Leon Worden

Spooky Happenings at Ruiz Cemetery

By Leon Worden

Wednesday, May 8, 1996

ealtors know they must warn new home buyers about potential hazards. Failure to disclose nearby fault lines or unexploded ordnance, for instance, can lead to lawsuits.
    The developers of the fictional Cuesta Verde project in the movie Poltergeist made that mistake. They failed to tell anyone they messed with old burial grounds. Look what happened.
    One wonders if the developer of the Santa Clarita Valley's own Cuesta Verde — Tesoro del Valle, or "Treasure of the Valley," in San Francisquito Canyon — will make the same mistake.
    You see, if the developer manages to convince the county to let it build more units than originally planned, the additional homes will butt up against a parcel known for some pretty weird activity.
    In a word, the neighboring property is haunted.
    Or, at least, it used to be.
    "It's been over ten years since anything happened here," says Joyce Ponton, owner of the land where the little graveyard sits.
    Let me back up a bit.
    It was almost exactly two years after the first Owens Valley water flowed into the reservoir behind William Mulholland's great St. Francis Dam. The reservoir held 12.5 billion gallons of water, a year's supply for otherwise dry Los Angeles.
    Moments before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam broke. An immense wall of water crashed down San Francisquito Canyon. It took out the Tesoro site — then the popular Harry Carey Ranch and Trading Post — and much of Saugus. It joined the Santa Clara River at Castaic Junction and demolished Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula and Saticoy before it reached the Pacific Ocean at Ventura.
    At least 470 people were killed. [2014 update: At least 431.] The exact count will never be known. Skeletons were still being found in the 1950s.
    In terms of lives lost, it was the second worst disaster in California history, second only to the San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906.
    Dead were six members of the Ruiz family, long-established farmers who lived near the dam site. Parents Rosaria and Enrique perished, as did their four children, ages eight to thirty.
    Today they rest together with other disaster victims in the Ruiz family cemetery on a hill above the San Francisquito creekbed.
    It is a peaceful place, only about a quarter-acre, filled with shade trees and almost 100 grave markers. Among the occupants is an unidentified boy whose broken body was dressed in a little cowboy outfit by a grief-stricken William S. Hart.
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    The cemetery predates the disaster. One marker dates back to 1888. Some graves may be older. Long gone are the wooden crosses that marked burial sites before engraved stones were used locally.
    Remembered is Niebes Ruiz, who lived from 1794 to 1904. "Heartbreak Corner" is reserved for infants. Elderly canyon resident Lady Linda, a Ruiz relative, will be buried there one day. She'll be the last. Burial on private land is generally prohibited these days.
    Joyce Ponton and her late husband Andrew noticed strange goings-on when they moved to the area about 18 years ago — never in the cemetery, but where floodwaters had raged below.
    One night, a cast-iron horse trough that would have taken a crane to lift was moved several feet away and turned in the opposite direction. There were no footprints or drag marks in the sand to suggest any mortal shenanigans. Moreover, it was filled with water. Nary a drop spilled.
    After the Pontons transplanted an old house from Sand Canyon onto the property, the hand print of a small child appeared in the wet paint that Mrs. Ponton had just applied to an inside door jamb. The Pontons didn't have any small children at the time.
    But they did have a grown daughter who sometimes heard the cries of a baby. Other canyon residents tell tales of "Chinamen" or "Old Man Ruiz" roaming the hills at night.
    A born-again Christian, Mrs. Ponton doesn't believe in ghosts. "But I have to admit, (the horse trough) was strange. That's one thing we've never been able to explain."
    So who moved it? The spirit of a dam victim? Or a mischievous poltergeist from another time?
    Maybe the legendary bandit Tiburcio Vasquez needed to water his horses. In life, Vasquez often stopped there to swap horses he had stolen in Newhall.
    Maybe it was an old Butterfield-Overland stagecoach driver who regularly passed through San Francisquito Canyon on his Los Angeles-to-San Francisco run. Or maybe it was one of the Indians who used that same route centuries earlier to trade goods with folks in the San Joaquin Valley.
    The occurrences at the Ponton place seem innocent enough. But what about the hill in back of the little cemetery, where the Tesoro people want to build? Is it an even older Indian burial ground, as many believe? Somebody should find out before life imitates the movies.
* * *

    Speaking of ghosts, the Pico Canyon ghost town of Mentryville will be open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. this Saturday, May 11. Call 254-5272 for information.
    I can't promise you'll meet the specter of pioneer oil driller Alex Mentry, who died in 1900. But you never know.

Leon Worden is a Santa Clarita resident. His commentary appears Wednesdays.

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