Before the 1928 Disaster. LADWP Archive Photo.

Before the 1928 Disaster. LADWP Archive Photo.

When William Mulholland completed the 12.5-billion-gallon St. Francis Dam in 1926, Angelenos hailed it as the capstone to the distinguished engineer’s ambitious 233-mile-long aqueduct system designed to deliver their arid city virtually unlimited water. The farmers of San Francisquito Canyon, on the other hand, cast a wary eye upward toward the imposing structure and dubbed it The Giant Tombstone. Unfortunately, the farmers’ description proved  prophetic.

The 19th in a series of dams built to contain and channel aqueduct waters, Mulholland’s 1,300-foot concrete span was created to store an extra year’s worth of the precious liquid for Los Angeles residents – just in case. As former Los Angeles Times history writer Cecilia Rasmussen explained:

“Southern California rainfall was, as always, capricious. His California Aqueduct had been built over a rift zone of the San Andreas fualt, and he knew it was vulnerable. To make matters worse, Owens Valley farmers kept vandalizing the aqueduct.”

The St. Francis reservoir was brimming with water the morning of March 12, 1928, when dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger spotted a muddy leak near his home at the foot of the structure. He telephoned Mulholland, who personally drove out from LA with his chief assistant to inspect the situation. A meticulous engineer, Mulholland closely examined the leak but concluded it was benign – no different than the trivial fissures that often spring up in most dams of this type from time to time. Ascertaining that the St. Francis Dam remained structurally sound, he and his deputy made the 50-plus-mile drive back to LA, confident that all was well.

Mulholland. Water & Power Associates.

Mulholland. Water & Power Associates.

They were tragically mistaken. Just minutes before the witching hour that night, at approximately 11:58 p.m., the St. Francis burst, emptying its massive reservoir into the canyon, instantly killing Harnischfeger, his girlfriend, and his 6-year-old son in their sleep. Seconds later, the dam’s first powerhouse was wiped out, leaving most of the area’s downstream inhabitants in darkness. By 12:03 p.m., a thunderous, 140-foot-high wall of water was careening past the dam’s second power station at nearly 20 miles per hour.

Fast asleep, families down the canyon were drowned as quickly as they were awakened by the deafening roar, which one survivor later compared to a cyclone. Castaic, Saugus, Piru, Filmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy – all fell prey one by one to the muddy torrent littered with the debris of homes, bridges, cars, trees, livestock and human bodies. Finally, in little more than five hours, the deadly cascade reached the Pacific Ocean near Ventura, a full 54 miles from the ruptured dam, leaving an estimated 470 or more dead in its wake. Except for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, it was the worst disaster in California history.

There were, thankfully, heroes and dramatic tales of survival amid the chaos. By 1:20 a.m., officials who had been caught off guard by the dam collapse were scrambling into action. Telephone operators later dubbed the Hello Girls risked their lives to stay at their posts and make warning calls to downstream homes. A handful of motorcycle officers rode ahead of the flood, systematically knocking at every third house and eliciting neighbors to warn each other and escape to higher ground. According to a KCET web article by Hadley Meares:

The living clung to whatever they could — a woman in an evening dress rode on top of a water tank. Sisto Luna and her three children held onto a feather mattress for two miles, and a man named William Spring swam a mile with his infant swung around his neck, while his wife climbed up an orange tree.

Mulholland also was in bed when the phone call came alerting him of the disaster. Shocked and grief-stricken, he reportedly prayed outloud, over and over begging God that no one be killed. Later investigations would determine he was not at fault―the dam had been built on a weak geological formation that no engineer of his day would have recognized. Nevertheless, he shouldered all the blame. Personally and professionally, Mulholland was shattered. His celebrated career was over.

The Giant Tombstone after the dam burst. LAPL Digital Archives.

The Giant Tombstone after the dam burst. LAPL Digital Archives.

Meanwhile, many in the public viewed the dam burst as a fitting rebuke to the City of Angels, whose unquenchable desire to expand through brutally corrupt water-grabbing policies had literally drained other far-flung communities dry.

Today the angry river is again a mere trickle, tamed by a new viaduct. Along its banks sits Ruiz Cemetery, the final resting place for a few of the bodies recovered in the flood’s aftermath. Concrete chunks of The Giant Tombstone still litter the canyon, as if to mark the unknown graves of the lost. There is an unearthly, peaceful calm to the setting.

Nevertheless, many locals speak of the canyon as haunted. When the midnight air is cold and still, they insist, grim apparitions can be seen in the moonlight, desperately climbing toward higher ground. The Ruiz graveyard is also believed to be a hub of bizarre activities, including charnel manifestations of “Old Man Ruiz,” phantom laborers, and the disturbing cries of a young, invisible child.

Listen closely, canyon residents say, and you may yet hear the woeful spirits shrieking in the ravines, eternally scolding a young metropolis’ thirst for water and power, and demanding that the story of their untimely deaths be remembered.

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What a Real SoCal Deluge Used to Look Like

by Michael Imlay on March 3, 2014

in Life in Angel City

Arroyo Seco flood, 1913. LAPL Digital Archives

Arroyo Seco flood, 1913. LAPL Digital Archives

Before the Los Angeles River and its related creeks and arroyos were tamed by flood-control measures, heavy rains easily turned into unruly disasters.

In this 1913 photo, an angry Arroyo Seco in Highland Park claims a house near Avenue 43, which soon joins uprooted trees, mud and other debris on their way to the ocean.

Meanwhile, below, is a 1927 shot of a Puente Creek flood that took out a steel trestle near Whittier, sending a Union Pacific train into the raging waters, injuring six.

Puente Creek flood. LAPL Digital Archives

Puente Creek flood. LAPL Digital Archives

It was ongoing incidents such as these, along with the LA River’s tendency to jump its course in years of severe rains, that led to public pressure to contain the region’s rivers and streams. The Army Corps of Engineers began by concreting the LA riverbed in 1938.

Today 40 percent of the Los Angeles river is dammed, with the majority of the 58-mile course embedded by cement. A similar fate has befallen the LA Basin’s other two rivers, the San Gabriel and the Rio Hondo.

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Photo Find: A Night at the Oscars

by Michael Imlay on March 2, 2014

in Life in Angel City

Herald Examiner Collection, LAPL Digital Archives

Herald Examiner Collection, LAPL Digital Archives

The first Academy Awards ceremony debuted in the Blossom Room of the Hollywood Roosevelt Hotel in 1929, after which the Oscars moved to the Ambassador Hotel for several years. From 1947-48 they were held at the Shrine Civic Auditorium, and there again on eight additional occasions between 1988-2001 before finally landing in the Dolby Theatre.

This Herald Examiner photo appears to have been taken Oscar Night 1948, when “thousands of movie fans from all over Southern California flocked to the Shrine Auditorium.” Here a portion of the public jams the outdoors grandstands hoping to catch a glimpse of their favorite stars processing in and out of the gala event. Back then, some “luckier” fans were also allowed to take up seats inside the auditorium.

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Happy Halloween!

by Michael Imlay on October 31, 2013

in Odds and Ends

Herald Examiner, LAPL Digital Archives

Herald Examiner, LAPL Digital Archives

The caption for this 1949 Herald Examiner photo reads: “Having a drippingly good time over a barrel of apples is pretty Diane Smith, practicing on October 29, 1949, for the traditional Halloween game at the Cock and Bull, a popular Hollywood night spot.”

Alas, after half a century of business, the famous Cock and Bull met its demise in 1987.

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The Avila Adobe: LA’s Oldest Haunted House?

by Michael Imlay on October 30, 2013

in Cryptic L.A.

Olvera Street's Avila Adobe; Michael Imlay

Olvera Street's Avila Adobe; Michael Imlay

Built in 1818 by wealthy rancher and former mayor Francisco Avila near the center of Olvera Street, the Avila Adobe is considered Los Angeles’ oldest surviving house — just the sort of place you’d expect to be haunted. And indeed, numerous insiders at the El Pueblo de los Angeles Monument will tell you it is — but not by an Avila.

Throughout the Plaza area, El Pueblo volunteers and workers have plenty of creepy stories about the rustic casa. For whatever reason, though, most prefer to tell them “off the record.”

One former docent related how on a balmy evening in the 1990s a restoration crew sat outside the adobe wide-eyed, listening to what sounded like heavy furniture crashing and sliding from room to room. Several times the workmen screwed up the courage to peer in and call to whomever was making the racket. No answer ever came, and they never saw a living soul. After a while the crew agreed it was probably best to begin work on some other building that night.

A second docent, who still volunteers time at one of El Pueblo’s museums, further revealed that a custodian was once similarly spooked by the sounds of phantom high heels running angrily back and forth through the empty house.

Then there’s the case of yet another El Pueblo custodian who apparently somehow miffed the resident spirit while cleaning windows in the adobe’s courtyard one sunny afternoon.

“I felt something really cold on my back, and something like ice and stuff on my neck,” she recalled, adding that upon wheeling about, she saw a shadowy figure floating across the garden. It seemed to throw her a chilling glare as it evaporated into an opposite wall.

“It was about 3:30 in the afternoon. The whole house was closed; nobody in the restrooms; nobody in the rooms; only myself… I looked all around. I’m sure it was a ghost… maybe Mrs. Sterling,” she said, echoing the opinion of many familiar with the home’s spookier side.

Preservationist Spirit

Christine Sterling; LAPL Digital Archives

Christine Sterling; LAPL Digital Archives

Hailed as the “Mother of Olvera Street,” Christine Sterling (left) stumbled across the derelict adobe in 1926 after moving to Los Angeles from Oakland. She later wrote:

“I visited the old Plaza, birthplace of the city, and found it forsaken and forgotten… [The Plaza Church] was suffocated in a cheap, sordid atmosphere… Down a dirty alley I discovered an old adobe, dignified even in its decay. Across the front door was nailed a black and white sign, CONDEMNED.”

Like many 1920s transplants, Sterling had been drawn to the City of Angels by promotional pamphlets emphasizing its early Californio roots. What she saw instead angered her.

“Why do people write and talk about history but do nothing to save it?” she would eventually ask.

Moving into the Avila house, she made herself the neighborhood gadfly. With pesky tenacity, she rallied powerful Angelenos to her preservation campaign, raised funds, saved and restored condemned structures, closed Olvera Street to vehicles, cleaned up the filth, evicted squatters and recruited merchants for a Mexican bazaar, which she opened to great fanfare Easter Sunday, 1930.

However, while praising Sterling’s achievement, modern scholars question her historical “vision.” Following the romanticized literature of her time, Sterling ignored early Los Angeles’ harsher realities to concoct a utopia memorializing beneficent friars, noble dons and carefree campesino artisans. She remained ensconced at the plaza perpetuating such idyllic images until her death in 1963 at age 82. Many now believe the home and all Olvera Street remain under her stern and watchful eye.

“When she died, she wanted her ashes in this house,” explained the former docent.

Indeed, Sterling actually passed away in the adobe, and urban legend has it that her ashes were scattered in the garden, which reportedly remains a locus of paranormal phenomena.

Pacing the Place

Casa Avila Bells; Michael Imlay

Casa Avila Bells

For example, one afternoon an Avila museum volunteer approached a woman who seemed transfixed by something in the courtyard to ask if all was well. “Yes, but there is somebody who is not comfortable at all,” the tourist answered. “There’s that lady, right in the middle of the garden, walking back and forth like she’s nervous… she feels something is wrong.”

Supposing such tales are true, what could possibly be troubling Sterling’s ghost?

Perhaps it’s the El Pueblo Monument’s transformation since her death. New initiatives – including several honoring the multicultural contributions of Chinese, French, Italians and others – are creating a fresh picture of the district strikingly at odds with Sterling’s 1930s makeover.

Take for instance how in 1990 the city restored a controversial Olvera Street mural by Mexican artist David Siqueiros. First unveiled in 1932, its political message so shocked Sterling that she ordered it whitewashed. Then, in 2004, El Pueblo officials opened a Chinese-American museum amid merchant objections that it violated the plaza’s “authentic” Mexican heritage. In even more recent years, El Pueblo’s historians have stepped up their efforts to resurrect the place’s true heritage amid its folklore.

Admittedly, all this is conjecture. Whether Sterling or other entities really haunt the old adobe or any other part of the El Pueblo Monument is anyone’s guess.

Walking the Avila Adobe’s tranquil, white-washed corridors, sipping margaritas over Dia de Los Muertos festivities along Olvera Street, bartering with merchants, and touring the Plaza’s educational exhibits, it’s still difficult to separate fact from myth at the El Pueblo Monument, let alone lift the shrouds surrounding its ghosts.

Evidently though, that’s exactly how Sterling designed things and, at least in that respect, her spirit remains eerily present.

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Slideshow: Old Chinatown Gets Erased

by Michael Imlay on October 25, 2013

in Angeleno Sights

1. LOOKING NORTHWARD UP CALLE DE LOS NEGROS TOWARD THE PLAZA, 1870. (LAPL)
Caption
1. LOOKING NORTHWARD UP CALLE DE LOS NEGROS TOWARD THE PLAZA, 1870. (LAPL)
2. THE OLD CHINATOWN "CRIB" LOOKING TOWARD THE MAIN PLAZA, 1890. (LAPL)
Caption
2. THE OLD CHINATOWN "CRIB" LOOKING TOWARD THE MAIN PLAZA, 1890. (LAPL)
3. OLD CHINATOWN BUILDINGS ALONG LOS ANGELES STREET NEAR THE TOWN PLAZA, 1920. (LAPL)
Caption
3. OLD CHINATOWN BUILDINGS ALONG LOS ANGELES STREET NEAR THE TOWN PLAZA, 1920. (LAPL)
4. OLD CHINATOWN'S APABLASA ST., NOW LONG VANISHED BENEATH THE UNION STATION SITE, 1920. (LAPL)
Caption
4. OLD CHINATOWN'S APABLASA ST., NOW LONG VANISHED BENEATH THE UNION STATION SITE, 1920. (LAPL)
5. OLD CHINATOWN'S FERGUSON ALLEY JUST BEFORE IT WAS LEVELED, 1937. (LAPL)
Caption
5. OLD CHINATOWN'S FERGUSON ALLEY JUST BEFORE IT WAS LEVELED, 1937. (LAPL)
6. CONSTRUCTING UNION STATION OVER OLD CHINATOWN, OCTOBER 1937. (LAPL)
Caption
6. CONSTRUCTING UNION STATION OVER OLD CHINATOWN, OCTOBER 1937. (LAPL)
7. UNION STATION AS IT APPEARS TODAY (Michael Imlay)
Caption
7. UNION STATION AS IT APPEARS TODAY (Michael Imlay)
8. TREADING ON HISTORY: MAIN CONCOURSE INTERIOR, UNION STATION (Michael Imlay)
Caption
8. TREADING ON HISTORY: MAIN CONCOURSE INTERIOR, UNION STATION (Michael Imlay)
9. ANOTHER VIEW OF UNION STATION'S MISSION REVIVAL FACADE (Michael Imlay)
Caption
9. ANOTHER VIEW OF UNION STATION'S MISSION REVIVAL FACADE (Michael Imlay)

As a follow-up to yesterday’s post on the infamous 1871 Chinese Massacre, here’s a brief slideshow of LA’s first Chinatown, which sprang up in the late 1800s along the Old Plaza’s eastern fringe. As we saw yesterday, the center of this district was the crime-ridden Calle de los Negros, or Street of the Dark Ones, shown in the first slide above.

After the 1871 race riot, Old Chinatown continued to expand along Los Angeles and Alameda Streets, but remained largely impoverished. In 1937, the bulk of the neighborhood was razed to make way for the construction of Union Station, and the residents and businesses relocated to today’s New Chinatown, up North Broadway.

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Los Angeles’ Shameful Chinese Massacre

Life in Angel City

Contemporary Southlanders are sadly all too familiar with the 1965 Watts and 1992 Rodney King riots, but it was 142 years ago today that Los Angeles was rocked by local history’s most shocking melee.
October 24, 1871, marks the night the shameful “Chinese Massacre” erupted in a sordid tenderloin alley once known as Calle de los [...]

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York Boulevard: The Latest, Coolest Street?

Life in Angel City

Conde Nast has spoken, so it must be true. York Boulevard is now officially LA’s “coolest street.” Never mind that just a few weeks ago the New York Times was telling us that the latest trendy mecca is Pasadena. (It’s soooo hard to keep up with all this constantly shifting coolness.) Either way, Silver Lake [...]

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Photo Op: Carroll Ave. “Thriller” House

Cryptic L.A.

Nothing says Halloween like an old Victorian house. And no place will you find a better collection of Los Angeles Victorians than Carroll Ave., an Angelino Heights neighborhood with a huge concentration of them just northwest of downtown.
This particular home stands at 1345 Carroll Ave. I took this night shot several years ago, never suspecting [...]

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Photo Find: Scary Society Ladies Prepare for Halloween, October 1949

Odds and Ends

Originally run October 27, 1949, this Herald Examiner photo’s caption read: “Getting in the mood for their annual Jack o’ Lantern Ball are Mrs. John L. Glass, Mrs. Marge Futch and Mrs. Edward Shuey, left to right. The Orthopaedic Hospital benefit is set for tomorrow night in the Coconut Grove, with cocktail party preceding [sic] [...]

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Sunday Review: Political Scandal Enshrouds Hollywood Forever Cemetery, and Other Tidbits

Odds and Ends

The San Francisco Gate is reporting ethical questions swirling around Assembly Speaker John Perez and his former dating interest, Tyler Cassidy, owner of Hollywood Forever Cemetery here in the Southland. Cassidy is already a defendant in a fraud lawsuit relating to the alleged “looting” of trust accounts and insurance monies meant to pay for client [...]

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Video: Parks and Recreation, 1950s Edition

Angeleno Sights

Ahhhh… Boating on any of LA’s placid park lakes. Picturesque Pershing Square with its lush gardens and open-air political debates. Children’s pageants and picnics at Griffith Park. A genteel day watching the horses race at lovely Santa Anita or Hollywood Park. Where, oh where, did those good old days go? Was it ever really [...]

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Photo Find: Fido’s Lost Resting Place

Cryptic L.A.

A 1930s sign welcoming visitors to the now-defunct LA Pet Cemetery at 2500 N. Highland Ave. The animal boneyard was eventually razed to make way for the 101 Freeway.

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Photo Op: The Brunswig Building

Angeleno Sights

Located along Main Street across from the old town Plaza in Los Angeles, the Brunswig Building is among the city’s first five-story edifaces. It opened in 1888 as what today would be hailed as a perfect exercise in urban density–a dual-use building hosting retail shopping on the first floor, with high-rise living above. However, almost [...]

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Slideshow: Tripping Out to Angelus Rosedale Cemetery

Cryptic L.A.

Created with Admarket’s flickrSLiDR.
Now this is what a real graveyard should look like: Mausoleums, tombs, monuments and headstones pushing up like daisies from the grounds — not boring flat markers like those found in modern “memorial parks.”
Time and again I find myself taking field trips to Angelus-Rosedale Cemetery, located at 1831 W. Washington Blvd. [...]

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The Hollywood Reporter Names LA’s “Most Haunted” Locations

Cryptic L.A.

The word is out… The best place to rest with the angels is the City of Angels. That’s apparently because, for the dead as well as the living, there are so many interesting hotels and landmarks where a free spirit can stay and wander.
Take for instance the RMS Queen Mary, anchored at Long Beach, which [...]

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Kitsch LA: Colorful Mini Guitars

Angeleno Sights

For the little mariachi on your gift list this holiday season. I love the color and kitsch of Olvera Street puestos. They keep me coming back again and again — even though I rarely buy anything.

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Video: The Biltmore as Hollywood’s Go-To Hotel

Angeleno Sights

Filled with marble and wood carvings, murals, frescoes, tapestries and other irreproducible art and architecture, the downtown Biltmore stands mythic and in a class all its own among Angeleno Hotels. But Hollywood has especially made it recognizable the world over — even in the most unrecognizable of films. This video helps explain why.

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Photo Op: Westlake Theater, Then and Now

Angeleno Sights

Above: A view of Los Angeles’ Spanish Baroque-style West Coast Westlake Theatre, located along Alvarado Street across from MacArthur Park, as it appeared in 1937. Below: A similar view today. A first-run movie house until the 1960s, the theater was designed by Richard M. Bates Jr., and built at a cost of $750,000. It opened [...]

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Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Los Angeles Beer Industry

Odds and Ends

Except for a brief hiatus during Prohibition, beer production in the Los Angeles area actually dates to the 1850s. For those with a thirst for knowledge on the topic, historian Nathan Masters will moderate a panel discussion this Saturday on what makes our local beer scene unique. Part of the eighth annual Los Angeles Archives [...]

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