Eighty-four years ago today, at 11:57 pm on the 12th of March 1928, Ace Hopewell was out for a midnight motorcycle ride along the San Francisquito canyon road. The road ran up San Francisquito creek to the base of the 200 foot-high dam; then ran up the canyon wall and along the reservoir on the east side. Ace heard some rumblings over the sound of the motorcycle's sidecar bumping along the rough road. He used the excuse to stop for a cigarette. Looking out over the reservoir Ace thought he saw a line of foam, which he took to indicate that there had been a small landslide.
The road called. He ground the butt of his cigarette into its gravel with the black heal of his boot, and he rode on.
Ace was the last living person to see the St. Francis Dam intact. The giant wall of water that its catastrophic failure released scoured the canyon to 120 feet above the creek. Chunks of concrete dam, trees, boulders, lots of dirt, houses, cows, automobiles, and around 600 human bodies mixed together to form a viscous wave of death. By around 5:30 AM on the 13th that wave finally reached the ocean near Ventura.
The town of San Francisquito had disappeared.
Many bodies were washed out to sea. The initial death toll was reported at 385 persons. Over the course of time bodies continued to spring up, and the death toll rose to over 600. The last body identified as belonging to a victim of the dam failure was recovered in 1992.
After the disaster the LA times bought up as many pictures as they could of the disaster’s impact. Many of these were then lost.
Teams were sent out to jackhammer and dynamite the remaining concrete wreckage of the dam. Today there is little left to see at the site.
It is sometimes easier to avoid the tendency for history to repeat itself by simply erasing history.