ST. Francis Dam Disaster of 1928

“The Spirit of Heroism”

An oration delivered by John Nichols at the unveiling of Eric J. Richards’ monumental sculpture “The Warning” on March 16, 2003 at Railroad Plaza. The Rotary Club of Santa Paula made a major contribution to the project. Many survivors of the St. Francis Dam Disaster were in the audience with their friends and families.

Many people here are alive today because of heroic acts performed before dawn on March 13, 1928 and in the days after. Many here today survived and went on to have children and grandchildren. Entire family lines could have been snuffed out that night without the acts of heroism that we honor here today.

For the past few years many of us here in Santa Paula have been thinking over the concept of heroism. In 1998 for the 70th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam Disaster Mike Nelson came up with the title for our exhibit at the City of Santa Paula’s California Oil Museum. It was “Heroes and Survivors”. That title guided the direction of the exhibit. We chose to honor the memory of the victims by telling the stories of the living. As the idea for the subject of the monumental sculpture took shape we followed that same path.

What has emerged out of the history of the death and destruction caused by the flood are many true stories of heroic acts performed by ordinary citizens. The stories are coming forth in books and newspaper articles, in museum exhibits and video documentaries, in radio and television interviews and in monuments like the one we are unveiling today.

The stories swirl around and it is impossible to put them in any order of importance. There was a night telephone operator named Louise Gipe who was working the switchboard when she got warning of impending disaster. She knew that the wall of water was as high as a 10-story building when it left the dam. She had no way of knowing that she would not be buried in the flood when it came through Santa Paula. She only knew that her neighbors must be warned. Other “Hello Girls” stayed at their post in Saticoy.

Louise called motorcycle officer Thornton Edwards who jumped on his Indian-4 and rode to the lowland territories. That was the area that the floodwaters would soon be sweeping over. Many others joined in the efforts to warn their fellow citizens that night. Stanley Baker was riding his Harley Davidson through the streets at most risk. Thornton Edwards made the timesaving and life-saving decision to go to every third house and told the occupants to warn their immediate neighbors. Then he went to the fifth house and repeated the process until the block was covered.

Others who spread the warning at the risk of their lives were Eddie Hearne, Lee Sheppard, John Messer and Sam Primmer. Private citizens were also risking their lives to help save their neighbors and spread the warning.

Dealing with the aftermath of the flood took heroic efforts on the part of the community. The dead had to be found and properly buried. The survivors had to be rescued and fed and clothed and housed. Homes and businesses and ranches and schools had to be slowly rebuilt.

Because there was such a great outpouring of acts of heroism that night no single monument could contain a representation of each act. One act was chosen to represent all acts of heroism. “The Warning” represents one act of heroism to symbolically represent all acts of heroism. That is one of the reasons that the names of the heroes have been intentionally left off of the monument.

When I think about a monument to the Spirit of Heroism I feel sad for the death and destruction that the flood caused. I also feel uplifted by the knowledge that within human beings there is a spirit of heroism dimly flickering just waiting for a situation to ignite it. When a situation presents itself the spirit of heroism bursts into flame and lives are saved.

When all is done the hero goes back to being a normal, average human being. I’ve never been called upon to perform a heroic act. I don’t know what I will do if a situation ever presents itself. I don’t think I’ll have any control over my actions. I could run away from the danger or I could become a hero. I’ll be thinking about that for the rest of my life as I drive by the sculpture.

As a piece of public art “The Warning” will join the series of murals that have been painted around Santa Paula. Collectively they show the world that the priorities of Santa Paula are our history and heritage and our respect for the past. We also respect the people who tell us the stories of our past. We respect age. This gathering today is about art and sculpture and motorcycles and floods and trains but it is also about listening to the stories that age can tell us.

While the rest of the world seems to worship youth and all things new and shiny Santa Paula can show that there are more enduring values. Values like respect for age and honoring the past.

Values like heroism and survival and rebuilding and renewing.

Saint Francis Dam Disaster Memorial Plaque

“The Warning”

Forged Steel by Eric J. Richards

Minutes before midnight on the chilly evening of March 12, 1928 the St. Francis Dam failed. The dam’s 200-foot high concrete wall crumpled and collapsed, sending billions of gallons of raging flood waters down San Francisquito Canyon, about five miles northeast of what is now the city of Santa Clarita. The avalanche of water swept 54 miles down the Santa Clara River to the sea. No one knows the exact death toll but more than 450 people perished in the disaster.

Shortly before 1:30 a.m. on March 13 an urgent message of immanent disaster reached the night telephone operator in Santa Paula and was quickly relayed to police officers, city officials and then homes in the lower portions of town. Among the many heroes of the flood that evening were two motorcycle officers who rode through the night to warn the sleeping citizens in the low lying areas of Santa Paula that a torrent of water was about to inundate their homes. Their wild ride that night was stopped at 3:05 a.m. when the

wall of water swept through Santa Paula on its way to the ocean.

Many stories of heroism and courage emerged in the aftermath of the flood. This monument represents one such act of heroism.

Dedicated March, 2003

Information and Photos provide by John Nichols. Thank you so much for sharing this history. To Learn more please visit

Here’s a shot from Fillmore, Calif.  9 miles inland from Santa Paula.  I just read that this officer on him motorcycle also rode out and warned citizens on the night of the St. Francis Dam Disaster of 1928.  Maybe on this same motorcycle.  
It is being used as the cover of a new book from Arcadia called “The Heritage Valley”.    A marketing name for our Santa Clara River Valley.