St. Francis Dam shortly after the collapse on March 12, 1928 (photo courtesy John Nichols).

St. Francis Dam display at California Oil Museum

June 04, 2008
Santa Paula News
By Susan Branham Santa Paula TimesEighty years ago, Santa Paula was the site of devastating loss when the St. Francis Dam collapsed, sending water and debris cascading through the Santa Clara Valley. As part of its Speaker Series, The City of Santa Paula’s California Oil Museum recently hosted the “St. Francis Dam Disaster: 80th Anniversary” lecture by Howard Level, retired Ventura College professor.“We can’t forget March 12, 1928,” Level said. That was the date the dam, located in the San Francisquito Canyon, gave way. Level’s presentation included dramatic pictures of the aftermath of the dam break. “When the dam failed it sent a massive wave of water into the canyon,” he said. “In its wake hundreds of people lost their lives.”Level brought rock samples to help illustrate the geology of the failed dam site. He explained that knowledge at the time the dam was constructed was not as advanced as it is today. Much has been learned in the intervening years.
“I taught 25 years at Ventura College,” Level said. “I taught geography and geology, and we used to take field trips.” Howard Level’s presentation featured photographs from class field trips to the St. Francis Dam site. “Santa Paula suffered a lot in the disaster,” he said. “There was massive debris, and they never got an accurate death toll. Homes were ripped off their foundations; an estimated 14 homes were ripped off and floated away.” The presentation included photographs of Santa Paula families looking at ruins of their homes.The floodwaters continued to broaden and finally emptied into the Pacific Ocean. “It was a terrible disaster, second only to the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 – it was a devastating thing,” Level said.The St. Francis Dam Disaster exhibit at the California Oil Museum runs through July 27. Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday. Admission to the exhibit is $4 for adults, $3 for seniors, and $1 for children. Members are admitted free. The museum is located at 1001 East Main Street in Santa Paula.

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