By Tom Gilfoy
Have you ever wondered which man-made feature would most dominate the landscape if you looked down on Sunland-Tujunga from an airplane? I’m sure the campus at Verdugo High would be a candidate, as would Mt Gleason’s campus. Even Foothill Boulevard would have to be considered as it wends its way though town. But right up there with the rest of them, and certainly the most surprising to most residents, would be the Haines Canyon Storm Drain.
As many residents know, storm waters off the western slopes of Sister Elsie are funneled from a catch basin at the mouth of Haines Canyon into a large open storm drain that runs the length of our valley before it empties into the Big Tujunga Wash in Sunland. Along the way it bisects literally hundreds of parcels as it sweeps from one side of the valley to the other.
One of the parcels bisected when the storm drain was constructed back in 1937 was our family’s 2 1/2 acre walnut grove on Oro Vista Ave. (The old grove has long since been removed and is today the site of the Sunland Neighborhood Church.) Because of the angle the storm drain took through our property, it left a relatively small triangular part of the original acreage isolated on the opposite side of the drain.
Eventually, our family sold this inaccessible parcel to the Los Angeles Unified School District and today it’s part of Sunland Elementary’s playground where it backs up to the drain.
The storm drain itself is a very large concrete structure that increases in size as it picks up more and more water on its downward journey. Starting out with a width of 14 feet and sidewalls that are only seven feet high, the drain’s measurements steadily increase until by the time it reaches our old Oro Vista property, the width and height have grown to 20 feet across and 12 feet high, effectively more than doubling the original upstream capacity.
When it rains hard and there’s a lot of water coming down the storm drain, the smooth concrete bottom causes a surprising (at least to me) wave phenomena, with wave after wave coming down in evenly spaced intervals. Just exactly what force of nature causes these waves I’ll leave to a hydraulic engineer to explain, but whatever causes them, they had a special meaning to our family. To us, wave formation was a pretty reliable indication of just how hard it was raining upstream. Many is the time we ran out in the rain to look in the drain to see if waves had yet formed, with a typical report back to the house being something on the order of, “No waves yet. It must not be raining very hard up in Tujunga.”
During our youth the storm drain was protected on both sides, as it is today, by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. It was dangerous to go over the fence and try to slide down those 12-foot high walls on a rope, and we were prohibited by our parents from doing so. But even while still only six or seven years old, we often dreamed of doing just that.
My brother, Dick, reminds me of the time we and a couple of other friends drew straws to see which of us would have the privilege of riding an old air mattress down to see where the storm drain ended. I don’t remember who won, but it doesn’t really matter, anyway, as whoever won didn’t have the nerve to actually get in the drain and ride one of those waves. At that age we didn’t know where the drain went after it disappeared around the first big bend below the walnut grove; in our imagination we thought it might have gone over a big waterfall or into a big pipe that emptied in Hansen Dam.
As we became older, we not only became bolder but didn’t mind our parents quite as well, either. As a result, many was the time we defied standing orders and found ourselves in the bottom of the drain (when it wasn’t flowing with storm water, that is) to embark on one adventure after another. But to begin these explorations we first had to figure out how to get into the drain without being spotted from our house. Since the drain was in plain sight from the back windows of the house, we knew we wouldn’t have much luck getting over the top of the fence and into the drain without first being spotted by our parents. So we found a place out of sight a few yards above our property where there was a notch cut in the top of the sidewall to allow storm runoff to drop in. It was just big enough to allow small boys to crawl through, and by lowering ourselves on a rope tied to one of the fence posts, we were able to drop to the bottom without being seen from our house.
While in the bottom, we frequently worked our way up stream to Foothill Blvd. Others had been there before us, as confirmed by the various graphic displays of sex drawn on the concrete walls under the Foothill bridge. As young but interested kids, this was our first exposure to this sort of graffiti, and it wasn’t long before we had excitedly told most of our playmates at Sunland Grammar School about what we had seen. Soon afterward there was a regular parade of school chums coming through our back yard to go down the rope and see the bridge artwork. Of course, too much of even a good thing eventually became boring and it wasn’t long before we wanted to explore farther upstream.
To extend exploring possibilities, we managed to use the side opening and the ropes to lower our bicycles into the drain, which, with its smooth concrete bottom, turned out to be a great place for bike riding. It was pretty darned safe too, with certainly no danger posed by careless auto drivers. Although we rode up and down the drain a lot, we never dared go up as far as the Haines Canyon beginning. This was mainly because we never quite managed to summon the courage it took to enter the long, dark tunnel near the lower end of Commerce Avenue, where for a long stretch the drain runs along under Vallejo Drive. Below the tunnel, however, there were several opportunities for short side excursions up feeder drains.
From these we could be found popping out of culverts and manholes all over town.
One time we were spotted on one of these side excursions by a friend of our dad. It was too long ago to remember exactly what happened next, but can you imagine our dad being asked by his friend something to the effect of, “You’ll never guess where I saw one of your boys this time,” and then proceeding to tell him he saw one of our heads popping out of a manhole or a culvert somewhere on Foothill Blvd. In all events, and regardless of the exact nature of the conversation, it was enough for dad to crack down hard and bring our days in the storm drain to a screeching halt.
Insofar as I know, the Haines Canyon Storm Drain has forever after been used exclusively for its originally intended purpose of flood control.
Reach Tom Gilfoy at: firstname.lastname@example.org