The incredible mountain in motion of Elysian Park from 1937

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For a few days in late November 1937, it was Southland’s biggest draw – a slow-motion landslide, 1.5 million tons from a hill in Elysian Park crawling toward the Los Angeles riverbed. The cracks became crevices as a half-moon-shaped landmass near Point Grand View sank inch by inch over the course of several weeks. Below, the slope crossed Riverside Drive and headed for a strip of houses and shops. Sensational reports, printed in newspapers and broadcast on radio across the country, described it as a “moving mountain”, and tourists have come from far and wide to witness the geological curiosity. An Oklahoma City police officer took time off to watch the slide. Two boys jumped off New York freight trains to see him. Some 10,000 tourists came on time. Onlookers thronged against police barricades along Riverside Drive, and enterprising vendors crowded like a baseball game, selling peanuts, popcorn and soda. Some even sold binoculars.

Sensational reports, printed in newspapers and broadcast on radio across the country, have described it as a “moving mountain”, and tourists have come from far and wide to witness the geological curiosity.

Everyone agreed it was a sight to see, but no one could agree on its cause. Some have blamed the seepage from the Buena Vista reservoir at the top of the hill, or perhaps the water intake tunnels dug in 1885. Others have speculated, somewhat implausibly, that the back gas pressure of an underground oil field had dislodged the side of the hill. Whatever the immediate cause, the landslide represented one episode in a continuous process of erosion as, over the millennia, the Los Angeles River undermined the base of the Elysee Hills. Eventually, the hills would give way when their slopes got too steep – a condition that the construction of Riverside Drive may have exacerbated. What made this landslide such an attraction was its seemingly orderly nature. A violent process had been reduced to a crawl.

The order, however, suddenly turned to chaos on the night of Friday, November 26. At 10:35 p.m., the moving mountain roared down the slope. The lights flickered and died when the landslide broke transmission towers carrying 110,000-volt power lines. Although, remarkably, no one died, the landslide was a disaster. A 24-inch water pipe was cut, the Riverside Drive overpass crashed under the hill and residents and store owners were displaced as the city condemned several properties. And yet the slide – which more or less stabilized after its violent climax – continued to attract tourists. The next day, an estimated 500,000 crowd converged on the site, munching on popcorn and hoping the mountain would move again.

An aerial view of the landslide, which crushed the Riverside Drive viaduct and forced the city to condemn several homes and businesses. Courtesy of the Security Pacific National Bank – Los Angeles Public Library collection.
The slow motion landslide blocked Riverside Drive where the Golden State Freeway (I-5) now passes through Elysian Park.  Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times Photo Archives, Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
The slow motion landslide blocked Riverside Drive where the Golden State Freeway (I-5) now passes through Elysian Park. Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times Photo Archives, Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
The cracks slowly turned into crevices, and then the entire hillside slid in one violent moment on the night of November 26.  Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times Photo Archives, Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
The cracks slowly turned into crevices, and then the entire hillside slid in one violent moment on the night of November 26. Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times Photo Archives, Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
As the landslide slid towards the river, the forest at the top of the mass remained more or less intact.  Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times Photo Archives, Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
As the landslide slid towards the river, the forest at the top of the mass remained more or less intact. Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times Photo Archives, Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
The landslide advancing on Riverside Drive.  Courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
The landslide advancing on Riverside Drive. Courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Police estimated that half a million spectators came to see the
Police estimated that half a million spectators came to see the “mountain in motion” the day after the violent climax of the landslide. Courtesy of The Los Angeles Times Photo Archives, Special Collections Department, Charles E. Young Research Library, UCLA.
Amateur astronomers have aimed their telescopes on the moving mass.  Courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
Amateur astronomers have aimed their telescopes on the moving mass. Courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.
Police barricades kept onlookers away from the landslide.  Courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection - Los Angeles Public Library.
Police barricades kept onlookers away from the landslide. Courtesy of the Herman J. Schultheis Collection – Los Angeles Public Library.


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