The steel wheels scratched narrow grooves in the highway as the replica of the Butterfield-Overland-Wells Fargo Coach made its way up San Francisquito Canyon under a bright Sunday morning sun in 1978.
The coach, built by Bill Graham of Bandy’s Wagon and Buggy Shop was carrying the historical plaque to be dedicated at the St. Francis Dam site at noon. Driving the coach was San Francisquito Canyon resident Denzil Cameron.
Cameron briefly handed the reins of the six-horse team to Graham and said, “Grab this handful of spaghetti and hold it real gently while I check the wheels.” Once this task was completed, the team continued with the plaque and a coachful of riders including Historical Society members Jerry Reynolds, Alice Sloane, and Betty Pember. Also along for the ride was Betty’s dad, historian and longtime Newhall resident, Lloyd Houghton.
In honor of the occasion, Lloyd wore a six-shooter and spurs and the ladies wore pioneer dresses and bonnets. The coach carried its valuable cargo from the Cameron Ranch on San Francisquito Road to the San Fran Motorway just above the dam site – an hour-and-fifteen-minute journey. An entourage of outriders consisting of Geri, Evelyn, and Tammy Cameron, Cindy Bandy, Renee Doiron, and Priscilla Mason escorted the stage on its way.
The trip up the canyon was full of reminiscing – Lloyd remembered how he traveled the old stagecoach route on Saturday nights to go dancing at the roadhouse near the summit. Houghton told us that he was quite a dancer in those days, owning his own dancehall in Newhall. Betty remembered that the old road (in existence until the dam began construction in 1925) crossed the riverbed 38 times. The group had plenty of time to enjoy the clear blue skies, the red mountain formations, and the lush green foliage that surrounded the small stream rushing down the riverbed. The coach rumbled on at a slow but steady pace while Alice pointed out wild tobacco plants and sage that were growing near the edge of the road.
The lighthearted mood of the trip changed as the landscape began filling with different formations – blocks of concrete, some larger than the coach, strewn from side to side of the riverbed. The remnants of concrete served as grim reminders of the tragedy that took place 50 years earlier. The concrete slabs stood like huge tombstones marking the graves of the hundreds of people who died when the St. Francis Dam collapsed on March 12, 1928, with the dam filled to capacity.
Even larger pieces of concrete had been dynamited (as was the center section of the dam) to offset the eerie vision of massive pillars being tumbled along like match sticks so far from the dam site. (The 18-mile-an-hour wave flooded over 54 miles of countryside in five and a half hours, spreading death and destruction as it surged over trees, roads, houses, and cars. The flood did not cease until it reached the Pacific Ocean at Ventura).
The large aggregates reminded us of our mission – to reach the dedication site where members of the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society, along with survivors of the flood and
interested community residents, waited to officially honor the dead and injured of the disaster. Through the Historical Society’s efforts, the state had at last recognized the disaster and made the dam site Registered Landmark Number 919.
The site rests on a hilltop above the dam and Denzil urged the horses into a gallop for the last hundred yards of the journey. Lloyd, Alice, Betty, and Jerry held on tightly as the coach bounced up the dirt path and watched as a few staples popped out of the interior upholstery. Everyone marveled at what a sturdy lot the early pioneers were, enduring hundreds of similar jolts as they traveled across hundreds of miles of rocky countryside.
The passengers were met by Historical Society president Mimi White and her husband Charles, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Clyde Bragdon, Jr., Captain Bill Fairchild from the Sheriff’s Dept., and Lt. John O’Brien from the CHP. They were then escorted down a mountain trail to the ceremony site.
And don’t think it was easy walking down the rocky mountain pathway with legs that were weak and shaky from the hour-long bumpy ride! The wooden benches were a welcome sight for the jostled travelers as they later watched the solemn dedication ceremony unfold.