Craig’s Corner – Lewis MacAdams and the Los Angeles River


By Craig Ballenger
CalTrout Fly Fishing Ambassador

Lewis MacAdams and the Los Angeles River

During the winter of 1815, the Los Angeles (LA) River washed away the original Pueblo Plaza. Again in 1825 floods returned, churning away woodlands downstream from the Pueblo and slashing a ‘new’ route draining marshlands of the river’s estuary as it emptied into the Pacific Ocean.

Back in 1790, the Los Angeles Pueblo was home to around 140 Spanish. Within 10 years, that population had more than doubled to 315. Who would have believed the population of LA could double in 10 years? We can look even further back for trends and disturbing observations.



Photo: LA River present day by Robert Bieber



Led by Gaspar de Portola and accompanied by Padre Junipero Serra, expedition diarist Fray Juan Crespi penned the first description of the LA River:

“August 2nd, we set off from the valley in the morning (they had camped at Arroyo Seco near modern day Sycamore Grove the precious night) and followed the same plain in a westerly direction. After traveling about a league and a half through a pass between low hills, we entered a spacious valley, well grown with cottonwoods and alders, among which ran a beautiful river from the north northwest, and then doubling the point of a steep hill, went on afterward to the south.”

It was a sacred holiday, “for the great indulgence of our Lady of Los Angeles de Porciunula.” Thus, the river was named by Franciscan monks the Porciuncula. They camped around where Broadway crosses the river. In a classic foreshadowing which would have made Hollywood proud, Crespi noted the valley was fertile, with abundant wild grapes and (he thought) an ideal spot for a settlement.


Photo: Arroyo Seco Bridge by Arroyo Seco Foundation

Photo: Mission San Gabriel by Ken Lund.


Further, he noted, near the confluence of Arroyo Seco and the river, “this dry bed unites with the river giving clear indication of great floods in the rainy season, for we saw that it had trunks of trees on the we felt three consecutive earthquakes in the afternoon and night.”

Hmm, nice spot for a Pueblo, signs of past floods, three earthquakes in a day. What could go wrong? Father Serra decided to build the mission at San Gabriel, on the next river south, in 1771. The civilian village, originally of 44 people from eleven families was founded 10 years later, based on this contemporary observation: “three leagues from that mission (San Gabriel) is found the Rio Porciucula, with much water easy to take on either bank and beautiful lands in which it can all be made use of.”



By 1900, the population of Los Angeles County had easily surpassed 100,000. And it kept growing. The reality was irresistible, more people than water on one hand, and a rebellious river that needed to be tamed on the other. A classic conundrum! Enter William Mulholland, the infamous water superintendent who sold Angelenos on the Owens River Aqueduct in 1904. By 1913 all 300 plus miles of it was online, and Mulholland’s speech as the Owens flowed forth into the San Fernando Valley concluded to an exuberant public and press, “There it is, take it.!”

One year later, the LA River flooded again. But by now, Angelenos’ imbedded boosterism saw no water challenge as too large. And so, plans were developed to channelize Crespi’s “beautiful river, lined with cottonwoods and alder.” By 1920, the county’s population was knocking on the door of a million. The massive floods of 1934 and 37 brought 40 and 49 deaths in the La Cresenta area. Within a few years, Crespi’s river was lined in concrete. The river appeared to be gone.

1974 brought a fictionalized version of the LA River saga to the silver screen, with Roman Polanski’s Chinatown. Now, in the fading decades of the Angelenos’ exuberant century, a beatnik poet showed up at a concrete rim and peered over into a forgotten olfactory flood plain channel.



Not Lewis. From no momentum, relentless and indefatigably, over the next 30 years, he began to turn the tide. Interest slowly emerged. He began a nonprofit called Friends of the LA River. When I dropped in on him at the FOLAR office, I saw a wiry, elderly gent in a pork pie hat. I imagined the poet who spoke of his river and project as art. I mentioned my longtime interest in the beat poets. Of growing up hanging at City Lights Books on Columbus in San Francisco. Of Gregory Corso and Laurence Ferlinghetti, of Alan Ginsburg’s Howl with its iconic opening line, “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,” His eyes lit up, he finished the couplet, then headed off into his own metered lines. We had a good laugh.

His argument with the talking head at LA Department of Public Works is the stuff of legends. The official called it a ‘flood control channel.’ Lewis shot back, it’s a ‘river.’ Back and forth they went, voices rising. Years of haggling, educating, and enthusing locals finally prevailed, against all odds. The Army Corps of Engineers officially designated the LA River a ‘navigable stream’ in 2008. Today there is a massive movement to restore it.

Lewis sadly passed a few weeks ago. And we ponder, did Lewis win? Will steelhead once again find their way up the LA River to spawn? While it seems impossible, the flood gates of fresh thinking make it now seem remotely possible. And while the conservation movement mourns his loss on one hand, his legacy of taking on the ‘impossible’ remains a beacon, a strength, and an enduring challenge on the other. From Crespi’s river, to flood channel, back to river. Lewis MacAdams was stubborn, had no fear, and is likely wandering the river out there somewhere, composing poetry about steelhead.


Photo: Lewis MacAdams, founder of Friends of the Los Angeles River, stands in the river as bulldozers clear vegetation from its channel in anticipation of heavy El Nino-driven rains, expected in the winter of 1997-98 | Blake Gumprecht, courtesy of FoLAR.

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