A Monument to a Disaster

by Richard Senate

On the night of March 12, 1928, at exactly 11:57pm, the newly constructed St. Francis Dam failed. The six-hundred-foot-long concrete structure was filled to the top with the runoff of a great rain storm. The dam had been leaking hours before it burst. No witnesses survived the dam break that sent twelve billion gallons of water roaring down the Santa Clara River Valley. It smashed into power plant number two then devastated a construction camp at Saugus. Out of the work crew only six bodies were recovered.

The wave of water then hit Santa Paula flooding some ten thousand acres of fruit orchards and farmlands under six feet of water. The terrible wave took an estimated four hundred and fifty lives that night and that is only an estimate. The great flood of 1928 would be listed as the second worst disaster to ever hit California (The first being the earthquake and fire that destroyed much of San Francisco in 1906 taking three thousand lives). After the waters receded only two hundred and seventy-three bodies were recovered. Many badly battered and nude, the surging waters made many bodies unrecognizable.  The majority were believed to have been buried in the mud of the Santa Clara or washed out to sea.  Some of the recovered dead were discovered at the mouth of the Santa Clara River in Ventura. Only a few were identified and buried at ivy Lawn Cemetery. Many were buried in an unmarked mass grave. Today no marker exists to tell the tale of this terrible night of horror.

Only one monument stands today in Santa Paula. It depicts, in statuary form, two motorcycle policemen who risked their lives to race ahead of the raging waters to warn people of the coming disaster, saving hundreds of lives.  The unmarked graves at Ivy Lawn should be marked to tell of this awful event and the lives lost that night so long ago.   Maybe a statue should be made and put up at the mouth of the Santa Clara River, or at the Ventura Harbor. It should be some inspirational form with a descriptive plaque to tell of this event for the edification of future generations. This event shouldn’t be forgotten.

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