The Race to Build Our Flood Control Channels – 1934 to 1938
(Much of what I write here can be found in the comprehensive book covering CV’s flood control, “The Great Crescenta Valley Flood” by Art Cobery.)
We tend to overlook our flood control system. The deep square cement channels that cross under our streets running from the San Gabriel Mountains to the Verdugos fade into the background of our daily lives, and we pass by them without a second glance. The deep round debris basins are for the most part invisible from the street. However, when seen from the air, they appear monumental – scars and gashes across the valley, punctuated by gigantic round holes like bomb craters. And in a true sense they are monumental. They were created at a great cost and effort, and serve as a monument of sorts to the devastation and death of the great New Year’s Flood of 1934. The building of these fantastic creations of civil engineering was achieved despite some resistance, for the country was in a deep economic depression and “there’s no money for that” was a standard answer to many of the problems of that era.
As we all know, the flood that happened on New Year’s Eve of 1934 scoured great furrows across our valley, destroying all the homes in its path and killing scores of innocents sheltering in their homes from the driving rain. At the height of the storm, each of the canyons of the San Gabriels vomited out massive slugs of rock and mud, which rumbled downhill like speeding bulldozers. Before the storm, small check dams had been built in the canyons to slow down these debris slugs, but they did nothing. However, in Haines Canyon a deep gravel mining pit had been dug in the middle of the creek bed. That canyon’s debris flow dumped into the pit and went no further, saving the houses below. It was an accidental solution that pointed out the need for such basins at the foot of every canyon.
But money to construct these basins, and the channels directing flood water into them, was not forthcoming. Bond measures to fund flood control projects had been turned down by voters in the past, so coffers were empty. Spurred by pleas for action from Valley residents, work began only slowly. Money haltingly began to be allocated for land purchases, and armies of unemployed men began to assemble for the work ahead. As if to point out the folly of inaction, another massive rainstorm in October of ’34 sent more floodwaters across the valley. One example of the grassroots efforts to push the project ahead was an open letter on the one-year anniversary of the flood penned by local newspaper publisher Grace Carpenter. It was a very personal appeal addressed to First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and it was accompanied by 1,000 signatures of Valley children. Carpenter asked the First Lady to help cut through the red tape of funding the project. It worked. A month later a check from the feds for $4,000,000 was in the mail.
And so the work began to accelerate under the guidance of the Army Corps of Engineers. On the civilian side the president of the local bank led the fight to keep funding flowing and local interest focused. In January 1935, he held a big rally at the site of the future Hall-Beckley Debris Basin. Interestingly there was scattered opposition to the debris basin plan from property owners who felt the giant scars on the land would negatively affect their property values. They were ignored.
Work progressed from east to west – Hall-Beckley Canyon, Pickens, Goss, Eagle, Shields, Dunsmore, Cook and Blanchard all received channels and basins. Steam shovels dug deep channels where the flood had already cleared a path, and reinforced cement floors and walls went up quickly. In February 1938, at a total cost of $8,000,000, the flood control system for CV was completed. And not a moment too soon, for one month later massive floods decimated the Los Angeles area. But thanks to our new flood control system, CV was unharmed.