Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Ghosts of the St. Francis Dam Disaster

Moments after midnight on March 12, 1928, the St. Francis Dam broke near Santa Clarita, California. 12.5 billion gallons of water, * initially 150-foot high crashed down the narrow San Francisquito Canyon, killing and demolishing everything in its path. 

It wiped out the Tesoro site, then it demolished the famous Harry Carey Ranch and Trading Post, and much of Saugus. It joined the Santa Clara River at Castaic Junction and destroyed Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, and Saticoy before it reached the Pacific Ocean near Ventura. It was over in just 5 and 1/2 hours

This was the second-worst disaster in California history, the first was the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. When the St. Francis broke Approximately 500 men, women and children were killed. The exact number will never be known. 

One body discovered afterward had washed all the way south to San Diego, and in the 1950s, skeletons were still being found. Today vast chunks of concrete from this dam still litter the site; some state they stand like gravestones over the dead. Despite the magnitude of this disaster, it was not widely publicized at the time or even today.

The cause of why this dam broke is still in question.

“No one is certain what caused the (St. Francis Dam) collapse. Possibilities range from unstable ground…to the concrete used…and an underlying fault.”  
                                       --Los Angeles Times (April 23, 2000)

A retired civil engineer, Clarence N. Freeman who lives in Fillmore, was quoted in this LA Times article:

William Mulholland
“In the case of the St. Francis Dam, William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, surrounded by a flawed organization with a siege mentality, used poor judgment, improper geological consultation, faulty engineering design, and development of the dam to the maximum storage capacity possible without proper consideration of the consequences.” **

One family, the Ruiz’s, who lived close by the dam all perished, this included their four children, aged eight to thirty. This family was buried in a small peaceful cemetery on a shady hill that overlooks the San Franciquito creek bed. 

This cemetery has over 100 graves, where other victims of this tragedy rest. It is said when photos are taken of this area, they often do not turn out. 

One young boy with blonde hair was found—wearing a cowboy outfit— he was not identified for several years—a western film star of the time, Tom Mix helped with his burial. It was later found that he was the young son of a family who had been camping in the area—his whole family was killed when the dam broke. 

Since this disaster, many people who are residents in the surrounding area claim that they have encountered ghosts. One specific documented account I find very compelling involves the Ponton family. 

This family moved into the area in 1976 and bought land near where the dam broke. Their property included the Ruiz Cemetery. 

One night a cast iron horse trough that could only be moved with a crane was found moved several feet and completely turned around. There were no footprints or drag marks in the sand that surrounded it. 

Most unusual was this trough was full of water, and afterward, this water seemed undisturbed. The weight of this trough ruled out the possibility that it was moved as a joke.

Joyce Ponton stated years later that she did not believe in ghosts, but what happened with this trough still puzzled her.

“But I have to admit the (the horse trough) was strange. That’s the one thing we’ve never been able to explain.”

Another unusual incident occurred when Joyce and her husband Andrew moved an old house from Sand Canyon, onto their property. Joyce had just painted an inside door jamb when a child’s fresh handprint appeared on the paint. 

The Ponton’s did not have any small children at the time this happened. They did have a grown daughter who often heard the sounds of a crying baby in the area around the creek bed.

The film star Harry Carey Sr. told another fascinating story connected to this disaster. As mentioned above, he had a ranch in the San Francisquito Canyon area. Before the catastrophe, he employed a group of Navajo men and women who manned “an Indian village “ on his ranch—I guess this was for the tourist trade. 

Days before the dam broke, Carey, who was visiting New York, received a phone call from the village medicine man. This mystic informed Carey that he “dreamed of an impending and epic disaster” he then asked Carey permission to temporarily move his people off the ranch and back to their home on the reservation in Arizona. Carey agreed to this, and these Navajos packed up and left just two days before the dam broke.

Each year on the anniversary of this tragedy, the Santa Clarita Historical Society offers a lecture and provides tours of the site.

*  The St. Francis Dam was built in the years 1924 to 1926 as a reservoir to provide water—a year's supply for Los Angeles.

** William Mulholland did take full responsibility for this disaster, and he resigned shortly afterward.

No comments: