LOS ANGELES (CN) – After the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire, the failure of the Saint Francis Dam is the second largest disaster in California history. Fifty miles north of Los Angeles there are traces of a tragedy that took 431 lives. Blink as you drive up through the winding road parallel to the dam site and you might just miss them.
Nestled in a canyon is a solid hunk of ridged concrete that looks like some Spielbergian vision dropped from the sky by an alien mothership in “Close Encounters of the Third Kind.” From the roadside and to the untrained eye, however, the section looks like a boulder – just another part of the arid landscape.
The hunk of concrete is a grim reminder of when disaster struck a little before midnight on March 12, 1928: The Saint Francis Dam burst and dropped 12.4 billion gallons of water into the San Francisquito Canyon. The resulting flood tore through homes, ranches and bridges, gobbling up men, women and children.
Environmental activist Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel of the Community Hiking Club is animated as she imagines what happened to this section of the dam. Wearing a stars-and-stripes T-shirt, a woven hat and jeans, she motions like a ballerina as she imagines the wall of water sweeping the 20-ton hunk of concrete a mile downstream.
“I imagine, it got its push out on to the stage, and it did a few tour jetés along the way, swaying with the music, and then it reached to this corner, and it did a nice little turn and came over into the creek, and it hit this spot and it did its ﬁnal plié,” she said during a tour of the dam in July.
Once upon a time, there was a conspicuous standing section of the dam called the “tombstone.” But officials dynamited it and jackhammered the Western Wing Dike. The official explanation was that the tombstone presented a safety hazard – a boy had plunged from the ruins to his death after his friend threw a snake at him in a childhood prank (to this day, no one is sure if the snake was dead or alive).
One theory is that officials were happy to erase the most prominent remaining section of the dam and all memory of a disaster that left a dark blot on LA’s history. Whether by design or not, over time it worked. Despite the tremendous loss of life, the disaster remains largely forgotten.
“They wanted to have this disappear from people's memory,” said Alan Pollack, a physician and president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society during the July tour. “So they very quickly paid reparations to the victims, and they did their inquiries as to what happened, and then they swept it under the rug and forgot about it.”
Now, Pollack and Erskine-Hellrigel want to make sure this vital part of California history is not forgotten.
The two friends have worked tirelessly behind the scenes to craft legislation to place a memorial at the location of the dam. In July, their efforts paid off when the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously passed H.R. 2156, The Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act. U.S. Reps. Steve Knight and Julia Brownley introduced the bill.