Thursday, July 17, 2008

Around Town: Heroines of the flood...

It was a muggy Saturday night in the Foothills. We were out for a walk, the dog and I. Silent lightning flashed beyond the Arroyo. An owl hooted. Miss Audrey Hepburn strained at her leash.

Strange weather, I said to Miss Hepburn.

Yes, came the unexpected reply.

It was not Miss Hepburn. It was her. The Anonymous Source.

The Source handed me a brown paper bag, smiled, and then she was gone.

I opened the bag and saw a manuscript. The date was 1935. I looked again and realized it was pay dirt — W. D. Chawner’s Caltech master’s thesis on the Great Montrose Flood of 1934!

Chawner, a mysterious geologist, gained fame for the publication of a nine-page scientific article in the Geographical Review of 1935, titled, “Alluvial Fan Flooding: The Montrose, California, Flood of 1934.” Years later Chawner went on to other cities and other floods, but his career began with the Great Montrose-La Crescenta Flood.

During a week of heavy rain, on New Year’s Day 1934 a flash flood came down Pickens Canyon, over Foothill Boulevard and down into what is now Montrose. The results were devastating. Walls of water — 20 feet high — cascaded down through parts of present-day La CaƱada, La Crescenta and Montrose. Giant boulders crashed into houses. Hundreds of people went missing. Their bodies were never found.

In the years that followed, basins were built to catch debris flows from the San Gabriel Mountains. But in 1934, according to Chawner, the old channels were insufficient: “Montrose and La Crescenta, about twelve miles north of the center of Los Angeles, are built on the south-sloping bajada in the intermontane depression between the south flank of the San Gabriel Mountains and the north flank of the Verdugo Mountains. The alluvial fans on which they stand were built by the unloading of debris carried down Halls Canyon and Pickens Canyon from the south flank of the San Gabriel Mountains. The flood of January 1 was a recurrence of the process that built the Montrose-La Crescenta bajada slope and the Glendale fan...All day December 31 the runoff from the burnt area of the San Gabriel Mountain front roared down the available channels and overflowed many of them. The rainfall was heavy and persistent...”

I reached into the brown paper bag and pulled out two news clippings, caked with mud and yellowed with age. The first clipping, dated Jan. 7, 1934, reported that an 11-year-old girl swam through walls of water to rescue her unconscious, injured father and baby brother. The little girl’s name was Marcia Warfield. She lived on Mayfield Avenue in Montrose.

The second clipping was from the following day, Jan. 8, 1934. The headline read: “Bible Hints Lost Trio Prayed as Flood Came.” Moments before the flood waters enveloped their home on Castle Road, Ida Hamilton and her daughters May and Peggy opened the family Bible. Afterward, all that remained were the shattered timbers, mud, and in the mud, an open Bible.

The Bible was opened to Psalm 69, which begins with these words: “Save me O God, for the waters come into my soul. I sink in deep mire where there is no standing; I am come into deep waters where the floods overflow me ”

ANITA SUSAN BRENNER is a local resident. For more information on the Great Flood of 1934. The Great Flood: Marcia Warfield of Mayfield Ave (.pdf)" and The Hamiltons on Castle Road (.pdf)"

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