Treasures of the Valley » Mike Lawler

In the Darkness After the 1934 New Years Flood

Mike Lawler is the former  president of the Historical Society of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at
Mike Lawler is the former
president of the Historical Society
of the Crescenta Valley and loves local history. Reach him at

The great flood of New Year’s 1934 came and went in a matter of minutes. A couple of weeks of steady rain in late December had set the stage for a massive surge of rock and mud from the mountains. The flood came right at midnight, roared through the neighborhoods, and within a couple of minutes was gone. The debris of wrecked houses, cars, uprooted trees and human bodies surged down the Verdugo Canyon, through Glendale, into the L.A. River, and on to the ocean. But what was it like for those in the Crescenta Valley immediately after the flood, sitting in the darkness, wet and terrified? Some were unhurt but terrified. Some were grateful and lucky to be alive. Some were dead.

The dead were either killed in the washing machine effect of boulders and debris swirling at the front face of the flood, or were pushed under some obstruction – foundations of a building or tree roots – and held there until they drowned or were battered to death by water borne rocks. Those who survived had grabbed onto something and held on until the flood had passed. Many of them experienced a phenomenon unique to the “debris flow” type of flood that this was an example of.

In a classic debris flow, the mud, sand and rocks remain suspended – floating, in a sense – by the hydrodynamic force of the water as it flows downhill at a certain speed. But as the water slows below a certain speed, the sand and rocks suddenly drop out of the water. Those who were in the water just at the time the sand and rocks dropped found themselves suddenly frozen in place in solid, hard dirt as the water flowed away. Some were buried to their waists, their shoulders or even their necks. They weren’t able to call out, for in most cases their mouths were full of mud. Many had broken bones and severe injuries.

Those able to pull themselves out of the hard mud crawled through the darkness to whatever shelter they could find, behind the wreckage of trees or buildings. One matronly woman had caught the limbs of an oak tree, climbed up into it driven by adrenalin, and couldn’t get back down. A few found empty cars upright and climbed inside. One little girl, despite horrible leg injuries, dragged her unconscious father to a nearby car, and somehow pulled him in. She honked the car’s horn and flashed the lights until rescuers found them. Many of those who had been in the flood waters had their clothes torn partially or completely off, intensifying their feelings of terror and vulnerability.

After the flood passed, electricity and telephones were dead. It was still raining, and it was completely dark. No one knew what was next. Was it over? Was it coming again? For those not swept away in the flood, the vagaries of human nature came to the forefront. Some had sheltered in their homes, watching terrified as homes around them disappeared. They were frozen in fear. Those who had missing loved ones agonized, or braved the darkness to search for them. Some, once the worst had passed, heroically struck out for neighbors’ homes to check on them, or roamed looking to help anyone. Others, feeling helpless or stunned, collapsed into the escape of sleep. Some had been out driving, for it was New Year’s Eve and there were parties to go to. When the downpour happened at midnight, drivers and passengers in cars bogged down, stalled or got trapped in mud. Some sheltered in their stuck vehicles. Others struck out on foot to look for help. Many lucky residents were far from the flood paths and were blissfully unaware of the devastation a few blocks over. They only knew it had rained hard and the power was out. They were surprised the next morning by the destruction.

As the rain slowed to a drizzle and the dawn began to light the valley, residents looked around them and saw that their world had changed drastically. It was time to get to work!