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May 13
1825 - Town founder Henry Mayo Newhall born in Saugus, Mass. [read/watch]
Henry M. Newhall


Proponents of a bipartisan effort to create a national memorial at the site of the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster are stepping up their efforts to get the legislation passed in time for 90th-anniversary events planned for March.

Titled the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act, H.R. 2156 was introduced in the House by Rep. Steve Knight (R, CA-25) on April 26, 2017 and passed by the House July 31.

The bill authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the memorial via donation in consultation with the Santa Clarita City Council and the public, and authorizes a 440-acre monument to encompass the memorial on the dam site in San Francisquito Canyon. The land is federally owned and managed by the U.S. Forest Service.

U.S. Sen. Kamala D. Harris, D-Calif., introduced the Senate version of the bill, S. 1926, the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act, on October 5. Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., signed on as a co-sponsor. That companion bill was read twice and referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, headed by Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska.

Because there was no action in the final months of the 2017 session, the Senate bill remains in committee at the start of the 115th Congress’s 2018 legislative session.

“I am happy the House passed H.R. 2156 back in July and am thankful to Senator Harris for bringing this up in the Senate,” Knight said in a statement in late December. “I now call on my colleagues in the Senate to bring this up for a vote to protect this site and preserve such an important part of California’s history.”

“Sen. Harris will continue to advocate for the St. Francis Dam Memorial Act to ensure that the hundreds of lives lost during one of the worst tragedies in California’s history are honored and never forgotten,” said Tyrone Gayle, Harris’s press secretary, in an email about her efforts to push the bill out of committee and to a vote.

Typically, when a member of Congress introduces a bill in either the House or the Senate, and the bill passes, the original proponent then advocates passage of the companion legislation in the other chamber.

In this case, Knight is “currently looking for a legislative vehicle to attach this to and get it through,” Chris Jusuf, Knight’s public information officer, said in an email in late December.

“I’m positive it will move forward in the new year,” said Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, Community Hiking Club executive president and longtime nature activist. She worked with Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society President Alan Pollack to draft the proposal for the bill.

St. Francis Dam tombstone

The “tombstone” was left standing when the dam collapsed. Colorization by Pony Horton.

“I did speak with Knight’s office, and they said they would work on it first of the year,” Erskine-Hellrigel said. “It’s bipartisan. We have both Republicans and Democrats behind it. And it’s not costing the taxpayers a penny. We’re not asking for any government money at all. Everything for the memorial itself — the memorial wall, the Visitor’s Center — Alan (Pollack) and the Historical Society and I have to raise ourselves.

“All the senators need to do is just pass the name,” she said. “So I’m very positive it will go through and very hopeful it would be before March so that we can really celebrate it.”

Pollack and Erskine-Hellrigel first proposed the memorialization of the dam disaster in 2014 when U.S. Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon was in office.

“We sold the idea first to Buck McKeon, who was all excited about it,” she said. “Then he retired, so Congressman Knight picked it up, and he loved the idea, as well.”

The timing for passage is tight, if it’s to happen before the 90th anniversary in March.

The anniversary ceremony will be “a month-long thing where every weekend we will have events going on along the floodplain,” Erskine-Hellrigel said.

Maria Christopher details them in the current issue of the Heritage Junction Dispatch, the newsletter published by SCV Historical Society.

“The affected communities all plan public activities to honor the dead, commemorate the survivors, and reflect on the response and resiliency of the people living along the river when the flood swept through the area,” Christopher writes. “This commemoration will also help us understand the causes of the disaster, put it into historical context, as well as to consider its present-day relevance.”

The growing list of events is online at SaintFrancisDam.com.

“It’s very exciting, and we’re hoping to get both senators and Congressman Knight and Congresswoman Brownley involved,” Erskine-Hellrigel said.

St. Francis Dam break flood path

H.R. 2156 and S. 1926 provide for the establishment of a national memorial and national monument to commemorate those killed by the collapse of the St. Francis Dam.

The resulting flood and debris killed an estimated 431 people, the second-highest death toll in California history due to a disaster, and caused millions of dollars in damage to communities along the flood path, including Santa Clarita, Rancho Camulos, Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Ventura.

According to the House Congressional Report: “The Saint Francis Dam was one of several large infrastructure projects constructed in the early 20th century to help control the flow of water to southern California.

“On March 12, 1928, the dam breached, resulting in significant flooding that took more than 400 lives in Los Angeles County, California.

“This failure is considered one of the worst civil engineering failures in the 20th century and resulted in the resignation of William Mulholland as head of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Water Supply.

“Beyond the loss of life, thousands of residents lost their homes and experienced significant property damage due to the flood.

“Today, the site of the dam collapse and the affected areas are often subject to theft and vandalism.

“H.R. 2156 recognizes the devastation of the flood and its impact on the residents of northern Los Angeles County by establishing a national memorial as well as a national monument to preserve the affected area for future generations. The bill authorizes the Secretary of Agriculture to establish the memorial via donation in consultation with the Santa Clarita City Council and the public.

“No taxpayer funds are authorized for the construction of the memorial.

“The bill also authorizes the creation of a 440-acre monument that will encompass the St. Francis Dam memorial. The boundaries of the monument were designated in consultation with interest groups in the community.

“Motorized access will be allowed within the monument and grazing will continue to be allowed on any land where it is already permitted.”

St. Francis Dam

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2 Comments

  1. Nadiya Littlewarrior says:

    Long overdue.

    • Teri Walker Caldwell says:

      Yes, long overdue! I grew up in Sand Canyon, near Newhall, and I don’t recall ever hearing anything about this until I found a book about the disaster in a library in Chico, California!

Leave a Comment


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