(I’m finishing up a book on L.A.’s Griffith Park, and anytime you do any kind of research on the history of Los Angeles, the name William Mulholland – the powerful water czar during the city’s early days – is bound to come up. Since he is fresh on my mind, I thought I would reprint an article I wrote in 2008 on the 80th anniversary of the tragic dam break that ended Mulholland’s career.)
Being rustled out of bed at an early hour, rushed to high ground, and discovering the following morning that the only home you’ve ever known has washed away, leaves an indelible mark on the mind of a child. It’s a memory that remains fresh even after the passing of eighty years.
Just ask the three surviving members of the Grainger family – Robert, 83, of Fillmore; Donald, 85; and sister Eva Griffiths, 88; both of Santa Paula.
The Graingers and their spouses are part of a dwindling handful of Santa Paula survivors who still remain from the greatest man-made disaster in California history: the collapse of the St. Francis Dam.
“We were living south of Harvard Boulevard, and our property ran from Harvard down to the river,” recalled Donald Grainger, who was five at the time of the disaster. “The water came through and was about twenty feet deep. It washed the house off the foundation and washed it about two blocks down the street,” he added.
Peggy Grainger, 82, wife of Robert, had a similar experience as her future in-laws.
“My house was found in Saticoy wrapped around a Walnut tree,” she said.
For a brief period of time in the late 1920s, the dam, which straddled San Francisquito Canyon thirty miles to the east of Santa Paula, held a large reservoir in check, which was there to provide water to the thirsty population of Los Angeles, 35 miles to the south.
That was until three minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, when the dam ruptured, sending 13 billion gallons of water crashing along the Santa Clara riverbed towards the sea. Santa Paula was one of several hamlets in its path.
The Graingers were among the lucky residents of Santa Paula who received adequate warning of the coming torrent.
Donald Grainger remembers waking up to the blare of sirens.
“Police were running up and down the street and my mother was on the telephone and she turned to us and said, ‘We have to get out of here. The aqueduct has broken.’ So we all jumped in the car and went up to Seventh Street Hill, which was high ground.”
Many of the other residents weren’t so lucky.
91-year-old Stanley Griffiths, husband of Eva, remembers seeing bodies covered in mud being hosed off outside the mortuary. Donald Grainger recalls seeing a flatbed truck go by with bodies stacked in the back.
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