Santa Clarita Valley History In Pictures

St. Francis Dam Disaster, 1928

Construction began in '24
On the St. Francis dam and reservoir;
Forty-eight miles north of L.A.
West of the canyon they call Bouquet.
It was a concrete wall 200 feet high,
A thousand long and a hundred wide —
Twelve billion gallons of water inside.

In Saugus and Newhall, below the lake,
Rumors were swapped that the dam might break.
A rancher leaving the Saugus Cafe
Turned to hear his neighbor say
"I'll see you, Donahue, later today,
Unless we all get washed away!"
Donahue knew his friend had been joking,
But something was in the words he'd just spoken.
Just thinking about it didn't set right,
So he turned and stayed in town that night.

It was the twelfth of March in '28
When the friends made light of a watery fate.
But as they joked, a call was made
To Bill Mulholland and his closest aide.
There was muddy seepage beneath the wall.
The men were concerned, though the leak was small.
As the limousine sped them along,
They hoped to find the damkeeper wrong.
Wm. Mulholland and Harvey Van Norman
Studied the crack that prompted the warning.
The leak, they decided, was nothing to fear.
At the mouth of the crack, the water was clear.
This made both the engineers sure
The dam's foundation was completely secure.
They returned to the office late that day
Relieved that the dam wasn't washing away

* * *

The night was dark. There wasn't a sound
As folks in the canyon bedded down.
The only sight was the bouncing light
On Mr. Hopewell's motor bike.
Minutes before the midnight hour
He parked the cycle and killed the power.
From behind him came a rumbling sound.
He lit a cigarette and frowned.
"Another landslide!" he muttered aloud.
"Tomorrow I'll call and have the road plowed."
So he put the nuisance out of his mind
With no idea what he was leaving behind.

Meanwhile, north, at Powerhouse One,
Signs of trouble had already begun.
Gauges to measure the current said
The lines to Los Angeles went suddenly dead.
Raymond Silvey expressed his doubt,
But Patrolman Lindstrom was quickly sent out
To see what all the fuss was about.

Down in the rugged canyon below,
Raymond Rising was first to know.
His house began to rattle and shake.
In a single bound he jumped awake.
As he opened the door and stepped outside
He was hit by a wave a hundred feet high.
There in the deadly churning sea
He swam for a piece of floating debris.
The roof of a house was now his raft.
He owed his life to the unfortunate craft.
He and two others were discovered at dawn,
But 28 workmen and their families were gone,
And still the water roared on.

Eight miles west in the town of Castaic,
Nearly an hour after the break
The sound of the water the dam had released
Seemed like an earthquake far to the east.
The innkeeper and his son were awake.
They heard the roar and felt the shake.
In the nick of time, they grabbed one another,
But neither one reached the younger brother.
The pair was swept near a utility pole.
They were lucky enough to reach and grab hold.
The father screamed out, "My God! I'm hurt!"
The only thing left was a piece of his shirt.
Into the torrent, the younger one dived,
But fate was kind, and he survived.
The naked and injured refugee
Spent the night in a cottonwood tree.
From there he saw, by the light of dawn,
That his family and business and home were gone.
And still the water roared on.

The state's main highway was buried in mud.
Three counties were dark because of the flood.
Yet those who were in a position to know
Hadn't sent word to the valley below.
Near a railroad shack at the siding of Kemp
Edison workmen were sleeping in tents.
The security officer's name was Locke.
He was outside on his nightly walk.
He saw brilliant flashes and sounds like thunder.
"Could it be a windstorm?", he wondered.
The camp was suddenly hit by a wave.
There were a hundred and fifty men to save.
The fearless sentry did what he could,
And though his efforts did some good,
Eighty-four of the men were lost
In the horrible swirling holocaust.

* * *

It was nearly two o'clock in the morning
When Santa Paula received the warning.
Thornton Edwards of the Highway Patrol
Jumped on his cycle and began to roll.
When someone rang the fire bell
Twenty-four men showed up to help.
As the volunteers reached the fire station
They were told of the perilous situation
And asked to lead and evacuation.
Santa Paula was notified
In time to leave to the countryside.

For the last twenty miles, from there to the sea
Most of the people were able to flee
But millions in housing and crops were lost
In the farms and ranches nearest the wash.
Down the stream past Saticoy,
The Montalvo bridge was completely destroyed.
The wave was more than two miles wide
When the floodwater finally began to subside.
At six a.m. or shortly before,
The waters met the Pacific shore,
And the terrible flood was no more.

* * *

More than 400 died that night,
And the final figure will never be right.
Sixty or more were never found,
Caught in the flood and probably drowned.
A thousand homes and ranches were lost
But the City of Angels covered the cost.
They spent millions of dollars in aid and relief.
They rebuilt the valley and paid for the grief.
But after demands for reparations
Came the questions and threats and accusations
At the county coroner's investigation.

What had caused the dam to break?
Was it sabotage or a careless mistake?
At the inquest everyone testified
The facts of the case to try to decide
If a charge of murder was justified.
No one was ever found negligent
Or responsible for the accident.
It was a good dam built in a bad location,
But that decision was no salvation
From the watery death and devastation.

* * *

It's been fifty years since the structure fell
And the clues of the story are hidden well.
The only witnesses left today
Are some pieces of concrete, weathered and grey.
They are the stones that mark the site
Of the chain of events on a cold spring night.
Yes, the effects of disaster have long been gone,
But the St. Francis legend will always live on.



John Hutchens


Black Francis


Katy Moffatt


John Bergstrom

Ron Pinkerton

Dan Devere


Film: "Big Surf" by Brian Smee 2017

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