There’s something humbling about standing in a place where history was made. I’ve had that experience a few times, but nothing has ever compared to standing in San Francisquito Canyon in the exact spot where the St. Francis Dam catastrophically failed at three minutes to midnight on March 12, 1928.
San Francisquito Canyon is located near Santa Clarita, California. It’s about 40 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, and the St. Francis Dam was part of the Los Aqueduct system built by William Mulholland. As a child, I picnicked with my parents in this crooked canyon. It was a lazy place, and I mostly remember the bugs and moss on the rocks, the summer heat and just having fun. As an adult, I went back after reading a book called Rivers in the Desert by Margaret Leslie Davis. With the help of pictures and a map, my husband and I found the concrete remains of the dam. It was a humbling moment.
The man most responsible for bringing water to Los Angeles was William Mulholland. The aqueduct was started in 1908 and completed in 1913. In 1924, construction began on the St. Francis Dam and a giant holding basin north of the city. It was completed in 1926 and the long process of filling it began. There were warning signs early on. As the dam was filled, cracks appeared in the massive concrete wall. Mulholland and his assistant deemed them to be expected in a structure the size of the St. Francis, and the water continued to rise, flooding the canyon behind the dam for miles. On March 8, 1928, the dam reached full capacity. It failed less than five days later.
No one saw the dam break, but a motorcyclist who had just ridden past it reported a rumbling and the sound of crashing rocks. He thought it was an earthquake or a landslide, events that are common to the area. What happened next is just beyond belief . . . A wall of water 125 feet high went crashing down the canyon. It killed the dam keeper and his family who lived a quarter-mile downstream, then it destroyed a pumping station and flooded parts of what is now Valenica, California. The water turned west to the Santa Clara riverbed, flooded Castaic Junction and hit Santa Paula in Ventura County.
When the water reached the Pacific Ocean, it had traveled 54 miles. The floodwaters were two miles wide and traveling at about 8 miles an hour. Approximately 450 people were killed, and bodies were recovered years later from the ocean as far away as the coast of Mexico.
Such a tragedy . . . Seeing those concrete blocks, weathered by time but still recognizable put flesh and blood on that piece of history. I’m thinking about it today in part because of the flooding we’re seeing on the Mississippi River. It’s a different kind of flooding–slow and anticipated–but homes are still being lost, and people are being displaced. And then there’s the tsunami that hit Japan. I can’t begin to imagine and the size and force of that kind of catastrope. I have to wonder . . . Fifty years from now, how will it all be remembered?
Other historic memories come to my mind . . . I’ve visited Ford’s Theater in Washington DC, walked through a Civil War battlefield and visited Arlington Cemetery. What about you? What historic places have you visited? Which one made the strongest impression?