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The nearly 500 Californians killed in the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster might finally get a memorial

The nearly 500 Californians killed in the 1928 St. Francis Dam disaster might finally get a memorial

Phillip Cesena transferred to San Franciscquito Canyon in February 1928 to work as a ranch hand, mucking out stalls and exercising ranch animals.

Phillip Cesena, 15, displaying off his trick driving he discovered whereas engaged on a ranch in San Francisquito Canyon in early March 1928. (historic photograph courtesy of Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel) 

The 15-year-old had simply misplaced his father, Leonardo, and needed to help his mom, Erolinda, and his 12 brothers and sisters by studying find out how to break horses and carry out trick driving for Hollywood westerns.

A month later, Cesena’s destiny was sealed.

The St. Francis Dam burst, sending 12.6 billion gallons of water 15 tales excessive racing via Santa Clarita, Saugus, Saticoy, Piru, Fillmore and Santa Paula.

The water worn out villages and killed about 450 individuals earlier than reaching the ocean close to Oxnard some 54 miles away.

Cesena is buried in an unmarked grave close to the dam website, subsequent to his mom.

Like so many others who perished when the dam collapsed on March 12, 1928, the story of the boy —  whose remaining photograph exhibits him standing on a mule training a trick he discovered from the Navajos — additionally lies buried beneath concrete ruins and many years of indifference from a ruling class that cared extra about water rights, actual property and energy than honor.

Now, one group organizer is main a push to construct a memorial to recollect Cesena and all the others who perished in what some name the worst civil engineering disaster in the nation’s historical past.

Water, dams and dying

The pressure between a rush to develop Los Angeles with a poorly constructed dam that ended lives and psychologically broken others haunts Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, Newhall resident and government director of the Group Mountaineering Membership of Santa Clarita.

Such anonymity in dying — particularly a dying that’s a part of the second-largest disaster in California historical past — is each tragic and worthy for all to listen to, she says.

“They are forgotten and they shouldn’t be. They should be remembered. They were all innocent people. They had no chance,” she stated.

The group organizer has lectured, lobbied and tracked down relations of survivors in order to recreate their harrowing tales, so their names could be etched in marble and their tales retold in a new museum — a part of a nationwide memorial at the website of the St. Francis Dam, situated some 47 miles northeast of Los Angeles in the Angeles Nationwide Forest however now surrounded by the tract houses of Santa Clarita.

The St. Francis Dam Disaster Nationwide Memorial Act, a invoice by Rep. Steve Knight, R-Santa Clarita and Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., would honor the lifeless and inform their tales as properly of these of the survivors. S.B.1926 has handed the Home and awaits approval by the Division of Agriculture and the U.S. Senate.

The memorial can be the 37th in the nation, becoming a member of the Washington Memorial and the 9-11 Memorial. It might be the first in forest land run by the U.S. Forest Service.

Activists have met with USFS directors and potential donors resembling Southern California Edison, who misplaced 86 males in the disaster, the Los Angeles Division of Water and Energy, which formally helps the invoice, and firms in hopes of elevating $2 million in seed cash if the designation is granted.

“This is going to be the gem of the U.S. Forest Service,” Erskine-Hellrigel stated.

Two tales

There are two tales Erskine-Hellrigel needs to inform.

The first is of Mulholland, who with Fred Eaton conceived and constructed a 233-mile aqueduct that funnels water from the Owens Valley into houses, taps and bathtubs in Los Angeles.

Mulholland labored his means from  water-pipe ditch digger to the first supervisor and chief engineer of the new Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Provide, a precursor to right now’s Los Angeles Division of Water and Energy.

Subsequent, he constructed 5 native dams to carry aqueduct water. He knew droughts stopped and began flows from the Owens Valley and rightly predicted Los Angeles wanted reservoirs.

In 1925 he began constructing St. Francis, which might turn out to be the largest gravity arch dam in the United States. The dam, wedged between two canyon partitions was constructed of concrete 208 ft excessive, spanning 1,300 ft.

On March 12, 1928, two minutes earlier than midnight, it held a yr’s value of water for the rising metropolis, crammed to about three inches from the prime.

Earlier that day, dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger noticed muddy discharge spurting from the dam. Dams would typically leak, however when the water turned brown, the risk of an eroding base was first in his thoughts.

He referred to as Mulholland. With a lieutenant, they decided the filth from a close by street had made the water brown.

Mulholland concluded nothing was eroding and later ate a late lunch in downtown LA.

“That was a decision he would regret for the rest of his life,” stated Dr. Alan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historic Society. “If Mulholland had realized there was a drawback he would have evacuated the space.

“He was their superhero — their celebrity plus. Then this happens and it becomes a huge black mark on the city and a black mark on their hero.”

Throughout a current stroll by means of the ruins of the dam nonetheless seen in the canyon off San Francisquito Canyon Street, Pollack expanded on the occasion’s aftermath.

“They wanted to get this out of the public memory as quickly as they could,” he stated. “So they settled lawsuits with victims and they decided to blow up (the center portion that remained standing morbidly nicknamed The Tombstone) in 1929.”

Remembering the victims, survivors

The second story Erskine-Hellrigel needs to inform is the story of the individuals who died.  She’s gone to nice lengths to doc their accounts.

Dam keeper Tony Harnischfeger’s physique was by no means discovered. However the physique of his girlfriend, Leona Johnson, was the first to be situated.

She didn’t drown. Her physique was mendacity at the base of the large dam, crushed by a rock.

“Rumors continue that he told his honey ‘I’ll be right back’ but then took off for Mexico,” Erskine-Hellrigel stated, “and he was down there the rest of his life sipping margaritas and having a good time.”

An inventory of victims compiled by Ann Stansell, a researcher at Cal State Northridge, labels some as “missing.” Most of the victims have Latino surnames — ranchers, farmhands and staff at native farms.

Ray Rising, who labored at Powerhouse #2 that took water from the Owens Valley Aqueduct and used it to make electrical energy, miraculously survived and truly returned to work for what’s now LADWP.

Erskine-Hellrigel situated his daughter from his second marriage, Carol Rising Longo, on Fb solely a few years in the past. She was prepared to speak about what her father handed alongside. Longo had not heard the superb story of her father’s escape.

Undated photograph of Ray Rising, who lived in Powerhouse #2 village and was one in every of three in that group who survived the St. Francis Dam disaster. (historic photograph courtesy of Carol Rising Longo and Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel). 

Rising would like to swim the reservoir after work. His expertise got here in useful when the water hit that horrible night time.

His spouse at the time, Julia, 29, drowned. The coroner’s report stated his daughter Delores, 7, died of drowning, probably indicating she died in her mom’s arms.

Their two different youngsters, Adaline, 1, and Glenn, 5, died from particles that “crushed and mangled” their our bodies, the coroner reported.

Ray Rising swam and swam however ended up tangled in energy strains. As he struggled to set himself free, he grabbed onto a home floating by and pulled himself as much as the roof and rode together with the present. Later, he jumped onto the cliff to security.

“The water had ripped his clothes off,” Erskine-Hellrigel stated.

Again at the Powerhouse #2 village, Lillian Curtis made her option to the prime of a hill to flee the excessive waters. She clutched her 2-year-old son, Danny, to her breast and charged up a excessive hill. There, she dug a gap and positioned her son in it and caught the canine on prime to maintain him heat.

‘”Mommy, please don’t let the water take us,’” Danny advised her, based on the account.

Later, Rising joined them there to attend for assist.

Wanting up at that hill throughout a current sunny day, Erskine-Hellrigel stated: “I can still see that hole that she put her son in, though it has been 90 years.”

The three have been the solely to outlive from that village.

When requested in a 1978 newspaper report what she stated to rescuers, Curtis answered: “All I could do was scream, scream, scream.”

When Erskine-Hellrigel locations a tombstone at Cesena’s grave subsequent month — elevating cash for the effort although her 501C3, St. Francis Dam Nationwide Memorial Basis — she’ll do the similar for Johnny and Emma Traxler, buried with out markings in a Chatsworth cemetery.

Little Johnny, three, and his mom have been journeying from Modesto, most probably to get away from Traxler’s husband.

“Oh yeah, I’m sure she was leaving him,” Erskine-Hellrigel stated, saying the husband collected the demise profit however refused to offer his spouse or toddler a funeral or a headstone.

Traxler and her son stayed the night time at Castaic Junction however their cabin was swept away by a raging Santa Clara River.

Johnny’s physique was discovered alone at the cabin. It took authorities months to study he belonged to Traxler, whose physique was discovered miles away.

The Newhall sheriff paid for the caskets, she stated. The proprietor of the cemetery gave up his household plot.

“The silent film actor William S. Hart took a liking to the little boy and he called him ‘Our Little Soldier’,” Erskine-Hellrigel stated, including with steely resolve:

“They will get a headstone if it is the last thing I do”

Preserving ruins, fish and frogs

On Monday, Aug. 27, Erskine-Hellrigel and Pollack stroll the dusty paths of the as soon as reservoir in sluggish, eerie style.

They level out rocks that aren’t rocks however items of the dam. One giant portion — weighing about 20 tons — sits in the center of the canyon miles from the dam website, like an alien spaceship.

Erskine-Hellrigel says one aspect of the proposed guests middle will inform the story of water in Los Angeles. The different aspect will inform the story of the collapse of the dam and the individuals who died — and survived.

At the prime of the westernmost a part of the dam is a view of willows and different inexperienced timber swaying in the scorching breeze. The riparian space, what she calls a lavatory, stays moist year-round, an uncommon trait for arid Southern California.

The memorial will protect greater than 400 acres, together with San Francisquito Creek, house to the endangered unarmored threespine stickleback fish. Erskine-Hellrigel needs to take away the previous street to unlock extra of the fish’s habitat.

The California red-legged frog, the state amphibian and a threatened species, reside in the close by creek however in small numbers.

“We want to put in a raised boardwalk to protect the area. Imagine, we have a bog in Southern California!” Erskine-Hellrigel stated.

She stated the memorial won’t level fingers.

“Most of the relatives of survivors said they don’t harbor any bad feelings toward Mulholland. They just say it happened,” she stated.

“We are not placing blame. We are bringing all this history forward.”

Donations for the memorial and for gravestones may be despatched to St. Francis Dam Nationwide Memorial Basis, c/o Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, 24820 Fourl Street, Newhall, CA.