Road Blog: Disaster Detour

Part of the ruins of St. Francis Dam, northeast of Los Angeles.

We managed to spend a whole day on the road today without getting out of Los Angeles County.

That was partly due to a detour to the Santa Monica Pier as we headed out of town. And then a second detour to the REI in Santa Monica. And then a third detour to Peet’s Coffee in Santa Monica. (We’re allegedly going camping and need to be real prepared.)

The main detour of the day was a search for the site of St. Francis Dam, which collapsed in 1928, killed at least 450 people, ended the career of William Mulholland, and wrought major changes in dam design and engineering.

We finally made it to the dam site in the waning half of the afternoon and spent a half an hour or so hiking part of the area (it’s worth more time; I hope to come back … soon-ish).

There is a lot of great background material on what happened at the dam. The best may be from J. David Rogers, a Berkeley-trained professor of geological engineering at the Missouri University of Science and Technology in Rolla who has spent decades investigating why the dam failed and documenting the disaster’s effect on the practice of engineering.

In one of his many papers and presentations on St. Francis Dam, he summarizes the catastrophe:

“The dam failed catastrophically near midnight on March 12/13, 1928, in its second year of operation. … The resulting flood swept down San Francisquito Canyon, with an initial depth of 140 feet above the streambed. About five minutes later, the flood destroyed a powerhouse (and workers’ community) approximately 7,300 feet downstream, killing 126 of the 129 people living there. The flood wave swept on down the canyon, widening considerably at its juncture with the Santa Clara River coming out of Soledad Canyon. It then swept through Castaic Junction and on down the Santa Clara River Valley, blasting a Southern California Edison construction camp (killing 84 of the 140 workers encamped there), thence inundating the migrant farm community at Camulos, before skimming the lower elevations of the established cities of Fillmore, Santa Paula, Saticoy, and Montalvo. The flood waters reached the ocean around 5:30 a.m., after traveling approximately 52 miles. The official death toll was 432 persons, making it the greatest engineering tragedy recorded in America in the 20th century. But those official statistics did not include Mexican migrant farm workers, of which, an unknown number also perished. One hundred seventy-nine of the listed victim’s bodies were never recovered, including those of damkeeper Tony Harnesfaeger and his 6-year-old-son.”

As to what that disaster looked like, here’s one great resource, by way of the Los Angeles Times: “From the Archives: The 1928 St. Francis Dam collapse.”

The magnitude of the tragedy is a little hard to grasp standing at the dam site. There are some monumental heaps of rubble. If you look around, you can see evidence that the piles of broken concrete were part of something bigger.

But nature is reclaiming the site. A cool wind blew up through the cottonwoods and maples that have taken over the streambed where the calamity began. San Francisquito Creek sounded fresh and alive.

One note: It’s a little odd that there’s no official recognition of the site beyond a state historical marker about a mile and a half away — at the powerhouse that was destroyed in the 1928 torrent. This is a place — apparently national forest land — that deserves to be remembered and interpreted.

Road Blog: Days and Nights in L.A.

The Eli Broad wing of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Avenue.

I have spent nearly all of the last 42 years in California, and all of that in the San Francisco Bay Area. I’ve visited Los Angeles about a dozen times. I only get to double figures by counting episodes like the time I delivered a drive-away car, a white Chevy Vega station wagon, to its perhaps rueful owner in Venice Beach; and day trips to do interviews for stories I’ve worked on; and visits to Disneyland, which some may dispute involve a visit to “Los Angeles.” It is not an impressive list, especially considering you can’t have any real idea of California without at least a passing acquaintance with this place.

So here we are on Day Three of dropping in for a visit and just … staying put for the most part.

Example of what I mean by “staying put.” Thom and Megan found an apartment that’s a short walk from the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. Today, we went to check the place out and spent the afternoon there (and spent virtually all of the time visiting one exhibit on the evolution and applications, practical and artistic, of three-dimensional imaging technology.

After that, it was back to the apartment, then a hike to the Los Angeles Farmer’s Market — which is actually a warren of dozens of restaurants and shops, including a couple that sell produce, that is reminiscent of the shopping district adjacent to Tokyo’s Asakusa Shrine — to buy some salad stuff for dinner, which was pizza.

Anyway: This is Night Three in Los Angeles — and I believe it’s the first time I’ve ever spent three nights here in a row.

Tomorrow: Breakfast here, then heading out. Only one stop set on the itinerary: the site of St. Francis Dam, northeast of the city, which collapsed 90 years ago this year and killed about 450 people. Considered by many to be the biggest civil engineering disaster in U.S. history. (William Mulholland, the general manager and chief engineer of L.A. Water and Power, had pronounced the new dam sound 12 hours before it failed.)

Road Blog: The PIts

The skeleton of Bison antiquus (Ancient bison) at the La Brea Tar Pits museum.

The tourists in Los Angeles today:

1) Did not fall down on the sidewalk.

2) Went to the La Brea Tar Pits (more below).

3) Watched a painful (for us) college football game.

4) Drove up to the Griffith Park Observatory, along with a huge crowd on hard to mark the equinox. We saw lots of people, lots of lights in the city below, and no parking spaces. We shall return.

About the pits: Growing up, the La Brea Tar Pits seemed to be part of an obscure joke. Visiting today and seeing them in person — the real science growing out of the millions of fossils recovered there and how the place fits into the ancient and modern city — I wondered why I thought so.

In the 1950s, there was a Bugs Bunny cartoon, “My Bunny Lies Over the Sea,” that makes an incidental mention of La Brea. It’s something slight and before my time, so I thought I must have picked up on the joke someplace else.

Johnny Carson came to mind. I don’t doubt that he was just one of many who found something odd and out of place about the asphalt deposits right in the middle of Los Angeles and made them part of a punchline. But, having watched Carson many, many times — and given his long tenure here in L.A. — it seems likely that that’s where I picked up on the tar pit jokes.

Thanks to the Sometimes Magic Memory Machine, here’s an extended Carson riff — one bad joke after another — on the La Brea Tar Pits.

A Plaque Story: ‘They Sacrificed Their Lives’

San Luis Reservoir, just west of the San Joaquin Valley town of Los Banos, is one of California’s key water facilities. Pumps in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta ship water down two massive canals — the state-owned California Aqueduct and the federal Delta-Mendota Canal — to a holding basin, or forebay, adjacent to the reservoir. From there, another set of pumps lifts water into the reservoir, where it’s stored before being pumped again for delivery to farm and city customers farther south. All reservoirs are artificial creations, but there’s an extra dimension of artificiality here: There’s virtually no natural inflow to the reservoir; it exists only to receive the water pouring down two huge manufactured rivers.

Memorial plaque at San Luis Reservoir to two Department of Water Resources divers who died in a 2007 incident at a nearby pumping plant.

The plaque above is at the Romero Visitors Center, just off Highway 152. There’s something artificial, manufactured — less than truthful — about the memorial to two divers killed at the pumping plant about 10 miles from the dam. But read the plaque first:

The plaque text:

“Dedicated in memory of Tim Crawford and Martin Alvarado, who lost their lives on Feb. 7, 2007, while performing underwater inspections at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant. They sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure for the people of the state of California.”

The wording is curious. These two men “sacrificed their lives to keep the state’s water supply safe and secure”?

It sounds heroic. What happened?

I had no idea. But armed with the two names, it’s easy to find out.

The two divers went into the water to inspect “trash racks” just upstream of the pumps at the Dos Amigos Pumping Plant, apparently looking for invasive mussels. Five of the six pumps at the facility were shut down, and one was running full bore. Somehow the divers wound up near the operating pump. The powerful current there pulled them in and pinned them against the trash rack, a huge steel grate designed to stop large debris from going through the pump.

The untrained fellow Department of Water Resources employee who had been given the job of “tending” the dive soon lost sight of the divers’ bubbles, his only means of tracking the men, but had no idea what to do. By the time he thought to alert anyone in the pumping plant, the divers were probably out of air. It took more than an hour after trouble was detected to shut down the operating pump, and another 35 minutes after that before a recovery diver was in the water. Both divers were found at the bottom of the aqueduct, drowned. Subsequent investigations found a series of missteps, including some by the divers themselves, that contributed to the outcome.

I get the human impulse behind injecting a note of heroism into the plaque’s language. We want to find something to redeem such awful deaths, to give the sacrifice a purpose.

But it might have been more to the point, and a more fitting memorial, to say something like: “Dedicated in hopes that their deaths might serve to prevent future tragedies.” A message like that might serve as a living reminder to those responsible for preventing incidents that they must remain vigilant.

To read more: Here’s the Department of Water Resources report on the incident.

And here: a later investigative piece by San Francisco’s ABC7 on the episode. Key quote from the story:

Dive tender: How long these guys stay down? You know?
Control room: Uh-uh.

And finally: a DWR memorial publication to the two divers (see pages 5 through 7).

Road Blog: Reading the Plaques

OK — so there’s a site I recently happened upon — ReadThePlaque.com — that appeals to my weakness for historical trivia and roadside finds.

There’s a bit of a back story to Read the Plaque (you can listen to it here) that involves an object lesson in observation and curiosity about the stories that are out there in the world around us. I don’t think that plaques, which by necessity offer a shorthand (if not sanitized) version of events, are the only source of those stories. But they do open a door into the past of the spaces we move through every day and, perhaps, of how our own life and experience intersects with that history.

Since I’ve made something of a habit of photographing some of the plaques I encounter — part of my visual note-taking of my daily rounds — I started submitting some of the plaques to Read the Plaque. The site invites one to “tell us about the plaque,” which I take as an invitation for added details and context to accompany the plaque text. For me, that’s an invitation to turn the submission into a mini-project. So, I’m going to take the liberty of cross-posting my Read the Plaque entries here, for posterity and my small reading public.

Here’s one I just posted for a plaque Kate and I encountered Sunday in Mojave, California:

Historical marker on Highway 14 in Mojave marking long-ago terminus of borax trains from Death Valley.

This is on California Highway 14, the main drag through Mojave, a desert crossroads and would-be spaceport (Burt Rutan, the designer and builder of the X-Prize-winning SpaceShipOne and Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, has his shop at the former Marine air base on the edge of town; the facility, now run by a county agency, is styled the Mojave Air and Space Port. It’s a boneyard for old planes, too, and is a kind of fun detour if that’s the kind of thing you’re into).

And now back to an earlier age of transportation: the 20-mule-team era.

As a child of the 1960s, “20-Mule-Team Borax” meant two things: a detergent and a TV show, “Death Valley Days,” that was hosted for a time by soon-to-be California Gov. Ronald Reagan. All I know about borax: It’s useful in many applications, from whitening clothes to metallurgy. As for its place in California history, here’s an excellent 1998 writeup from the Chicago Tribune: “More valuable than gold.”

As to the plaque: It’s on the east side of Highway 14 — that’s the right if you’re driving north through town — between Mono and Nadeau streets. It’s placed on a scrubby lot in front of a defunct and fenced-off Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet, right between a Denny’s and the Best Western Desert Winds. As usual, though I was alerted to its presence by a sign that advised I’d see a historical marker 500 feet ahead, I drove right by it the first time without seeing it.

Here’s the plaque text:

Mojave 20-Mule-Team Borax Terminus

Just west of this point was the Southern Pacific Terminus for the twenty-mule-team borax wagons that operated between Death Valley and Mojave from 1884 to 1889. The route ran from the Harmony Borax Company works, later acquired by the Pacific Coast Borax Company, to the railroad loading dock in Mojave over 165 miles of mountain and desert trail. A round trip required 20 days. The ore wagons were designed by J.W.S. Perry, borax company superintendent in Death Valley, and were built in Mojave at a cost of $900 each. New borax discoveries near Barstow ended the Mojave shipments in 1889.

California Registered Historical Landmark No. 652.

Plaque placed by the California State Park Commission in cooperation with the Kern County Historical Society, El Tejon Parlor No. 239, Native Daughters of the Golden West, and Kern County Museum, October 15, 1959.

End of Year-Start of Year Color

Ginkgo leaves and unidentified purple petals on a West Berkeley sidewalk, Dec. 31, 2016.

An end of year image: the golden fans of spent ginkgo leaves — my favorite Berkeley street tree, at least in deep autumn — and some unidentified purple petals.

Nothing profound intended, but: The gold leaves signifying the departure of one year. The splashes of purple perhaps signifying there is something beautiful in the season as we turn the page into a year that many already see as inauspicious.

Happy new year, whatever comes. We’ll have lots to think about and talk about.

Trinity-Klamath Road Trip: Plastic Flower and Missing Man

A flower, made of partly melted plastic spoons and spraypainted white, acquired during an August 2014 visit to Humboldt County, California.

On Christmas Day, I experienced a burst of motivation to clean off my desk to make room for some new electronics. That’s a project that’s still under way. But one of the discoveries I made as I tried to excavate the workspace was the odd and not entirely lovely object above.

It’s a handcrafted flower, in case you’re wondering. Made from partially melted black plastic spoons spraypainted white. It was offered for sale by a man I encountered during a brief stop at the Humboldt County wayside of Weitchpec in August 2014.

How I got there was I had driven up to Lewiston Dam, northwest of Redding, for a ceremony by members of Native American tribes in the area. They had called on the federal Bureau of Reclamation to increase releases into the Trinity River to protect migrating chinook salmon that were at risk of disease or death because of low flows and warm water downstream on the Klamath River.

The bureau, in fact, ordered increased releases into the Trinity River before the ceremony. But I made the trip, met some people, drove to a motel in Redding, had dinner, and wrote a little story on a related court case.

I only had one other item on my agenda: a visit to Shasta Lake, California’s biggest reservoir, which was very low in late August because of the ongoing drought. But with no one breathing down my neck to get back to the Bay Area, I decided it would be good to see a little of the country I had been writing about. I’d head up Highway 299 from Redding and follow the Trinity River up to the Klamath, then follow the Klamath east to Interstate 5, just above Yreka. I’d spend the night back in Mount Shasta — at the end of a drive of about 300 miles.

For the first part of the drive, not much transpired. Just one beautiful scene after another. The Trinity, swollen with the “extra” water released from the dams up stream, looked high and a little wild. After turning north off 299 onto Highway 96 at Willow Creek, I drove through the Hoopa Valley, home of one of northwestern California’s larger native tribes.

North of Hoopa, Highway 96 narrows as it climbs a ridge on the south bank of the river and after a few twisting miles reaches Weitchpec. The settlement, part of the Yurok tribe’s reservation, is the proverbial wide spot in the road. On one side, a couple of homes and mailboxes for outlying residents. On the other side, a grocery and a couple of weathered manufactured homes on a lot that overlooks the spot where the Trinity flows into the Klamath. There was an old, badly lettered sign that offered smoked salmon for sale.

My visit was brief. At first, I overshot the grocery and drove across the bridge across the Klamath. “I’ve got to have a picture of this,” I thought, so I swung back around, recrossed the bridge and parked at the store. I walked back across the span and snapped a few pictures, then returned to the store and walked around back, where I guessed I’d have the best view of the confluence.

A man approached me when I started to take pictures — maybe the resident of one of the mobile homes. A short, spare older man. I thought maybe I’d be called for trespassing — fair enough — and I explained I just wanted to get a shot of the spot where the two rivers joined. He agreed it was a good view. When I was done shooting — it was just a minute or two — he asked if I like salmon. Yeah, I said. Do you have any for sale? He said not yet, but that in a few weeks there would be some.

He was holding a plastic flower, the same one pictured at the top of the post. He showed it to me and said, “I make these and sell them.” How much do you sell them for, I asked. “Ten dollars,” he said.

I took a look. Not something I wanted. But by this time, I had taken in the man’s outfit. One detail stood out. He was wearing a large rectangular belt buckle that said “FUCK” in large chrome letters. That struck me as weird, and I decided I needed to take the guy’s picture. I offered him twenty bucks for the flower, and then asked if he’d pose. He was glad to.

My acquaintance in Weitchpec — he said his name was J.G. and J.K or K.G. Or maybe some different initials. He’s holding the plastic flower pictured at the top of the post.

As we walked back to the parking lot in front of the store, I asked his name. “J.K.,” he said. Or maybe it was J.G. or K.G. I didn’t write it down and at the distance of more than two years I honestly can’t remember.

I asked whether he was from Weitchpec. He said he was from the area, but had lived in the Bay Area for years, working as a mechanic for United Airlines in San Francisco. He had been back in the community for several years, he said. I did not ask the question I should have asked, which is why his belt buckle said “fuck.”

I thanked him for the flower, then went into the store. There were a couple of other customers, buying ice and other supplies for what I thought might be a camping trip. I went back to my rented car and got ready to leave when I noticed a community bulletin board on the store’s outside wall.

I honestly only remember one posting: a flyer asking for help in locating a Southern California man who had gone missing in the area two months earlier.

Missing poster for Jeff Joseph in Weitchpec, Humboldt County.

I snapped a picture of the flyer. It’s a habit, growing out of curiosity about the missing and their stories.

But the outline of Jeff Joseph’s story — he had apparently come to this remote part of Humboldt County to grow marijuana for medicinal purposes — triggered a quick episode of paranoia.

Not that I was up there to grow pot, but here I was, a stranger to the area who had not told anyone where I’d be that day. I was driving a new-looking (though nothing fancy) rented car; I had shown my extravagant-looking (but not really expensive) camera around; I had pulled out my wallet and handed a guy a twenty like it was nothing. Gee — it would be easy for me to go missing, too, wouldn’t it, if someone tried to waylay me?

Nothing happened, obviously, beyond my sudden awareness that I could be vulnerable, too.

On my way up the Klamath on Highway 96, I encountered the Happy Camp Fire, the state’s biggest for 2014, burning the forest near the community of Seiad Valley. The fire was active the evening I was driving east toward Interstate 5, and I saw locals and fire crews watching the blaze send towering pyrocumulus clouds into the sky and torch big trees in the distance.

Eventually I made it out to the interstate, and before midnight I was in Mount Shasta, too late to get dinner but just a short drive from Shasta Lake and then a quick trip home. (The album at the end of the post shows some of the scenes I’ve described.)

Finding the plastic flower again earlier in the week made me look up Jeff Joseph again. He’s never been found.

2014 Fire and Drought Tour