By The Signal Editorial Board
It’s a decision that’s been a long time coming: 91 years, to be exact.
On March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam burst, sending a wall of water through San Francisquito Canyon and into the Santa Clarita Valley and then the Piru-Fillmore-Santa Paula valley leading to the Pacific Ocean.
Death toll estimates vary but the official count is over 400. Imagine, today, a disaster killing 400 people from here to Ventura. Now imagine the relative scope of that disaster at a time when this region was far less populous.
It was California’s second deadliest disaster, after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, and the state’s worst manmade disaster.
Every March, the St. Francis Dam disaster is recapped in the pages of The Signal, and commemorated by the SCV Historical Society with a guided bus tour and hike to the scene of the dam break, which, if you didn’t know better, is just a nondescript gap in the canyon marked by a few seemingly random chunks of 91-year-old concrete.
Most of the biggest pieces were destroyed in the years after the disaster, as they had become a hazard when tourists and lookie-loos began climbing on the ruins.
The dam break has all the ingredients of a Hollywood disaster movie: an emerging metropolis in Los Angeles, seeking to acquire enough water — by any means necessary — to facilitate its growth, and an engineer, William Mulholland, who might be revered as an undisputed L.A. hero were it not for the unstable land he failed to recognize when he designed the concrete dam that was intended to hold back 12.4 billion gallons of water.
Its failure marked the end of his career — and cost hundreds of lives between the dam site and Ventura.
There are a couple of small historical markers and plaques at different locations, including one adjacent to an L.A. Department of Water and Power powerhouse downstream from the site of the dam.
Otherwise, there’s no official memorial or monument to recognize the tragedy that occurred right here in the Santa Clarita Valley.
That, soon, will change.
On Tuesday, ironically 91 years to the day since the dam’s fateful collapse, President Trump signed the Natural Resources Management Act, an omnibus parks and monuments bill that includes plans for, at last, a federal monument to the dam disaster and its victims.
With the bill’s signing, the secretary of agriculture will have up to three years to submit recommendations to Congress regarding: “the planning, design, construction and long-term management of the memorial; the proposed boundaries of the memorial; a visitor center and educational facilities at the memorial; and ensuring public access to the memorial,” according to the bill’s text.
It’s an appropriate measure of commemoration, one that will serve to not only memorialize, but also to educate and provide a valuable connection between Californians and an important, tragic part of our shared history.
Credit is due to numerous advocates who have pushed for the monument, and in particular to our valley’s representatives in Congress. The concept of a memorial was initiated while former Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon was in office, then his successor, former Rep. Steve Knight, R-Palmdale, made the monument one of his major local legislative priorities while he was in office and gained its passage in the House.
He predicted, correctly, that the bill would gain passage in both houses of the 116th Congress, after his November loss to Rep. Katie Hill, D-Agua Dulce.
Hill delivered on Knight’s prognostication, making the St. Francis Dam monument one of her top legislative priorities after she took office in January. And now, not even two months later, the monument legislation has been signed into law.
We thank both Knight, for his efforts in carrying the legislation, and Hill, for making it a priority and delivering success, pushing it across the finish line. It’s one of those bipartisan accomplishments that we’d love to see become more common.
Thanks to their efforts and others, the St. Francis Dam disaster will soon stand as it should: as a monument to the lessons of history, and the very real human price that was paid to bring water to a thirsty Los Angeles.