Three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francisquito Dam near Santa Clarita catastrophically collapsed, sending billions of gallons of water roaring through the Santa Clara Valley resulting in more than 600 deaths. The dam was built under the supervision of William Mulholland and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power between 1924 and 1926 as a reservoir to the Los Angeles Aqueduct. The St. Francis Dam collapse is the worst American civil engineering failure of the 20th century and remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history.

Turn Back the Pages, a historical preservation project, has gathered many stories and oral histories from Ventura County’s past. Ventura Adult Education instructor Mary Z. Wilson has involved students and community members in research, storytelling and clerical projects. A veteran songwriter, Wilson has written the lyrics to more than 20 songs with melodies by many fine local songwriters. The Restless Hillfillies, her new musical group with Rosie Tower and Karen Orser, are learning all these story songs to perform throughout the county. The following individuals’ stories are audiotaped through an educational grant called GrantSmart and will be donated to the Museum of Ventura County and the libraries. You will be able to hear the song at a new Web site www.turnbackthepages.com. The lyrics follow the stories below.

Bill Mitchell was born in 1909. While still living with his folks at the age of 18, he had started working for the Bureau of Water Works about two weeks before the disaster at St. Francisquito Dam. “My boss called me at home about 12:30 at night and told my mother that the St. Francis Dam had broke and for me to meet him at 6 o’clock in the morning with my bedroll ready and figure on staying.” They headed for Saugus to unload heavy equipment for the clean up effort. He remembers seeing hands coming out of the mud. “You worked around the clock until you got so tired that you would lay down wherever you could. We didn’t have anything to eat for three days except for rolled cold beef sandwiches. Oh, I got so sick of those cold beef sandwiches!”

They established camps (bunkhouses and a kitchen) for the employees at Santa Paula, Piru, Bardsdale and a headquarters east of Ventura. While working out of this camp Mitchell met a man who had worked at the Edison camp where so many lives were lost. That man recalled waking up that night floating on a mattress. He paddled it toward the mountain to a safe landing. The cleanup effort went on for months and included going back to the site of the dam where they dug “foxholes for powder” to explode and destroy the remains of the dam which were an eyesore and a tragic reminder of the disaster.

Pauline Dirkes Shaddock was 13 at the time that the St. Francis Dam crumpled. She vividly remembers Thornton Edwards, the “motorcycle cop,” sounding his sirens and telling everyone to go to the hills because the dam had broken. She said that nobody had any idea that a dam existed. Shaddock said, “We loaded in our Model T Ford and we went up Santa Paula, up the hill to the tanks up there. I took a black cat I had and a dress my mother had just made … a blue taffeta dress that took mother three months to make because mother was busy working.” The cat got away when they were up on the hill but it returned to their home several days later. Finally they were told they could go back home several hours later as the dawn was just breaking. They came back to the corner of Barclay (now Palm) and Harvard to their home full of mud and water. They drilled holes in the floor to let the mud drain away. Their rabbit hutches washed away but the chickens flew to the roof top. She remembers that her mother was paid $200 for reparation by the city of Los Angeles, which was a lot of money at that time.

Dallas Cole was born in 1918 at home in Somis to a family with two girls and five boys. At a young age the family moved to Ventura. After the dam broke her father worked for a company that was associated in the cleanup from the disastrous event. She vividly recalls, “They were looking for bodies up and down the river bed. It was a terrible thing!”

Bill Hardison
was born at home late in 1927 in a small ranch house above Rancho Sespe west of Fillmore. When the dam broke he was 3 months old, minus one day. “Mother said I was yelling my head off in the morning so she had to get up and feed me and she heard this weird roar. The sky was clear and she couldn’t imagine what it was. It was a very intense roar!” The Hardisons were on the “safe side of the valley.” Through their associations through the ranching association, church and the schools they had many friends and acquaintances that lived on the other side of the river that were affected by the disaster.

Wanda Basolo Gunter
, born in Fillmore, was also just a few months old at the time of the dam break. “My grandparents had a two-story farmhouse, and it moved two feet.” Los Angeles County paid to have it restructured. There were three cars of family trying to get across the bridge just as the wall of water hit. The first two cars made it across. As they looked back the third car wasn’t there. The bridge was devastated. Gunter’s uncle, the youngest of 12 children and a newlywed, was killed by the raging waters while his brother was found down the river alive in an orange tree with no clothes on. In a reminiscing voice she recalled, “Gee he was a good lookin’ guy.” Gunter’s mother was the first telephone operator in Fillmore and was called to Moorpark to identify bodies.

Jess Victoria was born at Limoneira Company, where Jess’ father was a picker and a pruner. After saving $200 in gold coins, he left the citrus business and opened a shoe shop. Victoria remembers getting out of bed and into his father’s Model-T sedan. They had no idea what the extent of the flooding would be, so they headed to Aliso Canyon up to the Billywack Dairy to get to high ground. There were several other Mexican families that were gathering at the same place. A man with a rifle approached them, wondering what the gathering and commotion was about. Once he heard of the impending flood waters heading toward Santa Paula, he quickly left to make sure that his own mother in town was safe. Victoria recalls Luther Williams on the motorcycle and the sound of sirens. He said at one point that Santa Paula was really trying to make heroes out of the police. “They were doing their duty and that’s all. What does being a hero mean anyway? We all have a duty in life … look out for one another.”

Robert Herrera’s mother, Carolina Herrera, told her story to him only once. Robert was born six years after the disaster. Like many families the Herrera’s had to fight for the rights to their property and to rebuild so they could start anew. Carolina’s father, mother and 11 or 12 children, fled to the hill for higher ground. Upon returning to their house, they discovered that it had lifted right off the foundation and moved around 100 yards. When her father neared the house that belonged to him he suddenly heard a voice call, “Carolina! Carolina!” With a feeling of panic in the air, they began looking for each child. The father went into the house and found the voice that cried for Carolina. It was a bird, a talking parakeet, which her grandfather had brought from Guadalajara in the 1800s. Carolina was fine.

Yvonne Knepper’s story was told to her by her father, Abel Robert Balistero, who was 16 years old at the time. Abel and his father, Julian Balistero, drove from their home in Newhall to Santa Paula for fruit and general supplies. After cranking up the car to get it started, they noticed that the headlights were dim and that it would soon be nightfall. Headlights required a separate fuel in those days. They knew that they could refuel the headlights at their relative’s home near by. They were invited to stay the night and have breakfast before getting on the road. Well after sundown, Julian woke his son, Abel, and said that he wanted to get back on the road after all. They remember the family coming out to wave them goodbye and returning back into their dark little shack. Being a low income Native American family, the houses had no electricity and were mortared with primarily mud. The nine family members and the house disappeared, never to be found. Yvonne said that her father recalled the incident with tears in his eyes saying, “I guess God had different plans for me.” Knepper said, “It was amazing! If they hadn’t left, I wouldn’t be here.”

Special thanks to those who shared their stories. There are countless lives that have been touched by the tragedy.

Please Pass Me By

Dedicated to all who were touched by the St. Francis Dam Disaster 80 years ago

Still hear old timers recollect the flood of ‘28

St. Francis Dam came tumbling down, a sad but certain fate

A wall of power, springtime night, eleven fifty-eight

Unleashed its roaring fury — the flood of ‘28

A tidal wave, 600 feet, it measured times that wide

Taking houses, bridges, trees

Casting them aside

Where souls by hundreds gave their lives

Land lost, the farmers cried

At Santa Paula still the waves were 20-something high

Please pass me by, pass me by

Wall of water, unholy tide

Pass me by

Please don’t take my house, my home and my family

I beg of you just pass me by

Water let me be

Make your path to wind and turn to put my heart at ease

Roll on to the ocean

Pleased don’t take me, please

It rolled and ravaged 60 miles to the stormy sea

Acres lost and lives were tossed from bounty to poverty

Homeless folks in need of help prayed in agony

While lawyers clung like parasites, feeding on the misery

Please pass me by, pass me by

Wall of water, unholy tide

Pass me by

Mulholland once a hero bringing water to L.A.

Forgotten for his Hoover Dam and work down Panama Way

Mulholland built the aqueduct, brought water cross the land

But when St. Francis Dam broke down, it really broke the man

But when St. Francis Dam broke down, it really broke the man

Please pass me by, pass me by

Wall of water, unholy tide

Pass me by

Please pass me by, pass me by

Wall of water, unholy tide

Pass me by

Words by Mary Z. Wilson (Oak View)

Music by Merlin Snider (Newbury Oark)