Sunday, November 23, 2014

Photo Essay: The Path of Destruction of the St. Francis Dam Flood, 86 Years Later

[Edited for factual accuracy 11/25/14 10:26 a.m.]

I've documented thoroughly the rise and fall of the St. Francis Dam in San Francisquito Canyon, about an hour north of LA – even walking the path of the initial flow of water, along what is now a paved road, closed after storm flooding.


Map: Ventura County Star

But it's only recently that I've ventured west along the Santa Clara River Valley, the natural downstream basin that provided the perfect pathway for the "river" of mud, vegetation, buildings, livestock, and even people that flowed downstream from the St. Francis Dam site, all the way out to the Pacific Ocean between Ventura and Oxnard.


Photo: Los Angeles Times (March 14, 1928)

Along the way, the flood from the dam break wiped out many of the small towns along the way, including Piru, Fillmore, and Santa Paula...


Photo: Los Angeles Times (March 14, 1928)

...where houses were destroyed, and roads were torn up.


Photo courtesy of Courtesy of Alan Pollack/SCVHistory.com

Somehow, the towns of the Santa Clara River Valley – now known better as Heritage Valley – rebounded, and continued to make major contributions in agriculture, particularly with its citrus groves but also walnuts, avocados, and honey.



The first town along the path of the St. Francis Dam Flood, Piru, has a rich history in horticulture and even gold mining...



...but it's probably best-known as a common filming location...



...most notably and recognizably from the music video to Rod Stewart's "Hot Legs."




YouTube screenshot via Rhino Records


YouTube screenshot via Rhino Records





A little farther west, nestled between the Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Susana Mountains...



...where the train still runs through...



...is the town of Fillmore...



...whose Bennett's Honey Farm is the first thing you see along the north side of Highway 126...



...beckoning visitors to come have a taste of honey.



And they have about every variety of Topanga Quality Honey you can imagine.



Also along the train tracks in Fillmore is the sixth city hall in the small incorporated town of 16,000 people, this one built in 1997 near the railroad station.



The area by the train station also features a tiny, historic post office, and a historical museum that includes many archival photographs of Fillmore at the time of the St. Francis Dam flood, including the damage.



In Santa Paula...



...several telephone operators there (notably Louise Gipe) risked their lives to stay behind and telephone local residents with a warning of what was to come...



...and motorcycle police officers who rode through the flood-threatened, low-lying areas of town to warn its residents to evacuate before the wall of water arrived...



... are memorialized today by a monument steel sculpture called "The Warning."



These days, you can still see the Santa Paula train station, and its neighboring Moreton Bay fig tree (planted in 1879), both historical landmarks...



...as is the Glen Tavern Inn, across the street...



...a Craftsman-style former brothel, speakeasy, and gambling hall...



...which, as a boarding house and hotel...



...has hosted celebrities from Harry Houdini to Lindsay Lohan (who filmed Georgia Rule in Santa Paula)...



...and, reportedly, a number of ghosts.



A block or so away is the former Union Oil building, whose downstairs now serves as the California Oil Museum...



...but whose upstairs has been restored to its original condition as offices...



...where sections of original linoleum tile were discovered...



...and the hardware on the doors is incredible.



The original safe isn't going anywhere...



...but you can go inside it...



...and view the various ledgers from the Union Oil Company business that ran out these headquarters from the 1890s to the early 1900s.



There were many records kept behind, and although they're there in storage, no one has had the time to go through them and see what they contain or say.



Chevron actually owns the building now, and leases it to the City of Santa Paula.

Many of Santa Paula's historical landmarks were spared by the flood of the St. Francis Dam, and its streets have been rebuilt and repaved, but there are many unknown victims of the disaster who are buried at Santa Paula Cemetery, without headstones. The remains of perhaps as many as 20 victims are marked by a single plaque.

Otherwise, a modern day visitor would never know. After all, the destruction caused by that much water, flowing over 40 miles from the northeast, is nearly inconceivable. And all these years later, it's still the nation's worst civil engineering disaster, and California's second-worst disaster.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: Hiking Old San Francisquito Canyon Road, Along the Path of the St. Francis Dam Flood
Photo Essay: What's Left of the St. Francis Dam
Photo Essay: The Power Plants of the St. Francis Dam Disaster
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Fillmore to Santa Paula
Photo Essay: Last Chance Weekend Scenic Excursion, Santa Paula to Fillmore