March 2005 Issue Explore Historic California - Magazine for Enthusiasts



The Great Floods of the San Gabriel Mountains  

Part III:  The Floods of 1938 and Beyond 

by Cecile Page Vargo

           The floods of March 1938 came with an even stronger vengeance to the Sunland/Tujunga area and the mountains above, than those of the previous years. People found themselves stranded in all of the canyons, with at least 260 cut completely off from the outside world in Big Tujunga alone. As small streambeds turned to full blown raging rivers, many started to overflow, and canyon residents found themselves without food or shelter. The Big Tujunga dam filled to capacity. When the decision was made to release the dam waters to prevent an even larger disaster, a fifteen foot wall of yellow water roared past the community of Sunland. Normally dry washes  filled with torrents of water and uprooted the trees and boulders along the harrowing path they decided to take.

Canyons Communities Destroyed, Rescue Efforts Begin

          The Wildwood Lodge, La Paloma and Vogel Flats were damaged when the flood water and debris came through. Peaceful picnic areas and the roads and bridges that went to them were all destroyed. Thirty-two people were marooned in Trail canyon, 20 homes damaged at La Paloma and Vogel. Just above Detention Camp #15, the ranger station across the stream was

The floods of 1978 nearly buried cars in the office parking lot of the Wildlife Waystation in Little Tujunga Canyon.

 destroyed. One CCC camp worker body was found below the Big Tujunga Wash Bridge , 300 other CCC workers found themselves stranded at their camp. Two SERA workers were found dead just below the dam, as well.  A total of 447 cabins were either destroyed or damaged in the canyons hit by the heavy rains and the flooding that followed.

         Radio transmitters were installed at both Big Tujunga and Pacoima Dams so ham radio operators could relay messages to canyon residents. Food was dropped by airplane to Big Tujunga and Trail Canyons . Rescuers came in on horseback to bring any that would brave the ride out of the flood zones, and the American Legion Hall provided shelter for those who needed it. Those who either refused or couldn't leave their cabins and camps received messages dropped from airplanes, telling them to use white cloth strips that were a foot wide and ten feet long to form large letters on the ground that could be used to spell out the following code: 

  •       A  -  no help required today, return tomorrow

  •           E  -   food needed at once for ten persons

  •           H  -   food for twenty

  •           K   -  food for 30

  •           L   -   food for 40

  •           T   -   food for 50

  •           V   -   first aid kit urgently needed

  •           X   -   medical aid urgently needed

  •           O   -   no casualties in our camp

  •           Y   -    followed by a number indicated number of camp casualties

           In her book "Sunland and Tujunga From Village To City", Marlene Hitt records this first hand account by Marion Johnson who lived in Big Tujunga Canyon at the time of the 1938 floods:

          "We had about a week of rain when there had been a cloudburst way back up in the canyon. We had another storm come right on top of that, so you had about 15 or 20 inches within a week or so. All the debris from above the dam in the Big Tujunga came down to the dam. That raised the water level up so the water went over the dam.

           You had a tremendous amount of water coming down. With rocks rolling, it makes an awful noise. You'd see trees that were at least 100 years old or more bob down in the water a couple of times and they weren't there any more. It was just a big wall of water. 

           At least half a dozen people were killed. Because of the noise the people at the CCC Camp got on higher ground, but the camp got washed out. The wild wood Lodge and many houses were washed away.

          About two weeks after the flood, they took one of the biggest bulldozers that you could get, put a flatbed thing on it and went up the canyon to get people out. The bulldozer went in to level the ground to make a road.  Everybody's car or truck was behind this bulldozer which pulled us across where the streams were."     

          The Big Tujunga residents displayed a true sense of community and cooperation during a dire time of need. By June, bridges and roads were repaired,  and the canyon, life was resuming to normal. Visitors could travel into the area to enjoy a multitude of outdoor activities, including a new one. Riding the river rapids became a popular sport.  

Growing Up In Trail Canyon

          Unfortunately, the floods of 1938 were not the last to wreak havoc over the Big Tujunga Canyon area. In 1941, before things could build back up again, the torrential downpours hit yet another time, and everything was washed away once again. Hansen's Lodge was damaged beyond repair. Several cabins were either washed away or covered with landslides. At least six canyon residents were known to be dead. This time the sheriff's formed a 50 horse posse that brought in another 50 horses for residents to ride out in. 

         Marlene Hitt also writes in her book of  Irma Ward who grew up in the Trail Canyon and Mesa area during this time. Transportation in and out of the little community was always a problem, with a 7 mile dirt road separating residents from the town. The area today known as Seven Hills, was better known in those days as "clay hill", where Irma's parents traveled back and forth at least four times each day. The car would often slip and slide to a drop over the side. If the car flooded, one of the men would have to get out to piggy-back the children to drier ground. Rainy school days children were immediately excused to go home with their parents whatever time they arrived at the school, because of the driving conditions they had to go through to get there and back.

          The rough roads put a lot of wear and tear on the car, but Irma remembered that Mr. Ward was the best auto mechanic around and kept many vehicles in good running order.  If someone's car didn't start, school children just piled into someone else's and headed on down the canyon to Sunland School or Verdugo High. Coming home from school the children knew if the car couldn't get across the first crossing, they could take off on foot.

        Stormy weather was never a problem for children living in Trail Canyon. They did not mind at all the isolation it caused. Instead they entertained themselves with a playhouse, table games, musical concerts and horseshoes.  December 3, 1933 the first edition of the Tiddly Wink News arrived, created by children who were isolated by bad winter weather. In it, weather articles were highlighted, of course. Other stories told of the new radio in the neighborhood, and invitations to a hiking party. The canyon residents surely delighted in hearing stories that included Uncle Jack's efforts to make a new ditch so the water "won't warsh" the road out, as well as an announcement of Mrs. Pulfer's birthday. "Lady Mac Phie has learned to sit up for her breakfast" was good news, but the paper sadly reported that "Waters fox has gone to fox heaven."  A later edition of the Tiddly Wink included a tragic follow-up: "Lady Mac Phie fell over the bridge."

        The adults of Trail Canyon were quite innovative, as life demanded it to be.  An old water tank painted black served as a solar hot water heat and placed on one family's roof so they could have hot water in the sunny afternoons and evenings.   During war times, residents were allowed an increase to their usual four gallons of gas. One man was so afraid of being stranded in the canyon without gas, that he buried a 50 gallon drum behind his cabin.  Fortunately, he had never had to use it, but after the war when dug up it was found that a minute leak had drained the reserve supply bone dry. Trail Canyon residents were a hardy breed of people that knew how to survive no matter what mother nature brought them.

The Big Flood of '69

         In January of 1969 more rain fell on the San Gabriel mountains in nine days, than New York City sees in an entire year. Marilyn Skates watched six neighborhood houses fall into the Tujunga Wash during this onslaught of water. Her own house just hung on and she stood in disbelieve crying, "What good does it do hanging there like that? Why doesn't it fall in like the rest?  Go. Go. Go. Fall over.  How can a house just stand there like that?"  When at last it fell into the Big Tujunga it was violently ground up as if it was in a blender.  Pieces of the houses flew into the air. Neighbor James Dubuque waited outside for awhile to see what the fate of his house would be.  When he turned around to go back inside, he was startled by the sound of a police man with a bullhorn warning, "If you go back into that house, prepare to take your last step. That house is going into the wash--now!" The same waters devouring these houses destroyed the Sunland Foothill Bridge as well.  The bridge and road to the Riverwood Ranch properties near Oro Vista were also destroyed. Further up the Big Tujunga Canyon only one home was destroyed. The Forest Service records show that 4,430,000 cubic yards of debris accumulated behind the Big Tujunga dam during the raging storms of 1969.

          In even more recent memory, the year 1978 stands out as a great flood year, and perhaps the most horrific of all,  as 30 caskets from the Hills of Peace Cemetery were chosen as its victims. Long time Sunland Tujunga residents, still talk about the night the graves washed down into Parson's trail and into the yards of many of the homes below. As many as three bodies were found at one homeowners back door. Skeletal remains were littered everywhere. A total of 55 bodies were recovered, to be re-interred in a mass grave. "It sounded like thunder," described resident Don Sulots who had only lived in his home for two months when the grave yard gave way. "By the time I made it to the front door and got it open, the muck was already three feet high.  It's quite a way to start off life in a new home --mud, rocks and all bodies all around."

           That fateful night of February 10th when the graves of the Hills of Peace Cemetery washed away, a 20 foot high wall of water roared down the Mill Creek area of Big Tujunga Canyon further up into the San Gabriel Mountains. Every man made object in its path was destroyed. Elva Lewis lived at Hidden Springs, and helped her husband Amos run the Hidden Springs Café at the time. She was standing 40 feet above the creek when the flash flood hit and described it as "an airplane making a belly landing on the asphalt." Amos Lewis was caught in the flood, but able to grab onto a tree and pull himself out of the raging waters. Years later Amos, also a deputy sheriff, told author John Mc Phee and Wade Wells "I got pushed to one side, I lucked out." As human remains were found in the reservoir after the flood, he was sent in his patrol car to investigate his own neighbors fate. "I had to go roll on them calls. A deputy sheriff has to roll on any type of body being found. I carried out at least four, maybe five, skulls."  Thirteen people died in Hidden Springs that night. Some of them were never found.

           The Little Tujunga Canyon to the east of Big Tujunga, also was hit hard by the 1978 flood. Martine Collette at the Wildlife Waystation lost her water supply, power sheds, lumber piles and supplies. Large oak trees were pulled up by roots and the bridge was washed away when the creek turned into a raging torrent of four or five feet of water. A rope was strung across the swollen creek to bring food and supplies to the animals on the other side of it without getting swept away. A half mile section of Little Tujunga Canyon marooned Martine, her staff, and wild animals for six weeks. 

            In spite of magnificent efforts to hold back the flood waters of Mother Nature's giant tears, mankind seems doomed in the battle to control the disasters they create. The headlines of January and February of this year are filled with stories of communities endangered by heavy rains. And they say more is to yet to come.

To read more about man's struggle in the San Gabriel Mountains :  The Control of Nature - John McPhee -Farrar Strauss and Giroux

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