Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures
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Hill's Ranch Rodeo (Saugus Speedway)
Great Flood of March 2, 1938


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Paul Hill's Saugus Rodeo grounds, showing the effects of the Great Flood of March 2, 1938, when the Santa Clara River overflowed and filled Hill's ranch home and arena with mud and debris. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the "old buildings ... collapsed during the March floods" and the arena was built anew.

Nonetheless, Hill lost the ranch sometime after the April 1938 rodeo. According to Reynolds, the property was repossessed by the bank. In 1939, ownership passed to William Bonelli, and it was renamed Bonelli Stadium. He introduced auto racing that same year and eventually renamed it Saugus Speedway.

In this photograph, taken on or about March 2, 1938, the fence is still painted with the sign advertising the previous year's rodeo (12th Annual Rodeo, Sunday, April 25, 1937, 2 p.m.). It appears the sign was changed only to the extent necessary; the "2" in 12th, the "5" in April 25 and the "7" in 1937 are all that were changed from 1936.

2x3-inch glossy print from the collection of Jennifer Jones.


About the Great Flood of 1938.

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.

Considered a 50-year flood, it started Feb. 27, 1938, when a storm system moved in from the Pacific Ocean and hit the San Gabriel Mountains. The region was soaked with continual rainfall that caused only routine flooding until a second storm came on the heels of the first. Driven by gale-force winds, it hit March 1 at about 8:45 p.m., dumping 10 inches of rain in the lowlands and at least 32 inches in the mountains. Almost every vacation resort in the San Gabriels washed away; most were never rebuilt (see Robinson 1977).

The Santa Clarita Valley wasn't spared. The Santa Clara River overflowed. Roads and bridges were wiped out and ranch buildings situated along the riverbank floated away. (Note to current residents: The Santa Clara River might look dry most of the year, but watch out when it rains. It's prone to flash flooding. Stay away.)

As hard as Los Angeles County got hit, Orange and Riverside counties actually sustained more damage because they lacked the kind of flood-control system L.A. had with the Santa Ana River system. (The Santa Ana, Los Angeles and San Gabriel rivers overflowed, too.) But Los Angeles was far more populated; Orange and Riverside counties were largely agricultural.

In response to the 1938 flood, Congress passed the Flood Control Act of 1941, which authorized the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to channelize the Los Angeles River and parts of the Santa Ana.

And that's why the L.A. River is a concrete flood-control channel instead of the wild-flowing river it once was.

— Leon Worden 2013


About Hill's Ranch Rodeo / Saugus Speedway.

The future Saugus Speedway was built originally as a rodeo arena in 1927 by Roy Baker, brother of shoe magnate C.H. Baker.

Roy Baker purchased the 40-acre property east of Bouquet Junction in 1923 for the purpose of breeding and selling show and pleasure horses. To that end he imported saddle brood mares from Kentucky and studded them with a pedigreed, chestnut-colored saddlebred stallion named Peavine McDonald (b. 1910), which sired five pedigreed mares and four pedigreed colts between 1920 and 1936. Baker advertised that he had 2,500 acres of grazing land and also offered training and boarding services for outside horses.

Probably to attract horse buyers to his ranch in faraway Saugus, Baker staged rodeos. Some references suggest he built a 12,000-seat arena in 1924, but this is dubious. We do know he held a rodeo on the property on April 11, 1926. That December, Baker and partner Bob Anderson started construction on a new stadium, complete with partially covered grandstand seating and a quarter-mile oval track. When it opened May 1, 1927, it seated 18,000 fans, and thousands more had to be turned away for lack of room.

Over the next decade, ownership of the arena would change hands three more times.

As with a majority of the American populace, Baker was hit hard financially by the Great Depression of 1929 and was forced to sell the stadium to cowboy actor Hoot Gibson in 1930. Gibson continued to hold rodeos at the stadium and drew a Hollywood crowd including famous actors such as William S. Hart, Harry Carey, Tom Mix, and John Wayne. He also used the stadium as a movie set or leased it to other companies for film making.

But Gibson felt the effects of the Depression, as well. In September 1933 he appeared in a Los Angeles courtroom and pleaded poverty, saying he had no assets with which to repay a $2,500 loan. He testified that he owned a one-third interest in Hoot Gibson Inc., which owned the Saugus rodeo, and that it was in arrears.

In 1934, Gibson sold the stadium to Paul Hill, owner of the Western Livestock Stockyards, who continued to call it the Hoot Gibson Rodeo. As with his predecessors, however, the stadium brought Hill financial hardship when it was hit by the Great Flood of March 2, 1938. Heavy rains that year caused a river of water to flow down Soledad Canyon and filled the ranch home and arena with mud and debris. As reported in the Los Angeles Times, the "old buildings ... collapsed during the March floods" and the arena was built anew.

Nonetheless, Hill lost the ranch sometime after the April 1938 rodeo. According to Reynolds, the property was repossessed by the bank. In 1939, ownership passed to William Bonelli, and it was renamed Bonelli Stadium.

Bonelli, a professor of economics at Occidental College, continued the annual rodeo tradition for a number of years but introduced auto racing in 1939 on a more frequent schedule; ultimately auto racing became the primary draw and Bonelli renamed the arena Saugus Speedway. Occasional rodeos and circuses continued until at least the late 1960s, auto racing until 1995. The facility was sometimes used for concerts before the grandstands were removed in 2012 (the originals had been replaced in 1955). The venue continues to host an outdoor swap meet.


JN3801: 19200 dpi jpeg from original print | Online & archival digital images only.
FLOODS 1938/1941

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Calif. Highways 4/1938

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Panhorst: Highways 1938

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Saugus Rodeo (Speedway) 1938

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Acton 1938?

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Mentryville 1938?

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Santa Clara River

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Nickel-Freese Home, Acton

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Train Derailed
3/25/1938

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