Research - The Secret Language of Place



I love the way that places try to speak to me even when I can't understand what they are saying. On my daily walks, my wife and I spend much of our time trying to decipher the language of civil engineering, why a "G" is printed into the concrete here and what the pipes that come out of the ground near the school are for there.

We've always wanted to see the site of the St. Francis Dam tragedy on San Francisquito Canyon Road just outside of Santa Clarita.

(The Dam still intact.)

The St. Francis Dam was part of William Mulholland's vision for watering the Los Angeles area. He was responsible for so much of the water that had been pumped into the area, and for so much of what the water did in the area. He brought in water from Owen's Lake, which devastated the Owen's Valley and did little for Los Angeles. But the aqueduct he built was a feat of engineering genius. Eventually, he built the St. Francis Dam.

The St. Francis Dam is one of those forgotten tragedies, possibly one of the worst things to ever happen to Los Angeles, but few people remember it.

On March 12, 1928, the dam collapsed because of the weakness of the rock surrounding it, and a wall of water and debris was sent into the low lying communities between it and the sea. Because of the lack of records at the time, there's no way to be sure to know even how communities were swept away let alone how many houses and people. We do know that bodies swept into the ocean were found as far away as Mexico.

Ann and I went to view the site on a rare rainy day, but the rain seemed appropriate enough given the site we were going to visit.

The dam is located up in the foothills of Los Angeles in the Grapevine area, which has a kind of scrubby beauty -- miles of hills covered with the kind of bushes that live on almost no water and house mice, snakes, and desert birds.

(Beautiful foothills of the Angeles National Park.)

It took a while to find the spot due to a blow out that had us in Sears for a couple of hours and the fact that we had only a general sort of knowledge of where it is. This is the best way to travel, and the way we always go. We don't always end up where we wanted to go, but it's a lot of fun going this way.

We did eventually find San Francisquito Canyon Road however just off Cooper Hill. The road is one lane and still holds some of Mulholland's positive legacy. Once of the aqueduct's power generators is still working here in an art deco building straight from the 1920s that looks too nice to be simply generating power. Leaded glass windows, bas relief, trees. Absolutely beautiful.

(The best shot I could get without blocking traffic. If you notice, I shop at Car Max)

Seeing the site has become easier since a storm in 2005 swept the road away nearby. The main road passes above, but the old road is perfect for hiking and leads you directly to the site with bits of debris from the tragedy fallen off the rock wall nearby and onto the road itself.

(A concrete block with a piece of the iron from the dam)

It's nearly impossible to see the dam unless you know what you're looking for. Even then it's difficult. We spent a little while trying to figure out what we were looking at, and then saw a bit of iron out of the rock face, rubble, and a small wooden cross marking the spot.


And did the voices of the dead speak to me? I don't think so. Or if they did, I wasn't listening well enough. But if the dead speak here, they are speaking everywhere.

What spoke to me was the canyon. California speaks to me. I know that this place is going to appear in my poems and my fiction. It's working its way into me like a virus or a splinter or a less painful metaphor. What's going to come out?

I don't know. But I can feel it down there like all places that speak to me.

Here's the blog questions and please answer below if you feel like it: What places speak to you? What do they say?