Surpassing the St. Francis Flood of 1928 in scope — if not in deaths — the Great Flood (aka Los Angeles Flood) of 1938 hit the greater Los Angeles area hardest overnight on March 1-2. By the time the water receded, 5,601 buildings had been destroyed and 113 to 115 Southland residents were killed.
Scan of photocopied article in California Highway Patrolman magazine, April 1938, courtesy of the CHP Museum in West Sacramento (see below).
Highway Patrol Active in Rescues During Flood.
Lives Are Lost as Santa Ana River Overflows.
The California Highway Patrolman | April 1938.
The tranquility of the life of mankind is very often interrupted when Mother Nature becomes infuriated and unleashes her destructive forces against the puny efforts of man. When in a displeased mood she will do more destruction in one moment than insignificant man can rebuild in a lifetime; and no spot on the face of the earth is completely hidden from her occasional outbursts of wrath.
My district comprises San Bernardino and Riverside Counties. The mountainous sections of these counties afford delightful playgrounds for vacationists and sportsmen of the surrounding metropolitan areas. Nestling in the fertile valleys are world-famous citrus orchards, vineyards and ranches which abound in agricultural richness. Many of the streams of Southern California find their origin in these mountainous sections, and in the summer months they are fed by melting snow which, when on its seaward journey, supplies the valleys with life-giving water.
On March 1, due to previous snowfalls, these mountains were covered with an unusually thick cloak of snow which promised a plentiful supply of water for the forthcoming summer months. At this time a rain began falling in the valleys, and it appeared that an even greater supply of snow would fall in the mountainous areas. The ranchers rejoiced at the prospects of a prosperous agricultural season; but that which appeared as beneficial soon became a destructive force of unbelievable proportions. The rain that ordinarily would have produced snow in the mountains at this season became a cloudburst of warm water which rapidly melted the vast storage of snow . This accumulated force was sent raging to the sea, carrying in its uncontrolled and destructive course, bridges, houses, uprooted trees, livestock and human beings.
The Captains of my district had been called to the California Highway Patrol Training School at Sacramento. Acting in their places were Sergeant Tripp in San Bernardino County and Sergeant Hastings in Riverside County. The rank of sergeant had been created but a short time before, and the ability of these officers to cope with an emergency had not been tested.
On the morning of March 2, I left on an urgent trip to Indio. At that time rain was falling hard. Streams were rapidly swelling and endangering the bridges over which I passed along the route. On my arrival in Palm Springs, I learned that it was impossible to continue my journey. Upon telephoning Sergeant Hastings I was informed that he had been warned of an impending disaster, due to a cloudburst in the San Bernardino Mountains. On attempting to return to Riverside I found my retreat cut off by washouts. I was completely isolated and soon without any means of communication. Sergeant Hastings and Sergeant Tripp were thrown entirely on their own responsibility. I hoped for the best and was not disappointed.
When flood waters became a threat to the safety of motorists in San Bernardino County, Sergeant Tripp detailed officers to the most endangered areas to safeguard against the loss of life. Bridges were being washed out in wholesale lots, and miles of highways were becoming inundated. Towns and villages were rapidly becoming isolated without communication, domestic water, heating or lighting facilities. A number of motorists were marooned in their cars, in the outskirts of, but within the city, of San Bernardino, when Lytle Creek overflowed its banks and swept across the highway, leaving several cars stalled in the raging current. When the water began sweeping their cars away, these people sought refuge in nearby trees. Officers of the California Highway Patrol assisted in effecting the rescue of these stricken people. However, four of these unfortunates were swept from their temporary places of safety before a rescue could be effected.
In the Barstow area, on the banks of the Mojave River, destruction came almost without warning. The water rose rapidly, overflowing its banks and changing its course. Whole blocks of homes were completely wiped out. The northern half of Barstow was isolated when sections of U.S. Highways 466 and 91 were obliterated. When the isolated section became inundated and human lives were endangered, officers of the California Highway Patrol, assisted by volunteers, rigged up ropes and cables and very effectively hauled the stranded victims from the turbulent waters to a place of safety. About thirty automobiles were swept into the river at this point, but due to the initiative of our officers, not one motorist's life was lost.
There was an auto court on the outskirts of San Bernardino which was completely demolished. A stream which had been a mere creek flowing not far from there, soon became a raging river which broadened until its course enveloped the entire court. This same creek moved a two-lane bridge downstream about a block, leaving demolished in its wake a foundry and a lumber yard. In many places highways adjacent to usually dry washes were completely washed away or so undermined that they later crumbled and caved into the void below.
In San Antonio Canyon is the famous Camp Baldy resort, the main approach to which was by a highway paralleling a small stream on the canyon floor. This canyon was heavily wooded with wild undergrowth, but it is now completely void of all vegetation. The turbulent water destroyed the highway of this canyon to such an extent that it is now necessary to enter the resort from the opposite side of the mountain. Many homes were washed away, and the contour of the canyon is so changed that owners are unable to locate their lots. Gravel refining machinery weighing hundreds of tons was washed away like driftwood. The force of a current of water unleashed on the steep slope of a mountain side is unbelievable.
In Riverside County most of the destruction occurred in the West Riverside area along U.S. Highway 60, just west of the Santa Ana River bridge. This river forms the west boundary line of the city of Riverside. For a distance of about one-half mile, the highway, which serves as the west approach to the bridge, is about seven feet lower than the bridge's deck. The east approach is on higher ground, winding down to the river around historical Mt. Rubidoux. On the south side of this highway was the Riverside Airport, while on the other side was a number of auto courts, camp grounds, gasoline stations, vegetable stands and restaurants. At about 5 p.m. on March 2, the river had swollen out of its banks, and the overflow was sweeping across this low half-mile stretch of highway.
A number of automobiles had been trapped between Riverside and a highway washout near Mira Loma, and Sergeant Hastings was on duty with all available officers assisting the stranded automobiles across the half-mile stretch of water to safety on the higher ground of Riverside. At this time the water was about one foot deep, and there appeared no immediate danger in driving across this inundated section, inasmuch as the State Highway crew was on hand assisting officers in the removal of vehicles which occasionally became stalled by shorted motors or by debris lodging under their wheels. Without warning the waters started rising rapidly, due, it was later learned, to the breaking of the dam which impounded the waters of Lake Fairmount, an artificial lake, located to the north of Mt. Rubidoux. When the waters of this lake emptied into the river, an additional volume and current was forced to flow across the west approach. This sudden on-rush of water entrapped a number of cars along the half-mile stretch. With the exception of the occupants of about ten cars stalled within 400 or 500 feet of the bridge, all of the motorists were able to leave their cars, some of them being carried to safety by the State Highway crew and others who were working from the west end of the inundated area.
The waters continued to rise, and Sergeant Hastings reasoned that the most expedient method of rescue would be in the taking of a lifeline to the marooned victims. About 600 feet of rope was immediately secured and made ready, but this method proved futile because of the current which was so swift that men were swept from their feet on every attempt. Darkness had fallen and people were desperately clinging to their cars, trees, or any substantial object which they could find, calling and pleading for help.
A State Division of Forestry fire truck, heavily laden with a ballast of water, was then dispatched into the raging waters, but it, too, became stalled before reaching its goal. On this fire truck was an officer of the California Highway Patrol. Assisted by the others, after the truck had stalled, he rescued a number of stranded victims by using a fire hose for a lifeline, hauling them to the comparative safety of the fire truck. In one instance an automobile containing six passengers was emptied of its human cargo just before it was swept from the highway to deeper water and oblivion below. The- current was so swift that even the fire truck was eventually swept from the highway. After the dismal failure of another large truck and a tractor, Sergeant Hastings made a direct appeal to the U.S. Army for assistance. Two large, high-wheeled army trucks and a detachment of soldiers, under the command of Major Casseday, were immediately dispatched from March Field to the scene of disaster. In the face of imminent danger, Major Casseday and his men drove through the mad rushing waters where other motor vehicles had foundered. They succeeded in pulling the stranded victims, together with the other rescuers, onto their truck, and brought them back to safety without one motorist having lost his life.
The primary duty of the California Highway Patrol is to safeguard the motoring public against any hazard which might endanger their safety on the highways. I believe that our officers very thoroughly fulfilled this obligation during this recent catastrophe. Work was carried on even after the flood had done its worst and the waters had receded, when it became necessary to establish one-way shuttle controls over numerous sections of highways. To insure absolute safety, our officers remained on duty 24 hours of the day. The work of recovering from the damage done is still in progress. In many places metal detectors are being employed to locate cars and machinery which was left buried so deeply that not even the tops are visible.
We are very fortunate in having no loss of life by motorists using any of the highways under my jurisdiction, in either Riverside or San Bernardino County, as a result of this devastating flood. To me this reflects very highly on the [illegible] of the California Highway Patrol personnel and the efficient manner in which they functioned during this crisis.
With all telephone lines paralyzed by the floods and thousands of frantic calls being received by the Los Angeles headquarters and substations of the patrol from anxious relatives and from trucking and other business concerns, the radio was called upon to save the day.
Radio station KFI utilized its special short-wave facilities and contacted amateur operators in surrounding counties to secure accurate road information from the patrol offices. When this information was received by KFI, it was in turn relayed to the patrol headquarters and given to scores of officers who worked at high speed answering phone calls and put in long, tiring hours during the emergency. Each of the three substations was kept busy every minute, and while the water made use of motorcycles impossible, officers used their private cars in answering calls for assistance and in performing scores of heroic deeds.
Numerous trucks were marooned, and as these were carrying needed merchandise for the city, the patrol did excellent duty throughout all the southern counties in getting these vehicles through.
Scores of commendatory letters have been received by Chief Cato.
Click to enlarge.
The CHP Museum is housed at the CHP Academy, 3500 Reed Ave., West Sacramento, Calif., 95605. It is open weekdays by appointment (by email: CHPMuseum@gmail.com). The museum receives no state funding; it relies exclusively on donations and sponsorships. Donations are graciously accepted by mail at the preceding address or by PayPal through the museum's website, CHPMuseum.org.
"In addition to preserving and protecting the history of the California Highway Patrol, the CHP Museum strives to educate visitors about the rich past of the CHP and how it evolved to meet the changing roadway systems in this country since the inception of the motor vehicle. We also strive to honor those who have given their lives in service to the California Highway Patrol and the people of California.
"We host tours of school groups, and visiting dignitaries who want to see for themselves the history of the CHP and, as part of their regular training, CHP cadets visit to learn about the rich past of the patrol and to reinforce the concept of a tradition of public service.
"The CHP Museum has participated in several car shows; CHP Volunteers attached to the Placerville CHP Office have embraced the restoration and maintenance of many of the museum's vehicles, and those vehicles, including the sole surviving CHP Moto Guzzi, have traveled throughout the area to be displayed at car shows.
"It is the goal of the museum to provide a constantly changing array of exhibits. We are planning an exhibit to highlight the popular television show CHiPs by displaying a variety of memorabilia. Also in the planning stages are upgrades to other exhibits such as the Women's Traffic Officer Program (WTOP), where women first attended the academy to become state traffic officers, and an exhibit honoring Homer Garrett, the CHP's first African American officer. Garrett fought for acceptance from a skeptical community and later became a judge.
" Our long-range goals include the construction of a separate building to house an expanded CHP Museum where our artifacts and vehicle can be properly displayed and maintained. It is our desire to do this without using state funds so that the CHP Museum can truly be a museum built by the people of California and the world."
— CHP Museum, 2019