Oh, How Long Beach Used to Flood

Gerrie Schipske

For a brief time with the recent rains, Willow and other residential streets on the eastside were flooded.  Tides were high in the Naples and Belmont Shore areas.  But unlike earlier days in Long Beach, no one lost their homes or property and flooding didn’t last too long.

The Long Beach area was constantly hit by hard storms and flooding particularly in 1862, 1867, 1873, 1884, 1891, 1911, 1913 and 1914.

The floods of 1862 raged through a dense area of willow trees bringing many of them down to the area that would become Long Beach. A new growth of willow trees prompted locals to call the area “Willowville.”

When there was a break in the rain, the area was bone dry and in 1863, the cattle on Stearns-owned Rancho died, forcing Stearns to sell the property.

The heavy rains resumed and the San Gabriel River began changing its course again.

Prior to 1867, the San Gabriel River met the Los Angeles River near Cerritos and then flowed southwesterly into San Pedro Bay. More than 50 inches of rain fell in 40 days. When the heavy rains came that year, water backed up in the Whittier Narrows area because of a log jam. The jam broke and the water was so powerful that it forced the “old San Gabriel River” to split into the “New River,” changing its course and flowing into Alamitos Bay.

Rains came again in 1884 and the area became a marshland with sloughs and swamps as the flood plain widened. It is estimated that the San Gabriel River had become 1,200 feet wide during the rains.

In 1911, the San Gabriel River, which had flowed into Alamitos Bay, broke from its banks and joined the Los Angeles River five miles north of the Long Beach harbor. The storm carried tons of silt and materials into the harbor area, prompting city officials to lobby the federal government for funds to construct flood control and an extension of the federal breakwater to protect the entrance to the harbor. Farmers in northern Long Beach lost much of their land due to the floods.

By 1919, flood control construction to divert the Los Angeles River and San Gabriel River began as residents clamored for protection against the storms.

In 1938, the heavy rain storms (see below) again took their toll on Long Beach. It took until the 1950s for storm water control construction to finish with the concrete paving of the Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers.

On the ocean side, in 1914, waves crashed up to the strand area, washing out bulkheads and cement walks and destroying several homes in the Seaside Park and Alamitos Bay areas. Boats used by the Long Beach lifeguards helped rescue people stranded in their homes. The gale force winds were so strong during the storm that national newspapers reported that the residents thought it was an earthquake that was battering the city. Twenty thousand tons of salt were washed out to sea from the Long Beach Salt Works facility in the harbor area. The need to protect the coastline from high breaking waves eventually led to an extension of the federal breakwater.




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