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Commemorative Event Set For Dam Break Which Killed More Than 400 People In Ventura, LA Counties

The remains of the St. Francis Dam after it collapsed on March 12th, 1928 killing more than 400 people.

It was the deadliest disaster in Ventura County, but today it’s all but forgotten.

A brand new dam collapsed near what is now Santa Clarita, sending a wall of water through the Santa Clara River Valley, and killing more than 400 people.

Historian Jon Wilkman, who wrote a book about the disaster called “Floodpath” says the dam had barely been completed when the 1928 disaster occurred.  Wilkman says the dam was designed by a legendary name in Southern California history, William Mulholland.  Mulholland helped design, and build the water and power infrastructure which helped Los Angeles boom in size during the early 1900’s.

The historian, and documentary maker says on March 12th, 1928 Mulholland was called to inspect the dam because of a leak.  Small leaks were common in new dams, as the structures settled.  He decided it was not a major issue, and left.  But that night, the dam collapsed.

The wall of water moved through the Santa Clara Riverbed, moving towards Piru, Fillmore, Santa Paula, Ventura, ultimately ending up in the Pacific Ocean.  It wiped out homes, farms, roads, and bridges.

But, some did their best to send warnings ahead of the wall of water.  While power and phone lines were damaged, operators alerted as many people as possible downstream.  And, law enforcement officers scrambled to try to warn people to evacuate.

When it was over, more than 430 deaths were confirmed.  But, the toll was probably much higher, because an unknown number of agricultural lived along the riverbed.  The City of Los Angeles tried to close the books on the disaster quickly, settling claims to try to avoid lawsuits.  It was later determined a combination of design and soil issues led to the disaster.

As time has claimed survivors of the disaster, many people have forgotten it occurred.  But Friday (3/12) a special commemorative event is highlighting the disaster.  It's a zoom event featuring historians.  It's sponsored by the Rancho Camulos Museum, near Piru.  The free event begins at 4 p.m. Link to Zoom event:

Jon Wilkman's book on the St. Francis Dam disaster, "Floodpath" :

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