St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Created March 12, 2019
President Donald Trump has signed the federal lands package that creates, among other things, a national monument in the Santa Clarita Valley to memorialize the more than 400 victims of the St. Francis Dam Disaster, the Department of the Interior announced Tuesday.
The signing comes on the 91st anniversary of the disaster, which was one of the worst civil engineering failures in U.S. history and California’s second-deadliest disaster after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire.
The “Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and National Monument” legislation is part of S.47, a sweeping lands package that received overwhelming bipartisan support in both houses of Congress and will protect millions of acres of land. It expands several national parks and establishes four new national monuments including the first that is wholly within the Santa Clarita Valley – and only the second to touch the SCV after the designation by President Obama of the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument in 2014.
The dam legislation hit a few bumps in the road, having gone through several rounds in both the House of Representatives and U.S. Senate before finally coming to fruition five years after the first draft. A host of local lawmakers from both political parties did not waiver in their ongoing fight for the passage of the bill. They include former Reps. Buck McKeon and Steve Knight and current Rep. Katie Hill, D-Agua Dulce, in the House; and Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein in the Senate.
The official legislative history shows the version of the bill included in S.47 was the version introduced in the previous House session by then-Rep. Knight, R-Palmdale, and coauthored by Rep. Julia Brownley, D-Thousand Oaks; and in the Senate by Harris and co-authored by Feinstein. In February, Hill, who succeeded Knight in office, introduced identical language as a stand-alone bill to keep the effort alive just in case S.47 was defeated. Harris did the same in the Senate.
“The St. Francis Dam Memorial has been a priority for the city of Santa Clarita for years,” Hill said in a statement. “I’m proud that in the 116th Congress we are able to deliver this piece of legislation and amplify the stories of the tragedy.
“Our local partners were critical to getting this done,” she said, “and I’m thankful for the work of my predecessor, Steve Knight, to advance this concept in the 115th Congress. I am also grateful to my neighbor, Congresswoman Julia Brownley, for her leadership on this issue, and Senators Kamala Harris and Dianne Feinstein for their leadership in the Senate.”
The St. Francis Dam monument covers 353 acres of federal land in San Francisquito Canyon that is already managed by the U.S. Forest Service, which will retain operational control over it. Initially planned for 440 acres, all leaseholds and mining fee lands were removed from the final bill last year.
Located approximately seven miles north of Copper Hill Drive, a future visitors center will honor the estimated 411 victims who perished when the dam collapsed and unleashed 13 billion gallons of water just before midnight on March 12, 1928. It left behind a 54-mile swath of death and destruction from Saugus to the Pacific Ocean. As a result of its failure, William Mulholland, chief engineer of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply (now the LADWP) and oversaw the dam’s construction, resigned his post.
The people of the Santa Clarita Valley never benefited from so much as one drop of water from the dam and reservoir; it was piped directly to the city of Los Angeles.
The disaster was of national interest for several reasons. Many of the victims were electric company and phone company workers and tourists who hailed from cities and towns throughout the Western United States – which is known from their many burial places across the country.
The federal government owned the land where the dam was erected. (The City of Los Angeles leased it from the Forest Service – and still does lease the forest land it uses.) Before the dam broke, the federal government had authority over the strategic waterway into which the floodwaters were unleashed. Afterward, the Congress investigated. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers designed a levee at the west end of the floodplain that still stands.
When the St. Francis failed, the Boulder (Hoover) Dam was in the planning stages. Some of the first federal dam safety measures arose out of the horror of the St. Francis Dam disaster and set a course toward the current dam safety regulations that have saved untold numbers of lives.
The monument legislation calls on the Forest Service to work closely with the two formal proponents of the bill – the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society and the local Community Hiking Club – as well as the city of Santa Clarita, in the design and interpretation of the memorial.
Dianne Erskine-Hellrigel, who, along with Historical Society President Alan Pollack, wrote a first draft of the initial bill that was introduced by McKeon in 2014, expressed gratitude to the lawmakers and other proponents and supporters of the legislation.
“Now, the 400-plus victims of this tragedy can be remembered properly at the dam site. We are looking forward to working with the Forest Service to erect a proper memorial, and honoring the victims,” said Erskine-Hellrigel, who is president of the Community Hiking Club and a Historical Society board member.
The enormity of the bill’s passage was not lost on Pollack.
“What a momentous and historical day for the city of Santa Clarita,” the Historical Society president said. “The St. Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial is officially established and at last the memories of over 400 dead appropriately honored. We now look forward to working with the U.S. Forest Service to build a memorial visitor center and wall with the names of all the victims in the next few years.”
The list of deceased victims continues to be a work in progress. It currently stands at 411. While historians initially focused on an accurate count of the victims, a graduate student from California State University, Northridge, set out to focus instead on the “humanity” of the disaster. Ann Stansell, under the tutelage of Professor James Snead, took on the monumental task in October 2011 as part of her thesis, while pursuing a master’s degree in anthropology.
To see the current list and learn more about Stansell’s research, click [here].
Recent years have also seen a slew of new books that reexamined the causes of the failure.
Leon Worden, vice president of the Historical Society, lauded the many individuals who laid the groundwork for the legislation.
“This could be the single most significant thing the Historical Society has ever done,” Worden said. “Alan and Dianne had a vision that went beyond what was thought possible. I’m proud of them.
“There were a lot of unsung heroes along the way,” he said. “It was an evolutionary process, and it really goes back almost a decade to a CSUN professor named James Snead who built an entire class project around the idea that the victims of the tragedy weren’t just numbers but real people. Ann Stansell, one of his students, grabbed the ball and ran with it, and she’s still running with it, to identify all of the victims.
“‘Dammies’ like Don Ray, Frank Rock, Philip Scorza, Keith Buttelman and others had carried the torch for decades, and I remember Don and Frank were in that first meeting at SCVTV when Alan and Dianne fleshed out their plans for federal legislation. Mike Murphy at the city and Councilwoman Laurene Weste played important roles, and I apologize to anyone I’m failing to mention.”
The nonprofit St. Francis Dam National Memorial Foundation has been established to raise the funds for the visitors center, and the group is actively seeking monetary donations. To donate to the memorial and monument, or to learn more about the St. Francis Dam Disaster, visit SaintFrancisDam.com.