H. B. Wesner, Untitled [New River, Los Angeles], c. 1890, California Historical Society, CHS2016_2069
By Shelly Kale
In the late nineteenth century, San Bernardino-based Henry B. Wesner (1853–1932) photographed the effects of floods in the region. This image in his “Views of Southern California Scenery” series shows severed telegraph wires, felled steel beams, floating vegetation, and flooded railroad tracks—evidence of the destruction caused by flash floods common to the Los Angeles area during this period.1
Wesner’s image captures the dynamic quality of a river during flash floods. His eye-level perspective suggests the river’s momentum as it accommodates new waters in a seemingly peaceful wave.2
Photographs of floods would naturally have interested California’s first state engineer William Hammond Hall (1846–1934), who added this image to his collection, which was subsequently donated to the California Historical Society in 1951.3
Upon his appointment as state engineer in 1878, Hall began a systematic and far-reaching study of the state’s use of water and complex natural water systems. In 1880, he created the first integrated, comprehensive flood control plan for the Sacramento Valley.
Throughout his tenure, which ended in 1889, Hall attempted to revise California’s antiquated water laws and design a comprehensive water system. As Kevin Starr observes, Hall’s “envisionings” were an outgrowth of his work designing San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park (1871–76), through which he imagined “California as irrigated parkland ready for productive use.”4
While we don’t know Hall’s specific connection with Wesner’s photograph, his collection at the California Historical Society includes records of irrigation projects in southern California. These are the basis for his 1888 account of the irrigation works in Los Angeles, San Bernardino, and San Diego counties, Irrigation in California (Southern), which included a description of Los Angeles County’s “New River” and “Old River.”5
The nomenclature refers to the effects of heavy rains in 1867–68 on the San Gabriel River—a tributary to the Los Angeles River from 1825 to 1867. As explained in a 2007 historical ecology study, the storms caused “the most violent and dramatic change in the river since Europeans had begun to occupy southern California; a break in the a logjam in the canyon above Whittier Narrows sent a rush of water with such velocity that it changed the course of the river.” 6 During these storms, in which nearly fifty inches of rain fell over a thirty- to forty-day period, most of the flow migrated east and was called the “New River.”
Between 1884 and 1912, the New River changed course several times. Wesner’s photograph was likely taken during this period. In late December 1889, flash floods caused by regional storms caused several railroad tracks and bridges to wash away, including “a broken bridge over the New river.”7
Flood control was one of Hall’s key proposals to the state, along with the establishment of irrigation districts and regulation of the state’s water supply. However, Hall was ultimately unsuccessful in convincing the legislature to bring about these goals, and the state abandoned its water planning efforts in 1893. “Had the legislature accepted Hall’s proposals,” notes historian Donald Pisani, “California would have enjoyed the most advanced code of water laws in the arid West.”8
As Kevin Starr reflects, “A complex man . . . neither a pure public servant nor a pure entrepreneur, William Hammond Hall nevertheless achieved the first consistent act of foundational thinking regarding the future California might have through water. In this act of water prophecy, Hall made an enduring contribution.”9
The author thanks Richard D. Thompson and Alison Moore of the California Historical Society for their help with sources and astute observations.
1. According to a flood table prepared by the United States Weather Bureau, forty-one floods occurred in the Los Angeles vicinity from 1878 to 1914; H. D. McGlashan and F. C. Ebert, Southern California Floods of January, 1916 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office), 40.
2. According to the January 1982 San Bernardino Courier, “Mr. Wesner has one of the finest photo studios in southern California” (reproduced in Richard D. Thompson, Library News June 2013, City of San Bernardino Historical and Pioneer Society). A partner with his brother Michael in Wesner Brothers Imperial Photographic Parlor, established in 1884, the adventurous Wesner also traveled throughout the region in the Wesner Brothers Photographic Car, established in 1880 (Carl Mautz, Biographies of Western Photographers: A Reference Guide to Photographers Working in the 19th Century American West [Nevada City, CA: Carl Mautz Publishing, 1997)], 153). In 1893, for example, he roamed the county in search of “all the most interesting objects” for an album to be displayed at the California Midwinter International Exposition of 1894 (“News of the Studio,” Pacific Coast Photographer 2, no. 9 [October 1893], 406). Eight feet high and 4 feet square, the album was commissioned in recognition of “the value of photography as a means of conveying knowledge of view scenery” (“California Photography: It Renders Quite a Service to the State at the World’s Fair,” Pacific Coast Photographer 2, no. 1 [February 1893], 406). According to local newspapers, by April 1896 Wesner had “grown weary of photography business” (San Bernardino Daily Sun, April 23, 1896), closed his studio (San Bernardino Daily Sun, May 16, 1896), and left for Appleton, Illinois (San Bernardino Daily Sun, June 2, 1896). On a return trip to San Bernardino in the spring of 1920, he noted the changes that occurred in San Bernardino from the perspective of his new and prosperous life as a Midwestern farmer: “The changes that have come in San Bernardino since I was here indicate that we have not had all the prosperity in Illinois” (San Bernardino Daily Sun, April 12, 1920).
3. William Hammond Hall Papers, 1878–1914, MSS 913, 914, 915 [hereafter cited as Hall Papers], California Historical Society, San Francisco.
4. For an account of Hall’s career, see Donald J. Pisani, From the Family Farm to Agribusiness: The Irrigation Crusade in California and the West, 1850–1931 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 154–190. Kevin Starr, Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s (New York/Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1990), 8.
5. Irrigation in Southern California, c. 1888, box 4, folder 35, and Irrigation Projects in Southern CA, no date (L.A., San Diego, San Bernardino), box 4, folder 37, Hall Papers. William Hammond Hall, Irrigation in California (Southern): The Field, Water-supply, and Works, Organization and Operation in San Diego, San Bernardino, and Los Angeles Counties: The Second Part of the Report of the State Engineer of California on Irrigation and the Irrigation Question (Sacramento, CA: State Office, 1888), 575–601.
6. Eric D. Stein et al., Historical Ecology and Landscape Change of the San Gabriel River and Floodplain (Southern California Coastal Research Project Technical Report #499, February 2007), 13, 47. The authors quote a 1915 interview that describes a first-person account of the flood, including this episode: “He [Henry Roberts] found a dead grizzly bear out in the center of the pile of logs after he had been hauling logs from the pile quite awhile. The skeleton of the bear and hide was all there, and he said it looked as if it had been caught in the flood, and tried to save himself by riding the drift wood.” (p. 13).
7. Stein et al., Historical Ecology, 47. “Storm Effects: Several Railroad Bridges Washed Away,” Los Angeles Herald, December 26, 1889.
8. Pisani, From the Family Farm to Agribusiness, 178, 185.
9. Starr, Material Dreams, 13.
Shelly Kale is Publications and Strategic Projects Manager at the California Historical Society. Formerly Managing Editor of California History from 2007 to 2013, she has held editorial and administrative positions in academic, museum, educational, electronic, and trade and mass-market publishing.
This article originally appeared in Spotlight, a feature of the California History journal (Vol. 93, #1), published by the University of California Press in association with the California Historical Society. Conceived by former journal editor and historian Janet Fireman as a last-page photographic feature that itself would evoke a lasting image for journal’s readers, Spotlight draws from CHS’s vast and diverse collection of California photography and photographic history.
California History, Vol. 93, Number 1, pp. 64–66, ISSN 0162-2897, electronic ISSN 2327-1485. ©2016 by the Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.
To learn more about H. B. Wesner, read a biographical essay by Richard D. Thompson: http://californiahistoricalsociety.blogspot.com/2016/02/henry-beecher-wesner-18531932-san.html