March 20, 2020

Photo Essay: The St. Francis Dam Flood Plain, Upon the Anniversary of the Disaster

On the night of March 13, 1928, there were 145 men—maybe as many as 185—sleeping at a work camp called Kemp, set up by the Southern California Edison Company on the slope of the dry bed of the Santa Clara River near an area known as the  "Blue Cut" Promontory. (Not to be confused with the Blue Cut of the Cajon Pass.)

During the day, they were setting up new power lines; at night, they slept in tents.

But that one night, the enormous flood was coming from the St. Francis Dam break, raging on its way toward the Pacific Ocean. And by the time anybody knew enough about the danger to warn them, it was too late.

Most of them died, and nearly all of them were stripped of their clothing from the force of the debris flow.

The few survivors there were came to Rancho Camulos for help (and dry clothing).

Ranch owner August Rubel—a New York-born son of Swiss immigrants—and his wife Mary were awakened by a ranch foreman, who alerted them to a lot of water running through the normally dry river. The truth is that along its path, the water flooded over the river banks and—although no one lost their life at the ranch itself—created extensive damage to their agricultural operations (which included citrus orchards and cattle ranching).

The flood waters washed up past the old fountain that had been built in 1852 by Ygnacio Del Valle, the son of the original recipient of this westernmost part of the 48,000-acre Rancho San Francisco Mexican land grant in 1839—Antonio Del Valle. Both members of an important Californio family during the Mexican period and early California statehood, Ygnacio had inherited it from his father in 1841.

In fact, the water came nearly right up to the ranch house, sparing the dwellings by just inches. And while the fountain took a pretty big hit, the Rubels—who'd purchased the property in 1924—rebuilt it in 1934. (It was later restored in 2009.)

By then, Rancho Camulos had already been a historic property for decades—especially since novelist Helen Hunt Jackson, who visited the last of the "real" Spanish ranchos in 1882, based part of her wildly successful book Ramona there. D.W. Griffith also shot part of his 1910 movie version starring Mary Pickford at the ranch.

In the wake of the St. Francis Dam disaster, there was a lot of misinformation and no easy way of correcting it. The living were scrambling to identify the dead and locate the missing. And in that chaos, the false rumor spread that Rancho Camulos had been destroyed by the flood waters.

In fact, that wasn't true at all—but fans of Ramona far and wide were up in arms and besides themselves. Rubel had to make an announcement assuring the public that "The Home of Ramona" still stood.

And, in fact, it still stands today—after a massive preservation effort to save it in the aftermath of the 1994 Northridge earthquake.

In 1853, Ygnacio Del Valle had built a small 4-room adobe for his majordomo and, 8 years later, expanded it to accommodate his wife Ysabel and kids moving from their townhouse at the Los Angeles Pueblo.

By 1880, what began as an adobe with 2-foot-thick walls—constructed by Mexican laborers and members of the Fernandeño Tataviam Band of Mission Indians—grew to a 20-room, hacienda-style estate that sprawled across more than 10,000 square feet. And that example of Spanish-Mexican vernacular architecture is what, in part, inspired the tale of Ramona, first published in 1884.

Today's "Ramona seekers" can admire the old, crumbling brick winery (circa 1867) from afar...

...and inhale the sweet and floral perfume of the orange blossoms, which are in full bloom this time of year.

About three miles away from the Santa Clara River (still dry) and across what's now Highway 126 is the town of Piru, whose cemetery contains the tragic remains of many of the victims from this part of the flood plain.

There's the wife and 5 children of Italian immigrant Joe Gottardi, who leased a property just west of the Edison camp from Newhall Land and was in his home as it got carried away by the flood. Only he and one daughter, Vena, survived.

Esteban "Steve" Savala was also living with his family on Newhall Ranch land the night of the flood...

...and lost his wife Carlotta (Lopez) and children Juanita, Lucy, Rosa, Concepcion, Juanita, and Jose that night.

Chester R. Rogers and Velna E. Topley survived, but lost their four children to the flood—Doris, Chester, Margaret, and Richard—and Velna's mother, Rozetta.

A monument to the victims of the St. Francis Dam Disaster was dedicated at Piru Cemetery upon its 90th anniversary in 2018. To find the gravestones of the victims, look for those marked with the exact date of March 13, 1928.

Even more victims are buried at Pierce Brothers Santa Paula Cemetery, Pioneer Cemetery in Sylmar [Ed 3/24/20: An expert tells me this has been disproven], Oakwood Cemetery in Chatsworth, and the Ruiz family cemetery (on private land).

People tend to go in March every year around the anniversary date, and the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society usually hosts a lecture and bus tour or two this time of year. But this time of year this year, we're experiencing our own disaster-in-the-making.

So, let's remember the St. Francis Dam Disaster and honor its victims beyond just the month of March—even if we have to do so from afar.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Path of Destruction of the St. Francis Dam Flood, 86 Years Later
Photo Essay: A Pilgrimage to the St. Francis Dam Victims' Final Resting Place (Closed to Public)

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