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From The Signal Archives: St. Francis Dam disaster kills 600

Posted: March 11, 2010 10:33 p.m.
Updated: March 12, 2010 8:30 a.m.
Editor's note: As The Signal celebrates 91 years of service to the Santa Clarita Valley, we offer this peek into the SCV of days past. Following is from the March 15, 1928, Newhall Signal and Saugus Enterprise.

It was 82 years ago today that the second-largest disaster in terms of lost life occurred in California.

On March 12, 1928, just moments before midnight, the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon failed, sending 12 billion gallons of water crashing down the canyon.

The 125-foot-high wall of water obliterated everything in its path as it roared down the canyon and headed toward the coast 54 miles away, wiping out swaths of towns in the Santa Clara River Valley, destroying entire families and devastating nearly 24,000 acres of prime farming land.

No one knows exactly how many people died in the catastrophe, but the number is estimated at 600. Bodies were recovered from the Pacific Ocean through the mid-1950s.

Dead bodies swept to ocean
"Great St. Francis Dam Crumbles," The Signal's multiple-deck headline read on March 15, 1928, the first publication day after the disaster. "Great wall of water sweeps sleeping victims into eternity," reads the second deck. "Death flood comes in darkness" and "Bodies recovered all along the valley from the dam to the ocean" rounded out the headlines.

List of the dead
That edition of the newspaper carried lists of the dead, the suspected dead and those who had received medical treatment.

"From reliable sources it is learned that 65 people were in the camp just below the dam, and at Power House No. 2. So far as known, none of these have been heard of, except the few that have been identified, so it is probable that every one perished," the story reported.

In fact, the power station, which supplied electricity to Los Angeles as the dam supplied water, was wiped out completely.

Flawed site
The dam site was selected by William Mulholland as part of the then-new water system that brought water from points north to parched Los Angeles. Scientists later determined it was geologically unsound for a massive dam.

"I envy those that were killed," Mulholland was quoted as saying after the disaster. "Don't blame anyone else; you just fasten it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the human."

Outsiders swarm the valley
"A telegraph station was fitted up in the rear room of the hardware store, where the Associated Press, the Examiner and the Times each maintained men at the keys, who sent thousands of words as their reporters rushed in and out on their task of gathering the disconnected story," The Signal reported in its March 15 issue.

"Relatives of people lost or dead, and known to be in the path of the wreck, are swarming to see if they can find their loved ones.

"Rescue parties are going out, and the morgue is being prepared for a new lot of bodies that are reported on the way."

Path of destruction
"Reports indicate that from the dam to the ocean every vestige of life was swept from the path taken by the water," the story continued. "In San Francisquito Canyon, even the bark was stripped from the trees, and the ground resembles a paved highway, except that in the fills are pools of mud and slime."

Front page of obituaries
The next issue of The Signal, published March 22, 1928, listed obituary after obituary on the front page. "Little unknown boy to be buried Sunday," one headline reads.

"Lying unclaimed in the Newhall morgue is the body of a pretty baby boy of probably three years," the story reads.

"Mr. and Mrs. Hamna, who escaped from the Castaic Junction wreck, were of the opinion that the body was that of a child of a tourist couple who registered in one of the cottages at the McIntyre camp Monday evening."

The story reported searchers were on the lookout for the registration book from the tourist spot, where 20 visitors were believed to be staying on the night of the flood.


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