“An Appalling Record of Death and Destruction”

The Disastrous Flood Caused by the Saint Francis Dam Break in 1928

The worst disaster in recent California history is the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Over three thousand people lost their lives in the quake and the ensuing fires. Today, while Martine and I were visiting the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society in Newhall, we were forcibly reminded of the second worst disaster in recent California history: the collapse of the St. Francis Dam in March 1928 and the resulting wall of water that swept some fifty-four miles until it found its way to the Pacific Ocean at Ventura. Almost five hundred people lost their lives, decimating much of the then sparsely populated northern communities of Los Angeles, as well as many in nearby Ventura County.

If you have seen the movie Chinatown (1974), you know something about William Mulholland, the engineer behind the Los Angeles Aqueduct that brought water to L.A. from the distant Owens Valley along the eastern edge of the Sierra Nevadas. Almost singlehandedly, he made Los Angeles a viable city that could sustain its amazing record of growth. It was the same man who took responsibility for the dam failure that was to end his brilliant career, referring in a speech to the disaster’s “appalling record of death and destruction.”

The St. Francis Dam Site in San Francisquito Canyon in 2012 (The Dam Itself No Longer Exists)

According to the Santa Clarita Valley Historical Society:

To this day, the exact number of victims remains unknown. The official death toll in August 1928 was 385, but the remains of victims continued to be discovered every few years until the mid-1950s. Many victims were swept out to sea when the flood reached the Pacific Ocean and were never recovered, while others were washed ashore, some as far south as the Mexican border. The remains of a victim were found deep underground near Newhall in 1992, and other bodies, believed to be victims of the disaster, were found in the late 1970s and 1994. The current death toll is estimated to be at least 431.

Antigua Guatemala

Arco de Santa Catalina and Agua Volcano in Background

If asked what is the capital of Guatemala, it is best to turn your answer into another question: At what point in history? Today, Guatemala City is the capital of Guatemala. In 1524, Pedro de Alvarado founded the Ciudad de Santiago de los Caballeros de Goathemalon [sic], near the present town of Iximche. After a Kaqchikel Maya uprising in 1527, the capital was moved to Ciudad Vieja and retained the same name as the original. In 1541, that city was destroyed by a gigantic mudflow from the Volcano de Agua (illustrated above). Two years later, the capital was moved five miles to the Panchoy Valley to the present city of Antigua Guatemala.

In the 18th century, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions caused one final move, to the capital’s present location. That does not mean that the city of Antigua Guatemala, despite all the ruined churches, is not one of the most popular tourist destinations in the country. In fact, when I go to Guatemala for my vacation, I will take a shuttle directly from the airport to Antigua, about 45 minutes away.

Guatemala City has a reputation of being a big, ugly city with a couple of good museums, but otherwise devoid of major tourist attractions. So, I will base myself in Antigua.

Intact Façade of Nuestra Señora de Merced, Otherwise in Ruins

With Antigua serving as a kind of tourist ghetto, there are a multitude of private shuttles to major tourist destinations—all originating in Antigua. One can treat the town as if it were the capital except for one thing: The airport is in Guatemala City. As Guate, as it is called, is the largest city in Central America, I think it would be more restful to base myself in a well-connected town with a population of only about 50,000.

 

Two Disasters

Close-Up of Beer

This is a tale of two disasters, separated from each other by a little more than a century, and oddly representative of the countries in which they took place. After the horrendous hurricanes that destroyed so much of Texas, Florida, and the Caribbean—and the earthquakes that devastated parts of Mexico—I began to think of some of the strangers disasters that have befallen man. My source for both is FutilityCloset.Com, one of my favorite sources for odd facts.

The first disaster occurred on October 17, 1814, in London during the Napoleonic Wars. That’s when a giant vat bull of beer at the St. Giles brewery ruptured with such force that it ruptured many of the adjoining vats. Within minutes, some 323,000 gallons of the stuff that makes Englishmen happy flowed into the West End. That day, it turns out there was little happiness: Eight people were killed “by drowning, injury, poisoning by porter fumes, or drunkenness.” Basements were flooded, and several tenements collapsed from the onslaught of the brew.

What Can One Say?

It is a hundred five years later across the ocean in Boston, Massachusetts. The date is Wednesday, January 15, 1919. As Wikipedia describes the event:

“A muffled roar burst suddenly upon the air,” wrote the Boston Herald. “Mingled with the roar was the clangor of steel against steel and the clash of rending wood.”

The tank collapsed, sending a giant wave of molasses sweeping through the North End. Even in the January cold, the wave would have been 8 to 15 feet high and traveled at 35 mph. It broke the girders of the elevated railway, lifted a train off its tracks, and tore a firehouse from its foundation. Twenty-one people stickily drowned, and 150 were injured. Cleanup took six months; one victim wasn’t found for 11 days.

The 2.3 million gallons of molasses that caused the flood was being used to convert it to grain alcohol. Maybe so, but it kind of stands to reason that the American disaster involved a whole lot of sticky, sweet stuff.

Uh Oh! More Bad News!

The Spiral M31 (Andromeda) Galaxy With Our Moon in the Foreground

The Spiral M31 (Andromeda) Galaxy With Our Moon in the Foreground

As if we didn’t already have enough troubles, the Andromeda (M31) Galaxy is set to collide with our Milky Way Galaxy. But then, as I am told, there’s no point in crying over spilt Milky Way.

According to CBS News, two neutron stars in M31 just collided. By “just,” of course, we mean two million years ago—which is more than 400 times longer than when Ken Ham thought the universe was created. It took that long for the light of the collision to reach our telescopes. The CBS News website has a neat animation of what the collision with our galaxy could look like.

In case you’re upset about this adversely affecting your weekend plans, let me assure you that the event is between two and four million years in the future:

But there is nothing to worry about, [Astronomer Dennis Overbye] noted, because long before that, the Earth will have entered the solar system’s “hot zone” and become too hostile to sustain human life, so no one [that we could recognize, in any case] will be around to experience the collision.

By then Ken Ham will have been resolved into the two or three molecules that make up his brain.