Pearl Harbor and 9/11 memorials remind us to never forget. Never forget the innocent lives that were lost. Here in the Santa Clarita Valley, there are those who never want us to forget March 12, 1928, when the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon collapsed, claiming the lives of at least 431 people.
A memorial center is one way to remember what’s considered the second greatest loss of life in the state, second only to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, according to the St. Francis Dam Memorial Foundation website, but planning for the memorial has been delayed.
Saturday, March 12, marks the 94th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam disaster. On this day in 2019, legislators designated the site as a national memorial — the St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial. Since then, the foundation has been working in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service to build a memorial center near the disaster site.
“The dam history is so important,” said Dianne Hellrigel, foundation vice president and executive director. “We want people to learn about the history. We want to have areas for kids with hands-on things that they can do to learn about it.”
And the center wouldn’t just offer the history of the dam disaster, Hellrigel said, but also information about the floodplain in the area and about William Mulholland, the civil engineer who, between 1907 and 1913, designed and built the Los Angeles Aqueduct to pipe water from the Owens Valley, through the Santa Clarita Valley, to the City of Angels, which played a key part in the growth of the city that lacked water resources and couldn’t have grown otherwise.
Mulholland was also responsible for building the St. Francis Dam, a project that took place between 1924 and 1926, for the purposes of meeting Los Angeles’ still-growing water needs. Tragically, at 11:57 p.m. on March 12, 1928, the dam failed and collapsed. Sources indicated that the disaster devastated Mulholland. The man who was once considered by many to be a hero for bringing water to a “small, resource-challenged desert city to grow into a metropolis,” as written in Les Standiford’s 2016 book “Water to the Angels,” spent the rest of his life in seclusion as a result. He died in 1935 from a stroke.
“I like to say that this is basically the story of Los Angeles,” said Alan Pollack, foundation president and president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. “To me, the most interesting part of that story and the most poignant part — other than the loss of life — was this Shakespearean or Greek tragedy rise and fall of William Mulholland, who was probably the biggest figure in Los Angeles history.”
When the dam broke on that fateful night and water came rushing out, survivors, Hellrigel said, compared the sound they heard to that of a roaring freight train.
Pollack added that, at the time of the collapse, the water wall was about 180 feet high. When it reached the present-day McBean Parkway near the Santa Clara River, that wall was probably around 80 feet high, he said. Think about that the next time you’re driving north on McBean as you pass the Olive Garden, Nordstrom Rack and McDonald’s — an 80-foot water wall coming at you head-on like that freight train it sounded like.
By 5:30 a.m. on March 13, 1928, more than five hours after the collapse, the floodwater from the dam, according to the St. Francis Dam Memorial website, had made its way down the Santa Clara River, devastating much of Santa Paula and damaging Fillmore and Bardsdale, and finally emptied into the Pacific Ocean near Ventura at Montalvo, carrying with it many victims and lots of debris.
Today, some ruins of the dam still exist. The Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society has even conducted tours of the wreckage, cement blocks from the fallen structure scattered throughout San Francisquito Canyon, some quite large.
But Pollack and others said they’d like more. Pollack said the idea to add a memorial center to the St. Francis site was inspired by the one he visited in 2012 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where the South Fork Dam, as detailed in historian and author David McCullough’s popular 1968 book “The Johnstown Flood,” ruptured on May 31, 1889, and released 14.55 million cubic meters of water, killing more than 2,200 people.
“When I got there, they had a visitor center, national park rangers, a museum, tours and the whole nine yards,” Pollack said. “I got back here, and I looked at our site, and we had what I like to say ‘nothing but the ruins.’”
Pollack used his presidency with the historical society to push for a memorial center here, writing a piece for the organization’s newsletter about how Santa Clarita should have a center like the Johnstown one. He soon after found Hellrigel, who had experience, he said, in lobbying for legislation in Washington. Hellrigel played a critical role in getting the national memorial designation in 2019.
And so, in accordance with the act that made the designation possible, the secretary of agriculture, according to the memorial website, may establish a memorial at the St. Francis Dam site for the purpose of honoring the victims of the disaster. In response to the act’s recommendations, the Forest Service is following a similar planning and design process as those developed by the National Parks Service, and it opened the development of the memorial design to the public and other interested parties, such as amateur and professional designers, college or high school students, state, city and other federal agencies or historical societies.
Opportunities to submit ideas closed on April 31, 2021. Three winners were to be announced last summer, but that has not yet happened.
Asked the reason for the delay, representatives of the U.S. Forest Service didn’t answer the question. But Dana Dierkes, a public affairs specialist for the department, said she’d have more information about the design winners, a timeline of events to get the project rolling again, and other details in the near future.
And then, Pollack and Hellrigel said, will come the task of raising funds to build the project. But it’ll all be worth it, they added, when the center is finished and people can come here to see this historic site and never forget those who lost their lives in the wake of the St. Francis Dam failure.
For more information about the memorial center, the history and updates, go to StFrancisDamMemorial.org.