History of the River

The history of the Los Angeles River is, in many ways, the history of the city. It flowed here long before Europeans settlers arrived in the 18th Century.  In about 5000 BC, the indigenous Tongva and Chumash people lived by the river’s banks and took their water and life from its waters.  The Tongva tribe created a movable village, known as Yangna, in what today is downtown Los Angeles. When the river flooded, they relocated their settlement to dry ground. When the waters receded, they returned to its banks. The Tongva called the river wenoot, otcho’o, or pa-hyt. They drank from its waters, ate the acorns that fell from its oak trees, and harvested its reeds to build huts and weave cloth.  They dined on steelhead trout and frogs caught in its pools, and on the deer, badgers, bears, squirrels and other game that resided along its banks.

Throughout the centuries of sustaining these tribes, the river presented two very different faces. During the dry season, it flowed small and predictable, a year-round creek created by underground aquifers and fed by ground water from the San Fernando Valley.  In the summer months, the river flowed through the region’s sandy soil, adequate to support thousands of villagers, but never so strong as to carve a deep or permanent channel.

In the winter months, the river changed. The nurturing stream became a formidable and destructive force. The shallow channel, overwhelmed by rainwater coursing in from L.A.’s flat plain, overflowed its banks. Powerful floodwaters spread across a vast area and forced the villagers and animals to retreat to higher ground. During particularly strong storms, the winter floods shifted from Ballona Creek to San Pedro, carving a new course to the Pacific.

In 1769, the start of the Spanish occupation of California, Gaspar de Portolà led an expedition of more than 60 people, the first foreigners to arrive in Southern California. Father Juan Crespi, the Franciscan missionary, captured this historic moment in his journal:

“…After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills we entered a very spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from a north-northwest, and then, doubling the point of a steep hill, it went on afterward to the south… … It was a “good sized, full flowing river,” about seven yards wide, he estimated, “with very good water, pure and fresh.”

“The beds of both [he also came upon the Arroyo Seco creek] are very well lined with large trees, sycamores, willows, cottonwoods, and very large live oaks.”

 “As soon as we arrived, about eight heathen from a good village came to visit us: they live in this delightful place among the trees on the river”. 

The Spanish made camp next to this Yangna village, and Father Crespi promptly named the river "El Rio de Porciúncula”, which means a “small portion of land”. The name also refers to the small church near Assisi, Italy, where the Franciscan movement was founded.  Fourteen years later, on September 4, 1781, another group of Spanish arrived at the water’s edge. This time, they settled there.  The twelve families -- 46 men, women and children -- established Southern California’s first non-native community. The new name? (Deep breath:)  El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles sobre el Río de Porciúncula, which translates as: The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels on the Porciúncula River.  The city of Los Angeles had officially begun. 

Spanish administrators gave the pueblo communal water rights to the Porciúncula Rio, a claim that would prove crucial in the coming centuries as Los Angeles expanded to include the cities of the San Fernando Valley. The decades passed and Los Angeles grew slowly. It wasn’t until 1949, with the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Creek and the subsequent gold rush, that the world’s focus shifted to California. One year later, after the surrender of Governor Pio Pico to the Americans, California became the 31st State.

The enormous Spanish land grants of Southern California soon changed hands as Americans cattle ranchers and farmers and assorted dreamers arrived to settle. It was the region’s fertile land, fed by the Los Angeles River and its tributaries, that fueled the area’s first population boom.

As the 1800s drew to a close, Southern California ranked as the nation’s top producer of citrus fruit, grapes, wheat and corn, thanks in great part to the LA River.

Los Angeles grew from a small pueblo to a city of over 100,000 residents by 1900, and the river and some artesian wells remained the only source of water City leaders created a complex system of zanjas (ditches) to divert water from the river to the streets of downtown L.A. Clay and wooden pipes made it possible for businesses to operate with hydro power, and gave residents access to fresh water.

By 1904, with growth stymied by the river’s seasonal flow, city leaders looked north for a new source of water. William Mulholland, the city’s chief water engineer, along with then-Mayor Fred Eaton, concocted a bold solution – to import LA’s water from the Owens Valley. What followed was the construction of the world’s longest aqueduct, a feat of engineering that took 5,000 men working for five years to complete, at a cost of $24.5 million. On Nov. 5, 193, the first water from the Owens Valley reached the San Fernando Valley. “There it is. Take it.” Mulholland said at the public ceremony, and a new era in L.A. growth was begun.

The flow of the Sierra’s distant water instantly dwarfed the output of the LA River. Further importations projects, from the Colorado River in 1939 and the Sacramento Delta in 1997, rendered the waters of the L.A. River superfluous to the metropolis that surrounded it.

After the Owens Valley waters arrived, even as the Owens Valley itself withered, the city of Los Angeles prospered. The pace of growth exploded, much  it spreading from the downtown core, along the banks of the river. It was during a period of unusually severe winter rain in 1914, and again in 1934, that disaster struck.

The river rose and its banks overflowed. Within hours, flood waters engulfed riverside developments. Unable to flee in time, the inhabitants were trapped. Dozens of people died as the flooding L.A. River covered large tracts of land, with Burbank and Glendale particularly hard-hit. Unlike the tribal peoples before them, Angelenos couldn’t head for higher ground. For the modern-day metropolis, the L.A. River had suddenly become the enemy.

Singer, songwriter, Woody Guthrie, was a laborer who witnessed first-hand the 1934 flood that killed over 100 people. He wrote:

The New Years Flood

Oh, my friends, do you remember?
On that fatal New Year's night
The lights of old Los Angeles
Were a flick'ring, Oh, so bright.
A cloud burst hit our city
And it swept away our homes;
It swept away our loved ones
In that fatal New Years flood.

Our highways were blockaded
Our bridges all washed down,
Our houses wrecked and scattered
As the flood came a-rumblin' down;
I bow my head in silence
And I thank my God above
That He did not take my home from me
In that fatal New Year's flood.

No, you could not see it coming
Till through our town it rolled;
One hundred souls were taken
In that fatal New Years flood.

This 1934 disaster prompted the residents of LA to demand action. The city’s leaders reached out to the federal government for help. Within two years, Congress passed the 1936 Flood Control Act, which  gave control of the L.A. river to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Army Corp’s channelization work had barely begun when, in the winter of 1938, the most devastating floods on record hit the city. With the need for flood control thus emphatically illustrated, the Army Corps’ engineers targeted the rogue LA River with fleets of bulldozers and endless tons of concrete. 

And so began a nearly 30-year construction project. Thousands of workers used more than three million barrels of concrete to straighten, deepen and constrain the river between immovable banks. By the time the channelization was complete, the natural and historic Los Angeles River, which for centuries had sustained the inhabitants on its shores, had essentially disappeared. A metropolis of millions could now rest safely during the winter rains, even as it turned to the water in its aqueducts, imported from distant rivers.

During the decades that the Army Corp’s workers transformed the river’s channel, other infrastructure projects altered the lands alongside it. As the population swelled in the early decades of the 20th century, so did the cargo volume in the Port of San Pedro The city sprawled in all directions, spurring a need to move cargo by rail to Los Angeles and beyond. The lands next to the river offered the simplest and most accessible right-of-way for the harbor’s rail lines.  Multiple railroad tracks, power lines and support facilities were constructed along its banks, from the harbor up to downtown and into the area of the Glendale Narrows.

This being Los Angeles, the automobile also had its day. Beginning in the 1930’s, city leaders saw the need for larger and better roadways to connect the cities of Southern California. Once again, the lands next to the Los Angeles River offered the most affordable solution. The Arroyo Seco Parkway (know today as the 110 Pasadena Freeway) became the country’s first freeway when it opened alongside the tributary in 1940. The Golden State Freeway(I- 5) debuted in 1947 and followed the LA River north out of downtown.

In 1962, the Ventura Freeway paralleled the river to the west. The original plans for Griffith Park included five miles of the LA River, with the expectation from its benefactor, Coronel Griffith, that it would be a riverfront park. Sadly, the freeways erased all riverside access in the city’s largest public park.

Though the rail lines and freeways proved essential to the transportation needs of Southern California, they also severely handcuffed city efforts to revitalize its river. The freeways and railroad tracks behave as barriers to river access, detract from its aesthetics and destroy its tranquility, even as they create huge and costly impediments to riverside redevelopment.

The concrete coffin that secured the city’s safety had, tragically, left the Los Angeles River unrecognizable. In a final irony, the Army Corps  insisted for decades that the Los Angeles River no longer had navigable water but was, instead, merely a host to a 52-mile flood control channel. 

Lewis MacAdams, founder of the leading LA River advocacy group, Friends of the L.A. River (FoLAR), was a visionary in the late 1980’s when he adopted the forsaken channel and championed it as a resource to protect, enjoy and restore. A poet and a dreamer, he understood the importance of rejecting the Army Corp’s designation and led the call to refer to the waterway by its true name: the Los Angeles River. In July of 2010, two decades after MacAdams began his quixotic quest, the Environmental Protection Agency finally agreed with him and designated “the entire L.A. River as traditional navigable waters.”         

For many residents and visitors, the sole knowledge of our 52-mile river, disguised now as a channel of concrete, has been gleaned from furtive glances while crossing  a downtown bridge, or while hurtling down the Ventura or Golden State freeway. Yet the river today grows more diverse and interesting and more worth visiting each day. Those fleeting impressions do both the river and the viewer a disservice.

A hint of the original L.A. River survives along three large, soft-bottomed sections -- about 10% of the total channel -- where the Army Corps of Engineers eschewed concrete. In the Sepulveda Basin, along a three-mile section that flows from Glendale through the Elysian Valley, visitors find a hidden ecosystem. There, water splashes over boulders, and ponds and rush-lined eddies are home to fish and frogs. Among the groves of willows, scores of species of birds hunt and drink and rest. It’s all visible from a series of parks, from bike and walking paths and equestrian trails, and from visitor’s overlooks. This living reminder of the waterway’s original charm repeats near Long Beach, where the waters of the LA River finally meet the sea. Intrigued? Then explore our guide and discover the many places where (and the multiple reasons why) you can enjoy this hidden treasure.

Want more? Than  join us in the ongoing restoration and revitalization projects to improve the River for the future: cleaning the channel, removing more of the concrete, expanding open space, adding recreational spots and access points, improving public facilities, and even building riverside restaurants, shops, and other amenities. 

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River pond in Griffith Park, 1920

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Woman walking the stream bed, 1912 - Courtesy of LA Public Library

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Ed Hunt, 1911 - Courtesy Los Angeles Public Library

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San Fernando Valley farmlands and LA River, c 1895-1915 - Courtesy USC Library

Los Angeles, 1891

Los Angeles, 1891

Zanja Madre

Zanja Madre - the mother clay water conduit

Downtown L.A., 1894

Downtown L.A., 1894

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Collapsed bridge in flood of 1927 - Courtesy UCLA Special Collections

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Flood of 1938 - Courtesy of USC Library

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Construction of channel, 1938 - Courtesy UCLA Special Collections

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Army Corps engineers testing the confluence channel model, 1949 - Courtesy of LA Public Library

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Lewis MaAdams, FOLaR co-founder,

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Bike Path, South Channel