Tombstone and Wing Dike
St. Francis Dam Disaster

Nicknamed the Tombstone for obvious reasons, the center section (Block 1) of the St. Francis Dam shifted several inches and twisted slightly but remained standing when the rest of the dam collapsed at three minutes to midnight Monday, March 12, 1928.

Some of the photos in this series from the John Nichols Collection also show the "wing dike" — the western extension of the dam that was necessitated by the decision to increase the height of the dam beyond its design specifications. (Given the topography of the canyon, an 11 percent increase in height yeilded a 39 percent increase in reservoir capacity.) Ultimately the dam stood 185 feet above the creekbed but measured only 154 feet thick at the base. For safety, its exposed height and base thickness should have been roughly equal.

Images of note:

NG4016: Nichols (2002:17) identifies the man in the white shirt and dark vest (back to camera) as Ventura County Deputy Sheriff Carl Wallace, who with photographer Bernie Isensee was gathering evidence for Ventura County District Attorney James Hollingsworth. But it proved unnecessary. A week later, Los Angeles and Ventura County agreed to settle damage and death claims out of court.

NG4002: This "intant book" on the disaster from a publisher in Chicago uses a fantasy photo illustration on its cover that is impossible for at least two reasons: The sun is out, and the water is flowing in the wrong direction.

About the Contributor.

John Nichols, ©Donna Granata. Click to enlarge.

John Nichols is a historian, photographer, writer, art dealer and independent curator who developed several exhibits on the 1928 St. Francis Dam Disaster for the California Oil Museum. His research led to his first book for Arcadia Publishing, "St. Francis Dam Disaster" (2002). A subsequent exhibit led to the book, "Santa Paula Portrait Project: Paintings by Gail Pidduck and Photographs by John Nichols." A quarter-century of writing is compiled into his Kindle book, "Essay Man: Selected Essays and Writings," available from Amazon. He also published the art book, "Mexico: 1895 A Vernacular Album."

In 1984 he opened in historic downtown Santa Paula to exhibit and promote vintage and contemporary photography and art. A black-and-white darkroom photographer for more than 35 years, Nichols made the leap in 2002 to color photography and digital printing with state-of-the-art digital printers and archival pigmented inks. His photographs are found in the permanent collections of the Museum of Ventura County; Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Austin, Texas; Carnegie Art Museum, Oxnard; Santa Paula Art Museum; city of Ventura; Community Memorial Hospital of San Buenaventura; and numerous private collections.

Nichols serves on the board of the Santa Paula Art Museum and the Universalist Unitarian Church of Santa Paula. He is a former board member of the Museum of Ventura County and chaired its Fine Arts Committee; he has served on the board of the Rotary Club of Santa Paula and is past president of the Santa Paula Historical Society. He was named Santa Paula Rotarian of the Year and Santa Paula Chamber of Commerce Business of the Year.

Note: High-resolution scans of images in the John Nichols Collection are not available from

Access individual images here. Images in this series: NG0101, NG0155, NG1001, NG1003, NG1004, NG1005, NG4001, NG4002, NG4006, NG4007, NG4008, NG4009, NG4010, NG4012, NG4013, NG4015, NG4016, NG4017, NG4018, NG4019, NG4021, NG4022, NG4023.
John Nichols Collection


Tombstone & Wing Dike (Mult.)


Hero Deputy Eddie Hearne


Hero Officer Thornton Edwards


Reicel Jones, Althea Marks


Hero Officers Lee Shepard, Stanley Baker, John Messer

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