The Flood Of 1938

During the current drought, ongoing for four years, it is easy to lose sight of the reality that at other times, San Bernardino County had too much, rather than too little, rain. March 1938, when the Flood of 1938 occurred, was one of those times.
The flood of March 2, 1938, as it was labeled, peaked on March 2, but the deluge actually began on February 28, intensified on March 1 and continued until March 3. It was generally widespread over Southern California, and it did damage to Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange and Riverside counties. San Bernardino County bore the most significant degree of Mother Nature’s wrath in terms of the sheer volume of rainfall, as the storm producing the flood was centered over the San Gabriel and San Bernardino Mountains. Nevertheless, it was Orange County that sustained the most damage as flood waters that started in Riverside, San Bernardino and Los Angeles counties ultimately washed over it. Maximum storm precipitation for a 24-hour period was 14.1 inches for the Deep Creek drainage area and 12.6 inches for the West Fork of the Mojave River drainage area. There is debate over whether the deluge of 1969 was of greater intensity than the 1938 flood and it is generally accepted that the Flood of 1862 was even more powerful than the one of 1938, although scientific data to document that does not exist. In 1862 there had been far less in terms of man-made improvements to the county, and a far more modest population, so the 1938 flood wreaked far more havoc.
In the Victorville area, there was an estimated peak discharge of 70,600 cubic feet per second, a flow that is second to none as far as the record for that area goes. Floods resulting from the storm caused widespread damages to buildings, roads, railroad tracks, bridges and farmlands along the Mojave River. All the stream gages along the Mojave River, except the one in Barstow, were destroyed.
Initial reports were that in all of Southern California the death toll from the flood may have reached 198. Another report on March 4, 1938 was that throughout Southern California, 74 bodies had actually been found, with 56 of those identified. The raging Santa Ana River, which had its headwaters at the base of the San Bernardino Mountains before winding through San Bernardino County and Riverside County and ultimately flowing through Orange County to its terminus in the Pacific Ocean at Santa Ana, was reported to have caused 60 deaths. Thirty bodies were found in Los Angeles County. Thirty others were reported as missing there. Only five deaths were initially confirmed in San Bernardino County but another set of reports held that there were 38 missing in the Victorville Barstow region as of March 3. Only a few of them ever showed up alive. Riverside County reported six bodies recovered. After everything was mopped up, 249 people were determined to have died, directly or indirectly as a result of the rainstorms and flooding. As might be expected, loss of life was most pronounced in some of the more rugged inhabited mountain or foothill terrain in the county. Eight bodies were found washed up at various points within or near the San Bernardino Foothills and in Lytle Creek and Cajon Creek canyons. Another 17 were logged as missing in those areas.
The most intensive flooding may actually have occurred at the relatively high elevation of 8,300 feet, at the old logging facility known as Kelly’s Camp on the trail between Ontario and Cucamonga peaks. An unbelievable 32.2 inches of rain fell there in a relatively few days, with the lion’s share of that on March 1 and 2. As the water cascaded down into the canyon, picking up speed, momentum and debris, it devastated the cabins and resorts at Camp Baldy, which today has been replaced by Baldy Village. At least five residents there were drowned or swept away.
The flooding was so bad in many parts of the county because the relatively warm rain melted snow in the mountains.
In the city of San Bernardino, the southern portion of the city was under water by late on March 2, from what is now the National Orange Showgrounds to Ninth Street in Colton.
By late March 2, the only road open out of San Bernardino was Foothill Boulevard and the following day it too was cut off by a roaring tide of floodwaters coming down from Lytle Creek. The police attempted to prevent drivers from braving the roads, but several drivers who either ignored barricades or were on roads that were subjected flooding that were not closed off were killed. Many cars became enmucked in mud and could not be driven.
In the Chino and Ontario areas as well as in Cucamonga, few of the roads were passable.
North-south streets such as Hellman in Cucamonga and Euclid and San Antonio in Upland and Ontario turned into virtual rivers. Some brave souls risked driving south on those streets and were able to reach their destinations if the waters did not reach their cars’ distributors and stall out the engines. It was virtually impossible to cross those roads east to west or west to east. Attempting to drive north onthem was virtual suicide. The delivery of necessities was undertaken in many cases by horseback.
Fish from mountain streams ended up in the most unlikely of places, such as in front yards or streets and gutters in Ontario and Chino.
According to the March 11, 1938 edition of the Victor Press, “More than $2,000,000 damage has been done to the Mojave River Valley by last week’s unprecedented flood. Ranchers across the river from Victorville shared a total damage loss of $18,000, according to [County Agricultural Commissioner] Lee Dolch. Damage to the [Oro Grande] cement plant, according to superintendent O.C. Holstead, came to $22,500. Damages to railroad tracks and equipment, locally came to $50,000, according to R.C. Cline.”
Railroad bridges all over the county were washed out or rendered unusable. Trains to the Arizona and Nevada or eastward in general were inoperable for nearly three weeks.
The storms and flooding knocked out much of the power in San Bernardino County, taking with it phone service and the use of telegraphs.
In Cucamonga, Red Hill remained relatively unscathed, but it found itself isolated as its elevation left it isolated, an island surrounded by water on all sides.
Throughout Southern California, damage was estimated at $78 million.
In response to the Flood of 1938, a series of flood control improvements were made by the county of San Bernardino and the Army Corps of Engineers. These included the San Antonio Dam and Prado Dam.

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