Echo Park Lake prepares to go down the drain yet again

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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.


  1. So no dead bodies were ever found in the lake? It was all urban legend, I tells ya.

  2. This is great! Thanks Eastsider, Rory and Gloria

  3. Great info, nice story.

  4. BTW, the first shot of the fellow kneeling in the lakebed is in what we called ‘the deep end.’ As opposed to the shallower, lotus/lily pad/inlet/northern end(s) of the lake.

    I really like the fact that I can see in photo exactly how deep that end is. The submerged trash cans/park benches and whatever else may have been a whole lot of trash and detritus, but each formed structure, each can had a resident fish inside.

  5. rory, thanks for this great piece of historical pie!

  6. $65 million? No wonder we’re broke!

  7. I live next to the lake and am sort of worried about the amount of feathers are scattered around the lake. The ducks the past week seemed to stressed out, they are yelling all day, ALOT more then they used to, so much that one day I ran outside because I thought someone was harming them. If you look around the lake along echo park ave, there are feathers everywhere. I hope they are all ok 🙁

  8. Wow, the whole thing looks awfully shallow. How deep is the deepest point anyways?

  9. I believe it was once at about 20′, but after mishaps and a drowning (long ago) the bottom was raised to something like 8′.

  10. What a great article Rory, really interesting to see this history and those amazing photos. I really thought the lake was deeper. This is top rate historical reporting, thank you EastiderLA.

  11. In regards to the comments made by “ducky”, I have only this to say: is it mere coincidence that on the same day that the lake is being drained, Mohawk Bend is opening featuring duck burgers and duck bacon? I am not saying that there is a connection – I am just asking the hard questions!

    Also, I will be at Mohawk Bend tonight. Will be wearing a green jacket, brown corduroys if anyone wants to meet up for a drink and a burger.

  12. Do not know the year, but a silent film was made by the Keystone Cops ( I believe), shown at one of the Echo Park Historical Society’s meetings — when the lake was being lowered, the situation in the lake showed the evil kidnapper with the helpless woman and the boat going lower and lower as the water was removed. Of course she was saved in the nick of time by her lover, done in the exaggerated style of the era.

  13. What a fun article! Thank you. I miss our park and couldn’t help myself and came back for two walks over the weekends. I noticed two things. The poor ducks hover near the openings and whenever they see people, they clamor by the fence. I think the neighbors are equally concerned and I think they are tossing food in take out boxes and bags with bread crumbs right over the fence. It’s starting to create a mess. I do understand why they are doing this but am worried about whether or not this is sustainable. I feel sorry for the duck and geese. I see that their island is fenced off too.

  14. As a visitor to Echo park from the UK,I have fond memories of the lake and walking round it, so hope its revival goes well and look forward to walking there again in the future, hope the fountain will be replaced!
    Daphne Cox

  15. I’ve seen an art exhibit (in Hollywood, about twenty years ago) which featured objects found in 1984. Don’t know if it’s still around, but it was interesting- a table about 10′ x 10′ full of toys, unique bottles, even a rusty old gun or two.

  16. Paco, was that MacArthur Park items instead?

    At the old LA Street Scene a guy displayed dozens of items he found when that lake was drained — boats, bottles, guns, some fairly recent and some old Western six-shooters, totally rusty. LAPD seized his stuff, guns were reason for seizure.

    That lake dates from late 19th century, and I think it’s been drained only once. Echo, as described above, has been drained many times.

  17. I’m pretty sure the ducks and geese will be fine once they get through the withdrawal from their junk food addiction. Whenever I look over the fence they’re happily munching on grass and appear to enjoying a respite from the harassment of dogs and children.

  18. Eversince i was a kid i was told that the lake 15 ft deep. Every so often they would drain it throughout the 80’s and it always looked the way it does now. The lake appears to have always been 5 ft deep. Those shopping carts are from the previous iconic Pioneer market. They should be considered collector items as they go back to the late 80’s and 90’s.

  19. I miss the lake! But this was a nice informative and entertaining distraction from not being able to take a walk around it.

    And I love any article that includes the word “shucks.”

  20. Richard: The $65 million is not from City funds, but from Proposition O (water quality) funds from the state.

  21. Holy mackerel,..I just happened to stumble on to this Echo Park internet comment. Having spent many pleasurable hours around the lake in my teen years, looking over my shoulder for park officials, while fishing for sunfish bream, crappie and carp, which were, regrettably, either very boney or fatty and never really tasted very good, I enjoyed the lake because it did have a very uncomplicated, innocent and lovely aura..There may have been 20ish century pandemoneum going on in L.A. yet, if you wanted to just, if nothing else, remove yourself from all of that, and just relax in the sunshine and let your cares and worries fade away, that was where it was at. .

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