I download the directions and climb in the car. Soon, I find myself two miles north of Saugus peering to the west towards a clump of trees on the side of a barren hill. Squinting, I can just barely make out a white marker. This is the place.
I follow a dirt driveway down into a dried-up creek bed. A “Do Not Enter” sign momentarily halts my progress, but since there is no place to turn around, I cautiously proceed on up the hill towards a house where my car is immediately surrounded by several breeds of barking dogs. I think better about staying and throw the car into reverse just as a friendly woman opens the front door and assures me that my life is in no danger.
I tell her I’m there to see the Ruiz Cemetery.
“Are you a family member?” she asks.
“No,” I say, surprised that there are still living Ruiz descendants after what happened in 1928. “I’ve just always wanted to see it,” I add.
“Sure thing,” she says, “it’s just up the hill behind the house. And don’t worry about the dogs. They’ll just try to lick you to death.”
I walk the couple of hundred yards back to the graveyard up a horse trail that leads through dried brush, always keeping a keen eye out for snakes.
The cemetery is about a half-acre square, with brush concealing many of the graves, and is surrounded by a weathered iron fence with a gate hanging precariously off of rusted hinges. It’s a lonely place, but a sign by the gate with “Cemetery Ruiz” spelled out in turquoise reveals that someone has made it up here during the recent past.
The cemetery is dominated by the large granite Ruiz family monument in the southwest corner. In front of the monument are six smaller stones for individual members of the Ruiz family. From left to right they read:
Sister Susana B. – February 1, 1920 – March 13, 1928
Brother Raymond C. – February 25, 1917 – March 13, 1928
Brother Martin F. – October 10, 1908 – March 13, 1928
Sister Mary S. – October 22, 1898 – March 13, 1928
Mother Rosaria P. – August 15, 1875 – March 13, 1928
Father Enrique R. – March 5, 1864 – March 13, 1928
Off to the right are the graves of Rosarita A. Erratchuo and her infant son Roland. Rosarita was the oldest daughter of Enrique and Rosaria Ruiz. They both died on the same night as the rest of their family.
Even without knowing the history of this canyon, it would be obvious to the most casual of observer that something big went down the night of March 13, 1928. And big it was.
In the middle of the night just six miles up the road from the cemetery, the 180-foot high St. Francis Dam broke just hours after William Mulholland, the dam’s chief engineer, had inspected it after hearing reports of leaks, and declared it safe.
The Ruizes and Erratchuoes were among the first of the estimated 450 victims who were crushed by the torrent of 12 billion gallons of water that flushed through the canyon that night.
I clear away some brush and find a memorial that reads, “In memory of those who lost their lives in the Santa Clara flood Mar. 13, 1928 / Erected by the Newhall Cowboys.” I only know this from newspaper reports made in 1928. After eight decades, the elements have nearly eroded the lettering completely.
This stone was placed here by some real-life cowboys who worked the ranches in the area, and by William S. Hart – a man who played a cowboy on screen. Hart lived in nearby Newhall and was deeply troubled by the destruction that took place near his home. He took over the responsibility for the burial of a young boy whose body lay unclaimed, buying a tiny cowboy outfit for the child. The boy was going to be buried here, but shortly before his funeral he was identified, and was instead interred in Chatsworth near his mother, who also perished in the flood.
I climb back down the hill and pet the dogs on the way out. As I drive back through the wash, I try to imagine what it was like on that tragic night in the spring of 1928 when a wall of water eighteen-stories high thundered down this bone-dry canyon.
But my mind just can’t do it.