The Bancroft Survey Project began in February 2008. Funded by grants from the Andrew W. Mellon and the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundations, the survey project is intended to be a simultaneously broad and in-depth survey of all manuscript holdings of the Bancroft Library, which has been collecting for over a century. Four archivists were hired to scour the collections for a three year term, during which they will review the vast myriad of manuscript materials and use a survey instrument designed to gather data on collection scope, subject categories, and physical condition. The survey archivists are Marjorie Bryer, Amy Croft, Dana Miller, and Elia Van Lith, and they are also the authors of this blog.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

History, now playing on an ipod near you

While surveying part of the Charles Collins Teague Papers today, I opened a box marked St. Francis Dam Disaster. I had never heard of the disaster in an historical or scholarly context before, but I did know the story through a pop culture reference- a 2001 song of the same name by Frank Black and the Catholics (penned by Frank Black of Pixies fame).

Southern California Edison Company construction camp near Los Angeles- Ventura County lines, where 145 men lost their lives.
The St. Francis Dam Disaster occurred a few minutes before midnight on March 12, 1928, when a concrete dam located 40 miles northwest of Los Angeles broke violently apart and the resulting tidal waves of water rushing to the ocean ruined towns and took hundreds of lives. Charles Teague was deeply involved with the development of agriculture in Southern California, and served as president for various companies and associations connected with the citrus industry. At the time of the St. Francis Dam Failure, Teague was Chief of the Santa Clara Water Conservation District, where the disaster took place.

View looking North on South 4th St. Santa Paula, California
According to Wikipedia, the St. Francis Dam flood killed 600 people and ranks among the worst civil engineering disasters in American history, effectively ending the career of its chief engineer, William Mulholland.

This document from the Teague papers estimates the death toll at 385 (penciled in at bottom) rather than 600.

Above are some images and a document from Teague's files on the St. Francis Dam failure, while the lyrics of the Frank Black song follow below. A google map search for the town of Piru enables one to see all of the towns mentioned in Black's lyrics; the "water master man" Black refers to is clearly Mulholland; "powerhouse #2" may refer to the Edison camp pictured in the top photo.

St. Francis Dam Disaster

Frank Black and the Catholics

There was a well known water master man

He was the king

He could do anything

The Saint Francis Dam disaster man

Thought she was all right

Until around midnight

Because that water seeks her own

She had a desire to flow

She was looking for somewhere to go

She was a slave to the great metropolis

She was feeling choked

She pushed the wall till it broke

When they heard

The great apocalypse

At power house number two

Well there was nothing they could do

Because that water seeks her own

Five and one half hours she would flow

She had fifty-three miles to go

A cascade down to Santa Clara way

Near sixty feet high

Now she's a mile wide

It was clear she was going far away

And whole towns were too

A few got lucky in Piru

Because that water seeks her own

But four more hours she would flow

She had twenty-nine miles to go

She carried in her every kind of thing

House, trees, and telegraph pole

Some say a thousand souls

At three A.M. she gave Santa Paula a ring

She was still twenty-five feet high

Under a peaceful sky

Because that water seeks her own

But two more hours she would flow

She had nineteen miles more to go

It was a real bad night in little Saticoy

El Rio then Montalvo

How many no one really knows

Ventura Beach was very scary boy

Humanity a pile

She went her final mile

Because that water seeks her own

Into the sea the water flowed

And now for forever she would go

In an interview for Blogcritics, Black quipped that he had the song for a number of years before putting lyrics to it at the urging of his bandmates, "It was a grey and windy day... lyrics are, you know, about stuff. " Black may in fact have had a grudge against Mulholland. He also penned a song in 1994 called Olé Mulholland. I may find myself perusing my Frank Black CD collection tonight when I get home to look for more historical commentary.

Charles Collins Teague papers, BANC MSS C-B 760, Box 4.
See also and

---D. Miller