation. Railway and Other Bridges Swept Away. Hundreds of People Made Homeless. Temporary Suspension of the Telegraphs and the Railways. A Third of the City Under Water for Hours. Washouts, Caves and Demolished Bridges and Dwellings the Order of the Day. Southern California Up to Her Ears in Water."

The first sentence of a rambling narrative about the flood added a bold prediction:

"The seventeenth day of February will long be memorable in the annals of Los Angeles county."

If one reads the Herald account, the 1884 storms resemble those that have battered the region this season. Steady southeasterly breezes brought in tropical moisture, which for days caused almost continuous rainfall over Southern California.

The winter season that year had been relatively dry through most of January. Then it rained for three weeks straight.

"Day after day it rained in great sheets. The river became a boiling yellow lake. I used to stand on the back porch of our house on the Boyle Heights bluff, watching the rushing torrent," former City Councilman Boyle Workman, who was 14 at the time of the deluge, recounted in his 1936 book "The City That Grew."

The storm climaxed with a cloudburst Feb. 17 above the Verdugo Hills. It triggered a flash flood into the river, prompting city officials to issue a general alert at 2 p.m.

Workman recounted what happened next: "Houses, torn from their foundations, floated downstream with the smoke still escaping from their chimneys. Horses, cows, sheep and now and then the ghastly form of a human being, were part of that strange driftwood. Sometimes the water came in waves 15 feet high."

Two railroad bridges spanning the river near Workman's home were washed away. Cable car tracks were ripped loose, dumping at least one passenger car into the water.

Forty houses in the newly built Aliso tract next to the river were swept away. Storm water surged into the city, submerging factories, warehouses and hardware stores.

Stoltz, the dairyman who drowned along with his two horses trying to ford the Arroyo Seco near its junction with the river, was the only person killed in the storm. His body was not found until weeks later, after his wagon and milk cans floated downstream. Others fell into the raging river but were able to pull themselves out.

That statistic is remarkable, because hundreds headed to the river after the city's alert was sounded. A crowd was watching at 3 p.m. when the Aliso Street bridge "broke in two," as the Herald put it, and a chunk of it washed downstream and slammed into the 1st Street bridge.

"The east end of the destroyed structure was crowded at the time with a lot of foolhardy people who did not seem to care whether or not they were whelmed to a watery grave," the unnamed Herald writer reported. "From this time forward the watchers were rewarded for their patient if morbid curiosity by seeing house after house sway, topple and either go to pieces or float off against the bridges."

Soon, "every street from Macy to 1st Street became flooded and deluged the orchards and gardens, sweeping away fences and outbuildings and driving the families from at least two hundred houses to seek shelter for the night.

"The sight was pitiable in the extreme. Men, women and children were wading in the water, carrying their valuables on their backs and pale with terror, wondering what horror would come next. About 6 p.m. the 1st Street bridge gave way with the pressure of half a dozen homes and the Aliso Street bridge pressing against it. This relieved the situation and the waters soon after commenced to subside."

Those driven from their homes sought refuge at the Good Templar's Hall, the dining room of the Cosmopolitan Hotel "and in the parlors of all the hotels. Private houses were thrown open to the sufferers and a welcome made to all," one news story noted.

City police "went through mud and water in rescuing people in a brave and chivalrous manner. They are deserving of great praise," it said.

The next day, police were sent downstream to look for victims. "A vast amount of household and other property is being discovered along the river bank for the space of six or seven miles downstream," one news account noted.

"In a trunk that was picked up at Vernon yesterday, the sum of $150 was found. Chief Cuddy has placed a patrol on both sides of the river to the city limits and the sheriff has placed a deputy on each side of the stream below the city to guard the property ... to prevent it from falling into the hands of thieves who are constantly prowling along the banks."

More common were the hundreds of volunteers who turned out to help build a makeshift levee to prevent a repeat of the previous day's flood. Under the direction of the city surveyor, they sandbagged the river's shoreline, some working up to their armpits in the cold water. A few days later, however, the rain-swollen river rose again "and carried away every vestige of the dam, but did not overflow the city," The Times noted in its 1886 retrospective story.

Victims of the flood, described as "sufferers" by the city and the press, were assisted by a hastily organized City Council relief committee. A popular singer, Louise Rial, happened to be in Los Angeles at the time, and she staged a benefit concert for the victims.

Along with the 40 or so houses in the newly subdivided Aliso area, the flood washed away about 90 lots. The destruction rekindled debate over construction in low-lying areas of the rapidly expanding city.

There were rumblings over the city's lack of emergency preparedness after the storm. "Our city officials are not used to floods and were not prepared to grapple with the wild waters," the Herald reported.

Two years earlier, when the Aliso housing tract was being planned on the site of a onetime vineyard owned by vintner Jean Louis Vignes, the wisdom of building homes so close to the river had been the subject a series of exchanges in The Times' letters section.

One writer pointed to records of flooding along the river dating to 1811. Storms in 1815 caused the river to change its course, destroying the Los Angeles pueblo's main plaza. According to the Historical Society of Southern California, a "great raft of driftwood" carried by an 1862 storm clogged the river, causing it to change its course again.

After the storm, civic leaders took a critical look at flood protection as the city's growth accelerated and "stripped the terrain of its natural vegetation, thereby increasing the velocity and destructiveness of flood waters," as the Historical Society put it.

But 111 years ago, the damage had been done.

Land washed away in Los Angeles was deposited downstream, sending the river surging into farmland in the Compton area. Nine hundred sheep belonging to George Carson on the Dominguez ranch were drowned. It was a flood-control wake-up call.

"No farmer in the flats knows whether he is going to have a riverbed on his ranch or whether it will be on that of his neighbor," the Herald concluded.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The record

Los Angeles is nearing the record rainfall total of 1883-84, the year of legendary storms.

1883-84: 38.18

1889-90: 34.84

2004-05: 33.87*

1977-78: 33.44

1940-41: 32.76

* Seasonal totals for downtown Los Angeles through Friday

Source: National Weather Service

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