Representative Steve Knight, CA-25, held a press conference Tuesday morning to officially announce and present the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and Castaic Wilderness Act.
About 50 Santa Clarita Valley leaders, residents, Native Americans and St. Francis Dam historians attended the press conference.
This is something that shouldn’t have happened but we did learn a lot from it,” Knight, who recently took a tour of the dam, said. “We’re going to fight and fight, tooth and nail. Understand that legislation is a fluid acton. This is a process, this is something that we want, this is something overdue, something that should have been done many, many years ago.”
Tataviam Tribal President Rudy Ortega Jr.and Tataviam Tribe member Ray Rivera performed traditional bird songs and a tobacco blessing for those lost in the disaster.
“As the years and decades rolled on, this second worst disaster in California history, and really, one of the worst disasters in all of American history has been mostly forgotten along with the victims of the dam break,” said Allan Pollack, president of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society. “Now, 87 years later, we have seen few attempts at memorializing the many victims of the St. Francis Dam disaster at the site itself.”
The Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial and Castaic Wilderness Act, H.R. 3153, would authorize a national memorial to commemorate the more than 400 people killed by the collapse of the St. Francis Dam on March 12, 1928, according to officials.
“All peoples of this area — past, present and future — regardless of heritage or belief, are to be honored. We will never know what their final thoughts were or their fears of their final words or their absolution, we do not blame anyone for this. instead, we are grateful for lessons learned,” said Charles F. Cullen Jr.,a descendant of the Ruiz family, who were killed in the flood. “Approximately 31,404 days have passed since this tragedy occurred. It would be yet another tragedy should one more day pass without this memorial.”
The bill would also help educate the public about the historical event.
“This is bigger than all of us. I didn’t know how powerful this was going to be,” said Stephanie Acista, a Ruiz family descendant. “My Nana always said the water will always follow its path and the water will take whatever is in its path and that’s what happened.”
Different from H.R. 5357, the H.R. 3153 bill also seeks to designate about 69,000 acres of surrounding federal lands as wilderness due to its historic and environmental significance, according to officials.
H.R. 3153 would protect Native American burial grounds and protect species, Cullen said.
“There’s a lot of areas sacred to us (in Castaic), there’s a lot of rock up there, there’s medicine up there that we believe in,” Ortega said. “It’s a vital nest to protect these sites. For everyone here. If we lose all this, it doesn’t matter if we lose our way of life, we lose the way we think society is, it’s nature, the simplicity of life.”
The wilderness area is expected to improve the water quality of the creeks that feed into Castaic Lake, protect dozens of endangered species, Native American habitation sites and burial grounds, condor habitat, and the largest grove of Black Oak in the state of California, according to a press release.
“This is I think the most important legislation in this district for a long, long time,” Erskine-Hellrigel said. “It will not only memorialize the dam and pay homage to the people that died there but it will also protect all of those Native American sites that are so important.”
If approved, H.R. 3153 will establish a national memorial to honor the victims of the Saint Francis Dam disaster of March 12, 1928, create the Saint Francis Dam Advisory Commission to plan the memorial and work in conjunction with the Department of Interior, permanently protect the memorial site and surrounding area of the Saint Francis Dam, educate the general public on this tragic event that may be America’s worst civil engineering failure of the 20th Century and the worst flood in the state of California’s history and designate the Saint Francis Dam National Monument, according to officials.
“Many thanks to Congressman Steve Knight for his foresight in protecting 69,000 acres of pristine wilderness for generations to come, and for having the federal government acknowledge the greatest civil engineering tragedy in the United States, the Saint Francis Dam failure,” said California Assemblyman Scott Wilk, R- Santa Clarita, in a previous story. “This memorial will honor those that had fallen and will help bring closure to friends and families.”
Congressman Buck McKeon, Knight’s predecessor, introduced a similar bill, H.R. 5357, the Saint Francis Dam Disaster National Memorial Act, nearly a year ago but retired before the bill went through.
H.R. 3153 was introduced to the House of Representatives Wednesday, July 22 and Knight’s office believes the bill will head to the House Committee on Natural Resources next.
The construction of the dam began in August of 1924 and began to fill with water on March 1, 1928,according to SCVHistory.
A little more than two-and-a-half minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, the dam failed.
The wall of water, 55 feet taller than the original Colossus’ tallest hill at Six Flags Magic Mountain, crashed through San Francisquito Canyon and reached the Pacific Ocean just south of Ventura. It took the immense wave five-and-a-half hours to reach the ocean.
An estimated 431 people were killed.
The failure of the St. Francis Dam is known as the second-worst disaster in California history, coming behind the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and subsequent fires, and America’s worst civil engineering failure of the 20th century, according to SCVHistory.
For more information about the St. Francis Dam Disaster, go to the SCVHistory website.