March 2005 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



The Great Floods of the San Gabriel Mountains  

Part II:  1934 Floods Wash Away La Crescenta and

Sunland-Tujunga Valleys

by Cecile Page Vargo

           After a brief respite from the rains of January 2005, I find myself sitting here at my laptop once again, listening to water pouring down my rain gutter spouts. The un-sidewalked side of my street periodically turns into a gushing streambed as I type, the dog yard behind my house is now a muddy pond.  Within two hours the rain gauge records four inches of rain. While I feel relatively safe that my house is not dangerously close to the San Gabriel mountain hillsides, and I have some faith in modern flood control, I am reminded of "Noah-type" storms of the past that wreaked great havoc on my community and the neighboring ones in the last century.   

Fast moving waters in the Tujunga Wash submerge a section of Oro Vista Ave. (far left), temporarily isolating the community of Riverwood.

New Years Eve Comes Barreling In

          Moments before 1934 arrived, the anticipation and excitement of a new year would quickly turn to terror as heavy rains sent great walls of debris, mud, and water down the San Gabriel Mountains to the unsuspecting residents of the Crescenta and Tujunga Valley communities below. The La Crescenta and Montrose areas reported at least 40 people dead, and 400 homes seriously damaged or destroyed. Amongst the dead were New Year's Eve celebrants at the local American Legion Hall.

          In his book, The Control of Nature, John McPhee, describes iceberg size boulders amongst the debris that washed down the mountains on that fateful New Years Day of 1934. Dozens of people were killed, hundreds of houses destroyed. One major debris flow came down from Pickens Canyon, past Foothill Boulevard, and through the business district of Montrose. An eight foot boulder laid to rest on Honolulu, three miles south of the mountain front where it originally came from. The streets of La Crescenta "were like braided rivers of Alaska, with channels of water looping past islands of debris." The square roofs of Model A's sticking out of the mud throughout the area, looked more like river rafts than automobiles.

Harrowing Train & Automobile Ride In The Deluge

          A letter submitted by Mrs. Bill Barker, of Ojai, appears in June Dougherty's Sources of History La Crescenta.  Mrs. Barker, who was known as Margaret Repath in 1934, describes a harrowing account of her family's New Year's Eve train and car trip from Santa Barbara to Glendale. The weather was relatively dry until they hit San Luis Obispo. By Oxnard and Chatsworth it was wet enough to delay their train travel progress.  Each side of the track was filled with water, slowing them even more. The train came to a halt between Burbank and Glendale, three hours behind schedule. After another two hours of starting and stopping the going was to rough to continue on.   

          At this last stop so close to Burbank, Margaret and her children ages three and five, suddenly saw Chuck, whom she was married to at the time, running through the train to them. He was "drenched to the skin, barefooted, trousers rolled up above his knees", and surely a sight for sore eyes. Chuck and friends had waited at the Glendale train station until it became apparent they were not arriving, then took off by automobile to get to them. 

          The drive to Glendale was even more terrifying than the train ride had been. Streets were described as "regular rivers" with abandoned  cars everywhere. The car stalled at San Fernando Road and water got in the distributor. Margaret and children waited in the back seat, while the men got out to find help. They must have watched in horror as the men were nearly swept off their feet by fast moving water. Inside the car, water was starting to come in the floor, and everyone braced themselves for the worst. At last, Chuck found two boys in a Buick helping people. Margaret and children were carried  across "the torrent" to some realm of safety. Meantime, the Packard they left behind had filled up to the running boards in silt. 

          The family was slowly driven through Glendale, stopping often at apartment houses asking if there was room for them to stay until it was safe, but every place was already full of flood refugees. As they reached North Glendale the Buick stalled, and they were stranded once again. The men shivered from their wet clothes as they tried to wrap up in a half wet auto robe. Then at last a man in oilskins managed to wade to their car and offered them the comforts of his home. They were provided food and a place out of the rain to sleep, while the owner of the home kept an eye out in case the wash half a mile away decided to change course and head towards them in the night. The next morning, the family neighbor was called to come get them in his big car and take them to their home on Crown Street in La Crescenta. Although the street ran "curb to curb" with water, they felt they were in a safe haven at last.

          Before the debris was hauled away, Margaret and her family managed to get down to the flood areas of Montrose and La Crescenta. Margaret's last paragraph of her letter describes what they saw,  "We stood back about 100 feet from where they were digging out a woman and her children. They had been drowned like rats in their bed and covered with silt and debris at least 10 feet deep."  The scene was too horrible for her to continue to describe in her own words at this point, and from here she relies on a Times reporter's account: "It is impossible to believe such a tragedy could happen, unless actually seeing it." The end of Margaret's letter to her mother notes that  "rainfall are 17-1/2 inches for this section in the one storm, believe it or not.  Los Angeles received about 8 inches only."

Eleven Year Old Girl Rescues Family

          June Dougherty's book also reprints copy from a local newspaper during the time of the great 1934 flood. The bold headlines read "CHILD HEROINE OF MONTROSE RECOVERING: Eleven-Year-Old Girl Saves Unconscious Father and Brother." The Warfield family had sought refuge at the America Legion headquarters when it became apparent they could no longer save their Mayfield Avenue home in Montrose from the swirling torrents of water. As they waited at the American Legion, their home was crushed to bits. Unfortunately, the American Legion building soon was engulfed with a wall of water as well. Mr. Warfield, who had worked so hard to save his own family, was knocked unconscious when this wall of water hit. Eleven year old Marcia Warfield swam to a car on higher ground, dragging her father and six year old brother, Buddy, with her as she did so. She told reporters, "I held my breath a long time every time I went under and prayed for God to save and He did." The family's housekeeper, Mrs. Genevieve Wood died from injuries sustained in the floods, but Mr. Warfield recovered in Good Samaritan Hospital, his spine and skull fractured. Six year old Buddy sustained only minor injuries.  Fourteen year old Charles Jr. was reported at Physicians' and Surgeons Hospital in Glendale, with a crushed foot and broken leg. Doctors at General Hospital reported that young Marcia suffered from a broken ankle, loss of vitality from exposure and serious body bruises. Another child, Edith, also 6 years of age, was still missing at the time of the story.

Sunland/Tujunga Hit Hard Also

          Sarah Lombard's book Rancho Tujunga also makes mention of the floods of 1934, and the havoc that was wreaked on the Sunland-Tujunga communities.  She describes gas and water mains being ruptured and escaping gas making weird fountains in surging water.  Eastward roads were blocked by boulders and mudslides.  The only way in or out of Tujunga Valley was through Sunland Blvd through Hollywood.  Electricity and phone service were both disrupted.  The direct phone line from Tujunga to Van Nuys Police Station was the only means of communicating to the outside world. Flood waters began their course from Blanchard Canyon to the southeast, damaging three vineyards before crossing Foothill Boulevard a bit east of Begue Ranch.  Fifteen homes were destroyed in Blanchard Canyon. The 21,000 gallon water tank of the Blanchard Canyon Mutual Water Company near Fern and Blanchard Canyons broke lose causing destruction as it rolled down the canyon. The tank finally stopped at 6407 Valmont Avenue as it came to a pepper tree. Two cabins in the Aztec Park area of Haines canyon were destroyed. One of the cabins filled completely with mud. A channel  that had been created by a flood waters of the year 1914, provided a path for water in Haines Canyon to flow down once again.

          A mere ten months later, in October of the same year, the foothills once again experienced heavy rains, and more damage. This time as waters from Haines Canyon let loose, a CCC workman was drowned and 4 children were washed away.  Two of the children managed to rescue themselves, but the other two were dug out by someone who had heard them crying.  Newspapers complained that there had been plenty of time between the two floods  to build even a temporary debris diversion, and many in the foothill communities had been under the impression that because men were employed and money had been spent, the work had actually been done.  Unfortunately, protective work had barely started three weeks before the second flood, and there were disputes over moneys that should have been available for more work and where it had actually gone.  Regardless of why the second flood had happened, it was evident that a remedy was needed before the next deluge would arrive.   

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