Ebbs and Flows: Clockshop’s Timeline of the LA River

This timeline represents the historical relationship between the City and County of Los Angeles and the river that flows through it, with a focus on the urbanization of the land around the Glendale Narrows section of the LA River. 

Ebbs and Flows is a work in progress; it is neither comprehensive nor definitive. In constructing this timeline, we have prioritized source documents that reference the landscape and experiences of living and working along the Glendale Narrows section of the river, specifically the time period between 1700 to the present.

Settlement of families and villages

1000 - 1500
Indigenous peoples now known as the Aciachemen, Chumash, Tataviam, and Tongva Tribal Nations steward and develop communities in the Southern California Bight, 430 miles of coastal land that stretches from Santa Barbara to San Diego. The Chumash homelands are north of the Santa Monica Mountains and include the headwaters of the Los Angeles River.

More: See maps of the LA Basin here and here.

Tongva people populate the Los Angeles Basin

1000 - 1500

Yaanga is the largest of the Tongva villages built on the banks of the LA River. Yaanga stretched from what is now the Glendale Narrows section of the LA River to downtown Los Angeles, with many verdant oak groves. The initial settlement is close to where Los Angeles City Hall stands today. Other Tongva villages along the river were Maawnga on the western bank, and Ochuunga, near where Boyle Heights is today.

Spanish Empire claims California


The Spanish crown claims the territory by “right of discovery” after Juan Rodríguez Cabrillo explores the Pacific coast.

Portolá expedition


The expedition of Gaspar de Portolá becomes the first recorded European exploration of the interior of California. On August 2, 1769, an expedition convoy crosses the Arroyo Seco and reaches the LA River. They camp at what later becomes known as Taylor Yard, along the river, and encounter the oak grove village of Yaanga.

Franciscan missionary Juan Crespí journal


Juan Crespí, the designated diarist for the Portolá expedition, records his encounter with the Rio Porciúncula, or Los Angeles River: A “good-sized full-flowing river,” near the Arroyo Seco, “with very good water, pure and fresh, flowing through another very pleasant green valley lying westward,” and a “river bed about seven yards wide [that] flows from north-northwest, from the mountains.”

Pueblo of Los Angeles established


A group of 44 settlers, including immigrants from Spain, Baja California and the present-day Mexican states of Sonora and Sinola, found El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río de Porciúncula (The Town of Our Lady the Queen of the Angels of the Porciuncula River), known as Pueblo de los Ángeles.

Zanja Madre


A group of the pueblo’s first residents complete the original zanja—an open, earthen ditch that delivers water to the pueblo. A brush dam, or toma, pools water, which then runs along an elevated slope down to the pueblo. The flow splits into multiple ditches, carrying water to various portions of lowland. Placed close to present-day Broadway at the foot of the Elysian Hills by the LA River, the Zanja Madre feeds eight branch line zanjas.

Rancho San Rafael


Spanish corporal José María Verdugo (née Berdugo) creates Rancho San Rafael. Verdugo receives a 36,000-acre land grant from the Spanish crown, encompassing present-day Glendale, Burbank, Highland Park, and the future site of Taylor Yard. Rancho San Rafael will be subdivided several times until its eventual dissolution in 1887.

Mexican War of Independence ends


Mexico achieves independence from Spain. News of the war’s end reaches Los Angeles in 1822.

Flood of 1825 causes LA River to change course


The river drastically changes course, especially on the south side of LA. People subsequently refer to this flood as the LA River’s “big change.” Instead of emptying into the Ballona wetlands, it empties into the San Pedro Bay. Various marshlands dry up entirely, eliminating forests of western sycamore, cottonwood, and alder. Whereas the river previously ran near the Plaza along Main Street, after the 1825 flood it passes near the foot of the Dominguez Hills. Various residents described the flooding to the US Army Corps in 1914, 85 years later. A Mr. and Mrs. A. J. King relate, “There was no land that was not covered with water with the exception of one small section from the old fort at Bixby hill to Boyle Heights hills.” J. R. Ramirez describes water as filling the “whole Los Angeles River valley.”

Secularization of the missions


The Mexican government ends the California mission system. Mission properties are confiscated, and Spanish missionaries are sent into exile. Native laborers who had lived at the missions find work on the ranchos. The former mission lands comprise rich, coastal areas that are coveted by soldiers, rancheros, and farmers. The government splits land parcels into individual “rancho” grants and either sells or gives them away to private citizens.

United States declares war on Mexico


On May 12, 1846, the United States Senate votes 40 to 2 to go to war with Mexico. President James K. Polk accuses Mexican troops of attacking Americans on U.S. soil, north of the Rio Grande. But Mexico claims this land as its own territory and accuses the American military of having invaded.

Last Tongva villages destroyed


Local governments in Mexican Los Angeles destroy any remaining Tongva villages, prior to US statehood.

Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo signed


The Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo ends the Mexican-American War and cedes the areas now known as California, Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico to the United States, in addition to large parts of Arizona, Colorado, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Wyoming.

Los Angeles River floods and changes course again


This flood particularly affects the areas east of Alameda Street. Resident J. R. Ramirez remembers the river “cut[ting] a great wash where the Baker Iron Works now [in 1914] stands.”

California declared a state


California is admitted to the United States as a non-slavery “free” state, becoming the 31st state in the Union. The state is divided into 27 counties (now there are 52), including Los Angeles County.

Transcontinental railroad completed


Southern Pacific line connects Northern California to Southern California


Taylor family on the Glendale Narrows


J. Hartley Taylor and his family purchase land along the banks of the river and open a general store and milling company, Taylor Grocery and Taylor Milling Company located at what is now San Fernando Road.

J. J. Warner on the future of the LA River


Rancher and former trapper Juan José Warner publishes “Los Angeles River: Past, Present and Future” in the Los Angeles Times. The article raises questions about the future of the LA River and shapes public sentiment in years to come. Originally from Connecticut, Warner became a naturalized Mexican citizen and changed his name to Juan José in 1841.

LA River floods and changes course


After this flood, the river moves east to Vernon and then south to San Pedro. Water breaks through levees and inundates the lowlands. Residents recall the flood washing away houses, as well as hundreds of acres of vineyards, orchards, and fields, and sweeping away nearly every river bridge. A. N. Hamilton remembers the water suddenly breaking from its channel near Alameda and 14th Street and flowing “southwest by Expo Park through the Cienega and into Ballona Bay.” Another resident witnesses the “old winery by 9th street” washing away and the “Santa Fe [train] station” being three feet underwater. The valley between Main Street and Boyle Heights is described as a lake, a solid sheet of water. The river pushes so much wood down from the mountains that Angelenos have years of fuel. In downtown Los Angeles, a new channel is built, and improvements and changes are made to the zanja system

More: Los Angeles Daily Times article about the flood; courtesy Huntington Library. Page 1 | Page 2

Speculative land boom in Los Angeles


A land boom follows the construction of a second cross-country railroad line to Los Angeles. The land boom drives up real estate prices by 500 percent.

Flood of 1889


Another flood damages bridges and railroads, and washes out vineyards and orchards. The river changes its course to where it remains in 1915. Resident Asa Hunter remembers the river as four or five feet higher than it ever was before. E. H. Dalton says this flood did irreparable damage to the zanja ditch system, tearing out almost every ditch above the city near Griffith Park.

More: Lantern-slide image of bridge by flood

Development near the LA River


The Los Angeles Times publishes two articles (and a third three years later) detailing the entanglements of Los Angeles’s real estate, financial development, and irrigation rights. An academic study of the LA River’s history and ownership is published as well.

More: 1893 history of the LA River, published by the Historical Society of Southern California, Newspaper report on Southern California's 18983 irrigation systems, Newspaper coverage of LA real estate deals, February 1983, Newspaper coverage of LA real estate deals, September 1896

Report of the irrigation investigations


Elwood Mead of the US Department of Agriculture concludes a lengthy investigation into America’s waterways and water usage. The report details the complicated situation in Los Angeles.

More: Excerpt from 1901 Report

Rancho Santa Eulalia sold and subdivided


Rancho Santa Eulalia, originally part of Rancho San Rafael, includes the 700-plus acres along the LA River that will become Atwater Village.

End of the Zanja Madre system


Los Angeles’s original water system, the Zanja Madre, is finally abolished. It cannot supply enough water to keep pace with the population growth and irrigation demand of early 20th-century Los Angeles.

More: Map of Zanja system in action from 1875

Atwater becomes part of the City of Los Angeles


The area is known simply as Atwater, in reference to its river proximity (“at water”); “village” is added in 1986. The City’s annexation includes other portions of the San Fernando Valley as well.

Southern Pacific builds Taylor Yard


Southern Pacific acquires the former site of the Taylor Milling Company, just adjacent to the LA River, and builds a massive shipping yard.

The Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct begins operation


In November 1913, the aqueduct begins diverting water from the Owens Valley in eastern California to Los Angeles. The aqueduct solidifies LA’s ascension as a growing metropolis and the central city of Southern California. That said, the result is achieved through corrupt means, and at the expense of Owens Valley farmers and ranchers. A group of wealthy investors, known as the “San Fernando land syndicate,” are passed inside information from LA mayor Fred Eaton and aggressively buy land and water rights in the valley, blocking Owens Valley farmers and ranchers from using the water and destroying their lands. The aqueduct also devastates the Owens Lake ecosystem, ultimately drying up the 110-square-mile lake and causing the desertification of Paiute land.

More: View films Manzanar, Diverted: When Water Becomes Dust, directed by Ann Kaneko, 2021; The Aqueduct Between Us, directed by AnMarie Mendoza, 2020

LA River floods again


This flood causes $10 million in damage and triggers a public outcry for government action to address the recurrent flooding problems.

More: Harry Vroman's photographs of the 1914 flood; courtesy Autry Online Collections

Los Angeles County Flood Control District created


California Water Wars begin


A five-year fight over water rights erupts between the wealthy brokers of the City of Los Angeles and Owens Valley farmers and ranchers.

California Water Wars


Owens Valley farmers and ranchers fail in their attempt to destroy the aqueduct.

California Water Wars


The Owens Lake completely dries up.

California Water Wars


Inyo County Bank collapses, effectively ending the resistance and destroying the Owens Valley agricultural economy.

California Water Wars


By 1928, the City of Los Angeles owns 90 percent of the water in Owens Valley.

Redlining maps created


The Home Owners’ Loan Corporation creates redlining maps, subjecting river-adjacent neighborhoods in Los Angeles to overt discrimination and exclusion along racial and ethnic lines.

New Year’s Day Flood


Yet another flood draws national attention to water problems in Southern California. More than 60 people die, and nearly 600 houses are rendered uninhabitable. The following year, flood control duties are officially ceded from the City of Los Angeles to the federal government.

Works Progress Administration founded


The scope of the nascent Works Progress Administration includes LA River flood control, under the supervision of the US Army Corps of Engineers.

Congress approves Flood Control Act


Congress approves a budget that significantly expands the flood control duties of the US Army Corps of Engineers. Of the 50 projects authorized nationwide, the most money is allocated to Los Angeles County for work on the LA River. By the end of 1936, the LA River is deepened, widened, and confined between concrete banks from Lankershim Boulevard in North Hollywood to Elysian Park. Workers build levees along 2.5 miles of the river south of LA and construct debris basins and drainage channels in five canyons of the LA River watershed and one in the Río Hondo system.

LA River floods; channelization of the river begins


Seventy-eight people die and 108,000 acres flood, causing almost $25 million in damage. This serves as the final straw for the US Army Corps of Engineers to channel the entire river. In March, the Los Angeles Paving Company begins construction.

More: Photos one, two, and three from the records of the Los Angeles Paving Company; courtesy of Huntington Library, South China Morning Post article detailing the flood

US Army Corps of Engineers completes LA River channel


This forms a 51-mile engineered waterway made of concrete. The Los Angeles County Flood Control District hires 14 contractors in 31 separate contracts and moves more than 20,000,000 cubic yards of earth, pours more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of concrete, places nearly 150,000,000 pounds of reinforced steel, and sets 460,000 tons of grouted stone slope protection.

The channelization of the LA River takes 20 years to complete, in this time the population of LA County rises to more than six million residents.

Construction of the 5, or Golden State Freeway


The freeway cuts through the western part of Elysian Valley (“Frogtown”), isolating it from surrounding neighborhoods.

LA River overflows its levees in Long Beach


The event sparks concern that the flood control system is inadequate to handle a “100-year” flood.

Friends of the Los Angeles River founded by Lewis MacAdams, Pat Patterson, and Roger Wong


FoLAR is the first organization to explicitly advocate for habitat restoration and public access on the Los Angeles River. The group’s first La Gran Limpieza/Great River Clean Up is held in 1988.

Metrolink maintenance facility opens in Taylor Yard


El Pueblo to Griffith Park Trail Created


The trail stretches approximately eight miles from El Pueblo de Los Angeles, along the LA River, to Elysian Park and on to Griffith Park. Thanks to the efforts of the Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park, the trail is added to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy trail system. The Citizens Committee to Save Elysian Park developed the trail network with the goal of “connect[ing] parks and recreation lands along and near this portion of the Los Angeles River [to] enhance nearby communities, which are currently among the most underserved in the City of Los Angeles in terms of park and recreation opportunities.”

First LA River Master Plan released


River Project forms


A group forms in opposition to a proposed warehouse development on the site of the former Taylor Yard, which ceased to function as a rail yard in 1985. Along with an alliance of 36 community, business, faith-based, environmental, and social justice organizations, The River Project forms The Coalition for a State Park at Taylor Yard. The Coalition advocates for a greener vision for the future of this site and leads a successful fight to establish the 40-acre Río de Los Angeles State Park on the Los Angeles River. This state park brings much needed open green space to the communities of northeast LA.

California Coastal Conservancy releases feasibility study


California State Parks acquires 40 acres of Taylor Yard


The lot includes the parcel for Río de Los Angeles and the Bowtie.

Río de Los Angeles State Park opens


The park opens on Earth Day, April 22, 2007. Extensive contamination studies and soil remediation is undertaken given the heavy industrial usages of the site beforehand.

LA River Revitalization Master Plan Approved


US Army Corps of Engineers and EPA deem the Los Angeles River a “Traditional Navigable Waterway”


This new reclassification guarantees LA River federal protections under the Clean Water Act. Kayaking and other recreation activities are allowed within two zones, one in the Sepulveda Basin and the other in Elysian Valley, throughout the season (the end of May through the end of September). The LA River flows from its origins at the confluence of Arroyo Calabasas and Bell Creek to San Pedro Bay at the Pacific Ocean, approximately 51 miles.

Gentrification of LA River neighborhoods


The Los Angeles Times begins to report on the gentrification of LA River neighborhoods.

Bowtie Project begins


The Bowtie Project solidifies the partnership between California State Parks and Clockshop at the Bowtie, an 18-acre parcel from the former Taylor Yard.

42-acre G2 Parcel sold


Union Pacific sells the 42-acre G2 Parcel of Taylor Yard to the City of LA for $60 million.

Los Angeles State Historic Park opens


The park opens on the site of the former Southern Pacific Railroad River Station maintenance facility, as well as the site of the Zanja Madre. River Station opens in 1875 and is the city’s first transcontinental railroad terminal, fueling the exponential growth of the city.

Following extensive community input, Los Angeles State Historic Park opens as one of California State Parks first urban parks, bringing public green space to some of the most underserved, park poor populations in the state and the city.

Lower LA River Revitalization Plan


Various groups join to fight gentrification


A coalition including the National Resources Defense Council, FoLAR, Clockshop, the Atwater Village Neighborhood Council, the Glassell Park Neighborhood Council, the Elysian Valley Riverside Neighborhood Council, and hundreds of local residents and representatives of other local organizations hold public listening sessions, submit hundreds of public comment letters and lobby in opposition to the proposed Casitas Lofts project.

This development of upscale riverfront housing in Glassell Park would have been situated at the north end of what is now known as the 100 Acre Partnership, a complex of public lands including the G2 and Bowtie Parcels along the L.A. River, limiting access to this public green space and accelerating the gentrification of adjacent neighborhoods.

More: Los Angeles Times article about development proposal

100 Acre Partnership


California State Parks, the City of Los Angeles, and the Mountains Recreation and Conservation Authority (MRCA) form the 100 Acre Partnership. The goal is to ensure consistency and coordination in various efforts to design new parks and improve amenities at Río de Los Angeles State Park.

Land return to the Tongva people


For the first time in Los Angeles County in over 200 years, a one-acre parcel of land in Altadena is returned to the Tongva people. The Tongva Taraxat Paxaavxa Conservancy is founded.

Land purchase for the Gabrieleno Shoshone Tribal Nation


In El Sereno the Anahuacalmecac International University Preparatory of North America purchases 12 acres of land for $800K, through grants and contributions. It establishes the Chief Ya’anna Learning Village to teach a curriculum with a Nahuatl focus.