The Time Ranger | Psychobillies & The St. Francis Dam

The Time Ranger
Time Ranger

Make sure you do some of those yuppie Mousercise stretch regimens. We’ve a grand adventure ahead. We’ve critters to discuss — from condors and wayward ducks to dog soldiers and COC’s bookstore selling dead cats. 

We’ll talk about how our local congressman wrestled an assassin to the floor of Congress and how naked runners if not terrorized then amused the valley. 

I’ll also share some stories you may not have heard about the St. Francis Dam Disaster of 76 years ago. 

Saddle up and we’re off into the mystic …  


RAISING A CANTEEN TOWARD HEAVEN TOWARD HENRY —Henry Mayo Newhall, that multimillionaire ball of energy who, at one time, owned most of the Santa Clarita Valley, died in San Francisco on March 13, 1882. The entrepreneur who did business with every civilized country in the world succumbed to injuries following an accident where he was thrown from his horse. Hank was riding into the town that still bears his name. 

MARCH 16, 1924 

EDITOR/FOREST RANGER/LAWMAN/POET/ACTOR AND COWBOY — Thornton Doelle’s lead paragraph in The Mighty Signal said it all: “Four young, spineless and very amateurish bank bandits rented a ‘special six’ Studebaker in Los Angeles last Monday and started out to rob a bank.” The quartet held up the Antelope Valley Bank of $2,500 and headed south toward Canyon Country. Local cops and ranchers set up roadblocks on Soledad Canyon. Their car blew up about 5 miles south of Acton and the young hoods headed out on foot through the rugged terrain. One ended up shot. The others, who had split up, were all later captured by hard-riding SCV possemen, and that included Thornton Doelle, a frequently deputized lawman and pistol fighter. Doelle ended up double-dipping. Besides making a few bucks on the posse, he scribbled out an anti-crime Signal editorial. 

TING-TING-TING!!! — Prohibition was the law of the land. Another no-no was slot-machine gambling. Nationally famous local lawman, Jack Pilcher, came back from the Sandberg resort with a pair of illegal slots. W.J. Wilson was fined $150 for owning the machines. 

MARCH 12, 1928 

BURSTING OF THE ST. FRANCIS DAM: AMERICA’S EPIC DISASTER — Just three minutes shy of midnight, a monstrous wall of water broke through the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon. By sunrise the next morning, it would turn out to be — next to the San Francisco earthquake and fire — the second worst disaster in California history. 

A wall of water, nearly 200 feet high, would wash everything in its path along the Santa Clara River and out to the Pacific 60 miles away. Nearly 500 people lost their lives. Adding insult to injury, along with the 500 souls, everything from cows to coyotes washed into the ocean, causing a massive shark-feeding frenzy in the waters off Ventura. 

Historian Charles Outland wrote a book about the St. Francis Dam Disaster, which occurred on this date. In “Man-Made Disasters,” Outland noted that while the city of Los Angeles did settle all the claims of the epic disaster, there were severe irregularities in the settlements, depending on your race. One thing inspired him to write this authoritative account of the third-worst man-made disaster in American history. Outland was a young man, living in Santa Paula, when the dam burst. 

Pierre Daries, a game warden and fire marshal in the Santa Clarita area, was one of the first rescuers into San Francisquito Canyon. He had driven across the road and atop the dam the weekend before it burst. A friend driving with him noted the vibrations from the dam and told Daries they should “get out before the whole thing comes down.” Daries, by the way, was one of the pioneers of developing fire protection in the SCV. 

Tony Raggio was another who knew the dam was unsafe. He would later inherit his family’s homestead ranch in San Francisquito Canyon. He was 13 at the time and remembered his family talking about how unsafe it was living under the dam. Frank Raggio, the patriarch, moved his family into Los Angeles prior to the break, claiming it would burst at any moment. Tony, his mother and his six brothers were spared due to their father’s premonition. 

Another bit of happenstance helped saved the life of Thomas Clements on the night the St. Francis burst. Clements, a geology consultant, was studying the St. Francis at the time. He usually camped out under a huge oak tree by the base of the dam. But because the dam had been leaking, he couldn’t get through the mud in his Model T. So, he motored over to higher ground in Charlie Canyon to camp out. That mud spared Clements’ life. 

Obviously, not all the stories ended happily. San Francisquito Canyon resident Henry Ruiz would later grow to adulthood and ironically work for the Department of Water and Power. But he lost eight members of his family in the flood and never could talk about that night. 

The Frazer Ranch was right in the path of the wave. Young Bell awoke when she heard the deafening waters approaching. A second later, there was an exploding sound. That was the house being crushed. A large plank with a nail sticking in it struck Bell with the nail going into her jaw. It may have saved her life because she held onto the board and rode it down San Francisquito Creek. 

After the water had passed, Mike Ruiz, relative to Henry, was stumbling through the mud in the dark, bitterly cold night. He found Bell and dug out a depression in the earth, covered them both with mud and waited until sunrise for the rescuers. 

For a while, we had a small lake caused by the dam break. At the mouth of the Santa Clara River at Castaic, a good-sized body of water formed from the flood. When the dam broke, a 187-foot wall of water came roaring down the canyon. It was reported to be as high as 60 feet when it reached Castaic Junction. 

At the time, at the junction where Tip’s was later built, there was a little motel and tourist camp. A little boy, about 6, with beautiful curly blonde ringlets, was drowned. His body was found a few miles away in Piru by silent film star William S. Hart. The actor was heartbroken finding the small body and spent six days trying to find the family, with no success. Finally, he arranged for the child to be dressed in a little cowboy outfit and the boy was buried at the Ruiz cemetery in San Francisquito Canyon. For some odd reason, that plot had been given the name of The Chinese graveyard. It is still there today on private property. Hart had a small headstone commissioned and the little soul will be known throughout eternity only by the name on his monument: The Little Wrangler. 

Fourteen years after the St. Francis Dam disaster, they were still finding victims. At least that was the coroner’s guess. A prospector digging for gold found half a human skeleton sticking up in the creek. It was just the bones (and the lower half). There was no other ID except that the bones were estimated at being attached to something corporeal about 15 years earlier.  

It was noted by local historian Jerry Reynolds that 12,441,647,600 gallons of water escaped down San Francisquito Canyon, killing around 500 people. Reynolds noted there were 130,446 cubic yards of cement in the dam and the reservoir covered around 600 acres. 

One of the aspects of the disaster was that it changed a beautiful, scenic canyon with trees and meadows into a gutted valley. Gone were most of the shrubbery, trees and wildflowers and the topsoil to grow more. 

MARCH 16, 1934 

THE HIGH COST OF NIBBLING — Here’s something all you yuppies need to know the next time you’re at the Cowboy Festival and want to blend in with small talk. The grazing fees for cattle on national forest land in the SCV in 1934 were about 18-24 cents a head, depending on the month. For sheep, fees went about a nickel. Both those figures were up almost 25 percent from 1931. 

RE: THE ABOVE? — In case you’d like to move your cattle, ponies, sheep or giant gerbils from your backyard or condo porch, grazing fees, per “animal unit,” is $1.35 per creature, per month. 

KILLING OF THE CONDORS — We hunted out predators in the SCV, then complained about rodents and varmints that were eating our crops and digging up foundations and full-grown trees. Adding insult to injury, we started spreading poison to kill the rodents, thereby killing off the predatory birds — owls, hawks, golden eagles and even bald eagles out here. On this date, a condor ate a poisoned rabbit and died in Castaic. The wingspan of the prehistoric bird was measured at 9 feet, 4 inches. 

HEY! WHERE’D IT GO? — This isn’t solely Santa Clarita trivia. There was no full moon in the month of February 1934. 

AND JUST A SMIDGE NORTH OF HERE — OK. This isn’t Santa Clarita, either. But it’s close. A large mallard duck was shot down over a lake in Bakersfield. Embedded in its breast was a 9-inch whale bone arrowhead. Folks up in Bakersfield did a little research and found the arrowhead was the same kind used by Eskimos on St. Lawrence Island off Alaska. 

MARCH 16, 1944 

CLOSE THE DOOR. IT’S ‘DRAFTY …’ — A new draft board was opened in Newhall. Chief Petty Officer Tuffy Worthey of the U.S. Navy was here to recruit mutts. Yup. Canines. Of the estimated 20 million dogs in the country, only 10% were big enough (18 inches at the shoulder) to qualify for the armed services. Several local pets were donated by their masters to serve carrying packs, standing guard duty or delivering messages. Oh. By the way? Tuffy’s title was honorary. As Newhall’s first dog drafted, he was given the handle of Chief Petty Officer. I’m sure some of you who have served might agree that some dogs were much brighter than some officers. A total of 11 local dogs were “drafted.” No word from the local cats if they felt slighted. 

MARCH 16, 1954 

COWBOYING IS A DANGEROUS JOB — One of the valley’s top cowboys and beloved old-timers, Jess Kells, died on this date. Kells was a noted rodeo performer, then rodeo clown. He suffered a serious accident down in Palm Springs where a bronc ran into him full speed. Kells had to retire from the business end of arena work and friends say that accident was the cause of Kells’ one-and-only heart attack. He had worked his entire life as a cowhand and was breaking ponies for Monty Montana up Agua Dulce-way when he keeled over. Montana paid for his proper cowboy funeral and friends noted that he died with his boots on. 

A LITTLE POST-IT FOR YOU GUYS? ROADS BRING CONGESTION. THEY DON’T CLEAR IT UP. — This was perhaps my favorite headline of all time. On this date, The Mighty Signal announced plans to construct something called The Golden State Freeway (Interstate 5 today). The epic project was initially designed to cut traffic through the San Fernando Valley and beyond out to Newhall, connecting to Highway 99. The headline? “Gigantic Hiway Project To End Traffic Jams.” Yup. Sure it did. 

HOPE HE WASN’T DRIVING A MOTORCYLE — Bert Tysell retired on this date, after being the Saugus rural postal carrier for 31 years. When Bert started, he had just 100 mailboxes to stuff. When he quit, there were 700 on his 76-mile route. Bert wore out 15 cars in that time. His strangest delivery? A cow — C.O.D. 

OUR HERO IN WASHINGTON — If you think our congressman, Mike Garcia, has a tough job, compare it to what our representative Edgar Hiestand had to do 70 years back. He was on the floor of Congress when Puerto Rican fanatics started shooting up in the gallery. They were protesting a vote on a Mexican labor bill in the House. “It seemed somebody set off a bunch of firecrackers in the balcony. Since all demonstrations are strictly against the rules, we all looked up and saw a few swarthy young people shooting with large black pistols,” recalled Hiestand. Our congressman noted there were only a couple of policemen up in the balcony, so, along with his friend, Congressman Joe Holt, they rushed up and wrestled with the demonstrators. Hiestand and Holt tackled one of the Puerto Ricans and disarmed him. Five congressmen were hit by gunfire from the four protesters. Their leader was a young woman who brandished a Puerto Rican flag. Hiestand noted that visitors in the gallery were not searched before being let in. He thought that maybe from now on, that might be a good idea. 

MARCH 16, 1964 

‘A ROSE BY ANY OTHER NAME WOULD SMELL AS SWEET’ — Joe Boston was arrested for narcotics possession on this date. Nope. No relation. This guy was all the way from Canoga Park (although I WILL clip this out and mail it to my younger sibling-like substance, Jose Adolpho Boston-Peters down in Orange County …) 

ASK HER TO HUM A FEW BARS OF ‘SUGAR MAGNOLIA’ — Speaking of names, The Mighty Signal had Jerri Garcia working as a reporter. Do note the spelling is different than the Grateful Dead musician … 

UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES — The Santa Ana winds kicked up fiercely and a Signal columnist noted that women’s skirts were being kicked way, way up, but that the men had too much grit in their eyes to notice. 

THAT ANDY “ANTI-ELVIS” DOWNS. ALWAYS AHEAD OF THE CURVE. — My pal and former Hart High Indian teacher, Ed Murdock, used to do a regular feature for this paper called “Question Man.” His query this week 60 years ago was: “Do the Beatles Bug You?” Some of the answers, in retrospect, are interesting. Dan Tibbitts of Saugus noted: “They’re morons. Their music is idiotic. It’s not even music.” Charles Leonard of Saugus commented that he liked their music and “I think they’ll go places.” My pal, little Andy Downs, who’s 70ish now, said, “Well. I think they’re OK. But I don’t like their crazy haircuts and the way they wiggle around on stage like Elvis.” 

AND, YOU KNOW WHAT? THEY CAN’T DRIVE WORTH A LICK — In another interview, Joe Mussack, manager of the local Security Pacific Bank, said he had no use for the Beatles and wouldn’t want a woman as president. “I feel a woman would not be physically capable of handling the job,” Joe said, “nor would a woman present the proper image … meeting with world leaders.” You’ll note that Security Pacific isn’t around anymore … 

AND FYI — The Beatles went through a few identifications before they settled on their last name. In earlier years, they went by the Silver Beatles, the Silver Beats, the Silver Beetles, and, Johnny and the Moondogs. The Moondogs disbanded for about 20 minutes, with Paul McCartney and John Lennon forming The Nark Twins, then forming the Silver Beatles with George Harrison. Drummer Pete Best played with the Beatles from 1962 to 1964, then was replaced by Ringo Star. I used to have an album entitled, “Best of the Beatles,” which didn’t have a single Beatles song. It was a collection of Pete Best’s tunes, sans George, Paul, John and Ringo … 

MARCH 16, 1974 

AND ESPECIALLY NO KIWANIS!! — The energy crisis added another aspect 50 years ago: religion. Mario Paciolla went to fill up his car at the Mint Canyon gas station run by the Tony & Susan Alamo Christian Foundation. He got into line behind several cars and when it was his turn at the pump, the attendant reportedly said: “We’re not serving the public. We’re only serving Jesus people.” Mario pointed out that while he wasn’t a member of the Alamo cult, he considered himself a Jesus person. The attendant ordered him off the property. Mario couldn’t make it into work that day in downtown L.A. because he couldn’t find any gas. 

AS SAMMY HAGAR ONCE CROONED: “I CAN’T DRIVE 55” — Another result of the Arab oil embargo of 1974 was the 55-mph speed limit. Accidents were down 18% in the first two months of 1974. 

PUT THAT ON YOUR THINGS TO DO LIST — And another energy crisis tidbit: the Castaic animal shelter was ordered to stop picking up animals — dead, stray, hydrophobic or otherwise. If someone did stumble across a stray, they had to drop it off at the sheriff’s station between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Tuesdays.  

NAKED AMBITION — A worldwide albeit short-lived fad struck the Santa Clarita three decades back. In one week, there were eight separate instances of streaking reported. That’s when someone runs stark raving naked through a public place. Nude sprinters darted through three bars and six young men dashed across the Hart campus, sans clothing. The six mighty Indians were captured by school administrators and arrested. (Sorry. You wouldn’t catch ME running after and tackling a naked male.) Other streakings were reported at College of the Canyons, CalArts and Kmart. Lt. Rudy Vasquez over at the sheriff’s shop noted, without cracking a smile, that he would have to “check the penal code.” One nude jogger dashed across the Hart campus wearing nothing but tennis shoes and a werewolf mask. 

YOU CAN’T CLIMB IN, BUT I’LL LET YOU RUN ALONGSIDE THE CAR — An unidentified man was having a tough time hitching a ride to Oregon. He told a Signal photographer he was headed north, looking for ranch work. It wasn’t so much the fact that the hitcher had a sizable pack of luggage which included a saddle and bedroll. He was also wearing a 12-inch Bowie knife and a Colt revolver in a holster. 

MARCH 16, 1984 

STRAY CATS. DEAD CATS. WHATEVER IT TAKES. — Here’s one of my all-time favorite Signal corrections: “Due to a proofreading error, an article in Wednesday’s Signal stated that it is ‘likely’ dead cats will be sold in the College of the Canyons bookstore. The word should have been ‘unlikely’ and college officials assured The Signal that dead cats will not be sold in the bookstore.” 

A LAST RE: THE ABOVE — Seeing we’ve had a music trivia theme running through this weekend’s trail ride, thought you’d like to know that there’s actually a band (from CANADA, Tim!) called the Deadcats. They bill their music style as, “Psychobillie — PURRRRRRR Mayhem!!!” 

•     •     • 

As always, just a Christmas treat spending time with you Santa Claritianites. You’re good medicine and fun to be with. See you back here at The Mighty Signal hitching post (259-1000 for subscriptions!). Until next Saturday, dear saddlepals — ¡vayan con Dios, amigos!  

If you enjoy the Time Ranger, you’re going to love his local history volumes. Visit Order John Boston’s terribly exciting Volumes I & II on SCV Monsters, Ghouls, Ghosts, Bigfoot & all our local paranormal stories. Also? His political satire, “The Unauthorized Autobiography of Joe Biden” is available in print and Kindle. If you’ve already got your copy, then leave a kind review on Amazon! 

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