Monday, March 7, 2011

The Baldwin Hills Dam Breaks - December 14, 1963

Baldwin Hills dam break aftermath Dec. 1963 #14 by srk1941
Two women pose amidst the wreckage at the entrance to Garage Court 6.  Building # 32 in the background has suffered extensive damage - nearly a third of the building has disappeared.  Baldwin Hills Village, December, 1963.  (Author's collection)

(Helen Spears moved into Baldwin Hills Village in August 1942.  She and her husband “Doc” were long time residents, living at 5482 Village Green for nearly fifty years.  This article by Helen Spears is reprinted from a 1970’s issue of the Village Green newsletter.  Photographs accompanying this post are from Kodachrome slides from my own collection, as well as in the Village Green archives)

     It is Saturday, December 14, 1963.
     On the way to Flavio’s Beauty Shop in the Baldwin Hills Arcade, I notice the La Brea Avenue gutters.  They are running full of muddy water.  The flow has no resemblance to the drainage usually running down the hill or to the larger one which occurs when an outlet pipe from the Baldwin Hills Reservoir is serviced.
     Workers have been checking a leak in the face and bottom of the dam since yesterday – it seems to be enlarging.  Periodically we get radio and television reports as to their findings.  The news is unnerving.  During my hikes in the hills since the dam was placed in service in 1951, the sight of 292 million gallons of water in the reservoir lake behind a dirt fill dam in somewhat geologically unstable land has seemed questionable.  Oh, well, “not to worry”.
     With shampoo finished and curlers in place, I am sitting under the dryer when the bull horns start sounding their urgent message to evacuate the area.  A cordon of slightly less than 100 motorcycle officers has assembled in the parking area around the Thriftimart and begin going house to house throughout the hills and lower areas warning people to leave.

Corner of Rodeo and La Brea, Baldwin Hills Flood - December 14, 1963 by srk1941
Flood waters at the corner of La Brea and Rodeo.  

     Patrons in the beauty shop are becoming increasingly restless.  Hair still wet, I gather my belongings, implore other shop occupants to depart, and head for home.  I find some of my neighbors departing.  The man next door says he does not plan to leave, and calmly carries his waste basket to the trash yard.  I have no time to try to be persuasive.
     Quickly, I pack a suitcase with clothing for my husband and me.  He is out somewhere Christmas shopping.  Documents related to my job are gathered, Venetian blinds and inside doors are closed against the possible intrusion of water.

Baldwin Hills dam break Dec.14, 1963  by srk1941
A very rare Kodachrome image of the actual Baldwin Hills Dam Break.  December 14, 1963.  (Author's Collection)

     Where shall I go?  La Brea is impassable.  The Fedco corner is too low-lying.  Traffic is heavy.  I remember the Washington Boulevard and La Brea intersection near my auto mechanic’s shop is at a higher elevation.  Circuitously, I arrive at Franc’s Drive-in on the southwest corner, park my car, and run inside for the television report.  It is 12:50 pm and helicopter observers give the Dam just a few more minutes.
     I run out to the parking lot where I have a full view of the Dam at almost an equal elevation.  Slowly at first, the water starts.  Then the crumbling takes over and a huge water wheel cuts a V-shaped notch.  A wall of water hits the first house on the east side of the canyon which runs down Cloverdale Avenue.  One by one each house is devoured until none is left.  I watch this spectacle alternately outside in the parking lot, and inside on television where details are intimately shown by the helicopter camera.

Village Green - Baldwin Hills Flood by srk1941
Building 33 suffers the most damage - half the building is destroyed (Village Green Archives)
     Water roars down the canyon, bouncing off the east wall and engulfing houses on the opposite side.  Continuing down the steep hill, the flood gains momentum and hits Coliseum Street at Cloverdale.  At Duray Place it spreads out fan-like to cover almost all Baldwin Hills Village at varying levels.  The flow runs diagonally across to Rodeo Road and Hauser Boulevard in large volume, and flows on into Ballona Creek.  It swirls around Baldwin Hills School on the west and toward Santa Rosalia on the east.
     A few hours later, only a sea of mud remains.  Passage along Coliseum is no longer possible with both Duray and Cloverdale cut across to a depth of fifteen feet.  Underground pipes are bent and hang suspended in the holes.  Great chunks of concrete, parts of houses, autos, refrigerators, stoves, clothing, papers, and old organ with foot pedals, sofas… everything… lies scattered about.

Village Green - Baldwin Hills Flood by srk1941
Damage to the three-bedroom unit at Building 31.  (Author's Collection)

     Police Chief William Parker is glad he made the decision to evacuate the area.  He took the initiative even though risking becoming a laughing stock later if his judgment proved wrong.  Both Mayor Samuel Yorty and his second-in-command are out of the city.
     Communication becomes a great problem.  Where is my husband?  I try calling home.  Telephones are working, but there is no answer.  From the mechanic’s home I call Long Beach where our families live, to assure them of my safety, and to tell them to relay any call from my husband – but what if---?  I dismiss that morbid thought.
     The hours drag, fraught with news of the destruction.  Finally, at ten o’clock that night, a message comes with good news.  My husband is safe in a home on Carmona Street on the hillside just east of La Cienega.
     Water had overtaken him at the Fedco corner.  He had heard no forewarning.  Fearfully, he abandoned the car and attempted to climb a nearby telephone pole.  Finding that unwise, he continued up the hill, clothing wet and muddy, and was taken into the home of a kind lady who gave him dry trousers and slippers to don.  Later, a hot dinner was served to him and three other evacuees.

Village Green - Baldwin Hills Flood by srk1941
Wrecked cars and garage buildings. (Author's Collection)

     The mechanic’s son offers to drive me in his “hot rod” to pick up my husband.  We start out only to be turned back time after time by the impossibility of gaining traction on slippery streets.  As we pass Ballona Creek, masses of debris and household articles float along in the still large volume of water.  We find our way, fan-tailing as we go, up La Cienega to a road normally closed.  In passing we observed my husband’s car which has been washed south from the intersection at Rodeo and La Cienega along with many other autos, and two truck operators offering to haul people out for exorbitant sums.
     My companion and I reach our destination.  At long last my husband and I are together and safe!
     We make our way back to my husband’s blue station wagon and hitch it to the back of the car we are using.  When we reach the garage, the mechanic and his son spend what remains of the night draining all possible sludge from the body and engine.  They rehabilitate the wagon, and today, after 240,000 miles, it is still going merrily along.
     We spend the night in a Crenshaw Boulevard motel and try to return to the Village on foot the next day.  We give up after falling time after time in the slippery clay-mud.  It is two feet deep in places.
     We try again the next morning when it has dried a little, going through police block and proving our residence to get a pass in a command tent set up nearby.  No one will be permitted into the area for some time except for residents.  Sightseers are turned back and property protection is well organized.
     When we reach home, we cannot enter until mud blocking the door is shoveled away.  The patio is covered with sticky silt as are all the garage courts.  We have parked some distance away.  Inside, the apartment only two inches of mud covers the kitchen floor and a part of the dining room carpet.  Water had come in the door only through the mail slot!  Everything else is OK.

Administration Building - Baldwin Hills Village after Baldwin Hills dam break Dec  1963 by srk1941
The Administration Building on Rodeo Road. (Author's Collection)

     The next day we meet and escort a carpet man to take out the sodden mess to be cleaned.  Villagers have to vouch for all tradesmen and friends who enter.
     The man next door who would not leave had remained with his wife in their three-bedroom apartment.  Two policemen had come to encourage them to leave and were trapped by the onrush of water.  The men carried the electric organ, antique furniture and a valuable glass collection upstairs.  The officers were rescued later in the afternoon by a police helicopter which landed on the roof of the dining room.  Their police vehicle had been washed away.
     Searches are in progress for missing persons.   One is found under a stack of automobiles and debris at the end of a Village garage court immediately below the canton.  Another is found in one of the apartment buildings.  Three others drowned in an excavation on Rodeo Road.  Only five lost!  What a miracle!  Chief Parker was right.
     One friend was discovered perched on top of her piano in her downstairs apartment during the height of the flood.  She was rescued.
     Many residents had absolutely nothing left and about 500 cars were “totaled” in the area.  Thirty-nine police motorcycles and some patrol cars were lost as officers fled for safety on foot before the wall of water.
     For several days, residents clean and wash articles, shovel mud, hire workers to help dig out courts and garages, and move belongings from homes flooded to ceilings and devoid of window glass.  No looting occurs.

Village Green - Baldwin Hills Flood by srk1941
Building 33, Building 32 in the background.  (Village Green Archives)

     Soon the Army Corps of Engineers sets up headquarters nearby with trucks, skip loaders, scrapers, tractors, and very efficient personnel.  Rehabilitation has begun.
     After six months, almost every apartment is refurbished and occupied.  Landscaping has replaced mud.  Most of the trees withstood the current and new grass and shrubs appear.


  1. We moved to Ridgeley Dr., right across street from the Village Green, in 1947 and I went to Baldwin Hills Elementary School, Audubon Junior High School, and Dorsey High School.

    I got married in 1962 and we lived in "The Dons" in 1963. We were at my in-laws house on Potomac Dr. and my wife and I left our young son with his grandma and grandpa and walked to La Brea and Rodeo, across from the Baldwin Theatre, to see the water flowing from the dam.

    My mother still lived on Ridgeley Dr. and since the street was west of the dam there was no damage to her house though she had to show the police that she lived on the street in order to get home.

    1. We lived at 3817 South Ridgeley until about 1961 and were just up the hill at 5200 Sanchez Drive when the reservoir broke. The water missed our house by about 8 houses.

    2. We lived just a few doors down from you!

  2. Thank you for your blog. It is turning out to be very important to us in our community. Yours is a beautiful community that seems to have been made stronger after the tragic events on June 14, 1963.

    We have included a link to your blog on the Westchester Gasette's story today. We should have all learned from your community's tragedy.

    Thank you, again.

  3. I lived in the Village from 1960-1967 and remember the flood and the aftermath. I recently found some flood pics of the Village and posted them on Facebook on a Village Green page.

  4. Great photos and stories Steven Keylon. When I was about 9, a couple older boys took my bike from me on Sycamore, just a little ways from my Court One Apartment. Mom called the cops and when they showed up they found the bike just about where the boys "took" it. One of the boys said his name was "Singer", like Donald above. Could it be?

    Steve Close

  5. We lived at 5279 Sanchez Drive. This last spring we made a trip to the area and visited the overlook and the park.

  6. Fabulous report.. and indeed it was a miracle only 5 lives were lost. Good call Chief Parker!!! Donald Singer: I think you and a friend "stole" my bike c 1953. Two bigger kids acosted me on Sycamore across from my court one apartment at 5130 VG and demanded I give up the bike. One said "my name is Singer". I'll never forget it. I went home without the bike and Mom called the POlice. When they arrived we went outside and found the bike right where it was "stolen".

  7. On Dec. 14, it will have been 50 years since the disaster. I lived on the hill on Weatherford, just off Cloverdale, where all the water came down. Just missed our home, but the neighbors next door lost half of their house to the flood. What a tragic day! I was celebrating my 10th birthday with a party at our house. When the police came to the neighborhood, going door to door, telling each homeowner to evacuate, my mom and dad called the parents to quickly pick up their boys and dad took a couple to their homes. It was then a mad dash out of the area on to our cousins' house in Baldwin Hills near Stocker. My brother, sister and I spent an anxious 12 hours until my dad was able to get back in the neighborhood to view our home was intact. I will never forget it!

  8. Wow I don't believe this! When I was 6 we lived at Village Green in 1962 and I think part of 63. I learned to ride a bike coasting down a slope of the open green of Village Green that was toward Hauser St. I thought our mailing address was Bowcroft, but I know that Assembly Engineers (where my dad worked) was on Bowcroft , From there we moved over between MGM lot 3 and Studio Village. We must have just missed this! Unbelievable!

  9. Wow I don't believe this! When I was 6 we lived at Village Green in 1962 and I think part of 1963. I learned to ride a bike coasting down a slope of the open green of Village Green that was toward Hauser St. I thought our mailing address was Bowcroft, but I know that Assembly Engineers (where my dad worked) was on Bowcroft , From there we moved over between MGM lot 3 and Studio Village. We must have just missed this!