By Paul R. Spitzzeri
The El Niño weather system looks like it will bring the heaviest rains our region has received in nearly 40 years and this system has a history of disastrous deluges. From the 1815 destruction of the Mexican hamlet of Los Angeles, to the famed “Noah’s Flood” of 1861-62, to the floods of 1884 and 1886, our area has been historically subject, between severe droughts, to massive destruction from flooding.
A major deluge came in the winter of 1913-14, when heavy rain, culminating with a four-day downpour in February, dropped some 15 inches in communities along the San Gabriel Mountains foothills and 1½ inches in just one hour in Los Angeles. Fortunately, there were no reported losses of human life. Damages from the storms were estimated at some $10 million, not including the destruction at the San Pedro/Wilmington harbor, which required $600,000 just to reopen before repairs were conducted.
The result of the 1914 floods was that the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors appointed a committee of engineers to craft recommendations for how to mitigate major floods. One result was the creation of a Flood Control District, headed by one of the committee members, James W. Reagan. Born in Kansas in 1864 to Irish immigrants, Reagan worked on the family farm as a young man, but later wound up in California as a civil engineer with the Southern Pacific Railroad.
Reagan’s appointment and twelve-year tenure as the county’s flood control chief engineer were frequently controversial. He was a minority of one on the committee, advocating a different approach for dealing with flood water runoff from his colleagues, and was strongly opposed by two of the five supervisors in his hiring. He frequently veered away from the wishes of the supervisors in carrying out projects. He was quoted in 1924, however, as recommending the discontinuation of “the present plan of running this very needed floodwater away to the sea” instead of recapturing it and recharging underground aquifers. Apparently this was a change in philosophy from his advocacy back in the mid-1910s.
One of his first products as chief engineer of the district was a fold-out poster called “Flood Scenes, January and February 1914,” which featured photos of ravaged areas in the county, evidently as a spur for support for flood control projects. The images in this post come from an original in the Homestead’s collection and are just a sample of those in the poster. The ravages of the floodwaters from the storm were a powerful incentive for action on flood control.
While some major initiatives were completed or started during his tenure with the county, including Pacoima Dam, Devil’s Gate Dam near Pasadena, and others, a 1929 dam failure in San Gabriel Canyon and other issues led to a loss of state funding in 1933 and the decision to turn over flood control planning and development to the US Army Corps of Engineers by the end of that decade.
A 1944 move to rename Devil’s Gate Dam after Reagan, who died three years earlier, was rescinded after a week at the request of the City of Pasadena and Reagan’s descendants. Otherwise he is a largely forgotten, but significant, figure in the region’s flood control history. Today, there is a great deal of discussion about how to retool our system for directing storm runoff toward the ocean during a period of prolonged drought to water capture and storage—something embodied in Reagan’s 1924 quote.