Ghosts of the Silver Lake Reservoir

A few years ago, whilst researching the history of the Silver Lake Reservoir, I was rather surprised to learn that several people had drowned in it early in its history. Where there’s water, I suppose, there are drownings — I’d just never thought about it before — and when the reservoir began filling in 1907, it was the largest reservoir in the city. In 1921, it was overtaken by the Encino Reservoir, which I believe remains the city’s largest open-air reservoir. Prior to the Silver Lake Reservoir’s completion, the city’s largest reservoir was the adjacent Ivanhoe Reservoir, which was originally topped with a wooden cover which, although less attractive than open water, probably prevented anyone from drowning within it. The Silver Lake Reservoir, on the other hand, was too large to cover. Recognizing the danger it posed, signs were originally posted along its shore expressly forbidding “fishing, shooting, and bathing.” Although I read of no shootings, it wasn’t long before the city actively encouraged fishing in order to “control” the population of bass the city had stocked it with. And, almost immediately, there swimmers and thus, on occasion, drownings.

The moon rising over the Silver Lake Reservoir

While I admittedly didn’t comb through every newspaper from 1907 until the present, I suspect there weren’t many more — if any — than four drownings in the reservoir. All occurred more than a century ago. As Samhain/Halloween approaches and the nights grow longer, I suppose its inevitable that my thoughts turn darker, too. Beginning in September, my film viewing begin to bend toward horror and thrillers. I set aside what I had been reading and pick up something more Gothic. And as I undertake the passeggiata, my thoughts have lately turned to those sorry folks separated from their souls on the other side of the fence.

William H. Richardson (c. 1844 – 1910)

The first to die in the Silver Lake Reservoir was, it seems, the only suicide. The victim was a former prospector and miner, William H. Richardson, who was reportedly popular locally and nicknamed “Daddy.” As with all of the drownings, there were few details about the victim, although the fact that his death was reported in the Arizona Republic (underneath the callously unfeeling headline “HE CONTAMINATED THE WATER SUPPLY’) makes me suspect that he’d lived in that state. Surely, otherwise, the death of a Los Angeles retiree wouldn’t warrant mention in an out-of-state publication.

By 1905, William and his son, Harry, are mentioned in local Los Angeles County papers regarding real estate business in the town of Lankershim (now North Hollywood). That same year, Richardson bought a house in Edendale at 1934 Allesandro — on a block of that street long ago obliterated to make way for the unedenic terminus of 2 Freeway. According to family members, the elder Richardson had expressed suicidal thoughts for weeks and was thus placed in a sanitarium in nearby Victor Heights. Believing him to have been cured, he was released and went to stay with a daughter and son-in-law, George W. Hope, at 1402 DeFrees Street (now Sanborn).

Around 9:00pm, on the night of 19 July 1910, the 67-year-old Richardson retired to his room. After one of his family members checked on him, they found his room was empty. Mr. Hope contacted a local newspaper with a description, hoping it would lead to his safe return. Instead, Richardson’s lifeless body was discovered the next morning, floating in an upright position by Norman Hendrickson and Albert Jones, two boys from Angeleno Heights. When Richardson was dragged from the water, it was discovered that he was clothed in all black, as if dressed for his own funeral. He left behind his son, Harry, and two daughters — identified in the style of the day by their husband’s names as Mrs. George Hope and Mrs. V. Cooper.

The empty outlet tower, near the South Dam

Benjamin Halprin (c. 1899 – 1912)

Young Benjamin Halprin lived at 927 Boston Avenue — yet another block obliterated by freeways, although in this case, the nation’s first stack interstate freeway exchange, destructively erected at the edge of the edge of the city’s Downtown. 23 March 1912 was a Saturday, so Ben wasn’t in school. Being just twelve years old at the time and with a Pacific Electric Railway line on his street, it seems likely that the boy hopped on a red car in order to make his way from Bunker Hill over to Silver Lake. Andrew Laird, who lived on Duane Street, heard the boy scream after he slipped into the water. Laird removed his coat and entered the water in an attempt to rescue the child. After several unsuccessful attempts, an exhausted Laird had to be dragged to safety by someone from the crowd that had gathered along the shore.

Looking north from the South Dam

In 1913, Ben’s father, Wolf Halprin, sued the city for $10,000 (about $289,000, adjusted for inflation) and insisted that a fence be built around the reservoir. The Assistant City Attorney argued that since the child had been trespassing on private property, they owed the family nothing, and, for that matter, the installation of a fence was unnecessary.

After Ben’s death, at least two articles in the paper note that Ben’s body had “not yet” been retrieved. It seems unlikely to have remained in the reservoir forever, but in East Los Angeles‘s Beth Israel Cemetery, there are graves for a Wolf Halprin, who died in 1936, his wife, Sarah Feldman, who died in 1956, and their daughter, Annette, who died in 1987.

Arthur Donald Gordon and Orland Bernard Gordon (1901 – 1914 and 1903 – 1914)

The drowning of young Master Halprin was probably on the mind of Thomas Patterson Gordon when he expressly forbade his young sons, Donald and Orland, from going near the Silver Lake Reservoir. Then again, as he was a locomotive engineer, perhaps he was just extra wary of danger. The boys, it seems, were in the unwise habit of ignoring their father’s directives.

On the Friday afternoon of 21 August 1914, the Brothers Gordon departed from their home on the Eastside and met up with a friend, Gail Johnson. Their first stop was Elysian Park. From there they made their way to the Silver Lake Reservoir. There, the thirteen-year-old Donald removed his stockings and approached the water when he slipped on a concrete abutment and fell in. His younger brother, eleven-year-old Orland, jumped in and attempted to save him but the panicking Donald pulled them both beneath the surface. Their chum, Gail, was next to attempt rescue and was also dragged underwater.

The sun setting behind the reservoir

At that moment, George Champion, was passing by. Champion was a Texas-born cowboy apparently having a go at a career in pictures, having appeared in By the Two Oak Trees and Down Lone Gap Way. Champion jumped in and managed to rescue young Gail. Another man tried to retrieve the Gordon boys but failed. Workers at the reservoir borrowed grappling hooks from Echo Park Lake. Police and citizens dragged the reservoir. The body of one was located but resisted efforts to retrieve it. Eventually, hundreds of pounds of “moss” were scooped up from the lake bed. The bodies of the Gordon boys were entangled within. They were taken to Los Angeles Undertaking Company‘s chapel, about two blocks from their Lincoln Heights home. They were buried at Forest Lawn Memorial Park.

I couldn’t find any mention of any subsequent deaths at the reservoir although it remained easily accessible for years after and even in those early years there were attempts to transform the reservoir not just into a park but into part of a network of connected parks connected via the route carved by the stream that flowed (or perhaps to still flows, entombed in a tunnel beneath Silver Lake Boulevard) to Westlake Park (now MacArthur Park). Toward that end, eucalyptus trees were planted between 1911 and 1918 but ultimately, the scenic parkway remains incomplete. Still, the reservoir remained, in the words of a writer at the Los Angeles Evening Post-Record as “the mecca for bass fisherman.” An annual fishing contest took place there at least until 1919. In 1920, however, demands were made to fence off the lake, not by those concerned with suicides and accidental drownings, mind you, but by those prudes scandalized by the prevalence of nude sunbathers. After that, fences were recommended for years but a photo from 1927 shows only a low concrete barrier (and zero nudists). Photos from 1930, however, seem to show that a fence had been erected.

Not that a person, if possessed with sufficient determination, can’t get in and out of the reservoir without much difficulty. In March 2019, a woman had to be rescued from the reservoir. Early one evening, I found myself locked inside the complex by a DWP employee on who locked the exit gates as I approached and then the entrance gates after I turned around. Two other people were locked in with me. I got the attention of a child in a house nearby, who in turn summoned his understandably suspicious father who then brought over a ladder, allowing us all to escape without too much difficulty.

Afterward, I recommended to the LADWP that perhaps they might make a practice of locking the exit after locking the entrance in order to avoid just such a situation. Furthermore, since the posted signs state that it’s open during “daylight hours,” perhaps they could wait until after the sun has set to lock the gates. The LADWP, for their part, didn’t even offer so much as an auto reply. Despite my suggestion, I actually wish that the deparment left the gates open all the time — and that the high fence around the property was replaced with a low fence closer to the water. Obviously, I don’t want anyone to drown in the reservoir, whether accidental or not, but I’m certain that magnitudes more Angelenos drown in the Pacific Ocean, backyard swimming pools, and even bathtubs than in reservoirs — and we don’t install fences around those. But next time you stroll around the reservoir, perhaps spare a though for those unfortunates whose lives were claimed by those deceptively placid waters.

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Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LAAmoeblogBoom: A Journal of CaliforniadiaCRITICSHidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft ContemporaryForm Follows FunctionLos Angeles County Store, the book SidewalkingSkid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles TimesHuffington PostLos Angeles MagazineLAistCurbedLAEastsider LABoing BoingLos Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson Collegeand the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on AmebaDuolingoFacebookGoodreadsInstagramMubithe StoryGraphand Twitter.

2 thoughts on “Ghosts of the Silver Lake Reservoir

  1. My cousin grew up in Silverlake. There Or at least two neighbors that found human skulls on their property.

    My cousins home became a rental property once her parents passed away and she inherited it. In that particular home there were some odd goings on.

    We are both pretty grounded and skeptical. I trust her judgment and things that she talked about what happened to her there.


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