April 16, 2013
Author of Cadillac Desert, Marc Reisner, described the Los Angeles River perfectly when he wrote, “ Before its character was significantly altered by human activity, it was really two different waterways –a small, gentle stream flowing through a broad, sandy bed most of the year and a large turbulent unpredictable river for a few days every winter.” (Reisner 12) Unfortunately, it is the unpredictable characteristic of the river that has devastated human settlements in the past, and caused a public desire to contain the river with the cement channels we have today.
The Los Angeles River is an alluvial river with a shallow riverbed and an extensive floodplain. Before human settlement the river flowed freely, both above and below ground, and the course changed often emptying into the ocean anywhere between the Ballona Wetlands and San Pedro Bay. The river course was thick with vegetation and supported a wide range of species of animals. Cottonwoods, willows, and sycamore trees grew very large near the river, and alder, hackberry, California rose and numerous other shrubs grew thick in the understory. Animals supported by the river’s waters and the surrounding forests include everything from bears to birds. Over a hundred species of birds have been identified through egg collection, which only began several years after the arrival of European settlers, indicating that prior to their arrival even more species inhabited the area.
The Native American people of the Tongva and Chumash tribes were the first inhabitants of the Los Angeles River area. They relied on the river as a source of food and water, and knew the river’s tendency to overflow its channels. To combat this problem the Tongva people invented mobile villages called Yangnas. (History of the River 2013) When the river was low, as it was most of the year, the village would be located on the banks of the river. When a flood occurred the tribe would move the village to drier land until the water receded and they could return to the riverbank.
Drawn by the abundant water supply and fertile soil of the Los Angeles River, European settlers would eventually displace he Native Americans living along the Los Angeles River. Between 1769 and 1777, Spain had established several missions and presidios along the California coast to help secure territory for the Spanish crown; however, their inability to supply themselves with sufficient food led to the establishment of three agricultural villages, referred to at that time as pueblos (Gumprecht 41). One of these villages was the first European settlement along the Los Angeles River and was called El Pueblo de la Reina de Los Angeles (Gumprecht 39). Established in 1781, the pueblo would use the river’s water to grow and transform into the preeminent city in the West now known as Los Angeles. Such a transformation would ultimately devastate the river and the surrounding land, but not before turning Los Angeles into one of America’s richest agricultural regions.
The settlement was originally only twenty-eight square miles in size and was occupied by less than ten families (Gumprecht 43). The settlers’ primary concern was constructing a water delivery system. The settlers constructed a distribution system of crude dams, water wheels, and ditches through which the river water was channeled to meet both irrigation and domestic needs. By use of this system, the pueblo became self sufficient by 1786 and within the next few years it was the second greatest producer of grain out of all the California missions (Gumprecht 46).
With the help of Indian labor, by the early 1800s Los Angeles had become the most important agricultural settlement on the West Coast (Gumprecht 46). Initially, the pueblo produced mainly barley, what, corn, and beans, but the ample supply of water from the river allowed farmers to diversify their crops; the most significant addition was oranges, which were introduced in 1815 (Gumprecht 51). By the mid-1800s, nearly every householder in the settlement had a garden (and eventually a small orchard or vineyard) next to his home. This was all made possible by the Los Angeles River, which historian J. Gregg Layne called “the blood of life” to Los Angeles (Gumprecht 53).
For almost a century after its establishment, Los Angeles remained primarily an agricultural village, and the local economy continued to depend on farming even in the 1900s (Gumprecht 47). Few travelers were drawn to Los Angeles in its early years, but those who did stop by Los Angeles in the early-to-mid-1880s wrote about the lush gardens and orchards that filled the city, giving it a reputation as a garden paradise. Unfortunately, these romanticized depictions of the once-tiny pueblo would help guarantee its ultimate failure and the eventual destruction of the river that supported it (Gumprecht 54). After California became a state in 1850, Los Angeles’ population began to grow rapidly, and the simple conditions characteristic of the pueblo were too primitive for many of the newcomers, bringing about changes to the city, such as the expansion of the irrigation system, that would precipitate the beginning of the decline of the Los Angeles River.
This post was authored by Alice Bitzer and Katherine Moreno
Gumprecht, Blake. The Los Angeles River: Its Life, Death, and Possible Rebirth. Baltimore, Maryland, U.S.A.: The John Hopkins University Press, 1999. Print.
“History of the River: Re-connecting L.A. to Its River.” History of the River. Los Angeles River Revitalization Corporation, n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2013.
Reisner, Marc. Cadillac Desert: The American West and Its Disappearing Water. New York, N.Y., U.S.A.: Viking, 1986. Print.