St. Francis Dam Disaster roots Ferry family to SCV

Frank Ferry, back, Peter Ferry, center, and Peter Ferry III, front, near the St. Francis Dam disaster site on San Francisquito Road on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

Though Peter L. Ferry III didn’t know his grandfather, he certainly knows the impact he had on the Santa Clarita Valley.

His grandfather, Peter L. Ferry, ran the company that cleaned up after the St. Francis Dam disaster in 1928, which claimed 431 people’s lives in San Francisquito Canyon.

Designed to bring water to Los Angeles, the dam experienced a catastrophic failure flooding large areas of what is known as Santa Clarita today. The collapse of the dam at 11:57 p.m. on March 12, 1928 is considered to be one of the worst civil engineering disasters of the last century.

“I knew a lot about his work, I never knew him,” Ferry III said.

His grandfather was born in 1882 and died of skin cancer in 1935. He was born in 1936, so he has only been able read about his namesake in books.

Peter L. Ferry.

Nearly 90 years after the fact, the disaster is back in the national spotlight as Congressman Steve Knight (R-Palmdale) seeks to pass a bill that would create a 440-acre memorial of the disaster funded by private donations.

The first Peter L. Ferry came to America from Ireland and started his work on the East Coast as a sewer line contractor. When he moved to Los Angeles, he did construction on Wilshire Boulevard and Fairfax Avenue, as well as the Miracle Mile subdivision and the Edwards Airforce Base.

He owned banks, a 5,000-acre ranch and lots of property. He was also civically-engaged and involved with the Knights of Columbus and the Loyal Order of the Moose.

“He was a dynamically successful guy,” Ferry III said. “He wasn’t just a contractor, he was a civic center guy.”

Peter Ferry near the St. Francis Dam disaster site off of San Francisquito Road on Tuesday, July 18, 2017. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

The Ferry family is still involved in the Santa Clarita Valley, as Frank Ferry, the eldest of Peter L. Ferry III’s children, served as a city council member for 16 years. Second oldest son and history teacher Peter L. Ferry IV lived in the SCV for a decade and youngest son Vince Ferry serves as the principal at Saugus High School.

“I know maintaining the history of the valley has always been a priority for some of our founding families,” Frank Ferry said.

Having a memorial will serve as a “permanent record” for the valley as both a reminder of its history and in memory of those who lost their lives, Frank Ferry said.

“You’re paying respect to all those families that lost people almost 100 years ago and us as a valley are remembering and commemorating that is was a part our history,” he said.

The brothers agreed they were proud of their family heritage and the role their great grandfather played in restoring the Santa Clarita Valley.

A book by Peter Ferry’s cousin about the works of the first Peter Ferry, who helped clean up the St. Francis Dam disaster site, as well as build up well-known areas around Los Angeles County in the early 1900s. Katharine Lotze/The Signal

While the Ferrys celebrate their grandfather’s work, Frank Ferry admits it is bittersweet because so many others lost their relatives to the disaster.

This family history has encouraged Peter L. Ferry IV to teach U.S. history to middle school special education classes.

“I think because I’m his namesake, I’ve always found my great grandfather kind of interesting with all of the accomplishments he had,” Peter L. Ferry IV said. “He did so much when he came to L.A. He pretty much made a fortune during the Great Depression. This guy really had his act together, always looking into new ventures.”

Related To This Story

Latest NEWS