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1978 - St. Francis Dam site becomes a State Landmark [story]


Now and Then in the SCV | Commentary by Darryl Manzer
| Tuesday, Oct 15, 2013
Darryl Manzer

Darryl Manzer

Issues. We have issues. We have issues right here in Santa Clara River City … and what issues they are.

They just don’t rhyme with anything. They don’t rhyme at all. But they are going to cost us all a lot if we don’t all take a good look at them.

We have too much chloride in the water we treat and send downstream to Ventura County. Wasn’t a problem until the farmers downstream changed crops to less chloride-tolerant types. So in typical fashion, the most expensive method to reduce our chloride discharge was selected.

What are we supposed to do when those same folks downstream decide to grow crops with ZERO chloride tolerance?

What if we just paid the fine?  It would be cheaper.

Then there is Cemex. A couple of us have to admit that efforts by Rep. McKeon have at least slowed the mining to date. Putting stuff on hold for nearly 20 years is almost a win for us. By doing nothing, he has accomplished something. Typical of Congress, isn’t it?

Another issue is that so much of our local history is unrecognized. There are little spots here and there where the state of California placed a plaque. Try to find them. You might stumble upon a few plaques and markers. I know of two Registered National Landmarks in the SCV. There may be more. Those two are The old Ridge Route and Pico Oil Well No. 4.

The center section of the St. Francis Dam in Saugus remained standing after the dam collapsed on the night of March 12, 1928, sending hundreds of SCV residents and others to their deaths.

The center section of the St. Francis Dam in Saugus remained standing after the dam collapsed on the night of March 12, 1928, sending hundreds of SCV residents and others to their deaths. Known as the “Tombstone,” it became a macabre tourist attraction, as seen by the line of cars. In 1929 it was deemed unsafe and was dynamited into oblivion. Click image for more information.

 

There isn’t a marker at the Lang Station site, where northern and Southern California were united by rail.

We may be truly united between northern and Southern California politically someday. Not in my lifetime.

How about National Landmark status for the Oak of the Golden Dream? That place where in 1842 Mr. Lopez had a dream and pulled up a wild onion with gold dust on it?

How about Beale’s Cut? That gash in the earth solved a major transportation problem in the development of California. Nope. No landmark status there, either.

In fact, much of California suffers from the, “It is too new to have any history” syndrome. Really irritates those of us who get away from the mall long enough to look for history.

What do we expect when just about the only California history our schools teach is in the third grade?  How many of you remember what was taught then? (Which reminds me … I’ve got to find that extra set of keys I put in a safe place.)

Back in the state of Pennsylvania, there is a town named Johnstown. There was a flood there, and hundreds of people were killed. Some say more than 2,000 folks died. A dam failed and a wall of water nearly washed the entire town off of the Earth.

Today there is a site that commemorates that event of May 31, 1889. It is a National Memorial Site run by the National Park Service.

Here in the SCV, we’ve got a similar site that should be a National Memorial. That place is the St. Francis Dam – or at least where it was. In 1928, the 185-foot-tall dam failed and a wall of water killed people from just below the dam all the way to the Pacific Ocean, a little over 54 miles. At least 350 folks were killed, maybe more. (Some say nearly 600.)

It isn’t just the story of the dam failing. It is the story of rushed construction and dependence upon a single engineer to approve construction changes and inspections. In fact, the day before it failed, that engineer inspected a visible leak and pronounced the dam “safe.”

It is the story of a man who was clinging to a tree and was rescued; of three small school districts where most teachers and students were drowned as they slept; of a policeman in Fillmore who raced around town warning folks of the approaching flood.

The landscape between the dam in San Francisquito Canyon and the Pacific Ocean was changed. Railroads and highways gone. Buildings gone. People gone. Wiped out. Nothing but mud and some debris left. Of the dam only a pile of rubble remains. A large mound of broken concrete.

It is also the story of a cover-up. How that engineer died a despondent and broken man. It is a story of our valley.

It has nothing on a national level to mark its place in history. Many of the people killed remain unidentified. They, too, lack a memorial. They deserve one.

The dam above Johnstown was owned by some rich folks who wanted a lake at the vacation homes they owned. It was an earth-fill dam.

The St. Francis Dam was a government project that was designed and built by a man many considered a hero. It has become an example in most civil engineering classes in universities. I even heard about it along with that bridge in Tacoma, Wash., that failed. It is still being used as an example of how not to build a dam.

Can it get National Memorial status like the Johnstown dam? There is a group that hopes so. They have started to lay the groundwork of finding out how to do it, and doing what can be done. Stay tuned for updates from time to time.

A national memorial in the SCV for the victims of the night in 1928. It can happen. It will happen. Maybe faster than the other issues get solved. In fact, it is the easier one to solve.

Let me know what you think. The “Dammies” working the project need any ideas and help they can get. Just send it to my address below. Thanks.

 

Darryl Manzer grew up in the Pico Canyon oil town of Mentryville in the 1960s and attended Hart High School. After a career in the U.S. Navy he returned to live in the Santa Clarita Valley. He can be reached at dmanzer@scvhistory.com and his commentaries, published on Tuesdays and Sundays, are archived at DManzer.com. Watch his walking tour of Mentryville [here].

 

 

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1 Comment

  1. Dennis says:

    Good story. Another tragedy overlooked due to lack of a “glamour angle.” There really should be a plaque, museum or something to remind folks of that event.

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