By Rory Mitchell
The most frequently asked question about the draining of Echo Park Lake is a morbid one: “Will we find bodies at the bottom of the lake?”
The question may be partly rooted in a belief held by some that somewhere in Echo Park’s not-so-distant “gangland” past, the bodies of murder victims, as well as the weapons used to do them in, would regularly be dumped in Echo Park Lake. However, research has revealed no actual accounts of murder victims found dumped in the lake. But is there any historic evidence to support the community’s collective memory of Echo Park Lake as a watery grave?
By far the most disturbing fact of Echo Park Lake is the number of drownings, both accidental and suicides, that have taken place in its more than 100-year history. A by-no-means-exhaustive survey of the Historic L.A. Times and city records show that at least 60 lives – including children, fugitives and a member of a biker club – have been lost and dozens more close calls have been reported.
Many of those who drowned in the lake were suicides, especially during the 1930s and 1940s. The first recorded drowning in the lake was a suicide in 1896, the year after Echo Park Lake was completed as a public park.
An unemployed insurance agent, Marmaduke Pierce Hyland, who had “taken to drinking,” threw himself into the lake. A dismaying note in the Times adds that a man who lived on the hill above the lake heard Marmaduke’s cries and pulled him from the water “but made no effort to resuscitate him … it is probable the man’s life could have been saved, as he was in the water but a short time.”
The lake has also claimed the lives of those who were out for a good time as well as crime. In 1961, a fugitive attempted to escape into the lake and drowned. In 1966, Tyrone Love, a member of the motorcycle club “The Chosen Ones,” drowned after his club went out for a paddle on the lake when their boat sprang a leak.
A large number of the drowning victims have been children – at least fifteen minors lost their lives in the lake.
The earliest record of a child drowning was in 1901 when a youngster followed a fish out too far. On average, a child would drown every 3 to 4 years after that. Echo Park residents did not seem to wake up to the danger posed to children by the body of water in their midst until 1922 with the drowning of young Arthur Hoppe Jr. To this day it remains the only time that Echo Park Lake has been drained in order to find a body.
“A little red tricycle on which Arthur Hoppe, Jr. rode away from home Thursday morning was found near the shores of the lake. It was this fact that led the officers to think that he had drowned.” Arthur Hoppe Jr was only 2 1/2 years old when he left his home at 649 Laveta Terrace “wearing a blue suit of overalls, trimmed in red, and had no hat.” Later there were reports that he had been seen at the park, walking along the border of the lake.
The police and Arthur Hoppe Sr. spent the night searching for the boy, but “the tangled mass of vegetation growing in the lake has seriously impeded the dragging of the place for the body and as a last resort it was ordered that the lake should be drained to assist in the search. “
The terse conclusion to this drama comes from an internal Parks memo:
Ordered to drain lake at 11 o’clock, Feb 18. Lake empty on Feb 21, 1922 and body of boy found in mud.
The Parks commission sent a letter to the PTA asking them to inform their members that no child under the age of 8 was allowed in the park unaccompanied. When the annual fishing season started on July 15, two more children fell into the water. Though both children were saved, on August 4, 1922, the Parks Commission halted all fishing until city staff could provide proper supervision. One week later, a teenager drowned when the canoe he was riding in capsized.
There are no records of more children drowning in Echo Park Lake for the rest of the ’20s. Nevertheless, in 1929 the city considered “plans for eliminating the danger of youngsters drowning in Echo Park Lake … by filling it to a uniform shallow depth … so that should children spill into the lake they would keep their heads above water while standing.”
It seems nothing was done at that time because the conversation was still going on in 1931 with the Great Depression in full swing. It was proposed then that the city use unemployment funds to pay men to fill the lake “from 16-18 feet in the middle to a depth of 4 feet in the center and 18 inches near the shore … because of a number of drownings from overturned boats.”
A councilman spoke against the proposal pointing out “the type which rocks boats would rock them and drown in 4 feet of water just as easy as 16 feet.”
It wasn’t until the lake was drained and cleaned again in 1948 that “a rock shelf [was] installed around the edges, so that if children fall in they may be rescued easily without their savior having to flounder in several feet of muck.”
Past pictures of the dragging Echo Park Lake for bodies can be seen on Mitchell’s website, valleyspringlane.tumblr.com.
- The dirty details of Echo Park Lake’s last clean up. The Eastsider
- When wetlands grew like weeds across Echo Park Lake. The Eastsider
- Echo Park Lake prepares to go down the drain yet again. The Eastsider
The closure of Echo Park Lake for an upcoming $65 million clean up is far from the first time the lake’s waters have been drained for much needed maintenance. The Eastsider asked Echo Park writer and historical consultant Rory Mitchell to find out what happened when the lake had been emptied during previous clean ups. After diving into the historic archives of the Los Angeles Times and the City of Los Angeles, Mitchell came back not only with stories of previous improvement projects but tales of the social life, animals, dangers and even smells of Echo Park Lake past.