Environment & Science

Vintage photos tell the tale of historic Southern California flood

Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Emerson Hardware in Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
The Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad bridge during the flood of 1916.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Evacuating the Mexican quarter at 4th and Artesia in Santa Ana during the historic flood of 1916.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Garden Grove after the flood of 1916.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Laguna Beach during a flood on February 12, 1926.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
The mouth of the Santa Ana River after waters broke through a flood channel during the flood of 1927. The Coast Blvd. and Pacific Electric Railroad suffered extreme damage.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Crystal Cove after flood damage on February 16, 1937.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
KVOE radio during a flood in Santa Ana on March 3, 1938.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Grand Avenue in Buena Park during the flood of 1938.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Edinger Avenue at Santa Ana River in Fountain Valley during a flood in the spring of 1958.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Flooding at the Food Ranch located at Bolsa and Harbor in Santa Ana on February 24, 1969.
Photo courtesy of Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
A flooded parking lot at Knott's Berry Farm, circa 1970.
Photo courtesy of the Orange County Archives
Garden Grove during the flood of 1916.
Buses in a flooded Los Angeles lot, division 15, after a storm. Circa 1980s.
Photo courtesy of the Metro Library and Archive


Every time it rains in Southern California, it can feel like the first time. But the region has weathered severe storms, and there are pictures — some of which date back a century — to prove it.

One hundred years ago, in January of 1916, the Southland was drenched with heavy rains and San Diego was the hardest hit

Coming off a drought, the city had hired self-proclaimed rainmaker Charles Hatfield, who claimed he could coax water from the skies and fill the Morena Reservoir — for a fee of $10,000.

The rains began in early January, and by the end of the month, the Southland was soaked. Miles of tracks were destroyed, and trains were stopped for 32 days. Highways and the telephone lines were cut off.

Historian Thomas W. Patterson recalled the devastation:

On the high land of San Diego itself life seemed to be perched, wet and insecure, above raging disaster. The San Diego River was a mile-wide torrent covering Mission Valley from the Kearny Mesa to the mesa of the city and sending back-waters between the jutting fingers of both. Great trees tumbled root over branch. Sticks of lumber, railroad ties and parts of houses floated crazily. Out of the gullies from the east and south came droves of cattle, horses, sheep and goats.

The worst disaster occurred when the Lower Otay Dam failed and flooded a settlement of Japanese people, killing between 20 and 60 people.

For years afterward, it would be known as the "storm of the century" — or, as many preferred to call it, "Hatfield's flood." Although there was talk of lynching him, that didn't stop Charles Hatfield from demanding his full fee.

The city council refused to pay unless Hatfield also accepted liability for damages caused by the storm. Hatfield sued, and after years in court, the storms were ruled an act of God. Hatfield never received a penny of his promised $10,000.

Since then, Southern California has experienced several floods — in 1926, 1938, 1958 and 1969, to name a few instances — as these vintage photographs attest.