The Santa Ana River and its Historic Bridge

Originally built in 1923 as a single-lane bridge connecting Riverside with West Riverside, over the Santa Ana River, is a historic Riverside gem. It was known as the Rubidoux Bridge, the Santa Ana River Bridge and the Mission Bridge, constructed with Mission style towers at each end and featuring the Raincross symbol across its length. The Raincross symbol was created by combining the image of the mass bell used by Father Junipero Serra, founder of the California Missions, and the cross design, which the native tribes of the area prayed to for rain. This symbol has been heavily used in architecture in Riverside since the early 1900’s.

Santa Anna River Bridge, Courtesy: Boston Public Library https://bridgehunter.com/ca/riverside/santa-ana-river/

The choice of a symbol identified with rain as a design feature of this bridge may have been darkly prophetic, as in March of 1938, a vast swath of Southern California was utterly devastated by flooding. Beginning at the end of February and building in intensity into the beginning of March, rainfall inundated Southern California, as two different weather systems passed through the area.

The Santa Ana River swelled and flooded its banks, filling with debris. The debris built up against a bridge north of Riverside until the bridge gave way, sending a surge of water crashing down the length of the Santa Ana River. Bridges all along the length of the Santa Ana River were completely destroyed by the flooding, including the Santa Ana River/ Rubidoux/ Mission Bridge. Riverside was hit particularly hard by this devastation, with many people forced to leave the area. Others were completely cut off and isolated, trapped in their homes, as the flood waters moved so quickly that there was simply not enough time to get a warning out to everyone. Both light and power were cut off for several hours, phone and telegraph poles were knocked down, and parts of Orange County were completely underwater.

Santa Ana River flooding in March of 1938, Courtesy: Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District

The Los Angeles and San Gabriel Rivers also burst their banks, further contributing to mass flooding across the entire LA basin. All in total, over 5,000 homes and business were destroyed, and over 100 lives were lost in the 1938 flood.

In the aftermath, a number of dams were built in order to prevent another such catastrophe from occurring. The Los Angeles River was channelized, built up with concrete to allow faster flow of floodwaters to the sea and prevent the river flooding its banks again. The Riverside County Flood Control and Water Conservation District was formed a few years later in 1945, to ensure public safety against any future flooding scenarios. Rainfall is essential in order to replenish our local groundwater supplies, but infrastructure is critical to ensure that water is diverted to areas where it can be captured as well as to maintain public safety.

Mission Bridge, Riverside, 1924, Courtesy: UCLA, Islandora Repository, Los Angeles Times Collection

The remaining parts of the Mission Bridge were removed in 1958, when a new bridge was constructed across the Santa Ana River. Southern California learned from the tragedy, rebuilt and moved on. The towers of the Rubidoux/Mission Bridge were relocated and now can be seen at the Carlson Dog Park in Riverside.

For more historic photos of the Santa Ana River Bridge: https://calisphere.org/item/ark:/13030/kt0m3nc1wf/