Dam Break! (Shaman Edition)

Not at all far from my new home in the Santa Clarita Valley are chunky ruins of the St. Francis Dam, once a major reservoir for Los Angeles.


March 12, 1928, the dam collapsed.

The sudden freedom of 12.4 billion gallons of water produced a roar that must have been beyond terrifying, punctuated by the Gods-Of-Thunder boom/crack of giant boulders carried along with the deluge, smashing together as easily kids pitting marbles against marbles. 7 minutes after the break, the reservoir the dam had supported was empty.

Over 400 people died, many bodies never recovered. The wall of water was 50 feet high (120 feet high when getting started), 2 miles wide. It gushed down San Francisquito Canyon and into the Santa Clara River, coursing west through Fillmore and Santa Paula (basically the route of today’s 126 FWY) to Ventura, emptying into the Pacific Ocean.


I first read about the dam break on a plaque in Harey Carey Sr.’s gardens, a brief powerwalk from my hood. I was so overwhelmed by the sad tale I plunked at a table in Mr. Carey’s front yard and thought about the disaster for a while. The table, now my new out-of-the-house writing spot, is near the wash down which the dam’s waters first surged, taking out Mr. Carey’s trading post and the couple who ran it.

Harry Carey Sr. and family weren’t home at the time of the break. Nor were the 40 or so Navajo Native Americans who tended Carey’s sprawling ranch and provided goods for the trading post. The Navajo had vacated the area on the advice of their shaman, who knew the flood was coming. The Navajo packed up, trekked all the way to Arizona to escape the horror.

Did the shaman warn the Careys? Or was it a coincidence they weren’t home?

St. Francis chunk. Mulholland did this.

Did the shaman warn the couple running the trading post? Or the dam keeper and his family, the flood’s first victims? Perhaps many locals were given the opportunity to save themselves. It seems Papa Dam Keeper was at the dam that evening, right before the break. Did he believe the shaman? Is that why he was out so late? In the dark? Was he hunting for cracks? His body, and that of his 6 year old son, were never found.

If a local shaman warned me my house was in the path of a deadly dam break, would I listen? If a stranger knocked on my door and told me, if a psychic from one of those TV infomercial ‘hotlines’ called me up with a dire warning, if a relative, a dear friend, or even my spouse sounded an alarm–would I listen?

Current newspaper headlines regarding the surge of COVID in my golden state are terrifying–yet our governor has us partially ‘reopening’…Who to listen to?

Some people are always worth listening to, aren’t they? Even if I don’t agree with them 100% of the time, or if I’ll never actually meet them in person. And some people are not (worth listening to).

As a mother, I heed my intuition as it relates to parenting, and isn’t intuition the birth of poetry, or all 9 muses in 1, or the wellspring of knowledge? And, as we’ve been told ad nauseum: knowledge is power. Isn’t it?

Mr. Carey’s front yard

Fitting my mask in place and calling it quits for today, although I will return to Mr. Carey’s front yard with my laptop.

Yours in listening,


Dam photos: Stearns, H.T. USGS.
“Chunk” photo: photographer unknown.

About PB Rippey

Writer, wife, mother, grateful. Fiction, memoir, poetry, kidlit (MG), member SCBWI. pbwrites.wordpress.com
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