A Voice in the NELA Wilderness
by Christopher Nyerges
Much of our recent rainfall has flowed out to the ocean, uncaptured and unused. But it was not always this way. Up until the 1930s, water flowed throughout the area we now know as Northeast Los Angeles.
For example, a description from 1912 of Argus Drive in Eagle Rock, between Colorado Boulevard and Chickasaw Avenue, told of “tree-covered grounds with a small artesian lake supplied by several flowing artesian wells.”
The lake on Argus and other lost water sites are described and mapped in “Myriad Unnamed Streams,” a remarkable series of historical vignettes by Jane Tsong, a local environmentalist and artist. Using Tsong’s map, available at watercalifornia.org/projects/janetsong.html, you can tour the sites by car or bicycle and discover the hidden water history of NELA.
Tsong’s interest in the waters of Los Angeles started in 1997, when she moved to West Los Angeles. She heard there was a freshwater spring in the sports field of a nearby high school, and when she went there, she was mystified by the water flowing naturally through the well-groomed landscape “before unceremoniously disappearing into a drainage grating.” She later learned that this was the historically significant Kuruvungna Springs, the site of an old village, now maintained by the Tongva people.
When she moved to Highland Park in 2003, Tsong learned of the many local springs and streams that had once flowed through NELA. She also learned that most of these waterways had never been named. With help from Eric Warren and Jessica Hall of “Water, California,” a collaboration of artists, writers, architects and scientists, she interviewed locals and began cataloguing the lost waters.
Here are highlights from Tsong’s tour:
The Eagle Rock Creek, now mostly cement, began on Figueroa Street at the westbound onramp of the 134 freeway. In the 1880s, visitors could walk in the stream amid wild roses, blackberries and tiger lilies. The creek flowed roughly in the proximity of Lanark Street before turning west toward Yosemite Drive, where it caused flooding until a large underground drainage pipe was installed in the 1930s, resulting in the creek’s disappearance. However, an altered remnant of the creek is still visible behind the businesses located northeast of Colorado and Figueroa. And a stream still flows along the entrance to the Scholl Canyon dump.
Further south, abundant artesian waters near York Boulevard and Eagle Rock Boulevard supported several companies that sold bottled water, including Sparkletts. In 1876, the area was described by Ludwig Louis Salvator, the Austrian Archduke who visited the area, as “a small green swamp with clumps of bunch-grass and at the bottom, Sacate de Matico, which never dries out.” By 1880, the area had been drilled and water flowed from the wells under natural pressure without pumping.
Many of the northeast springs, wells, rivers, streams, and lakes, including a lake-like depression near Sycamore Grove Park in Highland Park, flowed into the Arroyo Seco, as did waterways that flowed from the hills to the north, meandering south along Figueroa and east along La Loma.
The existence of the lost springs survives in place names: Springvale Drive, (off of Figueroa) was the source of a significant tributary to the Arroyo Seco called the North Branch. The name of the verdant stretch on Argus in Eagle Rock described above is the “Eagle Rock Springs Mobile Home Community.”
Tsong points out that most of the area’s wells were sealed by the City of Los Angeles after Eagle Rock was annexed in 1923. Over time, flowing water, considered a safety hazard or a nuisance was cemented shut or diverted underground into pipes and directed to the Arroyo Seco or the L.A. River. Population growth and many choices made along the way have made NELA’s water landscape mostly invisible.
But Tsong’s map and the stories that go with it help us to envision the past, understand the present and, perhaps, imagine a future where our water no longer rushes unceremoniously to the ocean.
Christopher Nyerges, the author of “Guide to Wild Food,”
can be reached at ChristopherNyerges.com.