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

February 26, 2005|Bob Pool | 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.

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