Deputy Sheriff Eddie Hearne
St. Francis Dam Disaster

Deputy Sheriff Eddie Hearne had "sleeping duty" at the Ventura County Sheriff's Office on the night of March 12-13, 1928 ... it wasn't a 24/7 operation back then ... so he was fast asleep when the call came in at 1:20 a.m., just as the floodwaters were crossing the L.A.-Ventura county line at Kemp. Calls were routed to the jailer, who awoke him with the news, as recorded in the call logs:

Received call from Pelton Sheriff Office that the San Nusquete Dam [sic] was broke and to tell all the people to get out of the river bottom call came at 1:20.

"The message from Los Angeles as logged by the jailer had not been too clear," historian Charles Outland writes (Outland 1977:121 ff.), but this was no time to take chances. Hearne hopped in his Cadillac and tore eastward up the Santa Clara River Valley at speeds exceeding 75 mph to warn people of what might or might not turn out to be impending doom.

It was the right decision.

Outland writes:

Light sleepers in Ventura heard the wailing siren as Eddie Hearne wheeled the big Cadillac squad car out of town and started a wild dash up the valley. His orders were to go as far as possible, warn people, and aid in any way possible.

[...] If lives were in danger, the first expedient would be to awaken them, and what better way than with lots of noise? Eddie kept the siren tied down all the way. A second car, with deputies Carl Wallace and Ray Ransdell, was following (Hearne) by about ten minutes. The same idea must have occurred to them, for their siren was shrieking through the countryside, also. Few farmers went back to sleep after that performance.

Heard reached Saticoy and learned its residents had already received the warning, so he pushed on to Santa Paula where Highway Patrolman Thornton Edwards and Officer Stanley Baker were hurriedly riding their motorcycles from house to house (as later immortalized in bronze). Onward to Fillmore. Outland writes:

Filmore was dark when Eddie Hearne came to a stop on Central Avenue. There were a number of people on the streets but no indication of any organized effort to meet disastaer. The telephone call that was supposed to have preceded the deputy had not been channeled through to (Fillmore) Chief of Police Earl Hume. Eddie went over to the town firehouse and began pulling the rope on the antiquated firebell.

Leaving instructions to start evacuating the town, Hearne once more started east. His orders were still "to go as far as you can and warn people, and help organize and do whatever you can." As the deputy crossed the Pole Creek bridge on the edge of town, the wild ride was brought to an abrupt and final halt. Revealed in the glare of the headlights was a road disappearing into a vast expanse of water, floating trees, sheds, and debris. Eddie gasped with astonishment. Whatever he had expected, it was nothing compared to this. The officer grasped the enormity of the thing in an instant. Turning the car around he raced back to Fillmore and telephoned instructions to evacuate the city of Oxnard and the Oxnard plain. With the Santa Clara River running from mountain to mountain east of Fillmore, the inundation of the coastal plain was a distinct possibility.

The first half of his order, "to go as far as you can," was completed.

[Three hours later] debris began to pile up against the supports of the (Montalvo) railroad bridge, forcing the relentless water to shoot high in the air as it sought room to move through. On the Oxnard side of the river a section of track gave way and disappeared. ... The city of Oxnard was safe, but the water had come close enough to justify the evacuation set in motion three hours earlier by Eddie Hearne.

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

NG4025: Image courtesy of John Nichols Gallery.

Story: Victims & Heroes

Thornton Edwards


Louise Gipe


Reicel Jones, Althea Marks


Eddie Hearne


Lee Shepard, Stanley Baker, John Messer

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