75 years ago, St. Francis Dam's failure swept
away lives, innocence
By David Mason
"In common with the
rest of the county, we of the Ojai Valley have been stunned by
the horrors of Tuesday morning's flood which swept the Santa
Clara Valley with such appalling destruction of life and property.
It was indeed a 'bolt from the blue.' There were probably not
three people in the county who ever conceived of the possibility
of such a catastrophe. Hundreds of people have made their homes
along the banks of the river without the slightest idea they
were at the mercy of a few engineers and contractors fifty miles
- The Ojai, Editorial, March 1928
In one of those small houses along the
river an 8-year-old girl, Lois Clemore (now Lois Topping of Oak
View), was awakened by the exciting shouts of impending doom
that had just taken over the middle of the night's quiet atmosphere.
She could not take the time to dress, she had to leave the warm
house in her bed clothes. Crying, Lois and her baby sister, Rose,
were driven from their home by their mother, Mary Clemore, one
of the few women in the area who actually knew how to drive.
The father, Bill Clemore, not wanting to leave their home unprotected,
refused to leave, staying behind to face the danger and to help
out where he could.
The Clemore family had only been in California for three years,
the promise had been for an exciting life here, but never would
their minds conceive the events about to take place.
The farmers working their land in the Santa Clara Valley had
no idea of the tragedy that would come their way. For many years
the San Francisquito River had fed into the Santa Clara River,
supplying Ventura County with water, as it flowed to the Pacific
In 1925, secretively, the city of Los Angeles started a construction
project of building "the great dam." Ventura County
had not been informed of this massive structure that would restrict
the use of one of their most important natural resources, water.
The concrete was already being poured when Ventura County supervisors
first became aware of the project. The dam was being constructed
in Los Angeles County, but it would most certainly have its effects
on the neighboring Ventura County.
At the time, Santa Clara Valley had 100,000 acres of cultivatable
land; the Fillmore area consisted of approximately 45,000 acres
of farm land and the Oxnard District, which consisted of 40,000
acres, would all be affected by the dam.
With all the concerns being shown by the people of Ventura County
in regards to the large dam, the City of Los Angeles started
rushing to complete the obstruction of the San Francisquito River.
The dam, a curved concrete gravity dam rose from the floor of
the river to a height of almost 200 feet. The primary purpose
was to provide storage for the Los Angeles-Owens River Aqueduct.
The St. Francis Dam, which today would have been about five miles
northeast of Magic Mountain, was completed in May of 1926 and
was already starting to fill with the sparkling water. The Owens
aqueduct had been diverting its water into the reservoir since
the first of March and the lake was filling by 1.8 inches per
By the early months of 1928, the dam was filling to capacity
for the first time since its construction. Many people checked
on it regularly for any signs of trouble. William Mulholland,
the dam's chief engineer and architect, walked across the dam
to view the lake that was formed by the impressive concrete structure,
on March 12, 1928. It was a beautiful sight, the mountains were
a lush green from the many inches of rain that year, and the
water was a crisp blue. The location was far enough away from
the hustle and bustle of the city, that a quiet peace could be
That same night, at 11:57, just as midnight approached, the dam
gave way, and it was estimated that a wall of water, 140 feet
high was roaring toward the small town of Piru. By the time it
hit the town, 400 houses between the dam and the town of Piru
were either lost or damaged. The Southern California Edison Company
crew of 176 men were trapped by the flood water, only 80 of the
men were later accounted for. Between the dam and the town of
Saugus, there were 191 people living in the path of the great
destruction, of them, 25 were found alive.
In the town of Santa Paula, 10,000 acres of orchard and cultivated
land was flooded, the whole town was inundated. Approximately
400 houses were either wrecked or severely damaged.
The flood water traveled the 65 miles to the ocean, taking with
it the wreckage of the many homes, ranch buildings and all of
the vegetation. Most of the victims of the disaster were in
bed when the dam broke. The force of the flood waters tore away
their night clothes as their bodies were washed out to sea.
Mary Clemore and her young girls spent a restless night, not
knowing for sure if they would have a home to return to, if their
father and husband would be waiting for their return, or if he
would be counted as one of the many that would loose their lives
in the nightmare.
The next day, when Mrs. Clemore returned with her children, the
family was in shock. Everything that they owned was gone. All
of their possessions that they had so lovingly brought from the
Ozark Region of Missouri were gone, washed downsteam mixed with
the mud and silt.
Parts of the family home was eventually found about 1-1/2 miles
down the river. The chicken coop and the hens, that had each
been named by the family were all gone. The family was delighted
to learn that Bill Clemore was safe and that he had played an
important part in saving the lives of a local family.
Watching as the flood water was approaching, Mr. Clemore happened
to notice a large touring car full of people had stalled on the
Saticoy bridge, running to help push the car off the bridge just
as the wall of water ripped through the two-lane bridge. Everyone
was saved, and Clemore was called a hero by everyone who heard
Relief work began immediately. County organizations formed food
depots at Santa Paula. The American Legion, including many members
from Ojai, the Women's Auxiliary of the American Legion, the
Boy Scouts, the County Federation of Women's Clubs, including
the Ojai Club, rushed to the scene of the disaster, a group of
tireless and willing workers. The first of their many duties
was to secure cots and bedding for the homeless men, women and
children for the approaching night.
Bread lines were established and Bill Baker
of the Ojai Bakery delivered 400 loaves of bread to the center
that was set up in the grammar school building in Santa Paula.
Hundreds of refugees were without clothing and the women's clubs
undertook the problem to supply this necessity.
Mrs. Sherman D. Thacher, secretary of the Ojai Chapter of the
American Red Cross, found that the relief work going on in the
Santa Paula, Newhall, Fillmore and Piru area was well-organized,
especially in regards to the supply of food and clothing available
for the people's immediate needs. Mrs. Thacher felt that the
people of Ojai could do better by supplying money that would
be greatly needed for the rehabilitation of the families later
Many Ojai clubs, including the Jack Boyd
Club, assessed themselves and their membership for money toward
the relief work.
In the devastated area, and, in general, the people took the
disaster philosophically, considering how great was the tragedy
through which they had just passed. Anger was shown only in remarks
heard when the builders of the dam were under discussion.
When the immensity of the catastrophe following the breaking
of the dam was realized, the question arose, "Who is to
The local newspaper, The Ojai, said: "However, it is too
soon yet to apportion blame, and too late to help those who have
lost their lives. There is room for little else at this time
than sympathy for the sufferers who have survived, but have lost
and suffered so terrible. Their needs are immediate and urgent.
Fortunately, the response to the appeal for aid has been as it
always is in such cases, spontaneous and generous."
Tom Clark, the Ventura County Supervisor from Ojai, toured the
dam site right after the disaster and remarked that it was the
most deplorable sight he had ever seen. The floodwater had completely
wiped out ranches and orchards. Where there had been alfalfa
fields, pastures, orchards, groves of sycamore and oaks, there
now remained nothing but the bare ground.
In surveying their own bare land, the Clemore family discovered
that one bush remained, and in the excitement, the bush seemed
to come alive, after careful inspection, the Clemore girls cheered
with glee, for one of their beloved chickens had gotten caught
in the bush and had ridden out the flood and showed no sigh of
harm, at least they had one thing left.
As sightseers flocked to the area, the official traffic authorities
closed most roads leading into the area. Traffic coming from
Los Angeles was turned back at Camarillo, cars traveling to Santa
Paula from Ojai were turned back about halfway between the two
towns. Bardsdale traffic was stopped at Moorpark. The Ridge Route
Highway was completely washed out, stranding many motorists in
The L. A. Water Board was rushing to settle claims unfairly with
property owners, while the City of Los Angeles had shown a commendable
spirit, both in admitting its responsibility for the losses and
trying to settle all claims without lawsuits, and its determination
to find the cause of the disaster. The city also pledged to pay
for the burial of all the disaster victims.
The Clemore family received $100 to replace their belongings.
The first job was to have the remaining part of the house pulled
back to the spot where it had stood before the flood. The family
was able to make the small building their home and to be thankful
that they were all together and safe.
Many thought that the dam had been dynamited, by disgruntled
residents of the Owens Valley. The aqueduct that brought water
from the northern part of the state had been having its share
of problems with a rash of dynamiting incidents, and Los Angeles
had received a bomb threat toward the dam, just months prior
to the dam's failure.
The bomb theory was dismissed, seismographs
that would normally show such a blast, recorded nothing on the
night of the failure. What geologists and construction engineers
concluded was that the main problems seemed to be in the design
elements. William Mulholland accepted the blame, telling the
Coroner's Inquest: "Don't blame anyone else, you just fasten
it on me. If there was an error in human judgment, I was the
At the inquest following the tragedy, evidence was brought forth
that the dam was leaking as late as the day before the break,
and that the Department of Water and Power, but more importantly,
Mulholland himself, knew it. On the stand, Mulholland admitted
being at the dam the day before the break, but had noticed nothing
out of the ordinary. He testified that leaks were not unusual
in dams, especially in dams the size of the St. Francis.
In the end, the jury found that the disaster was caused by the
failure of the rock formations on which the dam was built. But
responsibility was placed on the governmental organizations behind
the construction of the dam, and on its chief designer, William
Mulholland, who then retreated into a life of self-imposed isolation.
The dam's failure resulted in the second worst tragedy in California
history, exceeded only by the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.
Today, on this, the 75th anniversary of this devastating disaster,
Lois Clemore Topping counts her blessings, while recalling the
tragedy of so many years ago. With a twinkle in her eye, she
wants the story to be told lest people should forget this monumental
event that took place in Los Angeles County and touched the lives
of everyone in Ventura County. The keynote of future progress
lies in cooperation and mutual service among towns and cities
and counties, as well as among the people.
The Ojai Valley News
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