Echo Park and its lake have always been a touchstone for the community that grew up around it.
Initially, the area we now know as the park was a natural arroyo that filled with water from a spring-fed stream that originated at Baxter Street and flowed down what is now Echo Park Avenue. In 1868 the Los Angeles Canal and Reservoir Co. dammed the arroyo to make a reservoir that aided in powering a woolen mill at what is now 6th and Figueroa (then known as Pearl St.) and was to eventually serve local residents, walnut orchards and vineyards to the south along Alvarado. The immigrants that worked these orchards and vineyards settled here and began to build small homes along Sunset Boulevard, between Echo Park Avenue and Lemoyne Street.
In 1875, the woolen mill closed and the reservoir land (then known as the Montana Tract) was sold off. Eventually, Thomas J. Kelley and Dr. W. Lemoyne Wills purchased the land for a business venture. For reasons unknown, the venture wasn’t feasible and in 1888, Mr. Kelley and Dr. Wills donated the land to the city for the expressed purpose of creating a public park for the enjoyment of the people of Los Angeles. The paperwork was finally completed during the recession of 1889 and in 1891 park development began. The first Superintendent of Parks for the city was an English immigrant named Joseph Tomlinson who was assigned the task of creating the park. Mr. Tomlinson, being somewhat homesick for his favorite park in Derbyshire, England, decided to model the park after his favorite childhood place to play. At the same time, the reservoir was closed and the stream was capped. The park superintendent created a 16-acre lake where the reservoir had been. It cost $5,637.00 to create the lake that is now filled with city water. Once that was accomplished, the planting began on the other 15 acres of park.
One day, while overseeing the work, Mr. Tomlinson thought he heard his workers talking during a break, but he knew they were across the park from him. The park had an echo! He knew what the name of the park would be! Unfortunately, the plantings he installed destroyed the echo, but the name remained. The park was dedicated and opened to the public in 1895.
The famous bed of lotuses that grow in the lake at the northwest end of the park, the largest stand of lotuses outside Asia, is a mystery yet to be solved. One legend says that evangelical Chinese missionaries planted them for use as food, but no one knows the real story. They appeared some time in 1923 or 1924. Nonetheless, they remain a beautiful addition to the park and have inspired the city to sponsor the annual Lotus Festival that celebrates Asian and South Pacific Island cultures.