The importance of archaeological study of the St. Francis Dam Disaster through written record and artifacts is supported with the addition of oral histories from survivors, concerned community members, and other interested parties often nicknamed "Dammies." Recording and analyzing oral history is a valuable tool in the study of social memory. These histories are especially relevant in the aftermath of catastrophic events and the horrific flood of the St. Francis Dam Disaster is no exception. Careful analysis of myths and legends that grew up alongside actual events will elucidate how social memory plays a part in the recovery of a traumatized community. What we can learn from this important research is how a community survives, grieves, rebuilds, and moves on. Through a multidimensional study of the collective memory of this event, the contours of memorialization of the victims of the St. Francis Dam Disaster will be brought to light.
Today I would like to discuss my contributions to California State University, Northridge's Forgotten Casualties Project. I first became involved in the project as an undergraduate while attending CSUN in 2013. I was able to play a supporting role in this public archaeology project by conducting interviews with a variety of sources that provided an opportunity to explore an interesting group of people, each with a different perspective on the St. Francis Dam disaster.
The importance of archaeological study of the St. Francis Dam Disaster through written record and artifacts is supported with the addition of oral histories from survivors, concerned community members, and other interested parties often nicknamed "Dammies." The word Dammies is usually bestowed on those who have studied the St. Francis dam at length. I interviewed several individuals interested in the disaster, including Dammies. One interview was performed with the great-nephew of a flood victim; he provided insight into how his family recollects the disaster and its victim. Oral histories were collected from enthusiastic local community members and history buffs. Another interview came from a collector and entrepreneur. The last is a non-academic historian and documentarian who chose to take an in depth look at the entirety of how the dam came to be, why it failed, and the effect that the collapse had on dam safety in the United States. All of the individuals I interviewed have been heavily influenced by Charles Outland's book "Man-Made Disaster – Story of the St. Francis Dam." It is considered it the defining work documenting the event.
The historical archaeology aspect of this project includes archival materials, oral histories from survivors, and now, stories of "Dammies." Admittedly, detailing these stories is a secondary source, yet there is much to learn about why a catastrophe, such as the St. Francis Dam Disaster, still garners interest in seemingly random individuals. I will detail how I made contact with each individual, my evaluation of their knowledge, what I learned from each oral history, and how this information was utilized for The Forgotten Casualties project.
Public memory of the event is still considerable in some segments of the communities that were most affected by the flood such as Santa Clarita, Fillmore, and Santa Paula. Santa Clarita lies about 35 miles northeast of downtown Los Angeles. One of the many canyons to the north of the city is named San Francisquito Canyon. In 1922, a narrow portion of this canyon was chosen by William Mulholland for the site of the St. Francis Dam. He had lived in the canyon off and on for almost six years while managing the construction of the Owens Valley aqueduct, which was completed in 1913. Mulholland was the Chief Engineer and manager of the Department of Water Works and Supply and his principle concern was providing water to a growing Los Angeles. He was instrumental in bringing water from Owens Valley to Los Angeles through this aqueduct. After several sections of the aqueduct were dynamited by disgruntled Owens Valley ranchers, Mulholland determined that the City of Los Angeles was in need of a local back-up water supply. The St. Francis Dam was to hold a reservoir for the City.
Construction of the dam began in 1924, and sixteen months later it was complete. The dam eventually held about 12.5 billion gallons of water. Though it had almost reached capacity in 1927, the spillways were full the morning of March 12, 1928. Two and a half minutes before midnight that same day, the dam failed, unleashing death, devastation, and terror down a 53-mile long path to the Pacific Ocean. It took only five hours to complete its journey, leaving behind at least 431 victims; 125 individuals are still listed as missing and 68 remain unidentified. Twenty whole families were wiped out. Casualties included almost every person in the Powerhouse 2 community, ranchers, workers downstream, and even those who were unlucky enough to be driving through the area that night. Approximately 23,000 acres of valuable agricultural land were completely destroyed. The St. Francis Dam failure still holds the unenviable title of largest loss of life in the state of California due to a man-made disaster.
Recording family histories is an interesting way to learn how information is passed down, or not passed down, through each generation. Matt Basolo is a well-spoken, retired California Highway Patrolman. He and his wife, Terri, sat down with Ann Stansell and myself to detail the way his family was touched by the St. Francis Dam disaster. Matt's family had a ranch in Bardsdale, which is just across the Santa Clara River Valley from Fillmore, about half way down the flood path. The Basolo ranch incurred significant damage the night of the flood.
During a visit to the flood zone, Ann and I stopped at Bardsdale Cemetery to note where flood victims were buried and to document any memorials that had been placed in their honor. The cemetery caretaker came by to ask if we needed any help, introducing himself as Doug Basolo. We recognized his connection to one of the victims and enquired further. Email communication was established with Doug, and he put us in contact with his cousin, Matt, who is considered the family historian. Matt has taken every opportunity through his school years to do research and reports on the disaster. Fellow students, as well as his teachers, were often shocked that there was little common knowledge of the tragedy, even within the communities affected. He has read extensively about the dam failure, using Outland's, forensic engineer J. David Rogers' works, and other journal articles as his sources.
The family information he shared with us had been passed on to him by his father, Bismark Basolo Jr. Bismark was about two years old when the flood hit. His parents narrowly escaped with their little family intact. All but one of the Basolo family members survived that night. Newlywed, 21 year-old Georgie, was racing away from the rising waters when his car was engulfed. Georgie is buried at Bardsdale Cemetery, yet Doug had little knowledge of his family's connection. Matt, on the other hand, explained how his father would honor Georgie each year on the anniversary of the flood, by placing flowers on his grave. What I found most curious about the Basolo story is how cousins that share a great-uncle and a victim of the disaster, have very different remembrances of the family's involvement. Matt's story is useful in showing how memorialization of the casualties of the flood are remembered and Georgie's grave marker is the family memorial to their involvement with the St. Francis Dam.
An enthusiast can be described as someone who is highly interested in a particular subject. Frank Rock is a member of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society and is most assuredly a St. Francis Dam enthusiast. Even Frank's birthday is on the date of the disaster, March 12. He and his wife, Carol, call Santa Clarita their home. Frank is a long-standing community member. He is a pole vault coach at a local high school, is an active participant of a theater guild in town, and a prolific muralist.
CSUN's The Forgotten Casualties Project had taken a field trip to the remains of the dam one Saturday morning in spring of 2013, where Frank just happened by. He was as curious about our group as we were about the dam site. I was interested to know how he became the local expert. His first knowledge of the dam was in high school but as an adult he began to learn all he could from local historian, Gerry Reynolds. Frank feels the disaster is a "piece of tangible history," becoming more real with each visit to the remnants of the dam itself. He makes almost weekly pilgrimages up to the dam site in San Francisquito Canyon and over the years has collected information from not only Mr. Reynolds, but interviews with survivors, and a serious study of Outland's book. Mr. Reynolds has since passed away but his legacy lives on in Frank who provides a special public tribute each year on the anniversary of the disaster, along with a tour to the dam site.
Frank Rock prefers the moniker "The Dam Man" to being called a Dammie. Frank has been a great help during our surveys in the canyon looking for archaeological artifacts scattered throughout the area just below the dam. He has worked closely with the historical society's president, Alan Pollack, to supply a comprehensive website of the area's history including the St. Francis Dam Disaster. What I found note-worthy about Frank's story is his contribution to the continued understanding and spread of knowledge of the St. Francis Dam disaster.
Santa Paula is only nine miles downstream from Fillmore and Bardsdale and the town suffered devastating losses due to the flood. The destructive force of the water took lives, livestock, and agricultural lands. Its fertile valley was filled with valuable walnut groves and citrus orchards. Just off Main Street, which is still as quaint as it was in 1928, is an art gallery that seems an unlikely place for another Dammie. During a visit to Santa Paula with Ann, we made the acquaintance of John Nichols, the author of the book, "St. Francis Dam Disaster." John Nichols is an art and photo historian and collector who followed his passion and opened the John Nichols Gallery in 1984, specializing in photography as an art form.
Shortly after the gallery's opening, a local woman handed him an old photo of an overturned car. This photo was his very first introduction to the St. Francis Dam Disaster. Having been born and raised in nearby areas, he was stunned to be just learning of the disaster and was extremely interested to know more. In his research he found Outland's book and now has three original first edition copies in his collection. The initial donation of the photograph led to more and over the years, John's gallery became the place community members brought their photos. People showed up with artifacts found in the area that represented daily life before the flood, a porcelain bowl or unbroken dish from a backyard.
He began doing exhibits on the St. Francis Dam Disaster at the California Oil Museum in Santa Paula. One was held on the 70th anniversary of the disaster and the opening day exhibit drew a crowd of over 50 people. For his efforts, he received more donated photos and keepsakes. As a dynamic member of the Santa Paula Historical Society, John and the Society's president, Mary Alice Orcutt Henderson, played a large part in commissioning The Warning sculpture. Motorcycle police officers raced up and down streets to alert those in danger and in March of 2003, on the 75th anniversary of the disaster, the Santa Paula Historical Society dedicated a sculpture designed to highlight the spirit of heroism that occurred the night of the flood. The deeper message of the disaster, for John Nichols, "is the way in which we honor the dead and rebuild after a disaster. It is a lesson in the resilience of the human spirit." This thought-provoking way of honoring not only those who lost their lives in the flood but the heroes that emerged, is an exciting way to look at memorialization on a community level.
In my interview with Frank Rock, he mentioned a filmmaker that was making a documentary on the dam disaster. With this lead I was able to locate the veteran documentary filmmaking team, Jon and Nancy Wilkman of Wilkman Productions. Jon and his late wife, Nancy, have been studying the St. Francis Dam Disaster for 25 years. Founded in 1971, Wilkman Productions is an award-winning production company that has produced numerous and varied specials such as "Women Who Make a Difference," "Moguls and Movie Stars" and "Voices of America." Their first introduction to the St. Francis Dam was while working on a project for KCET called the "LA History Project." Jon's interest was piqued and he began studying the subject, eventually coming across Outland's defining work.
Jon is not your average Dammie. His expertise goes beyond the disaster itself and takes into account its history and far-reaching aftermath. Jon has been working on his upcoming book, "Floodpath: The Forgotten Tragedy of the St. Francis Dam Disaster." He has a very large collection of items retrieved from the Huntington Library, Bancroft Library and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, among many others. He and Nancy conducted interviews of survivor's stories and their experiences the night the flood hit. Jon strives to answer some of the questions: Why was the dam built? What was the political climate of the period? How did it fail? What reparations were made? And ultimately, what impact did the disaster have on not only the communities that were affected but regulatory agencies involved in future water and power projects?
By including information from the early history of Los Angeles, Owens Valley records, the California Aqueduct, reports from well-known geologists and engineers, archival resources, and survivor interviews, Jon is hoping his book will become the ultimate source on the St. Francis Dam Disaster. It is due to be released in 2015. Jon's breadth of knowledge, as well as his resources and contacts, have all been an invaluable addition to the archaeological study of the St. Francis Dam Disaster. Jon will continue to work with Ann Stansell on the Forgotten Casualties Project in the exchange of information to the mutual benefit of both parties.
The Dammies I highlighted for you today come from varied backgrounds with varied intentions as it pertains to their interest in the St. Francis Dam disaster. Family historian Matt Basolo is motivated to carry on his family's personal connection to the tragedy through the memorialization of Georgie Basolo's grave marker. Local historian Frank Rock will continue to spread his knowledge through presentations and tours of the site to all those interested in learning about the St. Francis Dam. Art historian and collector John Nichols is active in his community's effort to memorialize the casualties and the heroes of that fateful night. Jon Wilkman is determined to complete a comprehensive and thought-provoking book that looks into not only the disaster but how its impact has been felt on a state and national level.
Though secondary in nature, these oral histories can teach us that a multi-dimensional look at the St. Francis Dam disaster provides an even richer tapestry with which to view the event. We can learn how people choose to memorialize catastrophic events from differing perspectives. I feel fortunate to have had the opportunity to collaborate with Dr. James Snead and other CSUN students on The Forgotten Casualties Project.
1. Ann Stansell, CSUN Master's thesis.
For sharing their time and knowledge, a special thanks to:
Dr. James Snead, CSUN
Ann Stansell, CSUN
Matt and Terri Basolo, grand-nephew of SFDD victim Georgie Basolo
Frank Rock, The Dam Man and SCVHS member
John Nichols, art/photo historian and gallery owner
Jon Wilkman, author and documentarian