Thornton Edwards (born July 15, 1894, in Maine) came to Hollywood and appeared in about two dozen short features from 1916 to 1921 before leaving the business to become a motor officer in the San Fernando Valley. He ended up in Santa Paula where he joined the police department in the mid-1920s and then became a state motor patrolman (precursor to the California Highway Patrol, which formed in 1929).
Far away in Saugus, at three minutes before midnight March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam collapsed, sending a wall of water down San Francisquito Canyon. The floodwaters hit the Santa Clara River and turned west, taking aim at the little towns that stood along the route to the Pacific Ocean — including Santa Paula.
At 1:30 a.m. on the 13th, a Pacific Long Distance telephone operator called Santa Paula's night operator, Louise Gipe, and warned her of the coming flood. Gipe alerted Thornton Edwards, who hopped on his Indian motorbike and rode door to door, telling residents to get to higher ground. Actually he made double time by riding to every other door, telling people to warn their next-door neighbors.
The floodwaters hit Santa Paula at 3 a.m. Many more people might have perished if not for Thornton Edwards' wild ride.
Edwards left state duty to become Santa Paula's police chief, but the love affair was not to last. Some say his moment of heroism was drowned out in booze; whatever the case, by the end of the 1930s he'd been fired.
Edwards returned to Hollywood in 1939 played minor characters in some 30 low-budget (B) movies, including a few Gene Autry and Johnny Mack Brown vehicles, before retiring from the screen in 1949. Most roles were uncredited; several called for a contrived Latin accent, and when he was credited, sometimes it was as Joaquin Edwards. He did appear briefly (as an uncredited motor cop) in at least one big picture: John Ford's "The Grapes of Wrath" (1940) with Henry Fonda.
Edwards would live out his days — another four decades — in Tulare, Calif., where he died at age 93 on Feb. 1, 1988.
Further reading: Thornton Edwards, Hero of the St. Francis Dam Disaster.
John Nichols, ©Donna Granata. Click to enlarge.
John Nichols is a historian, photographer, writer, art dealer and independent curator who developed several exhibits on the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster for the California Oil Museum. His research led to his first book for Arcadia Publishing, "St. Francis Dam Disaster" (2002). A subsequent exhibit led to the book, "Santa Paula Portrait Project: Paintings by Gail Pidduck and Photographs by John Nichols." A quarter-century of writing is compiled into his Kindle book, "Essay Man: Selected Essays and Writings," available from Amazon. He also published the art book, "Mexico: 1895 A Vernacular Album."
In 1984 he opened JohnNicholsGallery.com in historic downtown Santa Paula to exhibit and promote vintage and contemporary photography and art. A black-and-white darkroom photographer for more than 35 years, Nichols made the leap in 2002 to color photography and digital printing with state-of-the-art digital printers and archival pigmented inks. His photographs are found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Ventura County; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Austin, Texas; Carnegie Art Museum, Oxnard; Santa Paula Art Museum; city of Ventura; Community Memorial Hospital of San Buenaventura; and numerous private collections.
Nichols serves on the board of the Santa Paula Art Museum and the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula. He is a former board member of the Museum of Ventura County and chaired its Fine Arts Committee; he has served on the board of the Rotary Club of Santa Paula and is past president of the Santa Paula Historical Society. He was named Santa Paula Rotarian of the Year and Santa Paula Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year.
Note: High-resolution scans of images in the John Nichols Collection are not available from SCVHistory.com.
NG4034: Image courtesy of John Nichols Gallery.