Pictured is a 1928 photo at the funeral services for the St. Francis Dam victims

St. Francis Dam: Unknown victims to be recognized on disaster anniversary, Mar. 13

March 10, 2004
Santa Paula News
By Peggy Kelly Santa Paula TimesIt will never be known exactly just how many people died when the St. Francis Dam burst that dark March night in 1928, sending billions of gallons of water and a semi-solid mass of debris through the Santa Clara River Valley and out to the sea. Now, overlooked nameless victims will finally be memorialized on the 76th anniversary of the disaster.The Santa Paula Historical Society (SPHS) is replicating the first funeral service for victims of the disaster and dedicating a monument to the unknown dead with a ceremony on March 13 at Pierce Brothers Stetler Santa Paula Cemetery. The ceremony will be held at 2 p.m., the same hour of the original service; the public is invited.When the dam burst just minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, it released raging floodwaters down the river valley, leaving over 450 dead, 101 reported missing, and 60 bodies that were never identified following the second worst disaster in state history.When the SPHS learned that the graves of 14 nameless victims – up until now, virtually unknown – were at Santa Paula Cemetery and that they had never properly memorialized, it became the society’s mission to correct the oversight.The knowledge of the unknown disaster victims was revealed to SPHS President Mary Alice Orcutt Henderson as the society conducted early research of the known dead.“A woman with the cemetery said ‘Do you know there are quite a few people buried here that are unknown?’ Then the society located the photo of the original funeral service and there was this large area” near the headstones and graves of the identified victims that was determined to be the final resting place of the nameless.Although the discovery was disheartening, it spurred the society into action. “We thought we have to get something out there for them. . .it’s terrible that there’s no recognition for them, nothing.”Henderson was also surprised that in the midst of the highly publicized and poignant ceremonies for known victims, those without identities were not memorialized in some way, “that they didn’t even leave some sort of a general marker there at the time. . .but, we’re doing it 76 years later.”Saturday’s memorial will conclude the society’s efforts to recognize last year’s 75th anniversary of the St. Francis Dam Disaster.
“I think it’s very fitting,” that the funds for Saturday’s memorial and marker were raised from the society’s annual dinner that featured author Catherine Mulholland, granddaughter of William Mulholland, noted Henderson.Prior to the dam collapse, Mulholland had been the revered builder of dams and water systems that turned Los Angeles County from a desert to an oasis. Recent studies of the disaster have shown that the St. Francis Dam was built on an ancient, undetected landslide.A massive boulder from Fred Stewart Ranch on the Santa Paula Creek now has a plaque that reads “This monument of native stone wasplaced in respectful memory of the nameless souls whose unmarked graves rest in this hallowed ground. Santa Paula Historical Society, March 2004” will be placed at the site of the unknown graves by Chris Wilson and Andy Van Sciver.St. Sebastian Church’s Father Pasquale Vuoso will be reading the original words that Rev. Father John J. Cox delivered before 2,500 mourners who gathered at the cemetery on March 19, 1928 to bury known victims of the disaster. Seven truckloads of flowers were made into wreaths by 300 local women and draped on the caskets.Every minister in the city joined in services described by newspapers as beautiful in their simplicity. Miss Arley Mott provided the musical program that concluded with “Abide With Me” and a Salvation Army bugler playing taps.During last year’s 75th anniversary, the SPHS was active in creating the memorial and dedication of the monumental sculpture “The Warning,” lauding the spirit of heroism in the face of disaster.

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