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Today in
S.C.V. History
March 24
1922 - Wyatt Earp's wife thanks William S. Hart for defending her husband's honor [story]

Commentary by By Lori Cannon Spragens, Rudy Ortega Jr. and Laurene Weste
| Friday, Dec 8, 2017

Almost 90 years ago, on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam ruptured, sending a 180-foot tower of water hurtling down San Francisquito Canyon in northern Los Angeles County. The floodwaters killed more than 431 people and destroyed homes and property, causing millions of dollars in damage.

The dam’s failure is widely regarded as the nation’s worst civil engineering disaster of the 20th Century and California’s second worst disaster in terms of loss of life. It brought about a new era of engineering oversight and methods for dam building across the nation.

We are thankful that U.S. Rep. Steve Knight, U.S. Rep. Julia Brownley, U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris and U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein have introduced legislation to create a national memorial to honor the disaster victims and tell the story of how the dam’s failure led to improved engineering safety and accountability. The legislation unanimously passed the House of Representatives this past summer and was introduced into the Senate last month.

William Mullholland, the controversial chief engineer of the L.A. Department of Water and Power, designed the St. Francis Dam as a water supply for the city of Los Angeles. The dam was built after renegade Owens Valley ranchers sabotaged the aqueduct that brought water originating high in the Sierra Nevada mountains to the Los Angeles basin.

Historically, the area surrounding the dam site is Tataviam Indian American territory, and it is important to remember that Native Americans and agricultural farmworkers were among those who perished as the floodwaters roared down San Francisquito Canyon toward the Pacific Ocean. Southern California Edison work crews, as well as the communities of present-day Santa Clarita, Castaic Junction, Piru, Fillmore, Bardsdale, Saticoy and Santa Paula were in the path of destruction.

The site of the St. Francis Dam deserves protection as a national memorial because of its historical significance and the importance of recognizing those who lost their lives in the disaster. Over the years, irreplaceable artifacts within its flood plain have been looted, and graffiti and vandalism have occurred on the historical ruins of the dam and the canyon walls.

Family members of the victims currently have nowhere to go to remember their loved ones, and more than 150 graves do not have headstones.

The creation of a new national memorial will honor those who lost their lives during the St. Francis Dam disaster. It will also tell a compelling story of how the dam’s failure fundamentally changed the amount of oversight guiding the construction of dams in the United States.

In the years following the dam’s rupture, Congress created the Colorado River Board to review plans of the proposed Hoover Dam. In California, legislation was passed that gave the state engineer the authority to review all non-federal dams within California.

The memorial legislation enjoys broad-based support including the American Society of Civil Engineers, Association of State Dam Safety Officials, the city of Santa Clarita, the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, the St. Francis Archeological Group, Southern California Edison, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, Nature for All, Amigos de los Rios, thousands of local stakeholders, and many different conservation and recreation organizations.

Thanks to Reps. Knight and Brownley and Sens. Harris and Feinstein, this important piece of California history may soon be protected, and the stories and lessons from the dam failure will be told in perpetuity, as we approach the 90th anniversary of the disaster in 2018.


Lori Cannon Spragens is executive director of the Association of State Dam Safety Officials. Rudy Ortega Jr. is chairman of the Los Angeles City-County Native American Indian Commission and the Fernandeno-Tataviam Band of Mission Indians. Laurene Weste is Mayor Pro-Tem of the city of Santa Clarita.

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1 Comment

  1. jim says:

    Oh, pshaw. Really, a major effort to designate the site of the Dam failure just to extend the harm of the failure of this project to a dozen groups who had little or nothing to do with it? Do you have to drag into this all of the possible minority groups who may or may not have been participants or other wise harmed by it?

    Make the memorial about the farm-workers for Newhall Land and Farming; make a nice memorial for the 40-50 Edison lineworkers killed by the flood; include all of the families and residents who were never found or were identified after the flood. Include all of the folks who were caught up in the flood downstream and put up a marker for the phone operator who notified folks down the river from Fillmore. Add another marker for the local policeman who rode his motorcycle around the town warning folks.

    But don’t try to make it something that it never was. It was a complete f***-up by LADWP/ William Mulholland, because the geologic and structural engineering of that day could not and did not warn against it. The scientific knowledge was not available to prevent exactly what occurred.

    Make a monument; explain what happened. But don’t think that anything else could have happened back then. That was then. This is now.

    Don’t be confused by the two.

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