by Julie Lugo Cerra
[Julie Lugo Cerra is Culver City’s Historian and a descendent of the original Spanish settlers]
Ballona Creek, originally, was a picturesque natural waterway fed by runoff. The creek collected the water from cienegas (swamps) and the rains. The banks of Ballona Creek were lined with trees, like sycamores, willows and tules, and even in my dad’s time, (1908-1987), he remembered the watercress growing at its edge.
The creek was a natural resource for the indigenous people. The Native Americans in this area made board boats, which they waterproofed with asphaltum from nearby La Brea Tar Pits. They used the waterway for transportation and to fish for their food. From accounts of these people, who were called the Gabrielinos, they used the tules along the creek to make huts for shelter, and they knew of the rising water and the danger it could present.
When Agustín Machado took his legendary dawn to dusk ride from the Playa del Rey foothills to claim the 14,000-acre Rancho La Ballona, the creek cut through it. We know that Ballona’s owners, Agustín Machado, his brother Ygnacio, and father and son, Felipe and Tomas Talamantes, named their rancho “La Ballona”–Paso de las Carretas. The origin and meaning of “Ballona” remains uncertain. Prevalent theories suggest that it was a misspelling. One school thinks the intended name was Ballena, which means whale in Spanish, and that at the edge of Ballona, where the creek empties, one could watch the migration of the whales. Others differ, and hold the opinion that the Talamantes ancestors came from Bayona, Spain, so they named it for their early heritage.
Eventually, Agustín Machado built an adobe house near the edge of Ballona Creek, on today’s Overland Avenue. That first adobe washed away in floodwaters. The Machados rebuilt further away from the waterway. Because the creek often changed its course, it separated some of the partitioned Machado property, which had originally been only on one side of the creek.
To the early settlers, the creek was a source of irrigation water as well. My grandfather, Mercurial Lugo, the son of Vicenta Machado de Lugo, (one of Agustín Machado’s children), farmed his 18 acre Lugo Ranch, generally where the Roll ‘n Rye stands today. He was also the “zanjero” (sanjero), or water overseer of Ballona. It was his job to ensure that the local ranchers received their fair share of water for their crops. I learned some time ago from the City’s Engineering Department, (Sam Cerra), that on Cota Street, near the creek, old pipes for that purpose were occasionally unearthed.
When Harry Culver saw filmmaker Thomas Ince shooting one of his famous western movies “on location” on Ballona Creek, he enticed Ince to move his studio to Culver City. Ince normally used the Los Angeles River, but this film required a smaller waterway for his painted Indians in a canoe.
The creek was a source of frustration for the early city Trustees. On October 2, 1922, by Resolution Number 250, the governing body directed the City Attorney, to “take immediate legal steps to secure relief from the nuisance from the intolerable condition caused by failure of the city of Los Angeles to abate the nuisance in Ballona Creek.” Jose de la Luz Machado, (Agustín Machado’s youngest son), lived on Overland Avenue between Jefferson and Farragut. His wife found it necessary to attend what we now call council meetings, and complain, rather pointedly, of the same raw sewage. In later days, concerns included chemicals.
Ballona Creek served the Gabrielinos for transportation and as a source of food. The Early Settlers used the creek to irrigate their crops. But La Ballona Creek’s meandering ways eventually enlisted the help of the Army Corps of Engineers. The Corps came in, straightened it, and made its course permanent by paving the sides of Ballona Creek in 1935. No more homes were lost.
As a child, Fred Machado swam in what he remembers as the clear waters of Ballona Creek. He can still picture the sides of it, lined with trees and tules, the creek water a home to ducks and small fish. This past month, he talked about their ranch house near Centinela and Jefferson, imparting that it was “built so high, you could walk under it.” This ranch was just outside what became Culver City, on a Machado portion of Rancho La Ballona. Fred Machado is a direct descendant of Ballona founder, Agustin Machado through the eldest son, Juan Bautista. Fred likened this accommodation for flooding and subsequent use of the rich silt deposits for farming, to the rich soil provided along the banks of the famed Nile River. He recalled the flooding of the creek on New Year’s Day, 1934. That 1934 flood exceeded helpful silt deposits. It kept the family from tilling some of their ranch land ever again. It was impossible from then on, to grow castor beans, and according to Fred, the wild doves and rabbits never returned.
Fred’s father worked as a mechanic on the drag line equipment that dug out the soil, to straighten the creek. He was impressed by the crane with a 16 cubic yard bucket on a drag line which moved on pontoons at one and a half to two miles an hour. He liked to go to work with his father at night and watch the operation.
Sometime after the creek was stablilized at the bottom, it was lined with large rocks. The rocks were quarried on Catalina Island, and brought by barge to the creek. The concrete was applied after the rocks were in place. Today, the creek falls under the jurisdiction of the Army Corps of Engineers, Los Angeles Flood Control, Los Angeles County Public Works among other jurisdictions.
The creek has become the largest storm drain in the Santa Monica watershed. Today, it begins as a creek at Cochran Ave., south of Venice Blvd., and ends at the Pacific Ocean.