La Verne Streets Under Water During the Great Flood of 38
- Published Date
Seventy years ago, La Verne residents experienced what is still called ‘The Great Flood of ‘38’.
A huge storm front of dark clouds stalled over the San Gabriels late in February. It rained all day on Tuesday, March 1 and kept up the next day as flood waters poured down from the mountains.
The Pacific Electric streetcars which ran through the south part of La Verne stopped service on Wednesday morning, March 2 when a bridge washed out near the Fairgrounds. Passengers had to take Motor Transit company buses.
Railroad work crews began trying to repair the Southern Pacific railroad tracks in Pomona but early in the afternoon service stopped: 400 to 600 feet of track was four feet under water flooding down from San Antonio Canyon.
All roads between Pomona and Los Angeles were closed. A slide on Kellogg hill closed all but one lane of traffic. Bridges were out.
Flood waters kept rising in channels throughout the Pomona valley. Flood control engineers asked Pomona police to broadcast over station KNFJ their request that officers help evacuate homes along the San Antonio wash from Claremont to Chino.
The Salvation Army took in some evacuees: others found shelter in the Fox Theatre. A small army of rescue workers and flood fighters helped a colony of citrus workers trapped by the waters. There was extensive property damage to homes and groves.
Headlines in the Wednesday evening edition of the Progress-Bulletin screamed ‘Five Dead in Southland Rainstorm: Flood Loss in Excess of Million" The news was premature: more reports of death and losses all across the Los Angeles basin kept coming in,
La Verne’s several flood control channels were then just deep ditches. Small dams north of town were soon overwhelmed by the amount of water pouring out of the foothills.
One channel at the corner of the Evergreen ranch, south of today’s Bonita High School, ran through a culvert. This was soon blocked by debris and water began flowing south on D Street.
Some of La Verne’s elders were small boys who saw the flood of 1938. Sipping coffee at Roberta’s Village Inn Restaurant in our old town business district, they glanced out front windows and told of foot-deep water in the street and spilling over curbs. Merchants on either side built long dams of sandbags to protect their stores.
La Verne was bounded to the west by Firey Avenue (now Wheeler), which was a sunken road about five feet deep. High concrete sides had cutouts for trucks to enter citrus groves. With the rain, grovers dropped planks into slots in the walls so the waters flowed south to Puddingstone.
At the intersection of 4th street – now Bonita Ave. – the owner of a 1934 Packard sedan tried to ford Firey Avenue, but had to bail out. The current swept the car three blocks south to the culvert under the Santa Fe tracks. One old-timer recalls "All of us kids went down to see the car. It was really a mess – full of sand and water and mud."
He also remembers that the east end of 4th ended at the Emerald wash, usually just a shallow arroyo with a trickle of water at the bottom. With the storm, it was a rolling torrent of brown water a hundred feet wide. Spectators heard a continuous roar – the sound of rocks rumbling underwater.
The intense rainfall washed out mountain roads and cabins. Resorts, forestry and prison camps were isolated for days. Some ran out of food. San Dimas Canyon was blocked by washouts below the dam and by slides above. Water filled the reservoir to within ten feet of the spillway, and officials opened outlet gates to allow a huge stream to descend to Puddingstone.
Devastation at Camp Baldy was incredible. About 90 per cent of the cabins in San Antonio Canyon were lost, and two persons were swept away by the flood.
By March 4, 104 were known dead and 150 missing across the Los Angeles area. Thousands were homeless, and damage was estimated at $25 million!
Given the 11.19" of rain recorded before skies cleared. La Verne escaped rather easily. People worked together to clean away the debris and mud.
Cleaning and rebuilding took years. Those washes flowing south from the mountains have become concrete flood channels ready for up to twelve feet of runoff!
Our only evidence of the flood is rust on the legs of the windmill at Heritage Park. The windmill once stood a half-mile north in a lemon grove buried five feet deep with topsoil and sand washed down from the mountains. The grower raised the well pump and set out new trees atop those covered by silt.
A immense dam was built by the Army Corps of Engineers across San Antonio Canyon. It may seem much too big, but it makes sense given the destruction caused by the great flood of 1938.