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Flood in the Desert | Article

Soledad Luna and the St. Francis Dam Disaster

How a 10-year-old girl survived one of the worst civil engineering failures in American history

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Soledad Luna was at home asleep when the St. Francis Dam collapsed, minutes before midnight on Monday, March 12, 1928. She had started that morning like so many Mondays before it, pumping water outside in the cool air and gathering wood for the stove in the small bungalow she shared with her three younger siblings, her mother Irene and father Magdaleno, and Irene’s parents, whom Soledad called Papalipe and Mamaria. 

A shy, dark-haired girl, Soledad bore the serious expression of someone much older. Already at 10 years old, Chole—Soledad’s nickname in the family—was expected to be her mother’s right hand, assisting with a host of responsibilities: helping around the home, preparing food, taking care of her two younger brothers and an 18-month-old sister, Hortense. 

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Soledad, right, with her cousin Hope and grandparents Maria and Felipe Chavez, whom she called Mamaria and Papalipe. Courtesy Gloria Velasco

Next door, Soledad’s uncle Sisto, her father’s brother, was also waking with Soledad’s aunt Ynez and five cousins, all young children between ages two and seven. At 5:30 a.m. the work bell rang, calling the adults to their stations on the surrounding orchards and in packing plants. 

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The Luna family lived in the colonias, or villages, of Santa Paula, a small town located among the orchards of California’s Santa Clara River Valley. About half of Santa Paula’s population was of Mexican descent, most of them recent arrivals working in the citrus industry. Work sometimes went around the clock, and for meager wages—the pickers were paid by the filled box. The Limoneira Company, which owned one of the largest plantations in the area, ran a Spanish-language school called Olivelands near the packing plants, but Soledad’s attendance depended on the crops and what work remained at home. It was harvest season now; school would have to wait. 

Few people in Santa Paula living among the lemon groves, so close to the Santa Clara River bottom, took note of the newly completed St. Francis Dam 40 miles upstream.

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A birdseye view of the Santa Clara Valley. Oil rigs, evidence of the Valley’s other main economy alongside citrus, are visible in the foreground. Courtesy Museum of Ventura County

Built to provide water for the city and suburbs of Los Angeles, the dam was a 200-foot-high concrete monument at the northern end of the San Francisquito Canyon, northeast of Santa Paula. In the early 1920s, massive population growth and years of drought convinced Los Angeles city planners they needed a vast and secure water source. Construction on the dam began in 1924. Over the next three years its design was altered in ways that proved fateful: William Mulholland, head of the Los Angeles Bureau of Water Works and Supply and the dam’s lead engineer, increased its height by 20 feet, but without any change to its base, an inherently destabilizing modification.

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A view of the St. Francis Dam during its construction. Charles Hamilton Lee, Water Resources Center Archives, University of California Regents

The dam’s completion in 1927 didn’t make headlines; Soledad’s family couldn’t read the English-language newspapers, in any case. On March 7, 1928, the dam’s reservoir was filled to capacity for the first time. The pressure of 12 billion gallons of water was pitted against the dam’s upstream side, which was already fractured with cracks. Spillover flowed out of chutes at the upper rim, staining the dam’s outward face. 

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Five nights later, a long day of work in the orchards downstream came to a close. The little homes Limoneira and the other citrus ranchers rented to their employees had no electricity; the Lunas extinguished candles and lanterns and went to sleep. A waning moon rose over the top of the dam, a looming ziggurat glowing palely from the canyon’s edge. Later, at the coroner’s inquest following the events to come, one of the survivors remembered remarking to her companion on their drive home through the canyon that night: “It is quite spooky tonight, terribly quiet, no cars in sight, no air, breeze or anything, unusually quiet.”

Catastrophic failure began at around 11:30 p.m. when a massive chunk of the dam blew out. Intensely pressurized water began jetting through the resulting gap. Then, two and a half minutes before midnight, the hillside under the dam’s east wing—vulnerable due to its geological composition, and further undermined by seeping reservoir water—collapsed entirely. In a chain reaction, the dam slid precariously on its base; the land under the west wing collapsed. Without warning, the giant concrete staircase came tumbling down. A 140-foot-high flood surge began roaring down the canyon.

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Those closest to the collapse first felt the ground quake violently. Then the waters hit. The flood wiped out everything in its path: Power stations, homes, oil rigging, ranches, railroad and highway bridges were carried away with the deluge. Around 12:45 a.m., what one survivor later called the “great black wall” of water left the San Francisquito canyon, turning west toward the Santa Clara River Valley and its 10,000 sleeping residents.

Soledad awoke to chaos. Blaring sirens and cries of “¡Mucho agua!” could be heard throughout the small community Anglos called Spanish Town. Santa Paula had two motorcycle policemen both riding around with bullhorns, using the little Spanish they knew to try to warn people. Soledad’s mother Irene, her ears ever alert for sounds of baby Hortense, was up first, shaking Magdaleno, Mamaria and Papalipe into consciousness. Soledad’s grandfather was confused. “¿De qué están hablando? No ha estado lloviendo,” he said of the commotion. What are they talking about? It hasn't been raining. 

Weaving through the pandemonium outside, Magdaleno ran to his brother Sisto’s house to warn him; Soledad’s uncle was the only one in the family who had transportation, a beat-up pickup truck. Sisto placed Soledad’s four cousins on the wooden flatbed. Magdaleno scrambled to drive the truck to higher ground while Sisto raced to save the family’s few possessions—but time had already run out. 

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Soledad’s aunt Ynez was sitting in the cab of the truck holding her youngest child when the waters hit. As the truck toppled over and everyone inside was thrown out, Sisto, his parents, his wife Ynez and brother Magdaleno struggled to stay afloat. Vainly, they tried to grasp the children’s slender arms as they flailed and cried out, but the current was too strong. All five children were carried away by the roiling water.

Meanwhile, Soledad watched her mother Irene rush to pack up their few belongings. As Irene Luna saw the flood approach, she grabbed Soledad and her three siblings and placed them on the bed. The water hit their small home with such force that the walls broke apart immediately, flinging everything into the churning waves. Clinging to the old box spring mattress, the Lunas were swept up and away, their makeshift raft spinning in the deluge. 

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The mattress had traveled only a block and a half when an uprooted tree stretched out for Soledad. Her long hair snared in its branches, wrenching her up into the air. Irene screamed for her Chole but the roar of the flood was deafening. The mattress passed swiftly out of sight.

For hours, Soledad clung from the tree as the torrent continued to roll past. Sounds of drowning, screaming victims and bleating cattle, would reach her ears and rush away into the night. Snatches of illumination from between the clouds caught surfaces of bodies and flotsam, the now sodden evidence of a community’s existence, tumbling past. 

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Finally, at 5:25 in the morning on March 13, 1928, more than 50 miles from the dam site, the St. Francis floodwaters washed into the sea. 

Soledad was found after dawn, still tangled in the tree that had saved her life, battered and shivering. She was unable to speak. Years later she would only ever rarely and reluctantly recall the humiliation she felt upon being found naked the next morning; the water had torn off her clothes. But she also never forgot the name of the man who helped get her down—Mr. Baxter. 

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A headline from the front page of The Arizona Republican newspaper, March 14, 1928. Much of the mainstream coverage of the Luna’s story contained inaccuracies due to its translation from the Spanish-language newspaper La Voz.

Her mother and siblings, miraculously alive and still clinging to the mattress, were found between Ventura and Oxnard where the mouth of the Santa Clara empties into the Pacific.  Reports of the Luna family’s ordeal received widespread mainstream media coverage. 

But while Magdaleno, Sisto, Ynez and Soledad’s grandparents also survived, four of her five cousins were later found submerged in the mud and silt of the floodplain. Guadalupe, Enrique, Elvira and Esther Luna were buried in Santa Paula; Soledad’s eldest cousin, seven-year-old Consuelo, was never found. In years to come, residents of the surrounding area would speak of seeing ghosts along the river bottom, like the spirit of La Llorona, the weeping woman of Mexican myth crying along a riverbed, searching for her drowned children.

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The St. Francis Dam disaster was the worst civil engineering failure of the 20th century. Its victims’ bodies were recovered from the Pacific Ocean as far south as San Diego, and while the official death count was 420, given the migrant community caught in the flood’s path  it certainly claimed more victims whose names would never be recorded. 

Soledad would go on to live a long life, passing in 2017 just months shy of her 100th birthday. But she refused to speak about the night of the flood. “She was terrorized,” said her goddaughter. “She never wanted to talk about it. She would say, no, please don't make me relive that.”

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Soledad in front of the home into which her grandparents moved after the flood. Courtesy Gloria Velasco
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