Grave Spotlight

In a way, cemeteries are like libraries. They contain the final resting places of thousands of people, each with their own separate and unique story. Some of these people are famous, and their stories are well known. Most are not, but that doesn't make their life any less interesting or their stories any less worthy of being told and remembered.

Periodically, we'll spotlight a different Los Angeles-area grave. Every person has a story, and we will use this space to tell their story, through their final resting place.

David Swanson
(July 10, 1891 – March 3, 1938)

Lenora L. Heidner Swanson
(January 1891 – March 3, 1938)

The Flood

After a relatively dry year in Southern California in 1937 – from May 31 to Dec. 8, there was light rain on only two days, with a total of 0.03 inches, and less than 18 inches for the entire year – it was an unusually wet rainy season in Southern California in the spring of 1938.

Historically, Los Angeles gets about 3 inches of rain in February, the city’s wettest month. In 1938, nearly 10 inches of rain fell during the month. On Feb. 1, 1938, as a forewarning of things to come, 2.26 inches of rain fell on downtown Los Angeles, which set a record for that date that stood until 2024, when 2.49 inches fell.

There were a few more rainy days in February 1938, but a dry week before Sunday, Feb. 27, when 1.47 inches fell as a storm moved in from the Pacific Ocean. The rain continued into Feb. 28, and became heavier and more intense, with 2.85 inches falling – still a record for that date. The rain eased on March 1, when just 0.48 inches fell.

Then, at about 8:45 p.m. on March 2, a second storm hit the area, with gale-force winds along the coast, dumping record-levels of rain throughout Southern California, from the Mexico border up the Pacific coast to Santa Barbara, and inland to Riverside and San Bernardino counties.

A total of 5.88 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles that day -- which remains a one-day rainfall record -- and continued into the following day. Rainfall records for the date were also set in Pasadena (7.7 inches), Long Beach (5.0 inches), and Riverside (4.4 inches).

At higher elevations in some areas of the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, the total rainfall from Feb. 27 to March 4 was more than 30 inches. In addition to the rainwater, the runoff from the mountains also included debris from previous burn areas, and whatever else had collected in the mountains since the last major rainfall. Nearly every road and trail in the Angeles National Forest was damaged or destroyed by the water flow.

As the water rushed down from the mountains, through the foothill canyons, and across the already-saturated land, the Los Angeles, Santa Ana, San Gabriel and Mojave rivers all quickly overflowed their banks.

The raging Santa Ana River was hundreds of feet wide when it finally reached the Pacific Ocean between Huntington Beach and Newport Beach.

The powerful water surge knocked down buildings, uprooted trees, picked up rocks and boulders, and destroyed dozens of bridges throughout Southern California, adding even more dangerous debris to the already-dangerous flood. The damage isolated Los Angeles and much of Southern California from road, rail and air traffic for days.

The debris in the floodwaters also created dams, slowing drainage and causing the water upstream to rise even higher. Low-lying areas of Orange and Riverside counties were turned into massive lakes. Officially, more than 115 people were killed in the flood, although that is likely a low estimate as many of the flood victims were washed out to the Pacific Ocean, their bodies never found.

Nearly half of the official deaths were residents of the La Jolla and Atwood neighborhoods of Placentia in Orange County, near Anaheim and the northern bank of the Santa Ana River, where an 8-foot-high wall of water decimated the communities. Residents were primarily Mexican immigrants who worked in the Placentia orange groves. The flood destroyed every building in those communities except for the La Jolla School Building and three brick structures. When the floodwaters finally subsided, bodies were found lodged high in the branches of the orange trees.

By the time the flood reached Anaheim at about 3 a.m. on March 3, the water level had risen to 15 feet. Every bridge over the Santa Ana River from Yorba to Newport Beach was destroyed.

In Los Angeles County, five people died when the Lankershim Boulevard bridge over the Los Angeles River collapsed. Downstream in Long Beach, another bridge collapsed, killing 10 people. The tracks of the historic Mount Lowe Railway in the San Gabriel Mountains were destroyed and never rebuilt.

By time the water finally subsided, more than 5,600 homes and buildings were destroyed, and 1,500 were damaged throughout Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties. The final damage estimate was $78.6 million – about $1.7 billion today.

After the flood, electrical and gas service, roads, and communication lines were knocked out for several weeks, and many areas were buried under up to six feet of sand, silt and debris. The Pacific Electric rail system, which served Los Angeles, Orange, San Bernardino and Riverside counties, was out of service for three weeks after the flooding.

The Swansons

David Swanson was born on July 10, 1891, in Sweden, and immigrated to the United States in 1906, when he was about 15 years old. He had three sisters and a brother, and most of his family remained in Sweden. Not much information is available on Swanson’s early life or immigration story. It’s possible that he Americanized his name when he arrived in the United States.

On Jan. 4, 1917, Swanson, then 25, married Lenora L. Heidner, also 25, at the home of Lenora's parents in Pasadena. At the time of their marriage, David was working as a clerk and salesman at a dry goods store in Van Nuys, and Lenora was working as a music teacher, and living with her parents in Pasadena.

Lenora Heidner was born in January 1891 in Parkston, South Dakota, a tiny town of about 300 residents in the southeast corner of the state. Her father, Lewis Gustav Heidner, was born in 1859 in Wisconsin to German immigrants, and worked as a blacksmith. Her mother, Clara Henrietta Nix Heider, was born in 1867 in Minnesota to a German-born father and a Wisconsin-born mother. Lenora’s younger brother, Vernon Lester Heidner, was born in South Dakota on June 11, 1895.

The Heidners were still in South Dakota in 1900, but by 1910, the family had moved to a home on North Holliston Avenue in Pasadena, and Lewis was no longer working as a blacksmith.

After their marriage in 1917, David and Lenora Swanson lived on Sherman Way in Van Nuys, but they moved often. Over the next 20 years, they lived at various times and at various addresses in Anaheim, Fullerton, Whittier, Santa Paula and Ventura before moving back to Anaheim in 1937.

Their first child, Rachel Henrietta Swanson, was born on June 28, 1920, in Pasadena, followed by a son, Clifford Lloyd Swanson, on Sept. 22, 1922, in Anaheim.

In early 1923, while the Swanson family was living at 707 E. Wilhelmina St., in Anaheim, 2-year-old Rachel was the target of a suspected kidnapping attempt. While the toddler was playing in the yard of the family home, her mother noticed a woman standing on the nearby Santa Fe railroad tracks. About 20 minutes later, little Rachel came running into the house, crying hysterically, and telling her mother that an unknown woman "hurt my hand." Rachel showed her mother a tiny wound on one of the fingers of her right hand.

Lenora Swanson quickly looked outside and noticed the same woman she had seen on the railroad tracks walking away from the yard. Rachel became increasingly ill during the evening, but showed signs of recovery the next day. Doctors who examined Rachel suspected that "the little girl was evidently suffering from the effects of a drug."

The next day, Rachel's father, David, went out to the yard to pick up the girl's toys, and discovered a small package of hypodermic needles in the yard. Police suspected that the mysterious woman had injected Rachel with an unknown drug, perhaps with the intention of kidnapping her and holding her for ransom. Rachel recovered from the incident, and the mysterious woman was never found.

By 1930, the Swansons had moved to Ventura, where David worked in advertising and sales for the J.C. Penney department store. Rachel suffered from an unidentified illness for the final few months of 1932, eventually having to leave school and receive private instruction at home. Rachel died on May 11, 1933, at the age of 12, and is buried at Mountain View Cemetery in Altadena.

After returning to Anaheim in 1937, David Swanson worked as a clerk at the S.Q.R. Department Store at 202 W. Lincoln Ave., about a mile from the Swanson home at 910 N. Dickel St. Lenora Swanson, who was in ill health, opened a “doll hospital” in the family home, to repair damaged and broken dolls.


Elva Haskett was hired by the Anaheim Public Library in 1925, two years after she arrived in the United States from her native Ontario, Canada at the age of 24. Soon after, Haskett was placed in charge of the library’s children’s department, and she regularly hosted story hours at the library, reading classic children’s books to the young library patrons.

To celebrate Children’s Book Week in November 1929, Haskett organized an exhibit of dolls, scenes and posters, created by children, to represent characters in children’s books, from Little Red Riding Hood and Cinderella, to Captain Hook and Robinson Crusoe. Haskett also purchased a special wooden Pinocchio doll, one of 500 sold by Macmillan Publishing to accompany the third edition of “The Adventures of Pinocchio,” which was published in 1929.

The Pinocchio doll – which resembled the version of the character on the cover of the book, not the version from Disney’s animated “Pinocchio” film, which was released in 1940 – sat on a shelf in the library and was described by Haskett as the “head of the public relations department of the Junior Library.”

In March 1933, Pinocchio was damaged in the 6.4-magnitude Long Beach earthquake. At the time, it was the largest earthquake ever to hit the Los Angeles area. Pinocchio fell off his shelf and was buried beneath a pile of books, suffering a broken leg and a cracked head.

Five years later, Haskett planned to take Pinocchio to a doll show as part of the Ogden Pioneer Days festivities in Ogden, Utah, but first she wanted to have the earthquake damage repaired. To do the necessary work, Haskett brought Pinocchio to Lenora Swanson’s well-known “doll hospital” at the Swanson home on North Dickell Street in Anaheim, about a mile and a half from Haskett’s apartment on West Broadway.

Haskett planned to pick up Pinocchio on March 2, but the heavy rain forced her to stay home. She planned to try again the following day.

But the rains continued and the Santa Ana River overflowed its banks. As the floodwaters rose, the Rev. Judson Wear, 58, pastor of the Anaheim Nazarene Church, drove a few short blocks to the home of his friends and parishioners, David and Lenora Swanson.

As the waters continued to rise, Lenora climbed into the backseat of Wear’s car, while David rescued two of the dolls his wife had been working on, including Pinocchio.

Wear tried to outrun the quickly rising waters, but without success. His car was pushed up against a house and disabled. The quickly rising water flooded into his car. Wear got out and tried to help the Swansons, who couldn’t swim. He helped the couple up onto the roof of his car, and he was then swept away by the swift current.

Wear survived and, the next day, he returned to his car, and found the bodies of David and Lenora Swanson. Both had drowned. Five days later, Wear presided over their funerals. The Swansons were buried at Mountain View Cemetery, about 75 feet from the final resting place of their daughter, Rachel.

Wear also found the Pinocchio doll, in the back seat of his car, with a broken leg and just his wooden head sticking out from the mud.

Pinocchio was cleaned, repaired, and was able to attend the doll show in Utah, and returned to Anaheim as a hero, a survivor of both the 1933 earthquake and the 1938 flood.

When Pinocchio returned to the Anaheim Public Library, stories were written about his trip to the doll show in Ogden, Utah, where he was described as “the doll hero of the recent flood.” In the doll’s life story, little was mentioned about David and Lenora Swanson.

An article in the Los Angeles Times on May 9, 1938, describes Pinocchio heroic return to the Anaheim Public Library, accompanied by a personal letter from Ogden Mayor Harman Peery stating that the wooden doll “all but stole the show.” The article details Pinocchio’s adventures and injuries, and his trip to Lenora Swanson’s “doll hospital.”

“However, before the doll surgeon could operate,” the article states, “Pinocchio was called upon to witness the drowning of two people, and his own rescue was so miraculous that even he has not been able to explain it.” The article does not mention the Swansons by name.

Perhaps the Times thought its readers just wanted a happy, feel-good story, and didn’t want to be reminded of the recent suffering, tragedy and losses from the devastating flood, which they had lived through and had been reading about for weeks.

Today, the nearly 100-year-old Pinocchio doll is still at the Anaheim Public Library, sitting in a place of honor in the children's section

The only other public remembrance of the flood and its victims is a plaque at the entrance to Melrose Elementary School in Placentia. At that location, the Red Cross erected about 250 tents to house an estimated 400 displaced residents of Atwood and La Jolla. .

The Aftermath

After the flood, more than 300 bridges were built or rebuilt, and nearly 300 miles of the Los Angeles River and its tributaries were reconfigured. The sharp turns in the river were straightened, all vegetation was removed, and most of the river bed was encased in concrete – a project that took 20 years to complete – in an attempt to more quickly drain water off the land, and send it downstream to the Pacific Ocean. New drainage systems were also connected to the river, to quickly remove water from streets and residential areas.

Dams helped slow the water flow from the mountains and foothills by creating reservoirs to contain the water, but they weren’t enough to prevent the damage and destruction in 1938. The 215-foot-high Big Tugunga Dam, on Big Tugunga Creek, which was completed in 1931, helped protect many of the downstream cities below the Angeles National Forest.

Although construction had begun on the San Gabriel Dam on the San Gabriel River in 1932, the unfinished dam was still able to reduce the water flow and helped protect the foothill communities. The 315-foot-high dam was completed in 1939.

After the flood, the 97-foot-high Hansen Dam, downstream from the Big Tugunga Dam, was built in the San Fernando Valley, and completed in 1940. Construction on the 57-foot-high Sepulveda Dam, on the Los Angeles River, built to prevent flooding in the lower San Fernando Valley, including Glendale and Burbank, started in 1940 and was completed the following year.

Before the 1938 flood, plans had been made for the 92-foot-high Santa Fe Dam on the San Gabriel River in Irwindale, the 56-foot-high Whittier Narrows Dam on the San Gabriel River in Pico Rivera, and the 162-foot-high Prado Dam on the Santa Ana River in Corona, but there wasn’t much political support for funding the projects. Several times in the early 1930s, voters in Orange County rejected bond issues for dam construction and flood control.

After the 1938 flood, and with federal funds available, the Prado Dam was completed in 1941, the Santa Fe Dam in 1949, and the Whittier Narrows Dam in 1956.

As proof of the success of the system of dams and reservoirs, and the channeling of the Los Angeles River, in early February 2024, 10.6 inches of rain fell on Los Angeles during a non-stop, record-setting, seven-day storm. There was minor flooding and mudslides in the mountain areas above the city, but no widespread damage and no fatalities.

As for the surviving members of the Swanson family, Lenora's father, Lewis, died less than a year after the flood, on Jan. 19, 1939, at the age of 79. Her mother, Clara, died on March 3, 1954, at the age of 86. They're buried next to David and Lenora Swanson at Mountain View Cemetery.

Lenora’s younger brother, Vernon Lester Heidner, died on April 24, 1989, in Los Angeles, at the age of 93. He's entombed in the Mountain View Mausoleum, just across the street from his parents, sister, brother-in-law and niece.

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