March 2: This Date in Los Angeles Transportation History

1938:  Los Angeles receives 11.06 inches of rain in the third powerful storm to strike Southern California since December.  The rain follows 4.4 inches received one week prior.

Los Angeles River flood

Rail lines over Los Angeles River washed out in epic storm, March 2-4, 1938

While damage is widespread from San Diego to the Oregon border, the brunt of storm on March 2-4 strikes Los Angeles and Orange Counties.

Approximately 115 people lose their lives in the disaster, more than 5,600 homes are destroyed and 108,000 acres — one-third of Los Angeles — are flooded.

Runoff from warm, torrential rains in the mountains wash out countless roads and bridges downstream across the region after epic rainfall — more than 30 inches of rain is recorded at Lake Arrowhead.

The Los Angeles, Santa Clara, San Gabriel, Santa Ana and San Juan rivers all overflow, causing the worst flooding since at least 1884.

At one point, the water flow on the Santa Ana River is over 317,000 cubic feet per second — almost half the flow of the Mississippi River.

However, the Big Tujunga Dam prevents the Big Tujunga Wash from flowing excessively into the Los Angeles River and making the situation even worse.

Verdugo Creek flood

Before and after views of Verdugo Creek bridge (Click for more information)

The winter storms severely compromise highways and rail lines across the region.

Los Angeles is briefly cut off from the outside world when the three transcontinental railroads servicing the area halted operations because of bridge washouts and damaged rail lines.

Buses are used to transfer passengers around damanged tracks and bridges as the regional disaster prompts rethinking of the area’s flood control efforts.

The epic damage was the final straw for proponents of flood control for the Los Angeles River.

Previous deluges had routinely scarred the area.  Flooding in 1914 and 1934 hit the area particularly hard.

Systematic channelization begins just a few months later, eventually leaving Los Angeles with 278 miles of concrete river banks and bottom.

Numerous images and additional details of the impact to Southern California transportation and infrastructure can be found in our full-text access April, 1938 issue of California Highways & Public Works.