Historical society gives tour, lesson on St. Francis Dam Disaster for 91st anniversary

Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society president Alan Pollack, center, speaks with visitors at the site of the St. Francis Dam Disaster. Ryan Mancini/The Signal

History enthusiasts stood along the fractured, original San Francisquito Canyon Road and looked up at where the St. Francis Dam once stood.

“You’re standing within the dam, right here,” said Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, as he pointed at where the dam once stood.

On Saturday, the society recognized the 91st anniversary of the St. Francis Dam Disaster with a lecture at the Saugus Train Station at Heritage Junction in Newhall, followed by a bus tour and hike to the site at San Francisquito Canyon for a planned national memorial that will recognize the second greatest disaster in California History. The hike ended at the site for the planned visitor center and a planned wall memorializing the more than 400 victims of the disaster, along with a compact Native American village and ADA-compliant trails.

The group was led by Pollack and Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, executive director of the Community Hiking Club and also a member of the historical society’s board of directors. During the lecture, Pollack gave visitors the full background behind the dam’s creation, the “Shakespearean” rise and fall of civil engineer William Mulholland, the disaster itself and the subsequent fallout with regards to accountability and safety. Erskine-Hellrigel told the stories of several victims in the disaster.

The dam collapsed on March 12, 1928, with flood water reaching the Pacific Ocean and taking the lives of more than 400 people. Mulholland took responsibility for the disaster.

“If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human,” Mulholland later said about the disaster.

Ideas for legislation to create a memorial began under former Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon and passed the House of Representatives under former Rep. Steve Knight. Legislation passed last month in both the Senate and House, a companion bill to the first legislation introduced by Rep. Katie Hill, D-Agua Dulce. The bill now awaits President Donald Trump’s signature.

“It’s phenomenal,” Erskine-Hellrigel said. “A lot of people that live in Santa Clarita have no clue that the dam was even there or that the second biggest disaster in California happened here and so many people died. Everybody’s going to know. Not only will it be great for Santa Clarita, it’s going to put us on the map. People across the country are going to know about it.”

Pollack noted the parallels with the 1889 Johnstown Flood in Pennsylvania, which took the lives of over 2,000 people and is considered the worst dam failure in U.S. history.

“The intrigue leading up to the dam failure, the mistake made in dam-building, the tremendous destruction and loss of life,” Pollack said. “The major difference that I saw between Johnstown and St. Francis was they had a national memorial status and we don’t.”

Steve Simon hiked with the rest of the group to the site. As someone interested in history, he’s continued to go on these outings with the historical society over the last decade. He said his children did not grow up learning about the disaster in school, but he hoped people will learn more about it as time goes on.

“Every time you come out here, you pick up a new tidbit of information,” he said.

The historical society plans to hold another bus tour commemorating the St. Francis Dam Disaster on March 31. The tour will cover the 52-mile area affected by the flood between Santa Clarita and Santa Paula.
For more information, go to scvhs.org/wp/.  

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About the author

Ryan Mancini

Ryan Mancini

Ryan Mancini covers local news for The Signal. He joined in 2018 and previously worked as a reporter and editor for The Sundial, Scene Magazine and El Nuevo Sol while enrolled as a student at California State University, Northridge, where he studied journalism and political science. He's lived in Santa Clarita since 2002.