The Heritage Junction Dispatch

A Publication of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society

Volume 45, ISSUE 5, September-October 2019

By Dr. Alan Pollack


It was the day the “Tombstone” died. Los Angeles desperately wanted to forget the colossal dam disaster which occurred on March 12, 1928. Due to the St. Francis Dam collapse, over 400 people were killed. The disaster wrecked the career of their beloved water czar William Mulholland. And yet, there it stood. The central section of the St. Francis Dam, which withstood the phenomenal pressures of hydraulic uplift and 12 billion gallons of churning water as the dam gave way, remained as a sad reminder of the human failures of Los Angeles and its Bureau of Water Works and Supply. And it caused the death of Le Roy Parker, the last victim of the St. Francis dam disaster.

Worse yet, it became an enormous tourist attraction. Lines of Model Ts parked next to the Tombstone. Their passengers marveled at and posed for photos with the dam’s remains. This black mark on Los Angeles would be photographed over and over for posterity, much to the chagrin of the Los Angeles elite.

THE DEATH OF LE ROY PARKER, THE LAST VICTIM OF THE ST. FRANCIS DAM DISASTER

And then the unthinkable happened. On May 27, 1928, like many tourists before him, 17-year-old Le Roy Arthur Parker decided to climb up the steps of the Tombstone. Le Roy, a high school student at the time, was born in Colorado to his parents William R. Parker and Carrie Hoffman Parker in August 1910. Three months later, the family moved out to California.

On that fateful day in May 1928, William Parker drove Le Roy, his friend, and his brother Willis, from their home on Raymond Avenue in Los Angeles to go sightseeing at the dam site in San Francisquito Canyon. Le Roy and his father climbed thirty feet up the side of the Tombstone. Fifty feet away, Le Roy’s friend found a snake on the hillside.

The Fatal Snake Toss

And he had a bright idea. Using a stick he found nearby, the friend picked up the snake and hurled it in the direction of Le Roy. Naturally wanting to avoid being hit by the snake, Le Roy lost his balance and fell thirty feet to his death in the rubble below. Thus, he became the last victim of the St. Francis Dam disaster.

At the time of his fall, Le Roy’s father was only ten feet away but could not save him. Mr. Parker rushed down the Tombstone to get to his fallen son. He found him still conscious with possible broken ribs. Otherwise, he seemed to be OK. He helped Le Roy into his car and rushed over the Newhall Pass to the San Fernando Hospital.

Despite the best efforts of doctors and nurses, Le Roy’s condition rapidly deteriorated after arrival at the hospital. Within a few hours of his fall off the dam, Le Roy Parker passed away. On his death certificate, the cause of death was listed as “Fracture of upper dorsal spine and laceration of right lung and other injuries. Falling from a part of concrete bridge. Accidental.” Two days after his death, Le Roy was buried at Inglewood Cemetery.

Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1928, Page 19. Le Roy Parker, the last victim of the St. Francis Dam disaster.
Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1928, Page 19

PLANS FOR THE TOMBSTONE’S DEMISE

The death of young Le Roy Parker was likely the last straw for the city’s tolerance of the Tombstone. On April 11, 1929, the Newhall Signal announced the intentions of Los Angeles to blow up the remains of the dam. According to the Signal, “it is not only a menace to anyone driving past it but also an unpleasant reminder of the great tragedy.”

Preparing to Blow Up the Tombstone
April 16, 1929
Preparing to Blow Up the Tombstone
April 16, 1929

[scvhistory.com]

They planned to drill two tunnels through the Tombstone, fill them with dynamite, and explode them to bring down the dam remains. The project was completed under the direction of R.R. Robertson, assistant engineer of the Municipal Bureau of Power and Light. The main goal was to tip the Tombstone into a huge pit which was dug into the wash below it.

From the upstream side of the dam, the two 20 foot wide, 10 foot high tunnels were blasted 43 feet into the dam structure. Next, a pillar was placed in between and at each end of the tunnels to support the dam structure. After the completion of the tunnels, they drilled 300 powder holes into the support pillars and filled them with 5 tons of gelatin-dynamite. Subsequently, an electric battery was used to set off the dynamite all at once. As reported in the Signal, “It is expected that this will completely pulverize the three supports and that the dam will then topple over.”

To prepare for the dam’s destruction, Los Angeles firemen practiced with explosives. They blew up portions of the still-intact western wing dike of the dam.

THE DAY THE TOMBSTONE DIED

Los Angeles Times
May 11, 1929
Page 19
Los Angeles Times
May 11, 1929
Page 19

Four weeks later, in the early evening hours of May 10, 1929, the plan was carried out. At 7:00 PM, R.R. Robertson and his crew went to a protected hillside about 450 feet from the dam and exploded the dynamite utilizing an electrically connected plunger. As the dynamite was set off, the 90 million pound Tombstone toppled over into the pit which had been prepared for its demise.

Los Angeles Times Account

According to the Los Angeles Times the next morning, “Echoes of the explosion bounded and bounced from mountain top to canyon wall as crashing blocks of concrete sent up a grey pall of dust to settle for miles on lonely hills and white sand washes, the burial grounds of the unrecovered dead. As the echoes of the blast died down, and the night covered the spot where fourteen months ago there stood the huge dam backing up its millions of gallons of water, nothing remained but a tremendous pile of shattered concrete blocks blocking the canyon, obliterating the road, and once again damming the little stream. Today other blasts will be touched off and steam shovels then will clear away the last of the wreckage.”

The Times further reported: “Workmen and other spectators perched on the surrounding hills watched the towering mass crumble. First, the concrete wall bulged outward, then came a rumbling explosion followed by an ear-shattering roar as the concrete split into huge jagged blocks and crashed into the gigantic grave which had been dug at its base. And just as the night settled down, the $15,000 job of destruction was done and the last remaining portion of the ill-fated dam was gone.

“Some of the spectators that night were reported to be survivors of the flood. One of them was quoted as saying “It stood there like a reminder…”

The Tombstone Today

The remains of the Tombstone and other portions of the dam can still be seen today in San Francisquito Canyon at the newly designated St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and National Monument. In the next few years, we hope to honor the memories of the victims of the disaster with a visitor center and memorial wall at the dam site.

Latest News

Historical Photos of the St. Francis Dam Disaster

Sources for this article:

Los Angeles Times, May 28, 1928

Newhall Signal, April 11, 1929

Newhall Signal, April 18, 1929

Los Angeles Times, May 11, 1929

Santa Cruz Evening News, May 11, 1929

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes