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.
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
floods of 1978 nearly buried cars in the office parking lot
of the Wildlife Waystation in Little Tujunga Canyon.
One CCC camp worker body was found below the
, 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
. 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
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:
- no help
required today, return tomorrow
needed at once for ten persons
- food for 30
aid kit urgently needed
aid urgently needed
casualties in our camp
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
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
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.
Unfortunately, the floods of 1938 were not the last to wreak
havoc over the
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
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
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
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
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.
residents were a hardy breed of people that knew how to survive no
matter what mother nature brought them.
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
as well. The bridge and
road to the Riverwood Ranch properties near Oro Vista were also
destroyed. Further up the
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
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