It was nearly midnight on Dec. 31, 1933, and 11-year-old Charles Bausback Jr. and his parents were gathered in the small dining area of their Evelyn Street home in Montrose, working on a jigsaw puzzle as they awaited a soggy new year.
Outside, rain had been falling almost nonstop, dropping some 14 inches in two days on the small communities of the Crescenta Valley, tucked below the formidable peaks and steep canyons of the San Gabriel Mountains.
A fresh cloudburst assaulted the valley just after midnight. The house started shaking violently, Bausback, now 86, recalled.
“We got panicky,” he said.
High above their home, in a wide swath of mountains laid bare by wildfires only weeks earlier, a series of check dams, built by the Civilian Conservation Corps to slow runoff, filled and weakened. In Pickens Canyon and other area canyons, the saturated ground started moving; the small dams gave way to mighty flows of boulders, mud, water and fallen trees.
Reaching at least 20 feet in height, the Pickens Canyon flow picked up speed and fury, engulfing much of Montrose. Survivors told tales of a deafening roar, trembling buildings and giant boulders skimming across the mud like beach balls.
The Montrose flood, as the calamity soon came to be called, took at least 45 lives, destroyed about 100 homes and turned the little community into a mud-filled, barren landscape, said local historian Art Cobery, who has become an expert on the catastrophe and its aftermath.
Some of the scores of photographs kept by the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley show half-buried cars, houses and businesses sitting askew in the mess and a 70-ton boulder sitting in the middle of Foothill Boulevard. Debris had crashed through the back of the American Legion Hall early on New Year’s Day, sweeping to their deaths 12 of the people who had taken refuge inside.
“It was a mini Katrina that swept this valley,” Cobery said, “and it just traumatized people.”
Woody Guthrie wrote a song about the disaster. Rumors abounded that many others -- homeless people supposedly living in the mountains -- had perished, but those reports were not substantiated, Cobery said. Some town residents thought to have died later turned up safe, staying with relatives or friends
The Montrose flood eventually prompted the building of an elaborate system of giant debris-trapping catch basins and other flood-control projects that have significantly reduced the odds of another such tragedy, Cobery said.
To honor the victims of that New Year’s calamity and to mark its 75th anniversary, members of the historical society organized a remembrance ceremony on New Year’s Day at a small monument built five years ago at Rosemont and Fairway avenues, near where the doomed legion hall had stood.
They plan a driving tour of the flood area this month. And the current issue of the society’s newsletter features reprints of some Crescenta Valley Ledger news articles written in the days and weeks after the flood, said Mike Lawler, society president.
Those articles, along with accounts in the Los Angeles Times and Cobery’s research, provide some harrowing tales:
* Marcia Warfield, 11, saved her unconscious father and 6-year-old brother by dragging them to a car on higher ground after they were swept out of the legion hall. She suffered a broken ankle and numerous bruises, but she and her father both recovered in a local hospital. Her brother’s injuries were minor.
* The two young children of Ethel and Homer Rigley became orphans when their parents were swept away from their deluged home. Homer Rigley’s body washed all the way to the sea before it was recovered.
* C.R. Poole, a contractor, one of the few survivors among those in the legion hall, was swept into the street and pushed along by the debris-filled flood until he managed to grab onto a bush on Montrose Avenue. From his hospital bed, Poole recounted seeing the flood lift a piano toward the ceiling as it crashed through the hall. He had a broken shoulder, four broken ribs, back injuries and bruises, and it took three days to fully clear his mouth of gravel.
* The Rev. Andy Clark lost his daughter Eleanor in the disaster while he and his wife were out of town, but he returned immediately to start ministering to the injured and bereaved. Today, an area school bears his name.
When his childhood home finally stopped shuddering, recalled Bausback -- who is now a researcher for local-history public television personality Huell Howser -- the house was surrounded by water, trapping his family for a week and a half. His mother, Meta Bausback, believed in preparing for disaster. She had a cache of food and bottled water to sustain her family.
Looters soon descended, and authorities imposed a curfew and closed off the stricken area to all who could not prove they lived there.
“My grammar school teacher returned to her house and found a bunch of women in her closet,” Bausback said. “They were fighting over her clothes.”
Without gas or electricity, Bausback said, his family listened to news reports of the disaster on a small battery-powered radio. At one point they heard the Red Cross read their names in a list of victims.
When help finally reached them, the boy walked out of the house and said, “I’m supposed to be dead, but I’m still alive.”
“They started calling me ‘the miracle child’ after that,” Bausback said with a chuckle.