The Flood of 1938

During mild, dry winters such as the one we’re experiencing this year, it’s easy to forget that the Los Angeles basin has seen its share of extreme flooding. In fact, intense rainfall, flash floods and their associated debris flows are part of the region’s normal climatic cycle. 

A particularly calamitous example of such a flood took place in late February and early March of 1938. That event that killed scores of people and destroyed railroad lines, bridges, roads, and many buildings throughout Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside Counties. Although some flood control infrastructure was already in place at that time, the extent of the damage and loss of life set the region on a path of channelization that would dramatically alter the physical landscape.

As Kevin Roderick explained in the LA Times, it “…was the first major flood to occur since the population boom of the 1920s and ’30s put neighborhoods in the path that storm runoff had followed for eons. Suddenly, the political will appeared to spend millions of dollars on a network of flood control dams and concrete channels that would become the Los Angeles area’s definition of a river.”

While much has been written about this momentous event in Los Angeles history, we can gain a clearer understanding of the flood’s impact on the local community through photographs and film footage shot at that time. Below is a selection of compelling images and video that I’ve found online.


Aerial shot of Hollywood, probably Paramount Studios, followed by footage of the Los Angeles flood circa 1938.
Source: Internet Archive

This video was uploaded to Youtube by americanhistorygal and provides a rare color glimpse of the destructive power of the L.A. River.



Collapsed bridge over the L.A. River at Colfax Avenue in the flood of March, 1938. Photo from LA Times.

The destruction of a Southern Pacific crossing over the LA River after the 1938 Los Angeles flood. Photo from LA Times.

An unknown boy is out exploring his neighborhood (most likely Highland Park) during the flood of 1938. Photo: Don Hall, Sr. via

Learn More:

KCET Departures – The Los Angeles Flood of 1938: The Destruction Begins
Suburban Emergency Management Project: Los Angeles Basin’s 1938 Catastrophic Flood Event
Joe Blackstock on the 1938 Flood
Friends of the Los Angeles River
LA Creek Freak
Los Angeles River Railroads
City of Los Angeles – Los Angeles River Revitalization
KCET Departures – Explore The LA River