In this month’s Journal Flashback we’re sharing an article by Patricia Allen on the horrific toll of the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928. For those who do not know, the St. Francis Dam was completed in 1926 and located in San Francisquito Canyon in what is know Santa Clarita. The dam broke near midnight of March 12, 1928, sending a wave of water and debris down the Santa Clara River watershed. Debris and people were swept away as far as the Oxnard plains and the Pacific Ocean. The tragedy remains the second-greatest loss of life in California’s history, after the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake. Unlike the earthquake, however, the dam collapse remains an often-forgotten event in the state’s history. Allen provides a summary of the events and a list of the dead who were identified at the time. The total death toll is still a subject of debate. Those who would like to learn more can read Charles F. Outland’s definitive work on the subject Man-Made Disaster: The Story of the St. Francis Dam.

Image of the St. Francis Dam prior to its failure circa 1927. It illustrates just how much water would have flown through the Santa Clara River Valley. PN43262 OS, MVC Library & Archives collection.

Fifty-six years have passed since the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. The exact number of deaths resulting from this disaster will never be known.

The official record of the Claims Bureau of the Citizens’ Restoration Committee reported in August 1928 that there were 224 identified deaths, 60 who were unidentified, and 101 persons reported missing, for a total of 385 deaths. The records of Oliver L. Reardon, Ventura County Coroner at the time of the event, indicate that 231 bodies were retrieved from Ventura County, 88 from Los Angeles County, and 101 persons were reported missing. His total of 420 is 35 more than that reported by the committee. In addition, there were charred remains of three more bodies and a partial skeleton discovered late in August which would not have been enumerated in the coroner’s list. This would make 424 people known dead from the St. Francis Dam break.

The records of Coroner Reardon were meticulously kept and have been preserved in the possession of his son, Joseph, owner of the Joseph P. Reardon Funeral Chapel in Ventura. In the earliest hours of March 13, 1928, Oliver Reardon received his first intimation of the disaster. A phone call from the Sheriff’s office warned him to prepare for multiple deaths because of the collapse of the St. Francis Dam. At daybreak Reardon and his son, Joseph, who was on his Easter break from Villanova Prep School in Ojai, arrived in Santa Paula to assess the situation. The crest of the flood had passed, but there was still a sea of dirty, roiling water flowing down the Santa Clara River. Father and son were numbed by the devastation they witnessed in the early light of day. Charles Outland describes it most movingly in his book, Man-Made Disaster: The Story of St. Francis Dam.

“It was an unbelievable sight that a stunned Santa Paula citizenry gazed upon in the first fog-filtered rays of dawn. The lower portion of the town was the most appalling, unmitigated mess anyone had ever seen. Foundations or crushed rubble were all that marked where homes had stood the night before. Orchards that had been exactly what orchards should be: trees and cleanly cultivated soil were now the repositories of broken houses, bridge timbers, and every conceivable kind of flotsam and jetsam. A dead mule lay in the center of Harvard Boulevard, and other carcasses were soon visible in the gathering light of day. Covering everything was a thick carpet of oozy, slimy mud that made walking a hazard on sidewalks and streets.

The early viewers were those who had been awakened a few hours before and ordered to flee to high ground. Most of those sleepy-eyed individuals had never heard of a St. Francis Dam, and many doubted its existence even as they fled half-dressed to the hills north of town. Now they gazed silently upon the carnage wrought by the onslaught they had escaped. One man was to recall that the population was in a state of mass shock during those early moments of comprehension.”

A panoramic view of the flooded area east of Camulos and what is now the town of Piru on March 18, 1928. This view show just how wide the path of the water was. The lighter area is the trail of the flood and covers Highway 126. PN2876 OS, Bernies’s Photo Shop, MVC Library & Archives collection.

That last statement was echoed by Joseph Reardon in a recent interview when he told of plans made and hastily implemented by his father to meet the demands of the disaster. As the water receded it became apparent that their first task was to recover and care for the bodies that were exposed in the debris. These victims were coated with that same oozy mud and had to be cleansed before any identification could take place. Nine living persons were found in the debris of the river and were first thought to be dead. All but one survived.

A makeshift morgue was set up and all available personnel were pressed into service to assist in the grisly work. Farm trucks were offered by local residents to haul the bodies to the morgue, and two sheriff’s deputies, Leslie T. White and Carl Wallace, were reluctantly recruited to number and photograph each body. The deputies helped put into effect the identification system, established by Reardon, which later proved so effective in assisting relatives to claim their family members. With each picture was a description which included sex, nationality, hair and eye coloring, approximate age and weight, and any other distinctive marking or any jewelry worn. The force of the water was so great that none of the victims recovered on the first day had on so much as a stitch of clothing. These painstaking records were invaluable, for many of the victims had been borne for miles by the water and debris before being deposited on the river’s edge. Among them was the body of the small daughter of G.O. Hughes, the chief operator of Power House No. 2. Though the Hughes family had lived just below the dam, the child’s body was found on the Sespe Ranch.

It was obvious that there were too many bodies to be cared for in the mortuaries of Santa Paula and Fillmore, so Coroner Reardon arranged to have them taken to every mortuary in the county, including his own in Ventura. His record book carefully notes where each body was taken. This information was added to the number and picture pasted in the book. Later notations told who made the identification and where the body was sent for burial. It was a heartrending experience for all concerned, and many tragic stories can be pieced together from the dozens of letters in the coroner’s files.

A man using a clamshell bucket and crane to pile debris after the dam collapse, dated March 13, 1928. The man is walking on top of the debris pile. PN18732, W.C. Fairbank Collection, MVC Library & Archives.

Letters arrived from all across the nation. All requested information leading to the whereabouts of missing persons who were believed to have been in the area of the flood. A second letter from a mother of two young sons joyfully recounted that her sons had gone to Washington State to find employment and were not in California after all. Many of the letters included pictures of missing relatives. One included the plaintive request for the picture to be returned as it was the only one the mother had. Several weeks after the flood, a correspondent wrote from Los Angeles seeking her friend, a grandmother who had with her two small grandchildren. The Los Angeles resident had loaned her friend money so that she might start a small poultry ranch near Fillmore. A picture of the grandmother and her charges was included showing them seated together on the running board of a car. The small family had not been heard from since the flood.

All the letters are preserved intact, along with the answers sent by the coroner’s or sheriff’s office, for they worked together in solving their mutual problems of identification. At least two of the victims were claimed by relatives because of the rings they wore. One was a woman who always wore a distinctive opal ring, the other a young man whose mother described his engraved 1924 senior class ring. A young mother who was wearing a special white nightgown was identified a month after the disaster. One grateful out-of-state wife inquiring for her missing husband wrote a second time to report that the supposed victim was not her husband. The coroner had written her that the victim was wearing heavy, hand-knitted underwear, and she responded that her spouse always wore BVD-style underwear of fine checked material with three buttons on the shoulder. Some of the bodies found in later months could only be identified by dental records.

Mrs. Maggie Frame, of Porterville, California, sent several letters inquiring about her three sons who had been employed at the Edison Company at Kemp. Leslie Frame was identified in May, and Vernon was found in June, but a third son was never identified. One of her letters mentioned that she had read in the paper that several of the employees of the Edison Company were identified by their company clothing badges, but this was not helpful in the case of her lost son. Four Luna children from Bardsdale were identified by their father, whose wife also perished but was never found. They were Elvira, Esther, Lupe, and Henry. They ranged in age from one to five years old.

One hundred and one bodies were missing and never found. Reports in local newspapers, which are in the collection of the Ventura County Historical Museum Library, indicate that many of the bodies had been carried into the sea. However, only one was ever found in the ocean, and it was near the mouth of the Santa Clara River. The dirt and debris could clearly be seen nearly six miles out into the ocean. Perhaps bodies washed that far offshore wouldn’t ever return.

The remnants of the St. Francis Dam after the collapse, dated March 1928. PN15515, Oliva Collection, MVC Library & Archives.

Coroner Reardon had made an arrangement with the City of Los Angeles to pick up and care for any bodies found by farmers along the river and in areas where heavy equipment was dredging the riverbed to clear it of debris. Young Joseph Reardon worked most of the summer on this grim task. The last remains were found in August when a ranch crew up the Santa Clara River found the charred bones of three victims, a man, woman, and child, in the ashes of a fire they had built to burn the trash deposited by the flood water. A picture of the remains was pasted in the record book along with the information concerning the sad discovery.

Probably the most unusual notation in the coroner’s records deals with an unidentified red-headed man of about 55 years of age. He was found with his automobile, a 1922 gray Kissell touring car with wire wheels. Its chassis serial number was 464412, and its engine number was 456245. Even with this detailed information, the man was never identified, and his unclaimed remains were buried at Ivy Lawn Cemetery near Ventura.

The City of Los Angeles paid all expenses associated with the burial of those three hundred-plus victims. They observed the wishes of the deceased’s loved ones and shipped the bodies to any place in the United States where the survivors wished to have them buried.

A list of the dead has been compiled from the coroner’s records and newspaper accounts of the day. It is not complete, but it is as correct as possible.

Victims of the St. Francis Dam Disaster of March 12-13, 1928

Alvarado, Mrs. Crisostomo

Alvarado, Inez

Alvarez, Jesus

Alvarez, Mrs. Jesus

Alvarez, Julia

Alvarez, Ramon

Alvarez, Ynez

Anderson, C.M.*

Anderson, Timothy

Andrews, Timothy*

Asher, Jessie A.

Barry, Scotty John*

Berry, Harley S. (Chief Mechanic, Power House No. 2)

Bianchi, Frank*

Boardman, Florence

Boardman, Grace T. (Mrs.)

Basolo, George M.

Bryson, J.H.*

Burns, Child

Burns, Child

Burns, Harry

Burns, Mrs. Harry (Mary)

Burns, Louis M.

Burns, Mrs. Louis M.

Burns, Son

Calahan, J.C.*

Capello, Tony

Carrillo, Adolfo

Carrillo, Mrs. Jesus

Carrillo, Jose

Carrillo, Juan

Carrillo, Matilde

Carrillo, Senona

Carter, C.W.

Cerna, Hypolite

Cesena, Philip

Chesney, A.V. (Bert)*

Coe, Homer (Power House No. 2)

Coe, Nora (Mrs.)

Coffer, Ellen

Colburn, Walter J.*

Costamagna, Mat

Cowden, Alice

Cowden, Baby

Cowden, Corrinne (Mrs. Earl)

Cowden, Earl

Cowden, Margarite

Cowden, William Dee

Crasbeg, Mat

Crumley, Ed*

Cummings, Gordon

Cummings, Mavis

D’Arcy, Philip* (USN)

De Shields, Richard*

Doty, Jim Oscar*

Duke, Van Wallace*

Dyment, Roy A.*

Eliason, C.E.*

Elliott, Morris*

Ely, Aaron

Ely, Mrs. Aaron

Ely, Child

Ely, Child

Frame, Leslie*

Frame, Vernon*

Frazer, Melvin

Frazer, Minnie

George, W. R.*

Gottardi, Mrs. Francisco

Gottardi, Joe

Gottardi, Pauline

Gottardi, Richard

Gottardi, Rino

Grantham, S.D.*

Gregson, Paul*

Guetler, A.J.*

Guitterez, Andres

Halen, Jane G.

Halen, Kenneth*

Halen, Leon John

Harter, C.W.

Harter, Marian (Mrs. C.W.)

Holt, Howard

Holt, Mary C. (Mrs. Howard)

Hopp, Child

Hopp, Ferrell (BP&L)

Hopp, Mrs. Ferrell

Hughes, Barbara

Hughes, Child

Hughes, G.O.

Hughes, Mrs. G.O.

Hungerford, Joseph Paul*

Hunich, Jefferson

Hurst, Doyle*

Imus, Myron Dale

Imus, Violet (Mrs. Earl)

Isaacs, Child

Isaacs, Child

Isaacs, Child

Isaacs, J.R.

Isaacs, Mrs. J.R.

Johnson, Rex*

Jones, Bert L.*

Jones, Harry*

Kennedy, Child

Kennedy, Child (and nurse)

Kennedy, Thomas

Kennedy, Mrs. Thomas

Kelly, Dolores

Kelly, Mrs. Ida M.

Kelly, Phyllis

Kern, Raymond (BP&L)

Kerns, Inez Hewitt (Alias Mrs. Gordon Cummings)

Kerr, Earl (BP&L)

Kimball, Gerald A*

Kingston, John James*

Kleiman, Joachim

Lagerman, George*

Lawson, Andrew*

Layton, Clayton W.

Ledbetter, O.T.*

Locke, Edward*

Ludloff, George T.*

Luna, Elvira

Luna, Esther

Luna, Henry

Luna, Lupe

McCarty, Bessie (Mrs.)

McCarty, Charles Edgar

McCauley, Milford

McCauley, Stanton

McIntyre, A.C. (Castaic Junction Cafe & Service Station)

McIntyre, Joseph

McLain, B.J.*

Martinez, Joe

Martinez, Mrs. Joe

Martinez, Jose

Martinez, Juan Moroa

Martinez, Maria

Martinez, Rose

Massetti, Paul*

Mathews, J. Carl (BL&P)

Mathis, Harry (BL&P)

Miyagi, Motoye

Mondlock, Nick*

Monarez, Tevania

Parker, Ida Marie Bloemers

Pegovare, Pete

Perez, Antonia

Perez, Jessie

Perez, Maria Bravo (Mrs.)

Pike, Felda Smith (Mrs.)

Pike, Mr.

Pike, Son

Porter, Charles O.*

Porter, Frank*

Richesin, Monroe K.*

Ritchie, Edward James*

Rivera, Albert

Rivera, Pedro

Rivera, Robert

Robertson, L.G.

Rogers, Chester

Rogers, Doris

Rogers, Margaret June

Rogers, Richard

Ruiz, Henry

Ruiz, Martin

Ruiz, Mary

Ruiz, Ramon

Ruiz, Susan

Samaniego, Matilda

Samaniego, Santana

Savala, Mrs. Carlotta

Savala, Concha

Savala, Fred

Savala, Mrs. Fred

Savala, Jose

Savala, Rose

Savala, Steve

Shea, Thomas*

Stephens, Grace

Stevens, David S.

Stevens, Mrs. D.S.

Stevenson, Grace

Taylor, Fred*

Topley, Mrs. Rosetta

Torrez, Carmen

Torrez, E.

Torrez, Mrs. Isabella

Torrez, Marie

Torrez, Mercedes

Traxler, Baby

Traxler, Mrs. Emma Ida

Truesdale, Addie

Van Meter, Lester*

Velasco, Librado

Vickroy, Edward E.

Voelker, Henry J.

Weinland, Baby

Weinland, William Y.

Weinland, Mrs. W.Y.

Westbrook, Orval R.*

Whitehead, Sarah

Wilmot, Baby

Wilmot, Mrs. Oscar

Wilson, Andy (Alias O.A. Hylton)

Wilson, E.W.*

Wolfe, C.L.*

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