Take off your Stetsons, O’Farrell’s and Bailey toppers. Raise your right hands. Bow your heads. By the power vested in me, I’ve just deputized all of you to sleep in. A whole bunch. Whenever you wake up, we’ll start our trail ride into yesteryear.
It’s a no-pressure Internet morning. Or whenever…
(PHOTO CAPTION: We’re giving Steve Sealy the million-sixth Danger To Himself Award. On this date in 1977, the visiting young man was practicing his quick draw in San Francisquito Canyon and pulled the trigger on his .22 before he cleared leather. A slug went through his knee, leg and ankle. We should rent out the Staples Center and have some sort of reunion for all these self-perforating pistol fighters over the years. The heyday for the self-inflicted gunshot wound was in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Due to the popularity of TV Westerns, a national craze (for guys, mostly) was to see how fast they could draw a pistol and hit a target. The #1 malady in the SCV then was yahoos coming in after shooting themselves. From 1958-61, it averaged out to about one shooting a month here.)
WAY, WAY BACK WHEN
• Some “missing” minutes of a town meeting back on August 1, 1913 shed new light on just when the first Chamber of Commerce was formed in Santa Clarita. Right now, 1913 stands as the earliest date we tried to form a local Chamber. For years, it was thought that the first Chamber formed here in 1923. Seems some minutes from that 1913 surfaced in 1953. Gladys Laney’s dad, A.G. Thibaudeau, wrote some copious notes about forming the CC. The meeting was at the old Conrad’s Hall. Newhall’s only presidential candidate, Henry Clay Needham, was present. The goals were somewhat similar to the modern SCV Chamber. The 1913 group wanted to “...attract businesses to our beautiful little city, by getting our vacant lots cleaned up instead of their being an eyesore to the traveling public.” The business group also asked L.A. County for some of their own tax money to make improvements out here. In 1914, the group met again to try and get flood control out here. The wheels of government (except for our own City of Santa Clarita) turn sometimes slowly. It wasn’t until the early 1970s when we truly addressed flood control.
MARCH 9th, 1927
• The heartthrob Reginald Denny starred in the silent moving picture at Newhall School’s auditorium. It was called “Oh Doctor.”
• L.B. Dull, who would operate the valley’s first school bus, moved from Los Angeles to Newhall on this date for the quiet life. Odd, that a man named Dull would start a shoe sales and repair shop. He opened it up next to the old Chaix building.
• From the odd names department, you know who was in charge of improving the local roads? Mr. H.W. Coats.
• Wish we could bring some of these conditions to the local SCV and there was snow on the local mountains, we already had more than 21 inches of rain. On the downside, the inclement weather postponed the thoroughbred racing schedule at the Baker (Saugus Speedway today) ranch.
MARCH 12th, 1928
• I don’t think we’ll ever forget one of the things for which we are most infamous — the bursting of the St. Francis Dam 79 years ago.
By sunrise the next morning, it would turn out to be — next to the San Francisco Fire — the second worst manmade disaster in California history.
A wall of water, nearly 200 feet high, would wash everything in its path along the Santa Clara River and out to the Pacific 60 miles away. Nearly 500 people lost their lives.
It’s a story that has been often retold. Here are a few items you may not know about that tragedy.
Historian Charles Outland wrote a book about the St. Francis Dam Disaster, which occurred on this date. In “Man-Made Disasters,” Outland noted that while the City of Los Angeles did settle all the claims of the epic disaster, there were severe irregularities in the settlements, depending on your race. Blacks and Hispanics were paid less for their properties than whites.
One thing inspired him to write this authoritative account of the third-worst man-made disaster in American history. Outland was a young man, living in Santa Paula, when the dam burst.
Pierre Daries, a game warden and fire Marshal in the Santa Clarita area, was one of the first rescuers into San Francisquito Canyon. He had driven across the road and atop the dam the weekend before it burst. A friend driving with him noted the vibrations from the dam and told Daries they should “...get out before the whole thing comes down.” Daries, by the way, was one of the pioneers of developing fire protection in the SCV.
Tony Raggio was another who knew the dam was unsafe. He would later inherit his family’s homestead ranch in San Francisquito Canyon. He was 13 at the time and remembered his family talking about how unsafe it was. Frank Raggio, the patriarch, moved his family into Los Angeles prior to the break, claiming it would burst at any moment. Tony, his mother and his six brothers were spared to their father’s premonition.
Another bit of happenstance helped saved the life of Dr. Thomas Clements on the night the St. Francis burst. Clements, a geology consultant, was studying the St. Francis at the time. He usually camped out under a huge oak tree by the base of the dam. But because the dam had been leaking, he couldn’t get through the mud in his Model T. So, he motored over to higher ground in Charlie Canyon to camp out. That mud spared Dr. Clements’ life.
Of course, with nearly 500 souls losing their lives that night, not all the stories ended happily. SF Canyon resident Henry Ruiz would later grow to manhood and ironically work for the DWP. But he lost eight members of his family in the flood and never could talk about that night.
The Frazer Ranch was right in the path of the tidal wave. Young Bell awoke when she heard the deafening waters approaching. A second later, there was an exploding sound. That was the house being crushed. A large plank with a nail sticking in it struck Bell with the nail going into her jaw. It may have saved her life because she held onto the board and rode it down San Francisquito Creek.
After the water had passed, Mike Ruiz, relative to Henry, was stumbling through the mud in the dark, bitterly cold night. He found Bell and dug out a depression in the earth, covered them both with mud and waited until sunrise for the rescuers.
For a while, we had a small lake caused by the dam break. At the mouth of the Santa Clara at Castaic, a good-sized body of water formed from the tidal wave. When it broke, a 187-foot wall of water came roaring down the canyon. It was reported to be as high as 60 feet when it reached Castaic Junction.
At the time, at the junction where Tip’s was later built, there was a little motel and tourist camp. A little boy, about six, with beautiful curly blonde ringlets, was drowned. His body was found a few miles away in Piru by silent film star, William S. Hart. The actor was heartbroken finding the small body and spent six days trying to find the family, with no success. Finally, he arranged for the child to be dressed in a little cowboy outfit and the boy was buried at the Ruiz cemetery in San Francisquito Canyon. For some odd reason, that plot had been given the name of The Chinese graveyard. It is still there today on private property. Hart had a small headstone commissioned and the little soul will be known throughout eternity only by the name on his monument: The Little Wrangler.
Fourteen years after the St. Francis Dam disaster, they were still finding victims. At least that was the coroner’s guess. A prospector digging for gold found half a human skeleton sticking up in the creek. It was just the bones (and the lower half). There was no other ID except that the bones were estimated at being attached to something corporeal about 15 years earlier. As late as 1977, locals were finding human bone fragments.
In 1977, Walter Carroll Harris, a survivor of the disaster, recalled his stepfather, Bill Erwin, being in charge of the road department. He had several mules and used them to lug bodies out of the muck. “Because the river changed course and left 20-30-foot deposits, I believe there are still bodies buried in the canyon,” Harris said 30 years ago.
Harold Michels was a boy when the dam burst and out of harm’s way of the waters. His parents let him sleep through the disaster. “It was so strange to wake up to find my playmates and their houses AND the trees all gone,” Michels recalled.
My friend, Bailey Haskell, who passed away a couple of years ago, worked on the dam, clearing away debris. He would sometimes sleep over up the canyon and take a raft to work. ‘Bails’ recalled that he thought he lost his father, Fred. His dad had taken a herd of cattle up to Leona Valley and said he was going to run them through San Francisquito Canyon. Instead, he took them through the canyon named after him: Haskell. It wasn’t until two days later his family realized he was safe.
Genia Ball Arnold lost her uncle in the flood. They didn’t find his body until four days later, in Piru. Her aunt’s body was found on the beach in Ventura.
Francis Anderson recalled Harry Carry’s cook died in the disaster. She remembered his body, stiff, tied to the fenders of a car.
“My father found a dollar bill floating in the water and gave it to me,” Tom Mitchell told a Signal reporter in 1977. Mitchell was the grandson of the famous Col. Thomas Mitchell of the historic Canyon Country family. “I still carry it in my wallet. It is very worn. It is an old big wide dollar. My father worked for the fire department and used the fire horses to carry the poor folks out. L.A. County paid $5,000 a head for the dead. The price for a life?”
It was noted by local historian Jerry Reynolds that 12,441,647,600 gallons of water escaped down San Francisquito Canyon, killing around 500 people. Reynolds noted there were 130,446 cubic yards of cement in the dam and the reservoir covered around 600 acres.
One of the aspects of the disaster was that it changed a beautiful, scenic canyon with trees and meadows into a gutted valley. Gone were most of the shrubbery, trees and wildflowers and the topsoil to grow more.
MARCH 9th, 1937
• Our very own Hall of Fame cowboy, lanky Andy Jauregui, formed a new outfit called “The Traditions of the Old West Company.” It was a rodeo outfit and they held their first show at the San Fernando Valley fairgrounds. His friend, Bill Hart, was master of ceremonies.
• Henry Kreig owned one of the most picturesque ranches around. On this date, four different movie companies were renting his spread to shoot Westerns. Kreig’s place today is called Vasquez Rocks County Park.
• We used to be under the ocean millions of years ago. So it was proved by a giant rock slide at Weldon Canyon on the new Highway 99. (Today, it’s The Old Road.) A couple coming through the pass narrowly missed death as a giant boulder fell on the hood of their sedan. Another rock, as big as a car (and we’re talking 1930 Buick, not a mini-Toyota), blocked the northbound lane of 99. When they blew it apart, they found various fossils, including ancient seashells.
MARCH 9th, 1947
• Mrs. Olive M. Jenkins had, inarguably, one of the richest and most exciting lives of any woman who has lived in the Santa Clarita. For one thing, she was the wife of Castaic patriarch and the wealthy landowner, W. W. Jenkins, who fought for nearly 40 years in one of the bloodiest disputes in Western history: The Castaic Range War. Olive lived through that blood bath. One of her fondest memories was, as a little girl, sitting on the lap of one of America’s greatest citizens. Abraham Lincoln was stumping for the presidency and stopped to have dinner at her parents’ home in Clinton, Ill. The future president bounced Olive on his lap while her mother cooked and chatted. Her family moved to San Francisco in 1882. In 1887, she married a grizzled man who looked old for his age. “Wurt” Jenkins earned the unasked-for name of The Baron of San Francisco for his ill-fated attempts to homestead Alcatraz Island. He would later be called the Judge Roy Bean of Castaic, along with the Baron of Castaic. Olive lived with her daughter, Mrs. Charles Kellogg, in Newhall for a while during World War I. She lived her final days at the old Kindler Ranch in Castaic. She died at the age of 89.
• Hard to believe, but this late in the year we were going through a cold snap. Lows were in the 20s at night.
MARCH 9th, 1957
• A Navy pilot flying a private Cesena and his passenger never made it home. Dense fog blanketing the SCV hid the mountain until it was too late. They crashed into a peak in Acton and both died instantly.
• It was a grand day for journalism in that Signal editor Fred Trueblood got to use “Ham Burglars” in a headline. Some hungry chap broke into Joe Oretega’s house, cooked and ate four pounds of ham butts and a dozen wieners, washed down by a six-pack of beer. They also played a record while they ate. Makes my tummy hurt just thinking about it.
MARCH 9th, 1967
• Hmmm. Wonder if is the same thief, a decade later. This perp went looking for steaks and ended up getting dog. Well. Dog bit, that is. Mrs. Beulah Guyer of Saugus woke in the middle of the night to hear her dog furiously barking. She peeked out on the service porch and saw a stealthy figure rifling through her freezer, so, she sicced her dog on him. The crook got bit in the leg but managed to escape with $11.85 worth of beef.
• Fifty years ago, it was mostly ag fields with a narrow corridor here and there where you could drive a tractor. On this date, the county Supes voted funds to build the golden artery of our valley, Valencia Boulevard.
• A Signal editorial lambasted the state for dragging their feet. The California legislature had promised to widen “Slaughter Alley,” the none-too-fond nickname for Sierra Highway/Highway 14 in which so many horrific accidents had occurred. The road was a nightmare. Picture two single lanes, each coming down from steep mountain tops and in the middle, a neutral, third-lane passing zone where cars sometimes hitting triple digit speeds met head-on in the middle. Darn dumb and deadly design...
MARCH 9th, 1977
• Dr. Arnold Barton got ticketed for parking his Mercedes in the red zone near the emergency entrance of Henry Mayo Hospital. Dr. Barton pointed out he technically was an emergency vehicle because he had to rush over to remove a hay hook from a guy’s eye. May we have a universal wince and “yeee-oww” con gusto, please?
MARCH 9th, 1987
• A large contingent of local homeowners — from various parts of the county including Santa Clarita — descended upon the Regional Planning Commission to complain about runaway and rampant overdevelopment. Jan Heidt, who would later be elected to the new City of Santa Clarita and become mayor, passionately complained that standards for infrastructure be implemented, included teacher/student ratios. Twenty years later, well. Obviously, it didn’t work.
• Same day, 1,600 SCV residents protested a Calgrove developer who wanted to ax 337 mature oaks for a housing project.
• Same day, Mike Antonovich and the Board of Supervisors approved the 1,830-home Northbridge tract, despite the commission’s vote against it.
• Ruth Bennell, controversial head of LAFCO, the state agency which approves — or kills — the formation of new governments, came under fire. She was accused of cooking numbers against the new city of Santa Clarita. Bennell produced numbers which showed the city would run nearly $5 million in the red per year. Closer scrutiny said the city would actually be about $1 million in the black.
• This was, without debate, the biggest Cinderella story in the history of local sports. A short, slow and third-place Saugus High team ended up as the 64th seed in the CIF tourney. They beat some of the top teams in California, including trouncing No. 1 ranked Rolling Hills in the championship game, 66-53. At the time, Saugus was only the second team to be a wild card (lower than second place) to win the tourney.
• One of the best guys to walk the planet, John Clark, was coach of the Cents. After the victory, he jokingly suggested they make a movie about the Saugus cagers because he “could use a summer job.” When asked who would portray him, Clark didn’t miss a beat: “Robert Redford.”
• OK. One final bit of trivia. In the first round of the state tourney, Saugus beat Oceanside and their “One Man Gang,” 47-39. Who was Oceanside’s notorious One Man Gang? None other than 6-5 forward and future NFL all-star, Junior Seau. A few years ago, the linebacker committed suicide.
Come back and visit next week here under the warming glow of your SCV Beacon. I’ll be waiting with another thrilling trailride into the yesteryears and history of this wonderful Santa Clarita. Until then — vayan con Dios, amigos!
(SCV Historian John Boston also writes The John Boston Report blog for your SCV Beacon. Don’t forget to check out his national humor, entertainment & swashbuckling commentary website — http://www.johnbostonchronicles.com/ —you’ll be smiling for a week…) — © 2017 by John Boston. All rights reserved.
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