In the early 13th century, a wealthy merchant’s son knelt before a crucifix in a small, crumbling chapel near Assisi, a village in Italy, and received a message from the Lord: “Go, Francis, and repair my house, which as you see is falling into ruin.” Taking the message literally, Francis began gathering stones to fix up the dilapidated structure and two others nearby. Some time later, while praying in one of those smaller chapels—Our Lady of the Angels, or the Porziuncola (meaning “little portion”)—he received a further revelation: that only the poor were true Christians. Francis gave away his remaining possessions and began preaching the sanctity of humility, poverty, and peace. Legend has it that a few years later, on August 2, 1216, he received a special indulgence from Pope Honorius III: unconditional absolution for anyone who visited the Porziuncola on that date in the future.
Half a millennium later, an expedition of soldiers and Franciscan friars marched north from Spain’s colony in Mexico to establish a military outpost on Monterey Bay, in modern-day California. A few weeks into the trip, on August 2, 1769, the group camped beside a “good-sized, full-flowing river,” Father Juan Crespí wrote in his journal, “with very good water, pure and fresh.” They named this “lush and pleasing spot” Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula—Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, at the Porciúncula River—after the holy day they had just celebrated. It was “a most beautiful garden,” Crespí observed, with “all the requisites for a large settlement.”
The expedition moved on, but a decade later, the Spanish established a town nearby, just downriver from an indigenous village called Yangna. With a supply of fresh water rare in such dry country, the town prospered, and after it became part of an independent Mexico in the 1820s and then part of the United States in the 1840s, Los Angeles boomed. With this success, however, the river came under severe strain. What had made Los Angeles the fertile paradise depicted in promotional brochures distributed widely in the East now suffered as the city’s population soared, from roughly 11,000 in 1880 to nearly 320,000 in 1910.
Recognizing that it would need another source of water, William Mulholland, head of the city’s Department of Water and Power, devised a plan to build a 233-mile aqueduct from the Sierra Nevada to the San Fernando Valley, just north of LA’s existing boundaries (events that were later fictionalized in the 1974 film Chinatown). Titanic Project to Give City a River, declared the front page of the Los Angeles Times, as if it didn’t already have one. Weeks later, a rival revealed that the paper’s publisher, Harrison Gray Otis, and his son-in-law and successor, Harry Chandler, had formed a secret cabal that bought up land along the route and then flipped it to the city for a profit.
Though the river was no longer much help to the city, it could still inflict great harm. Because of the region’s dry conditions, the river never carved a well-defined channel to the sea; instead, it meandered erratically across the vast floodplain now covered by the modern metropolis. That dangerous unpredictability made the Los Angeles Basin particularly prone to sudden, violent floods. An especially catastrophic one in 1938 sealed the river’s fate: At the city’s invitation, the Army Corps of Engineers replaced its banks and most of its bottom with 3.5 million barrels of cement. The river that had given birth to the city was now a “water freeway,” a corps official boasted—a means of moving fresh rainfall into the ocean as quickly as possible.