Local News

The City’s Barrancas and Floods in Fullerton’s Past

Since Southern California usually has quite a lot of rain around this time of year, I thought it would be interesting to look into a few of the past floods Fullerton has encountered.

Brea Creek barranca today.

Fullerton experienced its first flood on New Year’s Day, 1900, which claimed the life of blacksmith James Gardiner and left the downtown area under eight to twelve inches of water. Floods continued to intermittently hit the town for the next 40 years.

According to Bob Ziebell’s book, Fullerton: A Pictorial History, “the course of Brea Creek had been changed to run westerly rather than its natural southeasterly route and in the fall of 1899 a crew had cleared the creek banks of a choking cane break planted years before to prevent erosion.” The remaining days of 1899 were filled with rain. The flood waters moved the chopped cane against a low bridge “effectively damming the westward flow” and causing the water to overflow the creek banks, flooding Fullerton’s downtown business district on New Year’s Day of January 1900, according to Ziebell.

In a 1955 interview, John Gardiner talked about how his brother James Gardiner, who was a blacksmith and a deputy constable in Fullerton at the time, went to the rescue of two young women stranded by the flood in the northern area of town. According to John Gardiner’s interview, James “immediately swam his horse across the creek to rescue them. By the time he got them to safety, he was exhausted and dropped off to sleep without changing into dry clothes. He took sick with pneumonia and was dead four days later.”

Fullerton soon recovered from that natural disaster, however, in 1916, the City encountered another flood; this time, it was more severe. According to an article on Natural Disasters in Orange County by Kaitlyn Sturgis-Jensen for the Fullerton College Centennial website, the 1916 flood, which had a major impact all over Southern California, could have been caused by a rainmaker from San Diego. At that time, a long period of drought forced San Diego County to consider “extreme and alternative measures for rainfall.” A rainmaker by the name of Charles Mallory Hatfield contacted the County and offered to produce rain from the sky for a $10,000 fee. San Diego County must have been desperate because they accepted Hatfield’s offer. Soon, after Hatfield and his wife set up equipment on a mountain, rain began to pour all across Southern California, which had a devastating impact, washing away houses and taking people’s lives. San Diego County believed that since the rain was happening in other places across the State, Hatfield didn’t create it and they refused to pay him. Interestingly, some people wanted to sue Hatfield, blaming him for the devastation from the storms.

In 1927, the Orange County Flood Control District was created, but there was a large amount of time between the 1916 disaster and the next major flood. According to the Fullerton College Centennial website, in the years between the disasters flood control protection wasn’t considered “an immediate need to people, whose final vote was against the building of dams.” However, when the 1938 flood hit, public opinion changed. On March 3, 1938, a headline in the Daily News-Tribune read, “Eight-foot Wall of Water Hits Atwood and Spreads Over Fullerton and Anaheim.” In fact, this massive amount of water caused the Brea and Fullerton “barrancas,” also known as flood control channels, to overflow and leave “a yawning gorge with vertical banks 20 or more feet deep through the heart of Fullerton,” according to Ziebell’s book.

Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

The 1938 flood impacted a large portion of north Orange County. At the peak of the flood in Fullerton, 2.90 inches of rain accumulated in 24 hours and 5.16 inches in 36 hours, wreaking havoc across the City. According to the article in the Daily News-Tribune, “At the east end of Brookdale Avenue, a huge eucalyptus tree succumbed to the undermining of flood waters and heavy southerly winds, crashing across the flood to crush the back porch of the Lee Long home at … East Brookdale.” Another interesting story reported by the newspaper involved a Fullerton resident named Leslie Johndahl, who, while attempting to help a family near Yorba Linda, was swept off his feet by flood waters and “hurled downstream, tossed about like a cork,” for a three mile stretch of water, before finally finding his footing at a railway embankment in Atwood. Waters were eventually controlled by the barrancas by midday on March 3, 1938, however, the flood made residents realize that water control in a highly developed and populated area was important.

The 1938 flood. Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

After viewing pictures of the devastation left behind from the 1938 flood, it’s no wonder that public works projects calling for concrete-lined flood control channels and check dams were rushed into production. By the time the 1938 flood hit Fullerton, the Federal Flood Control Act of 1936 had passed and by 1941 dams were being built in Orange County as part of a flood control program under the direction of the US Army Corps of Engineers. I wanted to find out more about the barrancas in the City, including those stretching from the Brea dam through a portion of Hillcrest Park, down Harbor Boulevard, crossing Malden Avenue and eventually heading west, parallel to Chapman Ave, as well as the barrancas by the Fullerton dam located in the northeast corner of the city.

According to a scanned copy of an article dating back to 1941 from the Fullerton News Tribune (provided courtesy of the Fullerton Public Library’s Local History Room), the barrancas were designed as part of the WPA projects to protect Fullerton, among other cities and parts of north Orange County, from damage during heavy flows of storm waters by providing adequate channels to carry the floods. They were cemented in around the same time as the Brea and Fullerton dams. The Fullerton News Tribune reported that “engineering on this project was done by City Engineer Herman Hiltscher and designs for the curves, which were tested by one of the heaviest storms on record in recent months, proved the efficiency of the entire system, even without the Brea dam.”

Photo courtesy of Fullerton Public Library Local History Room.

Integral to flood control was the construction of two dams in Fullerton. One was the Brea Dam, located just east of Harbor Boulevard near the North Orange County YMCA, and the other was the Fullerton Dam, close to the Fullerton-Placentia border. The barrancas served as outlets to slow the flow of currents in times of heavy rains. In fact, engineering changes were made early on to make the Brea Creek barranca “eight feet deep instead of six and called for minor changes on curves and in drops and stilling basins to slow the flow,” according to a 1938 article published in the Fullerton News Tribune. Concrete walls were later added to the floor of the Brea Creek channel and on the day of dedication City officials loaded onto the backs of trucks and drove the course of the channel as crowds cheered from above. There are several photos of these City official truck rides in the Local History Room Archives, some available through their website.

Even today, if you’re driving along Chapman Ave. (west of Malden) on a day of heavy rain, you’ll see a dangerous, raging river of water flowing down the cement channel known as the barranca. It’s important that we have these dams and barrancas in order to avoid devastation from floods in the future.

3 replies »

  1. I found the historical nature flooding in Fullerton fascinating. But I do not agree with the conclusion of the article that states that the need for the dams and particular “cement channel known as the barranca” are important to “avoid devastation from floods in the future”. Water is a very important resource that needs to be managed and not simply flushed out to sea. In creating the flood control systems in Fullerton flooding was simply passed on to communities downstream and infiltration to the important groundwater aquifer below Fullerton has been severed. I encourage Fullerton citizens to visit the Orange County Water District website to learn about where their drinking water comes from. One critical resource for drinking water in Orange County is groundwater and with the current climate changes we should be looking to maximize our groundwater resources. I would urge the we remove concrete linings from both Fullerton and Brea Creeks where it makes sense to utilize the precious resource that is water.

  2. Thank you for yet another fascinating story. You find these parts of our history that have been overlooked and bring them to life with your thoughtful research and your knack for pulling together bits and pieces and turning them into something amazing.