It’s hard to imagine the San Fernando Valley at the turn of the century.
The Valley has changed so much since the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the Valley’s open plains and dust-filled flats were home to cougars, eagles, giant condors, jackrabbits, and wild falcons – a sharp contrast to an area now home to hundreds of miles of streets and freeways.
It’s hard to believe that the sprawling metropolis that is now home to more than 1.7 million people was once a place where sheep grazed, a place where farmers grew their crops, and smog and noise pollution were non-existent.
Kevin Roderick, in an hour-long presentation, introduced his new book “The San Fernando Valley: America’s Suburb” (Los Angeles Times Books, 2001) and spoke to a midday audience in Kreider Hall on Thursday about the Valley’s past and how different this Valley is now from its history as the backwater of the big city.
“What I like about the Valley is that it has a history of its own that goes back more than 200 years, ” said Roderick. “It’s a history that’s very distinct from the Los Angeles system, although they are sort of related.”
Roderick’s presentation featured photos taken from different eras of the San Fernando Valley. Images portrayed farmers tending to their crops, children posing in front of the first Valley school, people gathered for the opening of the Los Angeles Aqueduct in 1913 – an event that made William Mulholland’s career, and the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in 1928, an event that ended Mulholland’s career.
Roderick said that the opening of the L.A. Aqueduct was the largest gathering in Southern California.
Images of dust storms in the early days of the Valley showed the area as a place where storms would be so severe at times that they would bury everything in sight. And before the Los Angeles River was tamed, enclosed in the concrete barrier residents are so familiar with, it rushed through the Valley with a vengeance, cascading out of its banks and washing away everything in sight.
Roderick also showed images of other recent natural disasters that the Valley has faced, including the Sylmar earthquake in 1971 and the Northridge Earthquake in 1994.
About half of the photos Roderick used for his book come from the Los Angeles Times; others come from the Los Angeles Public Library and were donated by defunct organizations such as Security Pacific National Bank and the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and other newspapers. Other photos come from collections at USC and CSUN and historical societies around the Valley.
About the sprawling geography, Roderick said:
“It’s big! It’s big enough to hold the modern cities of Washington D.C., San Francisco and Boston all within its borders.”
Though the Los Angeles River tied the Valley and Los Angeles, Roderick explained, each followed a different course of evolution.
“The Valley even has a different climate than the rest of Los Angeles, ” said Roderick. “It’s hotter in summer and colder in winter.”
Many of those in the audience were astonished at seeing old images such as a horse and wagon standing on a dirt road on what is now Ventura Boulevard, or Ventura Boulevard from the northwest as a barren stretch of road leading west, or the dirt road leading into the Sepulveda Pass with trees and brush surrounding it – now the Hollywood Freeway.
Compared to cities such as New York – which had already built subways and the Brooklyn Bridge – and San Francisco, Los Angeles was lagging behind.
“It didn’t have any kind of high rise buildings, “said Roderick. “At this point, we were still trying to live off the river. The Valley was just ‘tombstone territory.’ The Valley was still quite a wild place. Even in those days, it had very much of an old Western flavor to it.”