The drainage pipe installed on Yosemite Drive prevented flooding, but also caused the creek that once ran there to disappear. USC Digital archive

Water in NELA – Where Water Once Flowed

2019 A Voice in the NELA Wilderness April Christopher Nyerges Columnists Editions
Share the News

A Voice in the NELA Wilderness

by Christopher Nyerges

Much of our recent rainfall has flowed out to the ocean, uncaptured and unused. But it was not always this way. Up until the 1930s, water flowed throughout the area we now know as Northeast Los Angeles.

For example, a description from 1912 of Argus Drive in Eagle Rock, between Colorado Boulevard and Chickasaw Avenue, told of “tree-covered grounds with a small artesian lake supplied by several flowing artesian wells.”
The lake on Argus and other lost water sites are described and mapped in “Myriad Unnamed Streams,” a remarkable series of historical vignettes by Jane Tsong, a local environmentalist and artist. Using Tsong’s map, available at watercalifornia.org/projects/janetsong.html, you can tour the sites by car or bicycle and discover the hidden water history of NELA.

Tsong’s interest in the waters of Los Angeles started in 1997, when she moved to West Los Angeles. She heard there was a freshwater spring in the sports field of a nearby high school, and when she went there, she was mystified by the water flowing naturally through the well-groomed landscape “before unceremoniously disappearing into a drainage grating.” She later learned that this was the historically significant Kuruvungna Springs, the site of an old village, now maintained by the Tongva people.

When she moved to Highland Park in 2003, Tsong learned of the many local springs and streams that had once flowed through NELA. She also learned that most of these waterways had never been named. With help from Eric Warren and Jessica Hall of “Water, California,” a collaboration of artists, writers, architects and scientists, she interviewed locals and began cataloguing the lost waters.

This street map from Jane Tsong’s research shows 1888 water courses and storm drains overlaid onto modern topography. #1 is the where people once waded in the Eagle Rock Creek; #12 and #13 are sites of springs that supported bottled-water companies, including Sparkletts (#12).

Here are highlights from Tsong’s tour:

      The Eagle Rock Creek, now mostly cement, began on Figueroa Street at the westbound onramp of the 134 freeway. In the 1880s, visitors could walk in the stream amid wild roses, blackberries and tiger lilies. The creek flowed roughly in the proximity of Lanark Street before turning west toward Yosemite Drive, where it caused flooding until a large underground drainage pipe was installed in the 1930s, resulting in the creek’s disappearance. However, an altered remnant of the creek is still visible behind the businesses located northeast of Colorado and Figueroa. And a stream still flows along the entrance to the Scholl Canyon dump.

     Further south, abundant artesian waters near York Boulevard and Eagle Rock Boulevard supported several companies that sold bottled water, including Sparkletts. In 1876, the area was described by Ludwig Louis Salvator, the Austrian Archduke who visited the area, as “a small green swamp with clumps of bunch-grass and at the bottom, Sacate de Matico, which never dries out.” By 1880, the area had been drilled and water flowed from the wells under natural pressure without pumping.

      Many of the northeast springs, wells, rivers, streams, and lakes, including a lake-like depression near Sycamore Grove Park in Highland Park, flowed into the Arroyo Seco, as did waterways that flowed from the hills to the north, meandering south along Figueroa and east along La Loma.

     The existence of the lost springs survives in place names: Springvale Drive, (off of Figueroa) was the source of a significant tributary to the Arroyo Seco called the North Branch. The name of the verdant stretch on Argus in Eagle Rock described above is the “Eagle Rock Springs Mobile Home Community.”

Tsong points out that most of the area’s wells were sealed by the City of Los Angeles after Eagle Rock was annexed in 1923. Over time, flowing water, considered a safety hazard or a nuisance was cemented shut or diverted underground into pipes and directed to the Arroyo Seco or the L.A. River. Population growth and many choices made along the way have made NELA’s water landscape mostly invisible.

But Tsong’s map and the stories that go with it help us to envision the past, understand the present and, perhaps, imagine a future where our water no longer rushes unceremoniously to the ocean.


Christopher Nyerges, the author of “Guide to Wild Food,”
can be reached at ChristopherNyerges.com.

3 thoughts on “Water in NELA – Where Water Once Flowed

  1. When I was a kid around 1960, my grandparents lived in Eagle Rock. My family visited often. From their backyard, I could observe the yard nextdoor, where water seemed to be seeping upward from the ground. It was a grassy area with boards tossed in it haphazardly along with other debris. Standing at the fence that separated the property from my grandparents’ yard, I observed newts or salamanders moving in the shallow water. It was an amazing find to a twelve-year-old kid, like a tiny chunk of nature stuck in the midst of suburban cement, streets, and homes. I wanted to go into the yard to see it more closely, but the fence stood in the way. I remember an alley that ran perpendicular to my grandpa’s property line, but I didn’t know how to get to it. I still think of those salamanders from time to time. Was the spring from a branch of one of the artesian waterways under the city?

  2. Do you have any memory of the exact location? Yours was very likely one of the old springs, most of which have been cemented over.

    1. No one can remember the street, but I haven’t given up trying to find the name. My sister doesn’t remember, but my cousins might. It’s more than sad that water springs have been cemented over, and that creeks have been diverted underground. Of course, we don’t want flooding, but isn”t there another recourse? Here in Diamond Bar, Snow Creek has been allowed to flow freely in many areas. The same can be said of a beautiful little creek in Walnut. Unfortunately these areas are now occupied territory, as most of Southern California is becoming. In order to accommodate massive immigration from the eastern hemisphere, once beautiful spaces have been overdeveloped throughout the San Gabriel Valley.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.