Following the St. Francis Dam Disaster

All that remains today is a poorly kept road, overgrown with trees, weeds, and graffiti. The contrast of this scene is nothing short of perfect social commentary: an abandoned site used by revelers looking to escape, in a site which less than 100 years ago saw so much despair and tragedy from which people could not get away fast enough.

If you ask, at large, about the St. Francis Dam Disaster most Angelenos could not tell you where it happened, why it happened, or even what it pertains to. The very thing (water) and the very man (Mulholland) responsible for the growth of Los Angeles are also the very thing responsible for the second “greatest loss of life” disaster in California (the San Francisco 1906 Earthquake is the 1st) and one of the greatest civil engineering failures in United States history. The bodies of victims continue to be found, some as recently as 1992 in Newhall, however many of the remains from so many of the victims have not been found. As of today, the formal “count” reflects 431 deaths, however the number has been placed at between 550 and 600 total deaths.

Ironically, as is with much of the Mulholland and “Los Angeles Water” lore, the tragedy inflicted decimated surrounding communities and not the San Fernando Valley or City of Los Angeles. Owen’s Valley (in Inyo County) is a remnant of its former “water-self,” and the Santa Clarity Valley served as the conduit for the water as the “wall of water” found its way through the Santa Clara River Valley to the Pacific Ocean.

We decided to travel the route of the flood path: San Francisquito Canyon (Power Plant 1, Power Plant 2, St. Francis Dam Site), Castaic, Piru, Filmore, Santa Paula, Ventura / Oxnard. Besides the solemness of the site of the disaster, what was immediately evident is that the sheer amount of water, up to 40 feet tall as it made its way west, is unfathomable when you drive through the Santa Clara River Valley. Today, these towns exist in a condition “similar-to” when the tragedy occurred –one main road, little lighting, and right in the middle of two mountain ranges.

Our first stop was San Francisquito Power Plant 2 –a beautiful Art Deco structure, rebuilt and later refurbished after the disaster. Next, we made our way up to the site itself. As you drive up to the site, look to the right of the road where you can see entire segments of the damn carried by the water –it may look like a “chunk of rock” but it is not.

You can park off the road and “hike” (on an abandoned paved road) about a ½ mile to the site itself. What is left is the broken and mangled remains to the “Tombstone” segment from the dam that would later be “blown-up” to prevent anyone from climbing. This was prompted by the death of a local whom climbed to the top (140 feet) and then fell to his death. About 100 yards from the site itself, in an unmarked path (on the left) you can walk down into-, and climb-on the actual remains themselves. The dam itself is still recognizable. As you continue down the trail (about another 1/8 of a mile) you will be met by a gate, and a path to: (on the left) segments of the dam carried by the water, and (to the right) a ¼ mile uphill walk to the Western Wall. If you opt to climb up, and on the wall, please be careful.

We left the solemness of the site and drove north on San Francisquito another 3 miles to Power Plant #1. The turn-off sneaks up on you so go slow. As you drive down (and into) the site, you come up on a 1920’s set of homes and buildings used by LADWP which are still in use (drive slow!). It is as if time stood still. If you meander up the road you will find you way onto the Power Plant, which is open to tours by appointments. This building is original (as are the rest of the homes) and spared from the disaster. Here, you will also find a small clearing with artifacts and equipment used to build the Los Angeles Aqueduct and the St. Francis Dam.

From here we cut through Valencia and unto Highway 126, which is the path the water took. Along the way we stopped in Piru at the Piru Cemetery. A small community cemetery at the end of a road. Family member after family member, each buried one next to the other with headstones all reflecting “1928” as year of death.

Next, we headed to Fillmore and the Barsdale Cemetery. Here again, grouped together are a set of tombs (mostly in Spanish) with victims. And from there headed to Santa Paula. Here, we stopped first at the Warning Monument, in front of the Santa Paula Train Depot, commemorating “Hello Girls” (telephone operators calling ahead of the oncoming water, and police officers speeding ahead calling for people to evacuate. From there we headed to the Santa Paula Cemetery and located (towards the back of the cemetery) are headstones (in Spanish) dedicated to entire families lost in the flood. Our final stop of the day was at the Ivy Lawn Memorial Cemetery in Ventura where, along the Western wall, in unmarked graves (no plaque, no headstones, no mention of) are buried additional victims.

As it stands, you can visit the site on your own and drive from town to town (about 2 hours if you account for stops, walking, visiting) or you can sign-up for an Atlas Obscura tour, which I recommend as they take you to places you would not be able to access otherwise –including the Ruiz Cemetery. In 2019, legislation was signed to make the site a National Monument –the St Francis Memorial Foundation is working with the Bureau of Land Management on a 3-year assessment plan.

Additional Resources:
Memorialization and Memory of Southern California’s St. Francis Dam Disaster of 1928
Wikipedia Article: St. Francis Dam Disaster

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