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LA historian discovers treasure trove of historic photos, now online

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KPCC's John Rabe talks with Anna Sklar, an LA historian who discovered and put online hundreds of photos from the city engineer's office dating back to 1890.

Off-Ramp host John Rabe talked with Anna Sklar about the 8,000 rare historical images of Los Angeles she found, hundreds of which are now online.

When Anna Sklar digs into history, she really digs. A few years ago, it was a book about L.A.'s sewers, and she took Off-Ramp into a sewer to talk about it ...

(Sklar in 2010 with Off-Ramp in an L.A. sewer. Image: John Rabe)

Now, she's working on a project that charts many of the big digs in Los Angeles dating back to the 1890s. Sklar discovered an archive of thousands of photos taken by the city engineer's office and has put hundreds of them online in a searchable database at the Los Angeles City Historical Society's website.

"I accidentally found them when I was doing my research on the sewer book. An engineer had given me four CDs, with some .jpegs, and I was looking for sewage photos. But then last December I got a little bored, and I picked up one of the CDs, and I'm looking at them, and I'm thinking, 'Oh. My. Goodness. These are amazing! This is a project that really needs to be put online so people can see these images that have never been seen before.'"

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And with the L.A. City Historical Society, the L.A. City Archive and the Haynes Foundation, she did just that, and you can browse them or hit the "random search" and let the website give you a tour of historical L.A.

(Historian Anna Sklar at the Baldwin Hills Rec Center, site of a years-long peat bog fire. Image: John Rabe)

The photos were all taken either by or for L.A.'s City Engineer to document work it was doing, like sewers, bridges and road improvements, as well as to illustrate engineering problems, like congestion, safety issues, floods, fires and landslides.

As you can see in our slideshow, the photos incidentally wind up telling the history of L.A.'s places and people. One such person was one of the most powerful in the city's history, but you probably wouldn't know his name: Lloyd Aldrich, the city's engineer for an unsurpassed 22 years.

(A tribute photo to Lloyd Aldrich on the LADWP website.)

Aldrich wielded enormous power because he had a pipeline to some $55 million in WPA funds, which is something like $960 million today (using 1935 as a nominal date in the Bureau of Labor Statistics online calculator). For instance, he got the Slauson Avenue storm drain built from Crenshaw to Ballona Creek. "Daily," Sklar says, "they had 5,700 men digging by hand, because that was the purpose of the WPA, to put men to work."

(Los Angeles City Archives Public Works Department Bureau of Engineering)

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