March 11, 2015

Photo Essay: A Pilgrimage to the St. Francis Dam Victims' Final Resting Place (Closed to Public)

It's bad enough that the nation's worst civil engineering disaster, and the second worst disaster in the state of California, has faded into obscurity. Those who do know about the St. Francis Dam Disaster talk about the dam itself, what's left at the site, the archaeology of the debris field, the follies of city engineer William Mulholland, whose career was basically ruined after his dam broke.

But what about the other people – the people who had no warning, and were swept away in the black of night?

The off-duty crew of Power Station #2, their families, the undocumented immigrant workers sleeping in tents, directly in the path of the flood?

For many reasons, no one really agrees on the number of fatalities caused by the St. Francis Dam flood. It's at least 400. It could be more than 600. Calculating it is a macabre task. Some bodies were spotted in the Pacific Ocean, along with everything else that the raging waters picked up along the way. One can assume. Not all of the bodies were found or accounted for. Not all the casualties remained in one piece. Parts were still being discovered 30 years later.

There's a mass grave of unidentified victims at the Ivy Lawn Memorial Park in Ventura, which was kind of the end of the line for the flood. Other victims are buried at Santa Paula CemeteryPioneer  Cemetery in Sylmar, Oakwood Cemetery in Chatsworth...

...and the Ruiz Cemetery, a tiny monument to the first victims of the flood, just a couple miles down San Francisquito Canyon Road, in the back of a privately owned ranch.

It is off-limits to the public (and trespassing if you try to go)...

...but we arranged a limited, private visit, and were ushered in by a friendly dog who led the way up the hill...

...past the sprouting wildflowers... a small grove of trees...

...and a fenced-off plot labeled "Cemetery Ruiz," which overlooks the site of the former Butterfield Overland Mail station that was taken out by the flood.

Because this private cemetery has been painstakingly locked up and cared for (protected from demolition and development)...

...some of the markers look newly replaced but are original, including those of the Ruiz family members (nearly all of them) who perished that night in 1928.

Volunteers regularly come and pull up weeds, making sure all of the headstones are upright...

...and that none have gone missing.

But nature has a way of overtaking graves sometimes...

...weathering away at the letters and numbers carved into stone...

...rusting metal, obscuring names and dates.

Some markers have been lost altogether, so no one really knows how many people could be buried here in this graveyard, that only measures 100 x 100 feet.

They share their space with the trees.

Some of the stone markers were carved to look like trees.

Others are unusually ornamented and embellished, signifying the special care that was taken with their interments...

...and the heartbreak felt over this tragic loss.

It's surreal to walk around and see so many gravestones not only from the same year, but from the same date. This disaster was bigger than we can ever imagine.

Visiting Ruiz Cemetery felt like a pilgrimage I had to make, given my fascination with the disaster itself, and its site. But I was ready to go when the time came, and I don't think I'll go back. I can't walk on those poor victims' graves. They've been through enough. They deserve peace.

For lots of historical photos and a census of those buried at Ruiz, click here.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: What's Left of the St. Francis Dam
Photo Essay: Another Look at the St. Francis Dam Disaster Site
Photo Essay: The Path of Destruction of the St. Francis Dam Flood, 86 Years Later

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