A St. Francis Dam Memorial and National Monument is one step closer to becoming a reality.
The Angeles National Forest, in cooperation with the St. Francis Dam National Memorial Foundation, announced on Thursday the winners of a public competition for the design of a memorial center.
“These ideas and concepts will be used to honor the victims and memorialize the history of this catastrophic event that affected more than 400 lives in one of America’s most significant engineering disasters,” a Forest Service news release read.
The first-place prize of $700 went to Greg Wilzbach’s design, second place of $200 went to Meyer Studio land architects for their design, and third place of $100 went to Michael Chin for his design. Wilzbach is a retired Walt Disney Imagineer and a member of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society board of directors.
Wilzbach’s concept depicts a monument and visitor center to be located near the original dam site on San Francisquito Canyon Road on the property of the current San Francisquito Fire Station. It features a 50-foot-tall memorial sculpture inspired by the shape of the original surviving dam, and it’s oriented in the same direction, incorporating a large dedication plaque. The design also includes a memorial wall dedicated to those who tragically lost their lives in the disaster.
At 11:57 p.m. on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon failed and collapsed, sending a wall of water through the canyon, down to the present-day terminus of McBean Parkway where it continued into the Santa Clara River, devastating much of Santa Paula and damaging Filmore and Bardsdale until it finally emptied into the Pacific Ocean near Ventura at Montalvo, claiming the lives of what some estimate is well over 430 people.
A memorial center is something that Alan Pollack, St. Francis Dam National Memorial Foundation president and president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, has long hoped to create.
Pollack said the idea to add a memorial center to the St. Francis site was inspired by the center he visited in 2012 in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, where the South Fork Dam 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 had previously told The Signal. “I got back here, and I looked at our site, and we had what I like to say ‘nothing but the ruins.’”
Pollack regularly assists in leading tours of the wreckage in San Francisquito Canyon, which currently consists of cement blocks from the fallen structure scattered throughout the area, some quite large.
Soon after returning from his visit to Johnstown, Pollack used his presidency with the historical society to push for a St. Francis Dam memorial center, writing a piece for the organization’s newsletter about how Santa Clarita should have a center like the Johnstown one.
He’d meet Dianne Hellrigel, who’d go on to become the St. Francis Dam National Memorial Foundation vice president and executive director, and Hellrigel would be instrumental in lobbying for legislation in Washington and getting the national memorial designation in 2019.
In accordance with the act that made the designation possible, the secretary of agriculture, according to the memorial website, could establish a memorial at the St. Francis Dam site. In response to the act’s recommendations, the Forest Service followed 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.
“Those who chose to participate in the contest had an opportunity to influence and/or design one of America’s newest national memorials and the first national memorial to be managed by the Forest Service,” said Roman Torres, forest supervisor of the Angeles National Forest. “This contest was a win-win for community engagement, plus it provided opportunities for key partner organizations to be part of the process.”
Pollack said he’s thrilled with this next step in the process of making the memorial a reality.
“We’ve certainly, over the last several years, beaten many odds of many challenges to get the national memorial designated, and we are very excited that we’ve got one more step out of the way,” Pollack told The Signal during a phone interview over the weekend. “We are very determined that we will accomplish what we’ve always hoped to do, which was to create a visitor center and a memorial wall as part of the national memorial.”
Of Wilzbach’s winning design, Pollack said it was the foundation’s favorite as well.
“Now the big job,” he added, “is to get it implemented. That’s the challenge ahead.”
For more information about the memorial center, the history and updates, go to StFrancisDamMemorial.org.