A whole lot of shaking (& other natural disasters)

With the recent swarm of seismic activity and increased chatter about the Puente Hills fault, earthquakes (and disaster preparedness) might be on the mind of many Angelenos. Looking back, Southern California is certainly no stranger to quakes.

The Los Angeles region experienced an earthquake of unparalleled magnitude in January of 1857—no stronger quake has hit the area since. The Tejon quake, from the San Andreas Fault, is estimated to have been about 7.9 on the modern Richter scale, similar to the 1906 San Francisco quake.

Because the region was so sparsely populated at the time (around 4,000 people in the city of Los Angeles and fewer than 10,000 in the county), “on the whole, no damage of any consequence, has been sustained by our citizens, although elsewhere considerable property has been destroyed, and we regret to say, severe personal injuries inflicted, and one life even sacrificed by the awful visitation” (excerpt from the Los Angeles Star, 1/17/1857).

Drawing of Rancho La Merced, 1890s.
Drawing of Rancho La Merced by Mattie Laura Jodon, 1890s.

Locally, “on a ranch [Rancho La Merced] belonging to Mr. Temple [and Juan Matias Sanchez] on the San Gabriel River, the earth for a considerable distance was rent asunder, leaving a ditch some three feet wide. The disruption was traced for miles along the river, which was turned out of its bed for many rods in length.” The San Gabriel River at that time was actually today’s Rio Hondo and the current river was not “created” until severe flooding in 1867-68 led to its new course.

Excerpt from the Los Angeles Star,1/17/1857
Excerpt from the Los Angeles Star, 1/17/1857.

Not to be outdone by the Tejon quake of 1857, a period of almost continuous rainfall hit Southern California on Christmas Eve of 1861 and lasted for about a month. While exact measurements are not available, estimates range from 30 to 50 inches in that four- to five-week period. The damage done to homes, crops, and cattle was extraordinary, as referenced in various writings. Large portions of San Bernardino and the German-American settlement of Anaheim were destroyed. According to a newspaper article, the Temple family had to “escape from the house on a raft,” and fortunately, their house and property survived.

Excerpt from Los Angeles Star, 1/25/1862.
Excerpt from the Los Angeles Star, 1/25/1862.

The area around the Temple ranch was later declared a 100-year flood plain by the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Whittier Narrows Dam was built just to the south of where the family’s adobe house once stood. Given these circumstances, it is incredible that the dwelling, built in 1851, survived for nearly sixty years. Of all things, it appears that a fire led to the building’s demise before 1910.

Temple adobe at Rancho La Merced, 1907.
Temple adobe at Rancho La Merced, 1907.

While widespread catastrophic flooding has since been prevented by our intricate flood control system, it’s only a matter of time before the next “Big One” strikes. Early warning system, anyone??

Special thanks to the Homestead’s Assistant Director Paul Spitzzeri for contributing to this post.

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