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My House Was Wrapped Around a Tree, Part 2

(Here is the second part of a 2008 interview I conducted with some survivors of the St. Francis Dam disaster of 1928.)

The official death toll from the disaster was 450, but many believe it claimed dozens of additional lives, mostly those of Spanish-speaking migrant workers who refused to leave their homes because the language barrier prevented them from fully understanding what was happening.

“The man who went down there was Constable Messer, and he could speak Spanish, and he knocked on doors. But many of the families came out to see the stars and they thought ‘no agua, no flood,’” recalled 86-year-old survivor Robert Procter.

None of the survivors saw the water come through town because it hit Santa Paula while it was still dark between the hours of two and three o’clock in the morning. But they do recall the sounds from that night.

“The Union Oil Company had a refinery in Santa Paula that had a big steam whistle that in the case of a disaster they would toot instead of blow,” said 87-year-old survivor Robert Daries. “The ‘toot, toot, toot’ is what woke us up.”

Donald Grainger remembers being on top of Seventh Street Hill with his family for about a half hour before hearing a “terrific crash” when the flood slammed into the Williard Bridge.

“It was a steel bridge, and (the water) just mangled the thing. There were pieces of it up and down the river for years,” he said.

The dam break didn’t come as a complete surprise to all the survivors. According to Daries, there was talk of substandard materials being used in the dam’s construction long before it actually crashed down.

“My uncle used to haul gravel to the dam when it was being built,” said Daries, “and he told my parents never to buy property in Santa Paula below Main Street.”

Eva Griffiths remembers that her mother heard about other problems at the dam shortly before the disaster.

“My mother had a friend who lived up above the dam who called earlier in the week and said there was a quite a crack in it,” she recalled.

Some of the survivors have recollections about the disaster and its aftermath that are in contrast to the official stories.

Robert Procter, whose father was instrumental in the relief efforts after the dam break, as well as for the 1906 San Francisco Earthquake, remembers the Salvation Army, and not the Red Cross, as being the first relief agency on the scene.

He, along with some of the other survivors, also take offense at the notion that Thornton Edwards – one of the two motorcycle policemen who warned the residents of the coming flood, and was subsequently honored with a statue a few years ago – was a hero. He contends that he was a racist bully.

The Santa Paula St. Francis Dam survivors are, as a group, in remarkably good health for octo- and nonagenarians. They all possess a sense of inner strength that is often found in those who have overcome adversity at a young age.

“Someone found our piano,” remembered Robert Grainger. “Some carpenter took it and cut it down and made a desk out of it, and it’s still in the family.”

That desk was about all the Grainger family kept out of the disaster. That, of course, and lots of memories.

My House Was Wrapped Around a Tree, Part 1

(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.

(Continued tomorrow.)

In the Wake of the St. Francis Dam

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.