1984 Echo Park Lake clean up photos courtesy Gloria Sohacki
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. The Eastsider will present those stories in upcoming days beginning with today’s post.
By Rory Mitchell
The fences are up and soon Echo Park Lake will drain out to the Pacific Ocean leaving behind “a stinking mud flat, unsightly and foul” with “the stench and foul odors … a menace to the health of the city.” Or at least that’s how the L.A. Times described the situation when the lake was partially drained in 1902.
In anticipation of the scheduled tw0-year, $65 million rehabilitation of Echo Park Lake, we look to its past to inform its present.
The first time the lake was drained in 1900 was to facilitate the construction of Glendale Boulevard (then called Lake Shore.) The last time the lake was drained was in 1984. In between the lake was drained in 1902, 1906, 1919, 1922, 1932 and 1946 for a variety of reasons. What were those reasons and what can they reveal about the history of Echo Park Lake and its place in the community?
For more than a century, Echo Park Lake has meant many different things to Echo Park and Los Angeles. The water has become a repository not only of the refuse and waste of the city but also its values and aspirations, its tragedy and its joy. Like many of the stories we tell ourselves about Los Angeles this one is about the water, our reflection on its surface and what lies hidden in the darkness below.
Until the arrival of water from the Owens Valley in 1913, the water in the lake would regularly be repurposed for domestic uses. The “stinking mud flat” of 1902 was created by selling off the water in the lake to irrigators in the southern part of the city. Superintendent Mulholland patiently explained “If they stop selling the water to irrigators, the lake will not get empty.”
Drought dried portions of the lake in 1904 and the stench was so powerful that “visitors who happened to wander into that section which catches the wind from off the lake turn and flee as from a pestilence.” April of 1906 found Echo Park Lake overflowing its bounds, submerging the island and flooding Temple Boulevard but by October the lake was dry again with the water diverted to domestic purposes. The remaining water was “foul with decaying moss and dead animal matter” to the point that some people suggested that “the hill section surrounding the park [be] leveled and the lake filled.”
In 1919, in the first clean up of Echo Park Lake, the park was not fenced off and the youth of Echo Park made a “popular sport” of catching gold fish by hand in the pools of water left behind. “Most of the bed [was] now deep, soft ooze, similar to quicksand” so when a 16 year old girl made her birthday “A Goldfish Party” and she and her older sister fell into the ooze and began to sink, a fast-acting young man on the shore became a hero. Earle Emery, 16, laid planks out to where the girls had been fishing and with the use of a pole, dragged them out of the sucking mud. When the girls’ mother suggested he receive a medal, Mr. Emery demurred “Anybody could have done it if he had been quick and kept his head. Medal? Shucks, I don’t want a medal.”
When the popularity of the park and boating on the lake necessitated a new, Spanish style Boathouse with a faux lighthouse that caused the lake to be drained in 1932, it only took them two months to drain the lake, build the boathouse and refill the lake.
An attempt to clean out Echo Park Lake in the early 1970s prompted the Telco Diving Club to go into the lake and pull out park benches, trash cans and tires. The stuff they found was similar to what was found in 1936, when the police used a powerful electric magnet to search the lake for a .32 revolver used in a robbery/murder. They didn’t find the gun but they did find 15 pounds of nuts, screws and washers, 100 feet of 1-inch galvanized pipe and one metal baby buggy.
That haul is impressive but doesn’t compare to what was found the last time the lake was drained and cleaned in 1984. MacArthur Park had been drained in 1978 and treasure hunters had found a bag of silver dollars and a three foot-long brass submarine. Hoping for the more of the same, swarms of treasure hunters arrived at Echo Park Lake from all over the state with picks and shovels and metal detectors. Echo Park Lake was not as stocked as MacArthur Park but it did reveal some old coins and “thousands of beer and soft drink bottles dating as far back as the 19th century.“
One bottle collector found an old Coca Cola bottle, “an hour-glass shaped vessel inscribed with the words “New Grape.” They also found shopping carts, garbage cans, and “a virtual Himalaya of waterlogged Kleenex.” A group of boys were trapped in the muck and rescued by the fire department.
When the work in 1984 was completed, Echo Park Lake had a new dancing fountain and the community had hope that this time the water would remain clean.
Nearly 30 years later, we’re spending $65 million dollars and two years without the lake in the hopes that they’ll do a better job than they did the last half dozen times.
The pictures of the 1984 lake clean up were taken by members of an Echo Park area family who later entrusted them to Echo Park resident Gloria Sohacki.