CityDig: How Ivanhoe Canyon Became Silver Lake


With his stalwart dam of concrete and steel in place, William Mulholland began flooding the meadowlands of Ivanhoe Canyon in November 1907. The waters rose, sedges drowned, and red-winged blackbirds fluttered away in search of undisturbed wetlands. Within a few months, Mulholland had created Silver Lake.

Though its waters surely sparkled in the Southern California sun, the new reservoir’s name actually honored former water commissioner Herman Silver. A prominent local politician, Silver ran for mayor in 1900 and had championed municipal ownership of the city’s once-privately controlled water works.

Silver may have donated his name, but Mulholland contributed his engineering acumen to the project. To create the dam, Mulholland first encased a wall of riveted steel plates in three feet of concrete. He then turned hydraulic jets upon the floor of Ivanhoe Canyon, sluicing away a deep trough and flinging the detritus uphill upon the concrete to create a reinforced earthen dam. Once completed, the new reservoir ensured a constant supply of water for Los Angeles. Its 767 million gallons—pumped from the ground beneath the Los Angeles River near Griffith Park—could quench the city’s thirst for three weeks uninterrupted if all other sources suddenly turned dry.

Silver Lake also doubled as a scenic and recreational asset. Unlike nearby Ivanhoe Reservoir—completed a few years earlier and covered in wooden boards—the new lake lay bare to the world, offering itself up as scenery. A stock of black bass attracted fishing, and the then-unfenced lakeshore invited Angelenos to stroll around their drinking water supply. By 1912 the city’s parks department had planted more than 2,000 eucalyptus trees on the slopes of Ivanhoe Canyon, and a utilitarian water storage facility had become a prized public space.

Photo: The Silver Lake reservoir under construction in 1907. From the holdings of the Special Collections & Archives, Water Resources Collections, UCR Libraries, University of California, Riverside. “Silver Lake Dam, showing stripping for upper and lower toes” (1907), WRCA LIPP Box 78, Item 141, #115.

Nathan Masters of the USC Libraries blogs here on behalf of L.A. as Subject, an association of more than 230 libraries, cultural institutions, official archives, and private collectors hosted by the USC Libraries and dedicated to preserving and telling the sometimes-hidden histories of Los Angeles.