Long Beach Landscape History

On April 2nd, 2014 during my spring break, I attended a special presentation by Larry Rich (the same person I interviewed for my senior journalism project – see Urban Geography: Willow Springs Park).  This presentation, titled Long Beach History: The Natural Environment Prior to Urbanization was hosted by the Angeles Chapter of the Sierra Club and was all about the history of Long Beach’s landscape, from millions of years ago to the present.  This presentation both refreshed my geologic knowledge and helped me learn more about Geographic Information Science (GIS).

Rich started off by showing us a 1896 quad map of Long Beach.  He talked about the use and importance of topographic maps and how the contours used in them are part of spatial history.  The Long Beach and Los Angeles area in general formed thanks to the San Gabriel mountains, which are about 6-7 million years old.  At the time there was uplifting of the land but no basin.  Instead there was just ocean about 10,000 feet deep.  Over time the erosion  of the mountains filled up the basin and created the land that is now Long Beach.

Rich then dived into Long Beach oil history.  Oil only forms in marine environments.  It is created by organic matter and sediment waste that falls to the bottom of the ocean.  Faults in the earth become pockets for oil.  Oil was discovered in Long Beach in 1921.  In Signal Hill, drilling goes 10,000 feet deep today.  There is not as much drilling or wells now and only about 15 more years of oil left in Long Beach.

Rich moved on to the history of river movement in Long Beach.  Rivers were always changing course and flowing all over the basin.  Because of flooding damages and deaths, the rivers are now contained as straight lines that no longer meander.  The Los Angeles River used to empty out where Monica Bay is and the bay used to be crescent-shaped before there were man-made port additions.

Rich next talked about several features of the Long Beach landscape.  The first was the Alamitos Gap.  This involved the creation of a seawater intrusion barrier, which pumps water into an aquifer to keep the seawater from contaminating the fresh water.  The Downey Plain is another feature and was interrupted by the uplift that created Signal Hill.  Native Americans were limited in certain locations corresponding to the landscape features.  The Cerritos Slough was an old river channel that contained slow moving water.  Bouton Creek Park (Jackson Street Park) used to be the site for Indian villages near old creek endpoints and a junction of two waterways and springs.  The springs are gone today though.

Rancho Los Cerritos and Rancho Los Alamitos are two historic sites that feature the time of European, mainly Spanish, rule.  The sites for these two ranchos were favored not just by the Europeans but also the Native Americans who unfortunately were used as slave labor to build adobes.  In 1784, the Spanish soldier, Manuel Nieto was given a land grant and revived everything between the San Gabriel River and the Santa Ana River – a total of 300,000 acres.  When he died in 1806, the land was divided into smaller ranchos by his heirs.  Also during this time Native Americans were brought to missions where they were baptized and converted.  The last one occurred in 1804.

By the 1830s/40s two New England men became Mexican citizens because of a law that allowed only Mexican citizens to own property in Southern California.  John/Juan Temple bought Los Cerritos and Abel Sterns bought Los Alamitos.  (Two streets in Long Beach currently have the name of these men).   These ranchos were used to raise cattle, not for meat because there weren’t enough people to eat it, but for tanning the hides and making candles from the fat.  These items were then shipped back to Boston.  A drought in the 1860s caused many cattle to die from lack of grass to eat.

In 1867 there was a huge flood caused by the San Gabriel River jumping its banks.  Because of this jumping, people did not know which river was the San Gabriel and which was the Los Angeles so they called one the new San Gabriel and the other the old San Gabriel.  After 1883 though people called the river further east the San Gabriel and the other one the Los Angeles River.  The rivers also deposited material that was carried by the ocean currents and created an eight mile long beach.

After the floods, both Temple and Sterns were broke and sold their land in 1866 to the Bixby family, brothers and cousins, who raised sheep on the land.  Later in 1868, another Bixby cousin owned other ranchos.  (They also have places/streets named after them).  The Bixby Ranch boundary line is today Alamitos Avenue.

The city of Compton was one of the first American funded cities.  The railroad brought in more trade and town funding.  The oldest road in Long Beach is Anaheim, which connects San Pedro to Anaheim.  It was also a Native American trail before the European came.  It has been called the “original PCH” (Pacific Coast Highway).

William Wilmore, an Englishman, created 20 acre farm lots, which he sold and subsequently formed the street boundaries Long Beach has today.  Long Beach Boulevard used to be American Way while PCH used to be State Street.  Wilmore though did not sell enough of the lots for his township Wilmore city, so Bixby took the land back.  The city’s name was later changed to its current name of Long Beach by a vote of only 20 people and was backed by the Southern Pacific Railway.

The history of the Water Department also plays a role in the landscape of Long Beach.  In 1944, a little no name creek is found going through an area of uplift.  This creek originates from fresh water wetlands, which creates an artisan spring.  This spring is how Long Beach was able to be founded (no water, no city).  The water was sent down a pipe along American Avenue and to a reservoir in Anaheim.  The creek existed before the uplift occurred and is called a water gap (with no water it would be called a wind gap).  This water gap is a result of sand layers (holds water) between clay layers (no water).  The uplift caused changes in the land, which in turn put pressure on the water underground and pushed it out of the fault line.

Some final features Rich mentioned include Bouton Well and Bouton Lake.  The lake was created by the well, which was 40 feet high and could be seen from Whittier.  It flowed for weeks/months until it was capped to create the lake.  There is also the Bouton Creek, which joins the Los Angeles River.  This creek actually flows through California State University, Long Beach.

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